February 12, 2016
As you all know by now I have had to delay the release of Heroes or Thieves until the summer (intending June). But that can feel like a lifetime after that KoP ending, am I right?! So, I am offering you a RAW (that means that this is a DRAFT/UNEDITED/TOTALLY LIABLE TO CHANGE OR NOT EVEN BE IN THE BOOK) piece from Heroes or Thieves. I intend to include the next chapters with more updates :D
Tension rippled through Jikun’s muscles as he flattened his body against the alley’s wall, becoming just one more unobtrusive shadow in the passageway’s stone. Borin, Laeris’ sword, was even more massive in the open cobbled streets than he had been in The Brotherhood’s poorly lit chambers. A god-damn half-giant of a man; a hulking shadow in the moonlit darkness.
“I’m so cold!” Eldaeus whispered, a little cloud of warm breath skirting the nape of Jikun’s neck.
Jikun grimaced, drawing his hood over his head and raising the fabric to mask the lower half of his face. He did not turn around. ‘Too close,’ he muttered to himself, and firmly pushed the Faraven back into the shadows. “Shut up, Eldaeus. We’re about to act,” he hissed in warning.
The male clamped his mouth shut and Jikun could hear the rustle of fabric as both elves behind him made likewise to conceal their identity. Even Navon was complying, despite his adamant disagreement. It was as Makados said: the Helven was his sword and Jikun had but to shift his wrist to sweep Navon in whatever direction he needed.
Which was now against Borin.
Darcarus leaned into the shadows across from him, nodding his head once in unspoken attention. Obtaining equipment had been simple—as the prince had promised. But The Brotherhood had left them no other choice to acquire the information on Relstavum. Time was crucial—the longer Saebellus’ agent roamed, the closer Saebellus was to destroying Ryekarayn. And eliminating any chance that Sevrigel might be saved.
The human was drawing closer now, his body growing ever more enormous with each step. His breathing was audible, heavy and thick, as though his lungs were straining against his hulking chest. Another step thudded across the earth and to Jikun’s tensed hearing, it was like a distant toll of thunder, heralding the coming of a storm.
Jikun poised one hand upon the hilt of his sword while he raised his other slightly in the air. He felt the slight tingle of ice as it readied at his fingertips.
A whisper of fabric brushed against his skin, and he was abruptly aware of Navon’s presence at his side. The Helven’s face was masked in shadows. “Jikun, this is a terrible idea,” he pleaded. “We can still join the war to stop Saebellus! Do not let your pride destroy you!”
Darcarus caught Navon sharply by the shoulder, shoving the coward back into the darkness.
“Silence!” Jikun hissed again. The brand on his arm that marked him as cattle seared with an aggravating reminder of the further dip he had to take in order to make amends for his failure at Elarium. Pathetic.
The time for speech was over. Borin had reached the alley.
Jikun raised his hand swiftly and a shaft of ice erupted from the earth, slamming into Borin’s side and hurling him into the alleyway. Despite the speed and force with which he had been thrown, he let out no more than a grunt as he careened into Eldaeus’ ill-placed body. The elf’s arms spiraled wildly to maintain his balance, and the mercenary sprawled into the dust.
There was the briefest stillness in the massive man’s form, as though he had been dazed by the blow; then his enormous hand flew out from the dirt and snared Eldaeus with an iron grip. Before the Faraven could cry out in alarm, Eldaeus’ body was slammed into the earth with a resounding thud, leaving the male still and silent.
“Don’t move!” Jikun snarled, swiftly stepping forward. Ice sparked from his fingertips, piercing the air to stop inches from Borin’s chest. Here in the darkness of the alley, they were nigh-invisible daggers—poised to strike at the human’s slightest movement.
As though grasping his situation for the first time, Borin’s eyes flicked wildly across the three elves surrounding him and his hand dropped slowly away. “…What is this?” he growled after a moment. “An ambush?”
Navon hurried to Eldaeus’ side, pulling him free of the human’s range. “Damn it, Jikun,” he growled. “We should not be doing this.”
Jikun stiffened and tore his eyes away from his unconscious companion.
“Yes, it’s a damn ambush,” Darcarus snarled above Navon.
