Gaius watched his corporeal form toss and turn as the trance moved on to the final stage of isolation. He had practiced this type meditation for almost two years now, since he had started learning under the tutelage of Kairn, the village elder, the prophet of the Sudai tribe, who revealed its intricacies to him. He concentrated his mind on the sword, the only link he had to his past, just as he had been taught and focused on releasing the untapped memories contained within the essence of the blade. The separation ritual complete, his corporeal form blended into the background, his spirit sailing up and out of the dweling. He watched as the river Dirras fell away to a fine line, darting back and forth across the landscape, like an writhing saphire serpent. Drawing his head up he looked westward as the final rays from the sun cast a golden sheen on the river, as the orb journeyed below the horizon. He watched the cool autumn breeze sweep rustle the auburn leaves of the trees surrounding the bowl-shaped canyon, in which nestled the Sudai settlement, and he could hear the laughter of the children as they played amongst the fallen leaves. The setlement, some two days ride south of the Lovyan city of Krein, consisted mostly of Sudai travelers, the rest merchants and skilled men of Krein looking to trade their wares and craftmanship in return for a quiet life outside of the large bustling port city they had formerly known. Here they would remain until the spring festival of Lohk, the giver of life, before returning to the plains of the east.
Above him the first stars emerged in the darkening sky as he drifted lazily upwards. They perceivably brightened as the lands of Lovyan shrunk away, and the entire globe spun gently below. Darkness and stars surrounding him, he fixed on the sword once again, and the stars swirled and coalesced forming its shape. The sword drifted gently downwards, drawn towards the planet. He gripped the pommel allowing it to pull him along in silence. It circled unnoticed over the ice continent of Forstia and the desert lands of the Metians, coming to a stop over the remains of a castle rampart in the far south of the Kestrian highlands. Gaius recognised the ruins, for they were Dun Dullial, more commonly known as Dun Calist Mordi, the castle of betrayal, after the treachery that facilitated the murder of King Tarbin at the hands of the Metian horde under the pretense of peace. He had occasionally slept in the ruins with Kairn on their many trading visits to Cariah to exchange the brooches of iron and silver created by their tribe for grain and cattle.
He knew of the battle through the teachings of Kairn, but from how passionately he presented the story Gaius observed that Kairn had been deeply affected by this tragedy. The people of Kestria had taken to a weeks mourning upon learning of the death of both the King and his heir as they had valiantly defended this most southerly outpost against the Metian onslaught. This defence was in vain, as the meager retainer of five hundred men was no match for the tens of thousands amassed under the Metian banner. They had put up a courageous fight, and the battle dead on the invaders side had outnumbered the defenders at a rate of ten to one. Gaius could see the emotion welling under Kairn’s facade as he recounted his arrival the day after that fateful night with the rest of the army and finding all of the defenders slaughtered to a man, and that the one body they failed to recover was that of the prince himself, which led to five years of searching for the missing heir spearheaded by the kings brother Belial. This search proved fruitless, and for five years now King Belial has sat upon the throne at Cariahn. Sightings of the missing prince still surfaced from time to time, especially around the Talnis-Metian border where the fiercest battles of the Akrian war had raged on and off for ten long years, with regular incursions by the Metians into the lowlands.
Tales abound circulated the fighting class, telling of a tall handsome man in full golden armour with a long jagged scar on his neck where the arrow of a metian assassin had wounded the prince. Riding a pure white steed and appearing from nowhere, holding aloft the sword of kings, he would ride fearlessly into the oncoming Metians killing all who came before him before riding off in the direction of Cariahn exclaiming he would return to reclaim his throne. But never has the prince returned to the capital.
Gaius perched alongside the sword over the remains of the last place the royal line stood together. He closed his eyes envisioning the Dun in ts former glory, its stone spires topped with roofs of Forstian gold and silver spikes crafted by the Skrie smiths. Its glory was renowned throughout the known lands and Gaius had seen many paintings of the architectural beauty that it had been in its prime. He opened his eyes and watched as stone and granite rolled off the surounding grassland, reforming the ancient walls, spires and courtyard. He looked down upon the looters returning the precious metals to the roofs before they disappeared back into the dark recesses of the nearby forest. He glanced at the sky and watched the sun and moons arc blend into a great streak across the sky, flashing from molten bronze to flowing silver and back again as they slid silently across the sky from West to East. He watched the trees shrink, the young saplings in the great courtyard disappearing back into the grounds while the leaves and nut returned to their mother tree, repeating season after season. He turned back towards he Dun, completed in its magnificence with its precious spires reaching for the sky, each flying the last flag they would hold. The serpent below the crossed sword and War-hammer on a blood red background seemed alive as the wind made it writhe back and forth in the breeze. The standard of King Tarbin Akria II, Last lord of these halls, displayed proudly over each tower.
