A great cloud of black smoke rose up into the night sky, the red mist curling at the edges. The grand hall roasted in flame, the entire structure enveloped in fiery hands and licking flame. The deep explosive roars thundered through the still darkness and alit the city with an intense orange glow. Kale rushed from the hall, carrying Ekin through the glistening black mud, images of red shimmering off the glassy surface.
Ekin groaned in agony, wheezing as blood poured out of his leg. His armor was tainted black and his sword dragged through the mud. Kale ran as fast as he could with Ekin away from the flame to the horses they had been captives on. In the fiery chaos, the midnight black horses screamed and reared wildly, galloping to and fro. Kale laid his arms on one, feeling its defined muscles ripple rapidly.
He eased the horse and slowly hefted Ekin up, carefully and cautiously. The saddle was worn and dry, the leather skinned from a wild boar from Albain. Ekin’s armor clinked and rattled as he shifted on the saddle, relieving his wounded leg of pressure. The leather was slick and sticky when Kale hefted himself up, the blood dripping in great drops to the earth floor. The horse reared, throwing its head back fiercely, and shirked into the sky.
Kale kicked his feet into the animal’s sides and pulled back the reins and lugged the horse around, and the horse bolted. Through the narrow streets of Shaar they sped, the mists hissing by their faces and the shivering torches roaring. Kale could still hear the fire exploding in great breathes, the stifling black cloud growing in size overhead, chasing them as they escaped. The flame began to leap precariously, jumping onto roofs and other buildings until the edge of the Dead Sea was all engulfed in flame.
Kale kicked his heels into the horse’s sides harder urging it to run faster. The horse responded with a bolt of speed as if it had been shot out of a catapult, flying through the shadowy streets. Kale could hardly see anything through the darkness, the torches outlining the alleys and streets. They rounded a large square, where on the walls banners of the Red Hand rippled along the stark black stone. It was then it began to rain. A hard, pouring rain that pierced the skin like needles.
The rain fell with the ash and the winds whipped viciously, tearing at Kale’s cloak and the banners upon the walls. Up ahead, the gates of the city sprouted from beneath the earth, giant and hulking. The stone pillars rose up, laden with banners and torches, stark and striking. Standing over the wooden gate, a great obsidian figure perched, it’s feet on the pillars. The rain ran down its glossy body and the obsidian glinted black in the roaring fire behind. It was the Oppressive One.
Kale thundered forward the gates ajar slightly; the stout stonewalls wrapping around in either direction. The horse leaped through the wood with a crack and exploded out of the city, disappearing into the Darkness. Kale glanced back at Shaar, engulfed in a blazing red inferno, the yellow fingers of flame dancing against the Mist. They had survived, once again. How many more times could they escape?
The darkness seemed to expand endlessly before Kale’s face, vast and ceaseless. It extended into deeper blackness and deeper shadow. The rain and ash rushed by invisibly and the crimson mists wheeled overhead, never parting. The sable horse rumbled onwards into the land of black, as if it could see. Or was it just running? Could it see through the Dark?
Ekin moaned and his breathe caught, snagging at his lungs and coughed rigidly. His face paled like a ghost and his eyes sparkled a sapphire blue in the dark glints. “The river…” He managed through whispers. “Follow the river.” Kale struggled to hear, but could make out roughly what Ekin was saying.
“Take…me…Eaon…heal…Kave…river…” His voice faded and he closed his eyes, slumping. Kale felt his head rest on his back, thumping with the strides of the horse. River? He thought to himself. Where is a river? He searched through the deep blackness, finding only a deeper shadow and a greater mist.
The he found it. In the corner of his eye he saw a sparkle. A glint. Through the omnipresent black, there was a silvery red glitter coming from the west. He pulled on the reigns and steered the horse to his left, the ground underfoot wet from the rain. The high gray grass whispered in the winds and as they brushed through, until they stood at the river’s edge.
The water stumbled along the rocky floor, tumbling and trickling along. The frothy fingers of red foam crawled along the slick stones and the rocky banks. The river licked with red flame from the mists above and gleamed like a band of silver ribbon as it wound away into the darkness. It was the River Vhaa, flowing south into the Dead Sea from the Mountains of Varrin. Ekin wanted him to follow it, to find something. To find a place called Kave and that was what he was going to do.
Kale followed the hissing black water up stream, the horse’s hooves splashing along the banks. Ekin continued to moan and scream out times in pain and angst, trying to fight against the pain. Kale urged the horse on further, pushing it harder and harder, knowing that Ekin cold not make it much longer. The horse resisted, but Kale was relentless. He did not want to hurt the animal, but he did not want Ekin to die.
