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 him.
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 Hall.
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 impassive.
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 man.
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 face.
“You... you...” his voice is weak from intense emotion and blood loss.
“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 bastard!”
The old and venerable Archmage Altigar steps forward. Old he may be, yet he has a wiry strength, and grips
his gilded staff tight.
“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.”
Emperor Aerimir 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
Aerimir considers 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 traitor?”
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 before.
“No!” Castel 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 remaining limb.
Castel seems 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 the Empire.
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!”
Aerimir Carinthean looks at Tarinister, and snarls in anger, “Another bold traitor! Ser Mathas, kill him!
Guards, bring me wood to burn the Castel wretch!”
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 died.
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 thinks.
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 wind.
Tarinister and 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 Mathas.
Ryder, following 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
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 palace.
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 copper.
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 food.
“So, did anyone die today?” Dana asks as Ryder wolfs down the chicken hungrily.
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.
Dana shifts 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 Boy.”
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 advantage.
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 wine.
“That’s not good,” Dana looks her father in the eye worriedly, “This isn’t going to affect the mages, is
“Normally, 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 ability.
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
There is a knock at the door. Ryder hesitates, and then walks over to the door.
“Who is it?”
“It is I, Flame! Open this damned door so I can come in, there’s a draft out here in this blasted
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 moment.
“What brings you to my door, Prest?” Ryder quickly looks about the corridor as he closes the
Prest shakes himself, and steps closer to the room’s single fireplace, “The Circle’s called a meeting. You’re
“Don’t call me that. You know I don’t enjoy being named as one of the elements.”
“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 right.”
Ryder smiles, amused, “I may be adept at conjuring fire and other tricks, but that’s nothing compared to some
others I could name.”
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
“Fine, other than seeing a man maimed and burnt alive. Nothing that would concern you, young lady, begging
“Burnt, you say?” Ryder is alarmed, “Castel’s dead? What’s happened?”
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 castle.”
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 shoulders.
“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!”
Dana nods 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 lowest level.”
“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.
“That’s where 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 source.”
Ryder is even more baffled, “What does this have to do with Castel and Lane?”
“I honestly have no idea.”
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 corridors.
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 light.
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.
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