The halls of Castle Byzosin were wide, open spaces accented by carved arches of marble, the stained glass windows showing scenes taken directly from Byzosinian landscapes; the great Ilista’s Wood, once known as Panopon, a god from a long forgotten religion, depicting tall pines and oaks dwarfing any other; Port Mithrydell, just west of Bythesini, the illustration showing bustling fisherman and ships in the cold cobalt waters, fishing for big-finned Trout; and lastly, one of the more famous scenes, the likeness of King Saraul Byzosin, the first Byzosinian ruler and one of the most beloved Kings of Lyrycul. He sat proudly atop his huge roan horse, the sun rising in the east behind him.
Nyson studied these details as Captain Antonius led him down the halls of the castle, recognizing the history in the stained glass and noting the intricate detail of the arches. True, he had not been born in Byzosin; yet from what he gathered, his mother had been of its descent while his father had hailed from Atlivia. That was why he had the brown eyes and angular jawbone of Byzosinians, while his light blond hair and slight frame was attributed to those found in Atlivia. This combination of traits, usually not exhibited due to minimal contact with kingdoms for centuries, signaled to everyone that he was of mixed race.
This was one of the many reasons why some people despised him.
As they neared the end of the hallway, Nyson could see the towering wooden doors ahead, and about thirty guards congregating around the entrance. They all began to file in as Captain Antonius reached the entryway, and all of the clamor and noise that had echoed through the hall ceased as he raised a hand.
The guards immediately parted and the talking stopped as Antonius led the way through the small crowd. Nyson followed close behind, looking at the golden hawk embroidered on the back of his plum surcoat, trying not to draw too much attention. But it was too late for that.
Rhys Deroth and his shady tyro stood among the guards, along with a few other C’theran Nyson knew. There was Laif Polk, a thirty year old man who hailed from Myrintheos and a third tier earth C’theran who Nyson liked to consult periodically about Myrinthian herbs; one of the only other women C’theran in Byzosin besides Sinclair, Leleine Draken stood chatting with one interested looking guard who kept glancing at her well-endowed chest; and the only other C’theran Nyson recognized was Bolph Biffin, a first-tiered water C’theran in his early forties, an idiot of a man but a kind brute who Nyson had met years ago when he had traveled through Ilista’s Wood for a gathering of C’theran.
Bolph stood next to Rhys and the two seemed to be having a heated argument over something. Colten leaned against a wall, snickering, watching as Bolph’s face grew red and as spittle flew as he yelled.
“You think you are better than me?” he screamed in his thick northern accent, causing a couple of guards to cast annoyed glances at him. “You and your cheeky tyro think that just because Bolph Biffin is in his first tier that he is weak? That King Xengeos would not need him?”
Rhys stood silent, a smile spread across his face. He turned to Colten. “Did you hear that? Cheeky, are you?”
Colten’s laugher grew louder as he saw a vein stick out on Bolph’s forehead. “Yes, and perhaps he is jealous because I know more than him?”
This set Bolph off, and he stomped into the throne room, cursing loudly as three guards tailed him. The sight was spectacularly comical, for the big man was double the height and width of the three guards and he seemed to intimidate them somewhat.
As Antonius and Nyson passed, he drew the attention of Rhys just after Bolph had left. His smile grew wider as Nyson walked past him.
“Speaking of people the King doesn’t need,” he quipped, “enter Nyson Anthony, the half-breed with the slut for a tyro.”
Colten laughed again as he said, “Where’s the little hussy anyway, Anthony?”
Nyson chose to ignore these two, feeling that responding to their idiotic remarks would only give them what they wanted. Some C’theran have no discipline, he thought, and that is a shame.
“What, do you think you’re better than us, just because you’re being escorted in by the Captain?” Colten called.
Antonius glared at him. “The King has summoned Anthony specifically, for his services are important,” Antonius put emphasis on important. Nyson decided he liked the captain.
This wiped the smirk off of Rhys’ face, for he had taken an oath three years ago that was one of the most honored to the king; that he would serve until death, would protect the royal family themselves. He had thought he was on the King’s good side.
“I guess the King knows who he needs,” chimed Nyson as he walked into the throne room, leaving Rhys to think about that for himself.