The gaping dark hole in his leg, just above his greaves, had stopped pumping out blood. Though now, it became dry and dark and the stench of blood was rank in the air. It lingered, clinging to them like mist, sneaking into Kale’s nose. The dry, salty smell irritated his nostrils and he had to breathe through his mouth for a good while.
The darkness stretched out before them like an illusion, a never-ending wall. There was barely any definition and the Mist shifted and shimmered like it always did, but whispered louder. Not as loud as when they were in Varrin, but loud enough. Time to time, Kale could glimpse long spears of grey cloud wheel overhead, the ash tumbling through the air and landing on his face softly.
Kale shuddered as he heard a hiss of wind, jumping in fright. He stared out into the Darkness, trying to see if anything was there. Caza had spoken of Darkdwellers often when they lived together in Vaelon. Kale had always been frightened by them; the beings that lurk in the deep murk and mists. Riding know in the vast expanses was where they would live. All they had to do was sneak up and stab him. It was a scary thought and kept Kale’s heart thumping against his ribcage.
Ekin groaned, his leg beginning to spasm. He moaned, his arm seizing his thigh. Kale could not listen any longer; it was torture. How much farther, how much longer could he survive? The questions seemed to be endless. All Kale could do was peer through the endless darkness seeing only deep darkness.
The current grew harder and the fingers of white water writhed as they brushed against the rocks. The black water glinted red as it rushed by them, there was something up ahead. Kale slammed his heels into the horse’s side again and again, pleading it to run as fast as it could. Rearing, the horse pushed forward, driving its head and leaping through the air. Ekin’s plate armor chinked and sung a high tune as they flew.
There was a gradual slope up ahead, rising like a wave. The grass underfoot was high and its fingers were like blades of steel, slicing at Kale’s legs. The hill grew steeper, rising and rising, rocky steps beginning to reveal themselves. It was a path. The small stone stairs wended through the grass hill and up, curving and rising. The horse’s hooves clicked deeply against the stone and hard clops pounded through Kale’s head.
Rounding the crest of the hill, there were lights. The river rushed over the precipice beside them and cascaded down the sheer descent in a roar of water, exploding in a deep bellow as it the base. Kale could see the black water glimmer with dancing red and silver diamonds as it fell. At the edge of the falls, there was a city on the water, alit brightly with flickering blue torches the color of sapphires.
Two grand, ornate bridges extended across the rippling water and into the city. This must be it, it has to be. Kale spurred the horse forward and made for the bridge that would take him to the city. Up close, beaming blue stained glass windows burned through the darkness and the low thin towers were white and glistening.
As Kale swept under the arched gate of the bridge, two great braziers pranced with blue light beside each pillar, illuminating his path. Ekin’s armor caught the light feebly, straining to glow or glint. He was close, too close. The thin stone bridge was inscribed in an ancient text and laced all the way over to the gates of the city where Kale whisked through, rushing to find this healer Eaon. The silvery white buildings and towers and bridges were all thrown under the blue light, the entire city glowing through the heavy darkness.
There was nobody in the streets; only the skirling winds walked the streets this day. But why? Kale felt their horse shudder and lurch to a stop jerkily. It tried to walk further, but it’s legs only trembled and quavered and it collapsed onto the ground in a heap, throwing Kale and Ekin off in a clap of steel. Kale felt the back of his head slam onto something hard and cool, a jolt of pain lacing through his skull. His vision warped in an out of focus and grew hazy and dark. There was a terrible ringing in his ears and that was the last he heard before entering the realm of shadows.
Light. Bright white light streamed though Kale’s closed eyes. In the deep blackness there was a spectrum of blue and green that swirled and twirled around like fish in a black sea. Their misty figures faded as the white light burned through the darkness. Kale’s eyes flickered, and his head rung piercingly. He squinted, then gradually opened them, the beaming white rimmed with a gold halo.
There was a blurry shadowy black figure looming over Kale’s face that cut out the light. Amidst the searing rings, Kale could scarcely discern the figure’s words. He spoke softly and smoothly, maybe in a different language. The words flowed out of his mouth, his tongue caressing each vowel.
“Calm.” It whispered alluringly. “Be still and calm, young one. I am a friend, you can trust me.”
But could he? Kale didn’t know anymore. His instincts told him he couldn’t, but his mind told him he could. Kale squirmed up the headrail, the pain in the back of his head gone and his limbs rejuvenated and alive.
“Who are you?” Asked Kale, blunt, still unsure.
