Chapter 1 - The
Stirrings of Madness
The mad laughter
echoes in the silent space.
Ryder stands among
his fellow mages in the Great Hall. A hundred or so of the King's
trusted servants stand in rows, lining the walkway that split the
Hall in two. Ryder is among them, in his finest suit of crimson
and gold, the colors of the House that had birthed
The Great Hall.
Five hundred feet long and three hundred feet wide, it is
massive; it could have easily seated a small army. Countless
braziers dot the walls, fires flickering, making the jewels set
in them sparkle like thousands of small stars. The ceiling, a
hundred feet above our heads, is swathed in shadows. In daytime,
sunlight, coming from scores of windows, would illuminate the
beautiful artwork drawn there. Daelor the Deathless, Marid the
Cruel, and the exploits of other famous knights and kings are
carefully painted onto the smooth stone ceiling of the Great
On a raised dais,
the King, Aerimir Carinthean, the second of his name, sits on his
magnificent throne of carved adamant. It is he who is laughing,
while the lords, knights, and mages of his realm stand still in
grave silence. Ryder sneaks a look at the ones standing around
him. Lord Raine, with his splendid outfit of woven silver, looks
both stern and somewhat nauseated. Arrac Nausin, powerful mage as
he is, looks pale, though his face remains
Every person in the
Great Hall is looking at the man kneeling at the foot of the
dais, twelve feet away from the trimmed leather boots of King
Aerimir. No, not a man. He was less than a whole
Lord Castel, blood
pouring from the stumps that are all that remains of his arms,
slumps, an expression of mingled hatred and shock on his noble
"You... you..." his
voice is weak from intense emotion and blood
"Yes, I!" Aerimir
laughed, "I am the King! No man, not even a lordling like you,
can oppose me without consequences! Conspire against me, will
you? Laugh at me? This is what you deserve, you
The old and
venerable Archmage Altigar steps forward. Old he may be, yet he
has a wiry strength, and grips his gilded staff
"That was ill done,
My Grace. He has not been proven of his guilt as yet. It would
not do for the people to whisper that our King had condemned a
man without a just trial."
leans forward on his throne. Light from the largest brazier,
hanging over the throne, throws his face into sharp relief. A
handsome face, Ryder thinks. Well-formed features, with shapely
eyes. Yet, he thinks he's seen a glimmer of madness in those red
pupils that are the mark of the Carinthean
the Archmage, then scowls, "What would you have me do? Castel
here is obviously a traitor. He has not paid his tribute on time,
and has been avoiding the capitol. His guilt is plain for all to
see; just look at him!"
Ryder glances at
Castel. He has grit his teeth, apparently resisting the pain. His
face is pale, and his anger seems to have abandoned him. No, he
does not look guilty.
"Lord Castel has
given good reason for his lapses. His lands had suffered heavily
from drought, resulting in the delay of his tribute," Tomath
Lane, Master of Coin, speaks from his place behind the throne,
"His younger son has been sick with the grey plague. Lord Castel
has been concerned, which is why he has not come to us earlier.
All this he has already explained, My Grace. Would it not be more
prudent to have given him a trial first, even if he is a
Aerimir turns in
his seat and stares at Lane. His face is full of rage. Lane,
startled, takes a step back. Ryder wonders if another man will be
taken from our company today.
The King slowly
rises, "I see that there are more traitors than Castel. Very
well. It seems that it is my task to show you all what happens to
any person who opposes the throne. Ser Mathas, chop his legs off
as well." The last sentence is directed at Aerimir's personal
executioner, Ser Lorane Mathas. Mathas is a tall, gaunt man, clad
all in black. It is his two-handed broadsword that had taken off
both of Castel's arms at Aerimir's order a moment
staggers to his feet, but Mathas is quicker. With a savage slash,
he hacks off Castel's right leg. Castel screams in agony, and
Mathas swings his blade again, taking off the man's sole
suspended for a moment, then his mutilated torso falls back onto
the stone floor, his cries of agony echoing in the chamber. A
great pool of blood is spreading on the stone floor, until it
reaches a carpet. The lush carpet sucks up the blood, as
bloodthirsty as the mad King who owns it and everything else in
Old Lord Gywain,
who is feeble and weak of body, gives a squeak and turns a nasty
shade of green. Ser Tarinister, who, if Ryder's memory serves, is
a good friend of Lord Castel, takes two steps forward and booms,
"My Grace, you have gone too far!"
looks at Tarinister, and snarls in anger, "Another bold traitor!
Ser Mathas, kill him! Guards, bring me wood to burn the Castel
What has been a
meeting of the lords of the Empire dissolves into chaos as people
scramble out of the way of the blades. Tarinister has drawn his
blade, Ryder sees, and is fighting Mathas, who has spun around
and struck at him on Aerimir's words. Greatsword and broadsword
dance in a swirl of steel as both men flail and spin, trying to
get inside each other's defences. Two dozen royal guardsmen hurry
forward, bundles of firewood cradled under their arms. Three of
them carry burning torches, ready to burn the maimed lord at
their master's orders.