Jikun stepped forward once more, careful to maintain a safe distance from the man’s arms, and created a short barrier of ice between the two. He steeled his gaze against the human. “I want what you know about Relstavum. And if I find it less than I desire…” The ice inched closer to the man, crackling softly as it reshaped its threat.
In that moment of broken poise, Borin’s fingers abruptly curled and lunged forward in a fist, smashing through the ice as though it was merely glass. He caught the edge of Jikun’s cloak, tearing it sharply from his tall, lean frame.
“WHO?!” Then Borin’s eyes widened as recognition dawned across his face. “I know who you are,” he spat, dropping the cloak even before Jikun had re-established his icy hold upon the male. “You’re the four elves from earlier today—the fucking war criminals who decided to poke Balior with a stick. Twenty-thousand in debt, are you? You burned yourselves.” He laughed then. A mocking, hollow laugh, as though the bodily threat to him was gone. “You could not defeat Saebellus with an army and now you want to face him without one? Relstavum is the man’s beast.” His laugh intensified, threatening to reach Emal’drathar to mock him with the gods.
But he was not Saebellus’ Beast.
He was far worse.
“Silence!” Jikun hissed. The icy spears pierced forward to dig into the human’s flesh like the tips of a blade. Jikun lifted his cloak from the earth, aware of the faint light that enabled the human to distinguish his already unique features. It was too late now—his course was set. “I won’t ask kindly again, human,” he growled.
Darcarus gave a sharp, supportive nod. Do not forget what brought us to this place, it said. He leaned forward, calm and commanding. “Answer the question, Borin,” he repeated.
“You’re fucking mad,” the man swore, and the ice crackled once in warning. “Mad!” But Borin grimaced, his chest barely rising as he struggled to avoid inflicting further damage. “Your warlord has created an army within a single man: Relstavum is soul harnessing, though I’m sure none of you god-damn idiots have any idea what in Ramul that is. But you should know who Tiras is: Relstavum has Tiras’ necromantic writings and he can use them. You can’t have the mission because it is not within your god-damn skill-class. Laeris has invested too much money in you to throw you to Saebellus’ dog! There isn’t a mercenary group alive that can contend with the likes of him right now—and the man is only growing more dangerous! This is a matter for kings and armies!”
Jikun turned sharply away, letting Darcarus’ attention remain on the human. “What is soul-harnessing, Navon?” he demanded
Navon’s eyes were wide with horror and understanding, just as he had expected. Soul-harnessing. Nothing but necromancy could devise such a term.
“Jikun, this is too far! The gods would never ask this!” Navon cried. He was not bothering to keep his voice low, and the panic and stress was now turning his words to rambling. “A terrible terrible, terrible lie. As the mad king lives, his people die!”
Jikun opened his mouth to snarl a rebuke, but Navon continued swiftly, his voice tight and strained. “It’s a nursery rhyme about the Farvian slaughter. About the genocide against that realm. Necromancers have long held that the king slaughtered his people to soul-harness—a type of Farvian necromancy that has long since died. Instead of travelling to the Realms to gather souls for necromancy, the souls of those that the necromancer kills are kept and utilized here—thus the more people that a necromancer slays, the stronger he becomes. Saebellus has found someone who knows the ancient magic! Relstavum knows Farvian. We saw it in the charm he gave us! But I don’t. I can’t counter that kind of necromancy!” His eyes shot suddenly toward Darcarus in accusation. “And you said Dahel wasn’t the first city he’s slaughtered!”
Darcarus stiffened, but his expression remained incomprehensible, locked upon Borin.
Navon’s slammed his fist against the stone wall in fury. “Borin is correct—Saebellus has created an army within a single man! If Relstavum is soul-harnessing, he doesn’t have to visit the Gates. He doesn’t risk being pulled to the gods. It’s necromancy without risk. Without limitations!”
“That’s right,” Borin spat as Jikun felt the color drain from his face. “And you think you four little elves can match his skill? He wipes out god-damn cities.”
Darcarus slammed his foot suddenly down on the ice at the man’s shoulder, driving it deep into his body. “And if he keeps it up, he’ll cost my brother his life and Aersadore her freedom. So I’ll ask you one more time, human!”