The throne room’s high, vaulted ceiling gave the area an open atmosphere, the mural of the castle painted there charming.
The King sat in his throne, his wife and daughters at his sides, watching silently as C’theran and guards filed into the large room. Within twenty minutes, everyone had taken a seat and the doors had been closed. The King stood. It got silent.
“I have called you here today because my kingdom is in need of assistance,” he said. “Yesterday, at about midmorning, an assassin was sent to meet Ibesa Ra’shasti of Rhodaini, the General of Rhodan’s armies.
“This morning, as the sun rose in the east, a messenger arrived at my door with the head of that assassin, and a warning that Rhodaini would declare war.”
The C’theran and guards gasped, and even Omyr Callan, the King’s counselor, looked exasperated. War. The first in many years.
“I have expected this, however. That is why I have summoned you, my oath-bound C’theran. I have an errand I would like you to run, and it is simple: gather your brothers, find them in the Wood, tell them of the war to come. Tell them to fight for their kingdom, that if they do, they will be under my complete protection hereafter.”
This promise, Nyson knew, wasn’t a very strong one; the C’theran usually lived in Ilista’s Wood, away from cities and towns, preferring the quiet and peace to conduct studies. But it certainly was a tempting one, for the King had invited them to come live in the city, inevitably with free housing and land.
“Milord,” said a woman’s voice, “may I rise?”
Xengeos glanced toward the voice and nodded.
Leleine Draken rose gracefully to her feet, her long black hair straight and flowing, her C’theran mastery rings glinting in the early morning sunlight streaming through the windows.
She wore long circular earrings that swung when she moved her head, and her lips were a dark red color. She was a native of Salovas Island, yet her tan had faded to a light brown through the years she lived in Byzosin.
“How can the C’theran fight against those brutes? They are hardened men of war, trained in the art of battle, and C’theran are disciples of the elements, peaceful, knowledgeable philosophers. How can we fight?”
“You forget that many C’theran have magic abilities useful to war, Leleine. Many of us can move earth, call storms, create fires, even summon Lich Ghouls. We may be philosophers, but we control powerful magics,” Laif Polk called from across the room.
The rest of the C’theran began to murmur, to talk amongst themselves, and King Xengeos looked thoughtful as he listened. Then, Rhys stood.
“Your majesty, I think that all the talk about philosophy is old-fashioned. True, a century ago, the C’theran were thinkers. But today, we have developed new techniques and strategies useful for war. Rhodaini does not have any mages. Our pyromancers and waterborn can wipe out Rhodan’s armies easily,” he looked smug as the King looked at him, listening intently.
Nyson couldn’t be silent any longer, and after listening for a few minutes the insane ideas many of the council members had, he rose.
“Majesty, may I speak?”
Everyone grew quiet. He could hear some whisper questions about why he was there, since he had not taken oath to the kingdom. He heard accusations and rumors, but he ignored all.
The King nodded, somewhat curious. His two daughters looked at Nyson, the small redhead staring directly at him. Her older sister, Triana, studied Nyson also, but with a little more subtlety.
“Do you really believe Rhodan is the enemy?”
This comment was answered by many cries of outrage, someone shouting that he was an oblivious idiot, most likely the little shit Colten.
“True, we have had tension with Rhodiani, but what I’m asking you now is if they are the ones behind the attack. What provoked it? We have sunken their ships before, they have killed some of our traders, but the treaty has never been broken,” he said calmly, studying all the faces of the royal family. Xengeos’ eyebrow rose, as if he hadn’t thought of this.
“What are you saying, Anthony?” he questioned, allowing Nyson to speak further.
Nyson pulled out a torn piece of cloth from his pocket, holding it up so everyone could see the scarlet Ouzel that adorned it. The crowd grew silent once more, a few people gasped.
“I have killed two Anacoran spies late last night. I believe they are going to declare war on Byzosin, perhaps all of Lyrycul, in an attempt to finish what they started centuries ago,” he waited for the cries of terror and surprise to die down before continuing.
“Perhaps this has made Rhodan summon the courage to launch his own attack, or maybe he is a secret ally of Anacor. I suggest that we call for the aid of Atlivia and Myrintheos. Our armies aren’t as developed as King Atliva’s, and we all know how well King Roanora’s infantry is developed; together with our navy and C’theran, I’m sure we can stop this siege before it happens.”