Ryder is buffet by
the stream of well-dressed bodies surging past him, but he stands
his ground. The guardsmen are almost reaching Castel, and the
King is still screaming for them to burn him. Has the world gone
mad? If the soldiers burn Castel on the spot, they will surely
ignite the luxurious carpet, which would cause the throne room to
be burned down. The fire may even spread to other parts of the
castle; the damage would be irreplaceable, even if not one person
Ryder knows he has
to do something, even if he knows not what it is. Breaking out of
the swirl of escaping nobles, Ryder breaks into a full-out run.
Three guardsmen see him coming and turn, not sure whether to stop
him or not.
As the guardsmen
reach Castel and start piling the wood into a great pile, four
figures, their hoods and their faces hidden in shadow, rush out
from the crowd. They wave their hands, knocking the guardsmen
aside with a wall of half-transparent energy. Ryder skids to a
stop. It would be unwise to deal with other mages, Ryder
As the guards curse
and start to pick themselves off the floor, the four hooded men
reach Castel. Three of them bend and hoist the maimed lord and
retreat, one of them healing the man's wounds with one hand.
Their fellows trail behind, knocking the pursuing guardsmen away
with more blasts of magic. The soldiers charge again and again,
only to be knocked aside like leaves before a gust of
Mathas are still exchanging blow for blow, but Tarinister is
visibly tiring. Panting, he continues to fight, but his heavy
armor is slowing him down. There is nothing more Ryder can do, he
decides. As much as Ryder wants to stop the carnage, there is
nothing he could do that would help the situation. As Ryder
retreats, Tarinister misses a parry and takes a blade to his
shoulder. Slowed by his wound, he is slowly beaten down by
the last dregs of the lords and nobles, hears the yell of a
mortally wounded man as he steps out of the throne room.
Tarinister is dead, he guesses.
Leaving the hall,
Ryder looks around. Most of the others have hurried off, for it
is apparent that the court is done for the day. None wish to face
the King's wrath, especially not when the object of his hate has
been whisked out from under his nose. However, a small knot of
the King's advisors stand crowded near the doors, as if waiting
for the storm to abate so that they might return. Ryder picks out
the pointed, clean-shaven face of Nithis the eunuch and Tomath
Lane, with his small beady eyes.
Thinking for a
moment, Ryder briskly marches off in the direction of his
quarters. The royal castle and the surrounding palace is so
massive that hundreds of the King's more important retainers have
their own apartments inside the stronghold of Carinthean power.
However, it is also widely known that the wealthier preferred to
buy or build mansions out in the city or the surrounding
countryside. Ryder is well-respected in the Guild of Mages and
among the Kingdom's magicians, but he is often short on coin,
which is why he has opted to move into the royal
His chambers are
not far away. Hastening down two flights of stairs and a wide
corridor, Ryder fumbles in his robes for his keys. The mahogany
wood of his door is clean and polished, and the doorknob shining
Before Ryder can
insert the keys, the door swings open. There stands a slim, young
girl. She has Ryder's dark hair, but her eyes are a piercing
green, unlike Ryder's own clear blue eyes.
The girl smiles,
"Hello, Father. You're back early."
Ryder smiles and
messies her hair as he sweeps into the room, "Hello, Dana. The
King isn't very happy today. Is there any of that roast chicken
left over from last night?"
Ryder slumps into a
chair and undoes his cloak. It is ridiculous how all the court's
attendees are required to wear their best. Ryder much prefers
simple garments; practical, durable, and much more comfortable to
wear. Dana comes back balancing a plate with one hand and a small
jug of wine with her other. She promptly sets out the food, then
sits opposite Ryder, looking at him as he tore at the
"So, did anyone die
today?" Dana asks as Ryder wolfs down the chicken
Insides squirming a
little, Ryder keeps silent as he swallows. Dana understands much
of the going-ons of the court, more so than even some who
actually attends the court themselves. She is clever, and will
make a good mage one day, Ryder thinks. But nonetheless, she is
still fourteen, and that is too young to be drawn into the bloody
affairs of state.
impatiently, "Are you going to tell me, Father?" She smiles
mischievously, "You know that even if you don't tell me anything,
I could always work something out of Pot
Pot Boy is her name
for the young lad who works serving food to the King, whose
actual name is Portor. It is quite apparent that Portor has taken
a shine to Dana, and she is happy to use that to her
Ryder sighs. She is
right. As she too often is.
"Alright, then. Old
Lord Castel got his limbs hacked off and was nearly burnt as a
traitor. Ser Tarinister's dead, cut down by Mathas, the
cold-hearted brute," Ryder licks his lips, and downs a cup of
"That's not good,"
Dana looks her father in the eye worriedly, "This isn't going to
affect the mages, is it?"
wouldn't. But the only reason Castel avoided being burnt in the
throne room was that four mages saved him. Don't ask me who, I
couldn't see," Ryder frowns. This could have serious consequences
for the Mage's Guild.