The din of battle echoed over the marshland to the south, the clashing of sword and spear on shield ringing in Gaius’ ears. Throughout the Dun battle horns resonated, calling all men to arms. The sounds of running and shouting men filtered through the halls, reverberating all the way up to where Gaius perched, feet above the central tower. He fixed on the central courtyard far below and picked out a singular statuesque figure standing silently as others darted to and fro around him. His mind quickly latched to this new focal point and slowly he descended from the rooftops.
Halfway down, something to his left distracted him. It was a quiet sound, the low mewling weep of a woman in grief, but somehow it had filtered through the cacophony of the readying men to reach him. He concentrated on the noise and changed the direction of his descent. He peered in a tall window of elegant iron and glass, and gasped at the beauty that now confronted him. Never before had he seen a woman this enchanting, her fair golden blond hair flowing elegantly over the satin gown in which she was dressed. She sat at a mirror, a maid behind her shaping her locks with an ivory plated brush. Her skin was unblemished bar the reddening of her eyes from her tears. She was sobbing heartily and although he could not hear the words they were saying, Gaius could tell that the maid was attempting to console the woman although it seemed the attempts to comfort her were in vain. He could sense her despair even outwith time. He looked at her adoringly, admiring every aspect and curve of her frame. Her chest quivered as she wept. His heart quickened in his reverence of this enchantress making his concentration wane. He forced himself to turn away, calming his breath and allowing him to retain his focus on what he had set out to achieve this night.
Kairn had warned him many times that allowing his senses to become overwhelmed could bring about disastrous consequences. Should he lose complete control, he could end up losing the path back to his earthly form, and Kairn had shared tales of those unfortunate enough to suffer that fate who could now do no more that defecate and drool, no semblance of the person that had been remaining. Kairn had never steered him wrong and Gaius had always clung to every word of wisdom he imparted.
He focused once again on the courtyard as before, and picked new focal point. He floated away from the exquisite goddess that had enraptured him, and continued onwards to the courtyard floor. He watched the guards, scurrying back and forth, performing their individual tasks, then stopped to look around. Standing in a throng of men on the battlements, he could see the same figure as before amongst them. He stood a good foot taller than those around him with a barrel chest and fiery red hair cut short to the nape of his neck. As Gauis closed on the man he could make out a long crescent scar raking its way from his right cheek just below the ear to the bottom of his lower lip. He leaned steadily on the base of a colossal Great Axe, swaying gently with the wind blowing in from the south, bringing with it the smell of burning and freshly spilled blood. Gauis leveled himself down in front of this giant of a man, and he peered transfixed in Gaius’ direction. He turned to a lender silver haired man, short in comparison yet still taller by far than the rest of the soldiers around him. His hair and long black garb shifted in the breeze. Gaius shifted closer so as to listen to their conversation. Distorted at first, as if they were underwater, he fixated on their mouths and slowly the words began to sound through.
The priest smeared a red mixture on the Great Axe, then reached into his garment to remove a pinch of green powder from a small red velvet pouch secured to his belt. He sprinkled the residue liberally over the axe head. “My Lord, the blessing is complete.”
Tarbin turned to the priest and gave the slightest of nods. “Then we are ready, and the time is nigh Mathis. Where is my son?”
The priest gripped a passing soldier by the shoulder and turned him to face the old man. “Young man, please go to the main hall and ask Prince Averon to join us on the battlements as time grows short and his blessing is yet to be completed. “
The boy, no more than fourteen, nodded to Mathis and bowed to Tarbin before rushing off in the direction of the keep.
“And tell that boy, that I need him here with his full strength, so leave his woman be. She will be safe with my brother on the road to Theirle and he will see and bed her the morrow.”
The boy turned and blushed, then again resumed his course. Mathis leaned on his staff, a wry smile revealing the mass of wrinkles on his face. “It is good to see you are in high spirits sire.”