This was met by more shouts of protest. Laif stood to his feet.
“Preposterous! No one would ally with those portentous Anacorans! Not even Rhodan!” A guard stood and called, “He is lying, your majesty!”
Everywhere around the throne room, people erupted into debate. It got so loud in the room that Nyson couldn’t hear himself think. The high ceilings acted as a megaphone, amplifying the shouts to an almost deafening tone. A fight broke out between two C’theran, presumably between Bolph and another older mage, and four guards had to pull them apart.
Then, a booming voice filled the area, silencing all,” Enough! Quell your protests, desist your ranting, I will not have insubordination in my castle!”
The King’s face was red with anger. Normally a peaceful man, everyone seemed uneasy at the change in attitude. Queen Ilista stood and put a comforting hand on her husband’s shoulders.
“Now, people of the council, please be open minded. We do not know who really threatens our kingdom. We know that Rhodan will attack us by tomorrow, and we need all the C’theran we can get,” she glared at Nyson as she said this, as if he had caused the panic by telling lies.
“Nyson Anthony, if what you say is true, and that piece of cloth is authentic, then I think that your plan will do. But we cannot send for help to other kingdoms without knowing first, and—”
Her words were cut off when a scrawny man dressed in grey messenger garments burst through the door, followed by an entourage of guards. “Your majesty!” the man called, breathless.
The King turned to look at the frantic man, who ran up to him as he said, “Rhodainians have come, Ra’shasti leads them!”
The council’s eyes collectively grew wide, it seemed. Nyson stood surprised at the early arrival of the Rhodainians.
“Secure the walls, send out the knights!” King Xengeos began to command, turning around and starting toward the halls.
The messenger cried, “Milord, they carry a white flag!”
The King stopped in his tracks, wheeled around and was next to him in a flash. He grabbed the messenger by the tunic, looked down at him.
“White flag? What is the meaning of this?” As he said this, the doors opened once more, and a hulking man wearing leather armor, followed by twenty others who were escorted by at least one hundred Byzosinian guards, streamed into the throne room. They carried a white flag.
Ra’shasti looked horrifying, his body lean and hard with muscles, standing six feet tall with blazing eyes which studied the walls. His dark skin gleamed with sweat, his face dirty with soil. He stopped twenty feet away from the king, looked at him, and bowed.
“King Xengeos, I come not with intentions of war. I come to tell you that Anacorans have been spotted in your kingdom; I have come to warn you.” Ra’shasti’s accent was thick
The King stood speechless as the Queen backed away and stood next to her daughters. Ra’shasti took no notice to the council members surrounding him and his men, fidgeting and wary.
Xengeos glanced at Nyson, who nodded and produced the cloth again. Ra’shasti looked up at him.
“So, you were the one who killed them. Their bodies were found by Rising Knights Inn.”
The King shook his head. “Enough! What news you bring me, Ra’shasti. I thought you would wage war against Byzosin for the assassination attempt, which I see you have thwarted.”
The bowing Rhodainian smiled, then stood his full height again, standing at least a head taller than the king. He laughed.
“We would have been in war, if not for the Anacorans. We have two thousand soldiers three miles from this castle right now,” with the look on King Xengeos’ face, he quickly added, “but I have called them off. We shall be in a truce for now, until we crush the Anacorans.” He said crush with such ferocity, a smile spread wide on his face. His men began to chuckle behind them.
The king looked concerned for a moment. Nyson could guess what was going on in is head; the Rhodainians were weaponless, it would be a perfect time to strike. Yet, with news of Anacorans in the kingdom, he may need their strength. He finally nodded.
“Well of you to come, then. You shall stay in the castle, and we will discuss war tactics. That is, if you agree to put aside our differences for the time being.”” He turned and addressed Ra’shasti’s men personally. “Welcome to Byzosin, you will live under my hospitality and see the sights of a country you know little about.”
To this statement, Ra’shasti began to chuckle himself.
The king looked at him as if he were crazy. “Do you mock me in my own home?”
Ra’shasti shook his head, turned to his confused looking warriors. “They do not speak a bit of Byzosinian, Sah Xengeos.” He began speaking to his men in his native language, a deep, guttural tongue.