Jikun turned back to the prince. He was in control. Confident. Fearless. What did the human know about them to so readily discount their success? They were not mere mercenaries. Darcarus was a prince! He had been a god-damn general!
And Darcarus was right. The time was more urgent than ever—if Relstavum was only growing stronger, soon it would be too late to stop him… to stop Saebellus! ‘Take a necromancer by surprise…’ Navon had told him. They had to be one step ahead. One step ahead to win this battle. As Saebellus had been against him at Elarium. Navon might be able to sleep through the night, but he would not shy from this opportunity. Not now. Not when he was so close to saving Ryekarayn… to saving Sevrigel from Saebellus. There was still time! “Now, Borin!”
Borin bared his teeth at the prickling of the ice, giving his last physical defiance before he replied. “You want to get yourself killed, fine, elf,” he spat. “Relstavum was in Ironwatch two days ago, heading north. But you’d better run there god-damn fast, because when I’m free of this, The Brotherhood will have mercenaries on your tail, ready to gut you whether or not you succeed. Who the fuck did you think you were questioning?” His voice was rising in fury and Jikun could almost feel the sound penetrating the nearby walls. “I’m not a god-damn commoner. I’m not a god-damn mercenary. I’m—”
‘Laeris’ Sword…’ Jikun stilled, mind whirling at these new threats. He had considered the torture. The necessity of using force to extract the withheld information. Even how the massive man might retaliate with a fight. But Jikun had not paused to think about the others that existed beneath Borin’s thumb. How could he have forgotten that?
‘You’re slipping, Jikun.’
Borin’s voice was mounting to a roar now. “—Geldin Laeris’ elite. I control every damn mercenary you could ever think to know. I have seen your face. I know your kind. If you think Relstavum is your enemy… You just opened the god-damn Gates. You won’t get two cities from here before the Brotherhood will have blades in your back!”
Jikun stilled, his grip tightening on the cloak that remained clenched in his pale hands.
“Even without our brand, your appearance is blood in the snow! If you think we won’t find you before dawn, you—”
Navon cut in with a cry of desperation. “Jikun, I told you this was a terrible idea! Soul-harnessing?! Join the god-damn war—by Ramul, you were a god-damn general! Let him go now and perhaps we can bart—”
Borin laughed, the sound a thunderous boom that rattled the dust from the stone. “Barter? There is no bartering, elf! You will be lucky to die by Relstavum! We will hunt you down and we will rip retribution from your bones until your screams deafen the god—” His voice was strangled off suddenly in a soft gurgle.
There was deafening silence. Navon gave a choking gasp.
The man’s fist tightened once and then fell loosely into the dirt. Jikun stared blankly at the ice that had ruptured through the hulking human… that had pierced through his vital organs and left him a mangled corpse. He dropped his hand and the ice melted away, leaving the man sprawled across the earth.
Darcarus blinked slowly. “…Well done. We have what we need.”
Jikun was suddenly aware of the nearby presence of the Faraven, a hand clasped to his mouth in disbelief.
“Jikun by Sel’ari, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!” Navon finally managed to scream, his voice breaking the silence shrilly, his azure eyes wild in horror. He sprinted toward the corpse as though there was some hope that the human was still alive. That he might be saved.
But Borin was dead.
His sacrifice had been necessary. Just as was that of Jikun’s soldiers’.
This was his last chance to end Saebellus’ tyranny before Ryekarayn was well and truly lost.
And Sevrigel along with her.
7 Weeks Earlier
A fire of red and orange ignited the western sky where the sun had descended below the horizon. Her flames seemed to lick the darkness that followed in her wake, bathing the underbellies of the clouds that had rolled in from the north in a crimson glow. They were lighter now, their great weight of snow dropped on the mountain peaks of the far north—the continent’s first snowfall of the winter. They would carry on to the south, dropping what remained as heavy showers; and then, as they reached the edge of the Aenid Mountains on the edge of the Makataj desert, they would fade entirely.
But in the Sel’varian Forest, the winter seemed a distant glimmer on the horizon; fall’s vibrant leaves still clung to the thick branches of the canopy while half a dozen blooms unfurled for the first time that year. And in the narrow drawing room where the two princes sat beneath the labyrinth of palace rooms, the air was as warm as a mid-summer day.
