by Richard Dillio
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
The Emperials were an old, old race, a people bred to conquer through war, sorcery, and general ruthlessness. It was no surprise they’d be out in the middle of the ashy plains of the Ocrian, using the old magic to rob a tomb. A millennia ago they had replaced the Auldix as masters of the continent and had stamped their version of civilization across a panoply of warring nations. But their strength was on the wane, and newly displaced young nobles were now a regular site around the Vilt, as they often sought their fortune through the old thaumaturgic arts when they could not squeeze gold from conquered lands or bonded villages.
Elephon, himself half an Emperial and raised among them before seeking out the Baelnorn, had always cautioned his young ward about his people. “They believe themselves above every other race,” Elephon told him once, “and they view rulership as their right. Even if they’re nice to you, they’re planning something. You will never be equal in their eyes.”
Elephon’s warning had over the years proved true, and Grimgottlir had never gotten along with the bronze-skinned conquerors. But even still, he had no desire to fight them if he could avoid it. “If it comes to battle, stay behind me,” he said, having decided to descend. “You have no shield.”
Dhakirr’s face heated. “I will do no such thing. I do not cower behind old men with shields.”
Grimgottlir moved forward into the light. As big as a bear and about as stealthy, he was unsure if the wooden steps would bear his weight without protest. They did not, but the mages were too deep in their conversation to notice. He made it down to the bottom with gritted teeth but without incident, and kept his hand away from his sheathed sword. His shield hung down by his side.
“Greetings,” he said.
The figures whirled, startled, sending several metal implements flying to clatter on the rough stone floor. Grimgottlir raised his empty hands as a show of peace, but he could feel Dhakirr moving off to his right — he had irritatingly made it down the stairs without making a sound — and he knew without seeing that the young, brash bandit was holding both of his blades at length.
The two figures began to move apart from each other, and Grimgottlir’s heart sank. This was the rehearsed maneuver of two who knew how to fight together: close enough to support each other, but far enough so that each man’s spellcasting would not tangle the other’s.
“I mean you no harm,” Grimgottlir said. “I seek the tomb of the Hanin.”
The Emperials looked at each other. Grimgottlir could see they had astonishingly blue eyes set against their race’s telltale dark bronze skin. But more than that, they were identical in face and feature. Twins and triplets, he had learned many years ago, were very common among the Emperials.
The man on the left spoke first. “Every common thief seeks the tomb of Cayel the Hanin. None of them truly know what lies inside of it, the magical creatures called forth to guard it.” His voice dripped with contempt. “You should have stayed in your log house, Rhoed-man. The powers here are beyond your ken. You will not find what you seek.”
The Emperial on the right spoke up. “And neither will you leave this place, prideful fool.”
“I have no intention of leaving,” Grimgottlir said. “But this tomb is abandoned and your people have no claim over it. Cayel was a Sacroviri prince. Surely, I have as much right to be here as you.” As before, he was trying to be reasonable. But deep down, the Rhoed could feel they would not be swayed.
“Rights?” sneered the first. “What is this talk? This is our land, peasant, but were it not, we would still have claim to it. Rights!” he laughed.
Grimgottlir’s face flushed in his helmet. That was enough of that, and his sword slid into his hand.
The Emperial on the right make a quick gesture, and Grimgottlir’s sword-hand felt burned as if torched. The weapon spasmed from his grip, and he watched in dread as the Emperial’s spell corroded the blade before his very eyes, as a century of rust was inflicted in a matter of seconds.
“You are a child, and you have doomed yourself here,” the Emperial mage said.
Grimgottlir made a wordless snarl. The Emperial on the left was performing a more complicated gesture, and he had no time to spare. He raised his shield, ready to charge, when the flickering of a black star-glass dagger passed over his right shoulder and buried itself in the eye of the first man. He fell with a shriek, and his companion, now distracted, fumbled his spell.
This was all the time he needed, and The Bear hurtled forward, shield leading the way. To his credit, the second mage was able to recover from his botched spell with another, quicker cast, and the sharp pain of icy frost shot up Grimgottlir’s shield arm as he closed the gap. But that would be the last spell the diminutive Emperial would ever conjure. The massive Rhoed slammed into his frail opponent, pulped his face and ribs with a terrific smash of his shield, and dashed his body against the rock wall. He died, gurgling, and the warrior could see in his bright blue eyes a hint of disbelief.