Tarbin smiled back at his friend. “Mathis, again I implore you. You need not address me as such. You are my oldest and truest confidant, and I have no authority over your lands, so any formalities can be dispensed.” Mathis bowed as deeply as his frail frame could withstand.
“As you wish…Sire”.
Tarbin laughed heartily as the old man spoke. “You lighten the mood with your jest Mathis, but there is much I must know from you. The old priest leaned heavily on his staff. “How long until the reach the walls?”
“No more than a half of an hour.”
“Do you see how many there are?” Tarbin enquired.
The priest paused and rested his head in his hands. He mumbled inaudibly into his chest and flung his head back looking deep into the night sky. He returned his gaze to Tarbin. “Well over ten thousand men my lord.” He advised. “I will appeal to you one last time, and recommend that you and prince Averon should leave now with your brother and the princess and leave this defence to the men in your stead. Will you please reconsider?”
Tarbin sighed heavily,”I cannot Mathis. This is my home. It was built by my great grandfather nearly one hundred years ago, and has stood against many armies. Should the walls of this Dun fall, so too shall the line of Kings. It has stood strong, as has the lineage of the lords of Akria. I cannot leave to watch all fall for naught.” Tarbin pointed off to the south. “I will not abandon this place for those heathens to ransack.”
“I understand my lord.” Mathis looked towards the Dun for signs of Averon. “If you will excuse me, I will attend the prince if he will not attend me for the blessing.”
“And when you do, Mathis, give that boys ear a clip from me. His still far from a man. He is impudent, unruly and discourteous.”
Mathis Bowed, “I recall another lad who more than once received a clip round the ear from me on his fathers behest.” Tarbin grinned as Mathis paced off purposefully towards the keep entrance.
Gaius stared at King Tarbin who stood surveying the tree line and the marshes to the south, and watched as a trail of torches began winding its way from the marshes towards where he now stood. Gaius had never before seen the king, and when Kairn had described him he had alluded that he was a towering, powerful man. Kairn had regaled him with many stories of the king, but the defeat of King Faris and his false prophets in the name of Tian, the god of war, which lead to Tarbin becoming king of both Kestria and Lovyan had always remained fresh in his mind. Kairn assured that the king himself had felled four score men that day, and Gaius had always assumed that Kairn was exaggerating the story, as was normal for fable’s of this nature, but now that he was looking directly at the man that was known as the Iron King, he believed that he could quite possibly have defeated that many men single-handed.
Tarbin seemed to inspire both fear and respect with a single glance from his cold steel-grey eyes. From where Gaius stood, the black of the pupils seemed to be inflamed a deep crimson, but upon looking no flames nearby could have created the reflection. On looking back, the Kings pupils faded back to their original dark ebony hue.
Gaius stood nose to chest with the king, and prepared to spirit link with the monarch. This was a very deep and complex ritual, and required the utmost concentration. He could make out the features of Tarbin contort angrily as he looked over Gaius’ head towards the far tower. He appeared to speak, but once again the words were drowned out.
The sound of footsteps distracted Gaius as he completed the final incantation, and suddenly he stood face to face with a short, stocky armour clad man. The man stepped forward directly into his spirit and Gaius’ link with the king was severed, a new one created with the squat, ugly man who had approached. All at once he was aware of this mans thoughts an feelings, instead of the kings. Gaius sensed an overpowering feeling of fear and trepidation compounded by a tremendous conflict within the man that did not feel natural, as if powered by some unseen malevolent force. Instantly he could not move nor see, all he could do was hear. Somewhere from deep within the man a voice boomed, “You have seen the fate of this man and his line. Your fate will be the same.”
Gaius lost control. Rage and anger swelled inside him, his blood boiling he had the sensation that his skin was ablaze. His conscious spirit spun uncontrolled into the air. A hollow rasping laughter followed him, building his rage to a crescendo. He knew not why he held such enmity at this atrocity that shook the very foundation of the royal line, and what the voice had said, but it ripped deep into his soul and tore at his very being. The scene below him twisted and distorted, and Gaius watched as the days, weeks and years were stripped away. Soon the Dun was no more and all that remained was a scorched and barren earth where lush grassland once stood.
A single name seared in his mind like a brand. Gaius uttered it without thinking, with utter disdain and hatred. “Belial.”