A man in silky white robes trimmed with gilded lace and long silver hair that glimmered in the white light answered in his glassy voice, “I am Eaon, one of the last Zeian. I am a friend to you and the great Knight Ekin. It was in the elder days of this land when Ekin and I conversed in the sacred Halls of Alde. It has been long since.”
Kale furrowed his brows, the silver-gold walls glinting from the floating orbs of white light in the corners of the long room. “Is he alive? Have you treated him?”
“I have.” Said Eaon, his angular golden eyes shimmering in the majestic lights. “He is well now, very well. He is just resting now. It is good for him.”
Kale relaxed, Ekin was well. He looked back on the figure before him. He looked…different. “What are you?”
“I have already told you, young one.” Said Eaon. “I am a Zeian, one of the last, sadly.”
“Indeed.” Said Eaon. “We Zeian once were a magnificent race, great and mighty. We lived in the far to the west, in the golden woodlands of Aesairia where the trees were thousands of feet high and the rivers shimmered gold. The skies were a brilliant azure blue and the mountains were cloaked in fresh scales of snow and ice, the lurid yellow sunlight tinting the grey faces a vibrant red at the sundering of the day. How much I wish to return to those lands.”
“Why can’t you?” Asked Kale, it seemed amazing.
“Because it is not there anymore.” Said Eaon.
“How?” Asked Kale. “How is it not there?”
“There was an explosion, a great explosion that shook the entire world. The roars came from the sea, the mountains, and the earth. The sea engulfed the land, flooding everything, and the mountains crumbled to bits and ash. The earth itself collapsed under out feet and the entire realm of Aesairia was gone, replaced by a deep and dark void of darkness hidden under the depths of the churning sea. We Zeian, the last of our kin, still do not know why such event occurred. Some say it was the work of the One God, Iura, others believe that it was caused by nature, and some believe that the land was too old to continue its life and was destroyed henceforth. There are many speculations over the destruction of Aesairia.”
“How did you survive?” Asked Kale
“We foresaw this event.” Said Eaon. “We had mapped it out, my order of long ago. We knew that this destruction would happen and when it would occur. We were ready, and so we left the wonders of Aesairia and journeyed east, coming to this realm, the land of Runir.”
Kale did not ask how they foresaw it, for Eaon looked to be troubled greatly speaking of this. “What do you think happened?”
“Over the thousands of years, young one, the answer has never found a way into my brain. However smart we Zeian are, we are blind to the answers of what happened to our realm and our race. Was it supposed to happen? Yes, I think so. It was for a reason. But why? None know.”
“Stop boring Kale with your history lessons, Eaon.” Said Ekin from behind the Zeian. He lay in a similar bed with sheets of white and lace of gold and his face was clean and his eyes sparkled like sapphires. “We have been through enough.”
“I was assume so, traveling with you, Master Ekin.” Said Eaon. “Though I have to ask: how did this happen. Surely it was from more than a creature of the murk.”
“You have guessed right.” Said Ekin, shifting out of his bed and walking to an elegant wooden chair of lustrous silver. He was garbed in all white breeches and tunic. “As you usually do.” He sat without a creak. “I killed Berrik Barrath.” He said at last.
“I see now.” Said Eaon. “He was your former Lord Commander Abelon’s forces, was he not? However did you have the stomach, or the heart to kill him?”
“He Switched.” Said Ekin plainly. “And that is treason in my eyes. That betrayer received what he deserved.”
“Is that such a worse crime as what your Knights did?” Asked Eaon with a wry smile.
“I thank you for healing me, Eaon, old friend, but I did not come to you for mocking.”
“I meant no offense.” Said Eaon calmly. “Now, how did you even get in Berrik’s clutches? Why have you come out of your mountain home?”
“I came out to restore Runir’s former glory, as well as the Knights of Abelon.” Said Ekin powerfully. “I came back to restore my name and my legacy.”
“Does the Oppressive One know this yet?” Asked Eaon, brow rising.
“He is bound to know.” Said Ekin, “After he hears of the death of Berrik and the burning of Shaar word will surely reach his ears.”
“Then you are in great danger.” Sais Eaon. “Greater danger than you think.”
“How do you know?” Asked Ekin.
“I have heard of many things recently, dark things.” Warned Eaon. “I have heard of ancient beasts rising from the dead, I have heard of armies of Niron boars being sent after you. He knows of your existence and of your aims. He will not be idle.”
“I did not expect him to be.” Said Ekin. “What else do you know of the realm? It has been long since any news has reached my ears.”
Eaon folded his hands, “The rebellion grows to the south, down in the Mountains of Svaerdon. I hear it stems from the city of Jaahon and that the Oppressive One has heard of such rebellion and has taken action. He is sending troops to the mountains to kill off any army there is.”