Or rather, a mid-summer night. Hadoream batted his shirt against his breast thrice, trying to encourage a little breeze to grace his sticky chest. He eyed the single log contemptuously. It was generating such a stifling warm and yet the towering walls of the room were dark, lit only by a stingy emittance of light.
But this was the very mood his elder brother strived for—a place so unsettling in its own nature that Hadoream could not help but be drawn closer to quell his irrational qualms. Thick smoke… The dancing shadows… Even the palace musicians outside their very walls sounded hollow and weak, like muffled figures crying outside their windowless tomb.
Hadoream shivered at the excessive fantasy and yet, he slid closer toward his brother in a wide-eyed, attentive gape. The dying light of the fire just barely illuminated the elder’s face, his heroic features shifting from bravery to supremacy with each flickering shadow. “…They rushed down the bank’s hillsides like god-damn fools, each vying to seize their ‘invaluable little prize.’” Darcarus paused to let out a single laugh that almost shook the chipping paint from the old murals. “Of course, I was more than ready for them; I had already spoken the summoning for Aersophyla. You should have seen their god-damn faces when she rose up from the smoke and scorched the first three men with a snort.” He laughed again as a grin crept over his lips.
In the firelight, the twisted smile tread rather close to a sneer.
Just as Hadoream’s spine tingled with delighted fear, Darcarus’ voice suddenly fell into sharp complaint, breaking the rising action with utter disappointment. “But then Veacerel and his soldiers arrived and swept the victory right out from underneath. God-damn meddling bastards. It is just like Sairel to take all the glory for himself. Prick.”
Hadoream leaned back, too enwrapped in the glory of it all to rebuke his brother for his discredit of the fortunate aid Veacerel and his soldiers had lent. Or even to rebuke him for the jibe at dear Sairel, who was once more held to blame for Darcarus’ self-inflicted troubles.
Darcarus raised one arm in a casual sweeping motion, conjuring further visions of bandits scattering to the earth—or perhaps, quite probably, Veacerel and his men. Yet Hadoream could not be entirely distracted by the animated display. He could see the crimson stain had seeped through the bandages at his brother’s right breast, and the movement only aggravated the injury. ‘Right… this victory was not as flawless as he touts,’ Hadoream reminded himself. “…Does it hurt?” he interrupted before Darcarus could sling further insults at their eldest brother and his captain.
Darcarus reposed against the cabriole legs of the chair behind him, lounging with poised confidence—certainly not willing to let Hadoream sweep his glory away with reference to the wound. “Keh,” he scoffed. “Of course not.” He kicked his right leg out against the heavy fur of the rug, dropping it over his left, and Hadoream had to admit he still held exceptional regality, even as he bled and swore in a most ignoble fashion.
Sel’ari forbid their father hear him speak like a human. But then, Darcarus would delight to once again be rebuked for his defiance… even if it was over a matter as simple as the colloquial use of the Common Tongue.
Darcarus narrowed his eyes in warning. “Will you stop looking at me like that? I’ve received worse by sparring. By Sel’ari, if you start mothering me…!”
Hadoream quickly wiped his face of concern. Even with Darcarus’ confidence in full allure, he doubted his brother’s insouciant assertion. Yet the male seemed so entranced with his own success that Hadoream supposed a little appreciation for his valiant effort was deserved.
“But what is Aersadore falling to?!” Hadoream began, focusing his frustrations elsewhere. While his rebellious brother had managed to live to see another day, his concerns were not eased knowing the vulnerability of the rest of Ryekarayn—very few could summon corporeal beasts to their defense like Darcarus, or have the royal guard swift on their tails to defend them! “I still find it difficult to fathom that bandits even dared to lay hands on you… Imagine the state of the rest of the peoples! There could be no doubt of your royalty!”
“You would think the crown self-evident,” Darcarus mused, a faint smile twitching at the corner of his mouth.
Hadoream was not rallied to shared amusement. Here his brother bled after a close encounter with death and he had the audacity to belittle the event. “This is not amusing!” he snapped. “Bandits are infesting Ryekarayn right now and daring to put even royals to the sword. Where in Emal’drathar did they all come from? In just a few weeks their numbers have gone from dismissive to nearly tantamount to war. Someone must have been scheming for some time!”