“Lejoor yihn da Sah Xengeos, om'un rah ke Byzosin usingizi nchi na pasipo.” The warriors all nodded, smiling at the faces of the council, and especially to that of Omyr Callan, who had gone pale and pasty.
Ra’shasti and Xengeos took each other’s wrists and shook vigorously, walking side by side back to the King’s throne. Xengeos waved a hand to dismiss the council, and the C’theran and guards began filing out of the throne room. Before Nyson could leave, however, Queen Ilista stopped him.
“Do not leave yet. We must talk.” She took him out of another door, into a quiet hall, where no one was present. She looked at him intently. When she didn’t speak, he did.
“Why exactly do you need me, majesty? There are many C’theran here. What purpose do I serve? And, for that matter, why do you insist on paying me?”
She looked taken aback. “You have sworn no oath, and you claim you only work to earn. So, you will earn for doing a royal assignment. If you succeed, you will be paid even more handsomely than you ever thought.”
Nyson considered. He did need money to fund his shops, and he did like money, that much was true. But at what risk would it be? From the sound of it, the “royal assignment” was a dangerous one, and that was why the Queen had stressed that he would become richer when he completed the task.
“What do you ask of me?” he dared to question. The Queen nodded, taking that as a yes.
“You will travel to the Marchessies of the Hells, go to Anacor, and find out whatever you can on what they plan to do, what kind of forces they have. The other C’theran, in the meantime, will gather their brothers. We will ask for the assistance of Atlivia and Myrintheos.”
Ilista knew what she was asking him to do. It was a veritable suicide mission to go into an enemy country, one who so many knew little about, and to do a reconnaissance mission there. And she was asking him to go alone. He hesitated.
“Your majesty, with all due respect, I am not a strong C’theran in the least. I may be advanced, but strong? No. Why must you ask me to go?”
She smiled, as if expecting him to say that. “You have great ability, Nyson Anthony. Go to edge of the Wood, near the northern entrance of Bythesini. Henrish lives there, in an old cottage. I’m sure you know of him. He holds many secrets, knows many things that will help you on your journey. He has been to Anacor before, he can tell you of what to expect. Be careful though, for he is a Mor-dryk, and his mind has been deteriorating.”
Nyson did not ask how the Queen knew this, merely nodded. She said no more and entered the throne room once again, leaving him alone in the hallway.
He stood there, contemplating the task at hand. He would die, surely he would die. Anacorans weren’t the only things that he worried about; there were stories of beasts that lived in the remote areas between the kingdoms, that creatures like the onyx butcher Ghoul, taller that ten men, roamed the mountains. Splinter-head serpents, with two to five heads, plagued unexplored areas of the continent. Needler beetles with their poisonous barbs lived in the barren desert of the Marchessies, along with certain sentient plants filled with the magical residue left from the battle waged there years ago, said to thrive in those arid dunes and feed on unwary travelers. Not to mention tales of the manticore that lived by the Marchessies crevasse, known to devour creatures to add to its mismatched body parts, said to be made of thousands of different species. And what about the fabled race said to live in that desert? The so-called “diviners” whose magic was older than those of the C’theran, who were said to resemble abstract deities rather than humans? No, Nyson couldn’t survive such horrors, unless they were all just tales. Even then, he hesitated to take the chance.
He jumped when he heard a sound behind him, whirled around in time to see a flash of red disappear around a corner.
“Halt!” he called, chasing down the eavesdropper. He wheeled around the corner and saw the skinny princess running down the hall. She looked back at him, eyes wide, and continued faster.
He knew he must have looked stupid just standing quietly in the hall, thinking. Perhaps he’d frightened her?
He chased her still, struggling to catch up. He uttered a short incantation which gave his feet more purchase on the slick floor and raced down the hall. In no time he had caught up with her. He grabbed her arm, stopping her instantly. She gasped at the sudden halt, and he felt her shoulder pop as he stopped her.
“Ouch! Who do you think you are?” she demanded, suddenly bringing up the courage to stare him in the eyes.
“Forgive me, milady,” he said, letting her hand go. “But a beauty such as yourself is worth chasing after, are you not?” This made her face turn red, almost matching the color of her hair. She still looked as angry as ever, however.