He waves a hand as
Dana opens her mouth to speak, "Don't ask so much, Dana. I don't
know much, and I wouldn't tell you anyway."
Dana gives her
Father an annoyed look, then goes off to her room. Probably to
read, Ryder thinks. The girl loves reading, and she wants to know
everything about what goes on in the court. She can be so mature
at times, but sometimes she still seems like an overeager little
girl, wanting to know about everything in the world. The thought
makes Ryder smile. Dana is not really a child any more. She is
tall and slim, beautiful in her own way. She is strong, in both
mind and body. Four months ago, she has managed to conjure a
flame, under Ryder's own careful tutelage. It is always useful to
know how to use magic, if one had the
Ryder cleans out
the plates, but keeps the jug of wine on the table. He's been
researching everlasting flames, and he's found a particularly
interesting tome on the subject. Unless the King is going to
recall the court, he wishes to spend the rest of his day working,
and he does not intend to work with a parched throat. Neither
does he want to work in his best, uncomfortable clothes, so he
quickly changes back to his preferred outfit; a modest, set of
black robes with a line of red trimming as the only decoration.
Examining himself in the looking-glass, he smooths back his dark
hair, and decides to give the thin stubble on his chin and
somewhat lined face a shave the next day.
There is a knock at
the door. Ryder hesitates, and then walks over to the
"It is I, Flame!
Open this damned door so I can come in, there's a draft out here
in this blasted corridor!"
Ryder opens the
door, relieved. A thin man in dark blue robes strides in. He is
Ryder's age, and is only a little shorter than Ryder himself.
Laugh lines crease his face, though he is frowning at the
"What brings you to
my door, Prest?" Ryder quickly looks about the corridor as he
closes the door.
himself, and steps closer to the room's single fireplace, "The
Circle's called a meeting. You're wanted,
"Don't call me
that. You know I don't enjoy being named as one of the
"But it suits you.
If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: Hunter's the
best pyromancer in the Kingdom, and I'll be damned if I wasn't
amused, "I may be adept at conjuring fire and other tricks, but
that's nothing compared to some others I could
Prest laughs and
spreads his arms, "Ah, but who would you name? I think you would
be hard-pressed to find anyone more learned in flame-lore than
you, my friend."
Ryder is saved from
replying by Dana's re-emergence from her room, "Greetings,
Master. How has your day been?"
"Fine, other than
seeing a man maimed and burnt alive. Nothing that would concern
you, young lady, begging your pardon."
"Burnt, you say?"
Ryder is alarmed, "Castel's dead? What's
Prest sighs, "The
guards caught him as Wain and three others tried to smuggle him
out. They injured Taren and killed Castel. His head's hanging
outside the gates right now, I hear. It's why the Circle's called
in a meeting. I doubt the King would be glad to hear that four of
his royal mages tried to smuggle an accused traitor out of his
Things are worse
than Ryder has feared. Castel was an important man; he was the
son-in-law of the Warden of the West, Lord Bast, and had many
friends in and out of the court. No wonder the Circle of the
Archmages has called a meeting of the Guild.
Dana stands to the
side, listening to all this silently. Thinking quickly, Ryder
steps over and grabs a deep crimson cloak, swinging it over his
"Dana, go back to
your room, and pack your things. Things might get messy; if
anything happens, I want you to be as far away as possible. No,
don't argue, just do it. Now!"
reluctantly and goes off to her room. Ryder nods to Prest and
pulls on his boots. The two men exit Ryder's warm apartment and
walk off, Ryder trailing behind Prest.
"Where is this
meeting supposed to be held, anyway?"
"The crypts. The
"What? Why? There's
nothing down there except a bunch of dead Carintheans," Ryder is
confused. There is no reason for the Circle to be holding their
meet down in the deepest bowels of the castle when they have
their own grand Hall of the Mystic.
you're wrong. Our magicians have been sensing a source of power
down there for ages. My own abilities lie more in the directions
of the subtle art of enchantment, and I don't know much about it,
but apparently the Circle's finally found the
Ryder is even more
baffled, "What does this have to do with Castel and
"I honestly have no
As the two men
descend through the various levels of the palace, Ryder studies
the other man. He seems uncharacteristically grim; Prest is
usually a man of many smiles, who converses often and laughs
easily. However, he says not one word as the two walk through the
The air itself
seems to become grimmer with every step they take. Ryder notices
that the walls of the corridors and stairwells look neglected,
and the levels they pass through seem mostly uninhabited. Signs
of disrepair are everywhere, and the workmanship of the structure
seems to become rougher. All of a sudden, they come to the end of
the line of lit torches, and before them lay a dense darkness.
The two magi conjure floating lights with muttered phrases,
Ryder's a burning flame, and Prest's a shining ball of white
Ryder soon starts
seeing carved runes on the crumbling walls of the ancient
structure. It seems to him that they are walking down through the
bowels of history, and they are descending to some unknown
location at the beginning of time.
Just when he thinks their descent will never end, Prest leads him off the final staircase and into the gloom of the lowest level of the royal palace of the Carintheans.