Darcarus gave a single snort. “It all because of Sairel and Father—‘saving’ Aersadore with their ‘superior ideals.’”
Hadoream let out a cry. “Can you acknowledge the gravity of this situation for even a moment without jibing at them?!”
Darcarus seemed to finally realize that his little brother had grown quite past infatuation with his story. His body immediately tensed, ears finally focused on the content of Hadoream’s words.
“Despite Father’s best attempts to shield me,” Hadoream began loudly, his frustrations still raw, “I have also heard that a number of human lords are rising up to take advantage of the king’s flailing power. Aersadore is falling apart and your injury is proof of this! How long until we are forced to intervene in order to save Ryekarayn from the same internal conflict our homeland endures?!”
Darcarus’ smile remained, but it did not extend to the piercing eyes above it. The musing tone had truly vanished. “Don’t concern yourself so. If Father sends anyone to scrape up human shit, it’ll be me. You can sleep well knowing I will be the first one sent into the fray of battle. And even if I die and fail, he will still consider it a victory.”
Hadoream’s chest tightened. There was a jab, but this time Darcarus’ tone was calm and grave, hiding venom and pain behind the mask. “You shouldn’t say such things. Father does not favor me and Sairel over—” But when the smile vanished as well, Hadoream stopped his futile attempts for his father’s defense. He swiftly changed course. “Father doesn’t listen to me either, Darcarus—that is why he’s tried to hide such things from me—knowing I would demand intervention. There are murderers and pillagers reaping the good from this land and I cannot turn a blind eye to it. We all must intervene! I too am tired of watching Sevrigel fall to ruin—and now we must sit and watch Ryekarayn fall as well!” He dropped his fist down against his thigh in rising fury. “Sel’ari so help me, I will not stand idly by!”
The fire hissed in sudden agreement, flaring with a wave of light as Darcarus snapped forward, long blond hair rushing over his blood-stained shoulder. With that gesture, Hadoream’s mounting determination was severed.
“You’re right,” came his brother’s whisper across their narrow expanse; but his mouth had not seemed to move. His blue eyes were wild again, dancing in the dim light with sudden hints of taunting secrecy. He was in command once more. The music outside was a pounding rhythm of drums and even it seemed drowned beneath the beat of Hadoream’s own heart.
“Every ‘event’ that our dear father has fed to you is a carefully woven lie. What if someone desires us to turn to the left so we cannot see what is to the right? See, my dear brother, there are two weaknesses to the new king’s power held on Sevrigel: either Sevrigel overthrows her ruler herself, or Ryekarayn bails the cowards out. But what can Ryekarayn do with dangers knocking down our very doors? While Father thinks he has shunned Sevrigel’s problems, they have come here instead. The heart of everything lies within the details. Let me tell you what Father and Sairel will not…”
And in a chilling mismatch of emotion, a quick and jovial tune swallowed the quiet whispers of that palace room and eloped with the cool breeze of the evening, winding its way across the bustling gardens beyond. Dancers swept across the smooth cobbled stones of the courtyard of the palace, twisting and turning in the burning fire around the garden’s fountain. The warm yellow light of the garden orbs seemed to bob along with the melody, stretching and shrinking in the shadows cast by the firelight.
And looming above them, from the palace’s tallest tower, King Sairel unrolled a small scroll of parchment, his eyes scrutinizing the tiny scribbles scrawled wildly across the page. His lips pursed as he noted the dwarven seal embedded neatly at the bottom: the only legible mark on the page. He dropped it irritably to his left, licking his index finger to pull the next sheet of yellowed parchment from the stack.
There was no time for gaiety and childish tunes. And yet, before he had the opportunity to scrutinize further legal contents, music drifted in from the courtyard below, determined to violate his quiet abode.
“‘Dance!’ cried the prince.
‘I’ll dance!’ cried the tree,
And it danced and it cried
To the music’s melody.”
Sairel squinted down irritably at the notice in his hands. It was only when he had nearly blocked the ruckus out that a song seemed to sweep all the more forcefully into the warm air of the vast office around him. And these words in the common tongue grated with particular pain across his ears.
“A terrible terrible, terrible lie.