“What were you doing with my mother, alone in this hall?” she said, looking at him as if he were a vile person. So, he thought, she’d heard the rumors.
“I was doing this.” He pushed her up against the wall, pinned her there. She struggled, trying to pry his arms away, but he was much stronger than she. Finally, she tried to scream, but he planted a kiss on her mouth before she could resist, silencing her cries.
She thrashed underneath him, her eyes wide as he continued his kiss. He could feel her holding her breath, opened his eyes to see her own staring back at him. He felt her heart race beneath her chest. Then, he let her go, backed away.
She dropped to the floor, breathing harshly for a moment, but she did not run. She merely stared at him, her face flushed. He waited for a few minutes, letting her regain her composure. Then, she stood, walked toward him, and slapped him hard in the face.
“Who do you think you are?!?” she asked again. “How dare you touch me like that!”
Nyson smiled, his cheek turning a light red where her palm struck him. The girl stared angrily at him, scowling. She looked alarmed, yet something told him she wasn’t altogether disgusted with his sudden and frank attack. He looked around the hallway, making sure her screaming hadn’t alerted the guards.
“You liked it,” he teased, “you’re not running anymore.”
Rage filled her face, she looked as if she would cry. But she did not. She stood up straight, composed herself, acted like a princess should. It took a few more moments before her breathing became regular, then she looked him in the eyes.
“If it weren’t for my mother asking your help, I’d have you sent to the dungeons.”
Nyson laughed. “Oh, Princess Azriel, how you joke.” And with that, he shrouded himself in shadow, becoming a mere flicker. Azriel’s eyes grew wide, but she did not seem too alarmed. She had met many of her father’s C’theran, after all. She must have seen one use shadowplay before.
He left her alone in the corridor and strolled back through the great doors, past the throne room, which was now devoid of people. The only sound in the room was the low, almost-silent chanting that came from the moving displacement in the air making its way out of the castle.
Xengeos and Ra’shasti were most likely forming attack plans and building defenses, the King’s counselor Omyr Callan sending off the C’theran as quickly as possible. Even Nyson, one of the only C’theran who had never pledged, now had an order he would have to take, money or not.
Anacorans meant trouble for everybody, and Nyson couldn’t just run away like he always had. When the whole world was in danger, there was nowhere to hide. He had to act. His first stop was to go to Ilista’s Wood and seek advice from Henrish. Then, he would travel to Atlivia and warn King Rothan. From there, he would have to make the perilous journey past the Marchessies and into Anacor.
Nyson left the large room, descended the marble staircase which lead to the atrium, and swiftly exited the palace, making his way back to the market district.
People were beginning to stir, early shoppers buying the newly caught fish of the day, the smell of baking bread carried on the breeze. Carts of vegetables were hauled by braying donkeys, the loads of produce brought in and out of the castle every day clean and newly harvested.
Out in the morning sunlight, the shadow Nyson used to shroud himself became a thick, obsidian form weaving in and out of people, so he became silent, ceasing his chanting, and his form slowly began to become clearer until he was whole again.
He detoured down an alley between two closely packed shops, preferring the less crowded paths so that he did not get stopped from any passerby. He was not one for idle conversation.
His mind was quickly sifting through his past experiences, past journeys to other kingdoms to recall the safest route to take. He had been to Atlivia twice before; once when he was young and had lived there until the age of five, and once to fortify Rothan’s castle walls and battlements when he turned sixteen.
He had once travelled to Escion, capital of Myrintheos, to meet with the annual Tyro Gilde, an assembly of apprentice C’therans of all races who gathered to exchange knowledge and socialize with one another. Nyson had only gone once, deemed it childish, and had yet returned.
The only other journey he could recall was the one he took the year before, to Fort Havenworth, east of Bythesini, and that was merely to buy special herbs that could not be transported into Byzosin. It had taken six hours to travel there and back, hardly a journey, if ever one.
This meant that he had little to no knowledge of the geography of the country beyond Myrintheos, and this was a major problem. He needed someone who knew the terrain.
He had reached the apothecary in less time than he anticipated, and was surprised when he saw Sinclair saddling up two Bay horses, her short hair hidden under a silky jade bandana and a short sword sheathed at her side. She had just finished saddling her horse when Nyson stopped beside her.