“I am surprised he has not heard about it earlier.” Said Ekin. “They have done well hiding themselves.”
“Indeed.” Said Eaon. “Though in recent weeks there was been news of three deaths. They speak also of varran. I trust that you remember such feral creatures, Ekin.”
“I do.” Said Ekin. “I remember those ancient beasts. They still haunt my dreams when I think of their eyes and their claws.”
“I have also received word of Lord Veam’s son returning to Tarar.” Said Eaon.
“And what does such news have any substance?” Asked Ekin.
“He returned from Arvene maybe two days ago, heavily wounded and riding back in a carriage. He claims that the Alduri of Arvene tortured him and almost killed him. They say he returned with a giant gash across his face.”
Kale’s heart stopped…
Eaon continued on, “After hearing this, Lord Veam declared war on Arvene.”
Kale looked at Ekin, “We sat next to him in the carriage we took into Tarar, Ekin, I sat next to the Prince.”
Ekin’s eyes opened, “Indeed we did. We took a carriage into Tarar that night. I remember the driver saying that he was traveling from Arvene. He was asleep.”
“Then you are most lucky he was not awake.” Said Eaon. “Or else he would have killed you both.”
“Why?” Asked Kale ignorantly.
“House Tearv has always been in the direct service of the Oppressive One.” Informed Eaon. “That is why they are a Great House. They supply him with things, men and weapons mostly. If Prince Erov knew that he was sitting next to a Knight of Abelon, you would not be sitting here right now, Ekin. You have been granted with luck.”
“It often seems I am.”
“Though some time your luck will run out, Ekin.” Said Eaon. “The world is dangerous know, especially for you. It is not safe anymore.”
“I am aware,” Said Ekin. “But I must go on with my duty. I must find the remaining members of our lost Order.”
“Though you do not know of where they are.” Said Eaon.
“Indeed.” Said Ekin. “I do not.”
“Though there is one you must know who might know of their location.” Inquired Eaon. “You know of whom I speak.”
“These long years have sundered my mind, but yes, I know.” Said Ekin. “I remember vaguely only that he is in Vorr.”
“Yes,” Said Eaon. “He is. Maybe the name Odezz will help you remember this man.”
Ekin fingered his scruff delicately, “Odezz, ah yes, I remember now.”
“Then you remember well that he was once a servant of the Oppressive One in Harfir.”
“Yes,” Said Ekin. “And how he betrayed Him.”
“Indeed.” Said Eaon. “He rose up against Him and escaped with the knowledge of the your Order’s whereabouts that he had acquired working for the Oppressive One.”
“Though he was captured.” Said Ekin. “He never made it.”
“Correct,” Said Eaon. “He was captured and taken back to Harfir, but the Oppressive One wished not to look at the betrayers face and cast him away to forever live out his days in the Mist Cells of Vorr.”
“And that is where Kale and I must go, to Vorr and free Odezz so that we can discover the remaining Knight’s locations.”
“Such task is not easy.” Said Eaon. “The Ilmari capital of Vorr is heavily guarded and watched. For you to pass through, Ekin, being who you are would be impossible.”
“What do you propose then?” Asked Ekin. “We just give up?”
“No,” Said Eaon, “There is another way, a safer way. It is risky though, but I think it will work.”
“What is this plan?”
“Join the Black Hand of Vorr and attempt a heist of Odezz.” Said Eaon. “Szen knows the ways of the city better than anyone. He also dreads the Oppressive One.”
“Is he an Ilmari?” Asked Kale.
“No, he is an Alduri, like you.” Said Eaon. “His entire team is mostly Alduri.”
“And we can trust him?” Asked Ekin incredulously. “He is a thief.”
“Tell him that I sent you.” Said Eaon. “He will take you up and listen to you. Anything to do with challenging the Oppressive One, he will listen to.” Eaon leaned in closer, “He is also an Arkentite.”
Kale’s eyes lit up. He could teach me.
“A master Arkentite at that.” Said Eaon. “One of the best in all of Runir some say.”
“And what do you say?” Asked Kale.
“I say he is very good and can teach you the ways of Arkency.” Said Eaon, turning on Ekin. “Kale needs a master. He needs to know how to use this magic of his. He is gifted with it and should know how to use it correctly. Szen can teach him the ways of the Arks and how it all works. I will be good for him.”
Ekin gazed into one of the orbs of light on the wall silently for a long while, pensive. “Very well. We shall make for Vorr when we are rested and join the Black Hand.” He eyed Kale. “I hope you are ready."
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