As the mad king lives,
His people die.”
Sairel rubbed a hand against his eye where it had begun to twitch, sliding his chair back sharply. The fire before him sparked, cracking as it bit into the newest log, showering the fireplace with orange, mutually annoyed sparks. ‘They are going to give me an ulcer…’ Why ever the humans had made a nursery rhyme out of the slaughter of Sevrigel’s Faraven people across the sea, he couldn’t fathom. He moved to the door of his study, pushing it open a crack.
“Is there something wrong, Your Majesty?” the guard before him asked, turning quickly at attention.
“No,” Sairel waved a hand dismissively. “Just tell them to cease those dreadful human… songs, if that is what they are.” He continued in a mutter, “Gods, I would hear just about anything if I do not have to hear that.”
The guard hesitated. “Yes, Your Majesty. It’s the human’s Winter Festival in the capital. Veacerel took the servants out today to see it. It—”
Sairel heaved a sigh, muttering below his breath. ‘Sometimes Veacerel panders to the servants as though he may one day end up as one… Which he’s going to do if I keep hearing this song!’ he thought sourly. “Never mind, let them carry on. Someone should at least enjoy themselves while I am working.” He closed the door before the guard’s opening mouth, stepping briskly across the room to the doors of the balcony. He shut them with a quiet snap, relieved as the melody was reduced to a low hum outside the thick glass.
The mahogany chair creaked as he settled back into it, sliding the latest parchment to his left. He pulled the next one off his stack, scanning it briefly and flourishing his name across the bottom. He pressed the seal of a phoenix into the corner and waved the parchment briefly in the air to dry. Then he dropped it to his left.
It was a brief glimpse of progress.
There was a sudden knock from the doors to the room and Sairel pursed his lips, throwing a hand into the air. He had just hushed the external ruckus and now the internal din was ready to be employed. “Can I not work?” he called irritably.
“I’m sorry, Your Majesty.” The door opened and closed swiftly to admit a man dressed in dark greens and browns, a silver pin of office fastened to his breast. He was holding a small, cream-colored parchment. “I’m afraid you will want to read this…”
Sairel glanced sidelong at the teetering papers on his right and the mound growing on his left. “If I had a gold coin every time someone said that to me, I would be richer than all the dwarves of Ryekarayn. Combined.” He waved a hand, beckoning his advisor forward. “Hand it over, Veacerel.”
Veacerel strode staunchly across the room and set the letter down before him, pressing his finger onto the unmarked and broken seal. “I whisked it away before your father could read it… but I’m afraid Darcarus got to it first. It’s from Sellemar.”
Sairel picked up the parchment immediately, flipping open the unsealed paper. The parchment was sweeter than Ryekarayn’s, taken from the Maisprings along Sevrigel’s coast. He could still catch the faint scent of the sea rising from beneath the thin, scratched ink.
Sairel’s heart tightened; the script lacked the usual elegance of the writer; instead it was swift and jagged, with ink bleeding heavily into the adjacent letters.
Hairem is dead. General Taemrin and his army have been annihilated. Saebellus has already taken the capital and he marches on his brothers at this hour. Ilsevel says “the reign of kings has returned.” But what she intends to do is far from our True Blood cause.
All of Sevrigel has come to war.
Sairel’s annoyance faded. His lips hardened into a thin line, his eyes rereading the five short sentences. The words of the song below seemed all the more relevant, their clashing melody almost chilling. “When did this arrive?”
“Just moments ago,” Veacerel replied stiffly. “Tilarus personally delivered it.”
Sairel turned to his right, his eyes sweeping past the endless canopy of trees beyond, staring east into the darkness where a narrow channel separated Ryekarayn from Sevrigel. “Tell Darcarus his lips are sealed or I shall seal them myself.” He looked down, regarding the letter stoically, but beneath his impassive expression a sea of emotions roiled. It would have been days—possibly weeks—since the letter had been sent. Hairem dead… his army defeated. And here, Saebellus’ distraction was gaining the grounds of war. His grip tightened on the parchment until his fingers grew white. Already the elven nation was bathed in blood.
“I believe the struggles of Ryekarayn are now intertwined with our brethren’s fate. Sevrigel,” he spoke gravely, “is at war.”
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