“What are you doing?” he asked, watching his horse chomp on oats from a trough.
“I heard that Ra’shasti is in the kingdom,” she said bluntly, messing with the knot that tied the horses down. It came loose after a moment, slipping to the ground with a dull thud.
“I have also heard that you were summoned to take on an assignment issued by the Queen— and such an assignment would require travelling, am I correct?”
“You are one sharp woman,” said Nyson. “Yes, I have taken it upon myself to do the bidding of Queen Ilista, and it requires quite a bit of travel.” He saw that she had already fastened bags to the horses, but had forgotten a few essential things. Women are forgetful, he reminded himself.
“I will be right back.”
Nyson turned from her and entered the apothecary. He headed to the back of the shop and collected a satchel of moleskin and began rummaging through cabinets, collecting vials and medicinal herbs, magical talismans and charms, and swiftly went into his room once these items had been gathered.
His sword sat on a shelf, sheathed in a handcrafted leather scabbard. The blade of the sword was fine, crafted by a quality blacksmith named Eliel Pern, who lived at Fort Havenworth. He fashioned steel that could withstand the force of a war hammer; not that Nyson would be using it in war, of course. He was just taking it as a precaution.
He drew the sword and looked at the hilt, which was engraved with the words Decus, Fides, Sanctimonia. On the blade, the name “Pern” had been etched near the hilt in a scrawling hand; no doubt made by the very man who had formed the steel. It was a good blade, a reliable one he had had since he first became a C’theran. Fastening it to his belt, he moved on.
The last thing Nyson did was overturn his hay mattress to reveal a sack of coins, which he dumped into his satchel and sealed as he walked away with his sword in hand. He grabbed his cloak from a hanger and locked the shop after drawing the curtains.
He turned toward the darkened building, certain that it may be his last time seeing it, and uttered a prayer before mounting his horse. Sinclair watched him with solemn eyes, sensing his apprehension yet not knowing completely what troubled him. She knew that it was a grave situation when Nyson Anthony prayed to a God who he did not believe in; knew that she, too, may not ever see the small shop ever again.
He led her in silence through the city, heading north toward the wood. She had never been there before, but had heard stories of travelers getting drawn deep into the forest by a corporeal light that would suddenly extinguish once they had been thoroughly lost, finding themselves alone in the heart of a vast forest.
Other tales told of vengeful wraiths— the spirits of men and women who had once been burned alive in those woods centuries ago for being C’theran serving under Solomon Darsuul’s rule centuries ago— who would attack any human to step foot on the hallowed ground of their resting places.
She shivered at the thought, hoped they wouldn’t have to travel through that forest, but deep inside her she knew that was where they were bound. There was no other reason why they were heading this way.
They reached the northern entrance to the city and waited for a few guards to raise the portcullis to let them through. Heretofore they had ridden in silence, Sinclair allowing Nyson to keep to his thoughts. Yet she had to ask, lest she go mad with curiosity.
“Where are we traveling?”
It was not until they had left the walls of the city of Bythesini and were on a road when he answered.
“We are going to the edge of the Wood to meet a man who I am sure you know about. He is an old, decrepit man named Henrish, and he lives in a small cottage near there. I must speak to him, and then we travel to Atlivia to warn Rothan of the Anacoran invasion.”
Sinclair did not understand. She had believed that Rhodaini was the enemy— yet just this morning she had seen their general waving a white flag, escorted through the city and into the castle. She had a feeling that there was much more Nyson was not telling her.
The day steadily moved on, the once grassy and flat lands surrounding the city turning quickly into wooded areas, and surprisingly other than the both of them, there were no travelers about. Usually merchants would be carting to and fro by midday. This was noticed by Sinclair, but throughout the day Nyson had been silent, muttering to himself and withdrawn.
Finally after three hours of riding, they reached the small town of Blackford Point, one of the only other towns in Byzosin so close to Ilista’s Wood. Beyond it lay miles of unsettled woodland, and beyond that the terrain gave way to the harsh and unforgiving mountains of Atlivia.
Nyson spoke for the first time in hours, “Be wary; a Mor-dryk lusts for power, however feeble he may look. Be on guard, Sinclair. This man will be tricky.”