“Falvi’s balls,” Dhakirr said, by way of a compliment. “You hit like a giant.” He cleared his throat. “Or a bear.”
Grimgottlir shook his shield arm, willing some feeling back into it. He had grown up in the most bitter cold imaginable, and therefore had some natural resistance to ice and frost magic, but the spell still hurt. Too much time in the warm southern climes, he supposed. He glanced down at his shield, and noticed the sheen of frost covering it. It could have been much worse.
“You might have buried your sword in my back any number of times,” Grimgottlir said, turning. He was disappointed the Emperials had chosen to fight, and it put him in a bad mood. But they had chosen.
The Ebron was kneeling over the corpse of the Emperial he had slain. He pulled the dagger free with a swift jerk. “I could have, but I will settle for making it out of this place alive.”
“And your friends?”
“They chose their path,” he said, and cast his eyes down with a thoughtful nod. “I have been lucky enough to choose again.”
Grimgottlir nodded, and walked over to his fallen sword. He doffed his helmet and held the blade up to the dim lantern light. It was ruined. One solid strike and it would shatter.
“Raendolf and his hairy ass,” he cursed. “I’ve had this sword for years.” He gripped the rusted blade with his other hand and with a surge of his powerful shoulders, snapped the blade from the hilt. The latter he would keep, in the chance that another blade could be fitted to it. He tucked it into his broad belt, stood, and dusted his hand. The rusted blade was already crumbling.
“So,” Dhakirr said, as he rifled through the robes of the man he had slain. “Obviously these are not the men you seek revenge on.” He looked up and squinted his eyes as he dug deep into a pocket, searching. His hand came out with a small keyring, upon which hung several newer looking keys... . and one that seemed incredibly old.
“Correct,” Grimgottlir answered, and he took a seat upon one of the rickety stairs. His ruined sword depressed him. It was the only thing he’d taken when he left the Baelnorn, a reminder of happier times, even if those times had not ended well.
“This must fit something,” Dhakirr said, after examining the ring. He was holding up the keyring by the old key.
Grimgottlir watched, appreciative of the Ebron’s skill at thievery, though he did not condone it. With the practiced eye of a bandit used to searching out hidden places for loot, Dhakirr walked the perimeter of the small cave. It was lit well enough for the sharp sight of a young man, but just so. When he came to the table with the large scroll on it, he noticed that underneath was a barely perceptible rise in the floor.
Kneeling, he blew a lungful of air into a crack in the floor, and the edges of a door drew themselves into view. His long fingers ran over a masterfully crafted trap door, and in one corner he uncovered a hasp with a stout but small lock, made of a deep, dark orange metal. Grimgottlir was impressed, but he did not say so. He didn’t want to encourage the lad.
“This... . this is Auldix metal!” Dhakirr said. He looked over his shoulder at the Rhoed who sat watching, impassive, on the stairs. Without waiting for a response, he fitted the key into the lock and it snapped open as if it was new, and not a thousand years old. He came from under the table and leapt to his feet. “Help me move this,” he said.
Grimgottlir smiled despite his disapproval. He pushed off from his seat and together they slid the table out of the way. “If that’s made by the Deep Folk,” he offered, using one of the many names for the vanished Auldix, “it is likely hinged and counter-weighted. It should open easily.”
Dhakirr knelt down and examined the door for a moment, then tugged at the hasp. The door swung open and upwards as if it weighed nothing at all. In the dim light of the cave, Dhakirr could not see much in the hole, and he began pulling items from it. He came up with several small, bulging pouches and a miniature leather-bound book.
Dhakirr’s face lit up with delight as he opened the first pouch. “Coins, gold mostly. And some rings. This is... .”
He glanced up to see the placid face of Grimgottlir, again sitting on his stair. He said nothing. Dhakirr swallowed, and appeared now like nothing but a small child. He peered down at the bag in his hand, and it seemed to Grimgottlir that he would hurl it away.
“Say it,” Dhakirr said at last, unable to look up from the bag.
“You’re wondering if it was worth it,” Grimgottlir said quietly, not without care. “I have plundered treasure from almost every corner of this world, and I’ve buried more friends than I can ever hope to remember.” He ran his fingers through his beard, looking away. “I can tell you, it is not worth it.”
After a long moment of silence, Dhakirr closed the pouch. “Before, you asked about my purpose here. I told you I swore mighty oaths that I would reach this cave.” He shook his head, as to clear a painful memory. “My oath was to my companions, that we would find wealth, and never abandon each other.”
“And now it is foolish. I am ashamed, and my ancestors are ashamed. They died for nothing,” he said.
“Always possible to start over,” Grimgottlir said. He walked over to the young man. “Take that treasure and do something useful with it. What is that book?” he asked, changing the subject. There was no sense in making the lad feel terrible. He’d have his whole life to think about it.
Dhakirr set the pouch down and brought the book close to his eyes. “’On Intercession.’” He opened it, but the lines of tight script were unreadable in the dim light. “I cannot make sense of it.”
Grimgottlir nodded. “Intercession is an old temple spell. The Emperials used to imbue their rings and such with an incantation. It would whisk them away to a consecrated altar of their Father-God.”
Dhakirr closed the book. “Tritus? Truly? That seems like great magic.”
“They outlawed it, centuries ago. A rebel named Vorcengerix was using the spell to elude the Emperor’s Long Knives, and under penalty of death the Emperor forbade its further use by any but the most trusted nobility. The rings were rounded up and melted down, and possessing one was forbidden.”
“What happened to this Vorcingerix?”
“He was caught and hanged, then his body was boiled. The Emperor had his bones revived.”
Dhakirr shivered, and set the book down as if it were hot to the touch. “How do you know this?”
“An old friend,” he answered, recalling Elephon’s many lessons. “Anyway, there are only a few consecrated altars left, and not many rings, I would imagine. But there are variations on the spell. The Ocrian tribes tie the spell to their old temples and gift them to mighty warriors. And an old mage in Slye used to cast them on a warrior’s jewelry, for a price. He’s probably not the only one.”
Dhakirr said nothing for a moment, then picked up one of the small pouches. “At least one of these should be yours,” he said, and he tossed it. The big man caught it and was about to speak, but Dhakirr cut him off. “Do not be a stubborn Rhoed. Just take it. If nothing else, it will ease my conscience.”
“Very well,” Grimgottlir said, and he tied the pouch to his belt. He was about to extend his hand when he noticed from his vantage a glint at the bottom of the hole. “There is something else down there,” he said.
“I don’t care,” Dhakirr said, tired, but he reached in anyway and, after feeling around for a moment, came up with a long, heavy object wrapped in a thick cloth. Rising, he set it down on the table, and then pulled down a hanging lamp. With his knife, Dhakirr cut the thongs binding the cover.
The glint that Grimgottlir had noticed was in fact a cold, perfectly blue sapphire set in the crossguard of an Auldix sword. Master smiths and craftsmen, the Delvers had perfected a technique to hammer steel into weapons that were unmatched in quality. Its hue was a curious mix of silver and dark blue, no naturally occurring shade but instead the result of their long-forgotten process that folded mighty spells into the forging.
Down the middle of the thick blade ran a long line of Deep Folk script that he could not read. The weapon tapered to a lethal point, and the pommel was hefty, heavy-looking and diamond shaped. They both gazed at it for a moment, silent, each man understanding they beheld a level of craftsmanship that perhaps no longer existed on Iyos, a relic of a mysterious and long-vanished people.
“It seems,” Dhakirr said after a moment, “that you should have this as well.”
Grimgottlir picked it up. It was perfectly balanced to sit in his hand, as if crafted for him ages ago by an Auldix smith who knew he would one day hold it. He didn’t even need to swing it. Too wide for his current sheath, he slid it instead into his belt.
“Bael provides,” he said.
“This is Ocrian country,” Dhakirr chuckled. “Do not mention Bael so easily here. They prefer you swear by their Quartet.”
“They are not my gods.” He strode over to the stairs, donned his helmet, and picked up his shield. Directly underneath the stairs was the outline of another small cave entrance, which would lead them further into Cayel’s Dirge. Grimgottlir stopped and contemplated his young companion, and memories of his own youth came flooding back yet again. Though they had just met, he felt a budding kinship with the scrappy Ebron.
Copyright © 2020 by Richard Dillio