The Storm King (Ch. 1 - 15)

edited February 16 in Original Stories
Synopsis:
Leon and his father, Artorias, are the last remaining scions of a once powerful and illustrious family of lightning mages.  After barely surviving an attack that destroyed their home fifteen years ago, they now live in the dangerous Northern Vales, a desolate wilderness far away from civilization.  But those who want them dead are strong, patient, and relentless, and it is only a matter of time before they find the two they seek...

---

I intend to post a new chapter every Monday and Friday.  If you enjoy this story and want to see what comes next, consider visiting my website, wardenreading.com, which will be 4 chapters ahead of everywhere else I happen to post.  It is also now available on RoyalRoadl.com.

If you happen to see a mistake or something I missed, do let me know.  This is the first long term story I've ever tried writing, so there are bound to be mistakes.  And don't be shy about telling me your opinion, either!  I'm very open to feedback.  And with that, I'll leave you to it, and I hope you enjoy The Storm King.





Chapter 1:  The Forest of Black and White


In the plane of Aeterna lies a multitude of Kingdoms and Empires.  In the center of the plane is an immense continent, more than twenty thousand miles in all directions.  It is surrounded by an even larger ocean, extending more than twenty thousand miles further. 

In the center of the continent lies the most powerful and prosperous empires, where mages have a command of magic that borders on the divine.  As one gets closer to the edge of the continent, however, the nations are less prosperous, less populated, and less advanced.  In the far north lies an isolated kingdom, known as the Bull Kingdom.

This kingdom is flanked on its northern and eastern border by nigh-impassable mountain ranges, in the south by a wide gulf, and in the west by the Endless Ocean.  But even further north, deep in the Frozen Mountain Range, lies a number of comparably temperate vales inhabited by tribes of people who scoff at the southern lords and their knights.  They are a hardy people, fearless and territorial, and theirs is a violent and typically short life.

But as ready as The Bull King’s soldiers are for battle, as eager as those northern warriors are to spill the blood of their enemies, there are places in those Northern Vales that even they refuse to enter.

One of those places is the Forest of Black and White, which takes up the entirety of one of the smaller vales.  No tribe lives there, and few even dare to live near the mountain passes that lead to it.  It is a place of horror, of terrifying bedtime stories told to the children of the tribes.  If they are not brave against their enemies and true to their friends, the wraiths and evil gods of the forest would come to take them in the night.

The vale is one hundred miles east-west and seventy miles north-south, and the Forest of Black and White has covered almost the entire place.  The forest got its name from the trees of dark bark and brilliant green leaves, and the trees of pale white bark and deep, twilight blue leaves that are most commonly seen within it.

Many strange and otherworldly beings call the forest home, from the vicious beasts of flesh and blood, to the spirits of ice, earth, and wind.  But perhaps the strangest beings that live in this forest are two men, a father-son pair, who built their home deep within the forest, in a large clearing of purple grass.

The father was tall, well-built, and looked roughly in his mid-twenties, though he was at least a decade older than that.  He had black hair, warm brown eyes, sharp features, and a straight nose.  The son was a youth of sixteen, slightly shorter than his father, and with a skinnier build.  His features took after his father for the most part, except for his bright golden eyes.

The son, Leon, was dressed in a loose-fitting shirt made of dark green woven grass, a specialty of the nearest tribe, with brown leather pants and boots.  He had a hunting bow slung across his shoulder, a quiver full of arrows on his back, and knife at his leather belt.  His father, Artorias, was largely dressed the same, except for a light brown fur coat and a longsword at his hip.

Artorias watched Leon as he tracked the beast they were hunting, an enormous stag large enough to feed them for several weeks.  If Leon wasn't careful, this beast would have no trouble goring him with its horns, or crushing his chest with a single kick.  Luckily, his father was there, keeping an eye on him.  Without Artorias, Leon would’ve long been killed by the beasts of the forest.

Artorias was a powerful mage, able to project magic outside of his body and use it to detect everything within half a mile of him.  By virtue of his strength alone, Artorias had no trouble finding the stag, but this was a learning opportunity for his son.  He wanted his son to learn how to hunt, how to survive in the wild, but most of all, Leon needed to learn how to kill.

Theirs is a chaotic world, and to survive among the mages and warriors one needs a strong killing intent.  In fact, this was one of the reasons Artorias had the two of them live out in the wild, to hone Leon’s killing intent, so that he would never falter in the face of his enemies.

This was not the first time Artorias had Leon take the lead on a hunt, and each time Leon would have less trouble finding his prey, and less hesitation killing it.  But for all his skill and natural talent, Leon had never brought down anything larger than a wind wolf, let alone the other more terrifying and bizarre monsters that live in the forest.

“We’re getting closer.  I’d say it came through here maybe ten minutes ago, can’t be more than a quarter mile away.”, whispered Leon.  He wasn’t saying this for Artorias’ benefit, he knew his father could probably see the stag with his magic senses.  No, this was so his father knew what Leon thought, and to justify his actions.

Leon didn’t wait for Artorias to respond.  He just continued onwards, following the tracks.  Artorias allowed a small smile to appear on his face, his son was correct, the stag wasn’t very far.

As they got closer, Leon slowed down somewhat.  He began to regulate his breathing, allowing his heart to calm down.  He unslung his bow and drew an arrow from his quiver.  This was the largest creature he had ever hunted, and if he missed and it attacked him, there would be little he would be able to do to stop it.

As he breathed, magic within the air was drawn into his lungs.  From there it entered his bloodstream, and upon entering his heart it fused with his blood to form mana.  This mana would then enter his muscles, and saturate them with magical power, making him stronger and faster than normal.

When he finished preparing himself, Leon took the last few steps to crest a hill, and saw the stag.  It was only about 100 meters away, easily in range of his bow.  He took aim, nocked the arrow he’d drawn, channeled his magic through his palms and into the enchantment of his bow, then drew the bowstring.  He held it near his check for a single heartbeat, and released.

The arrow crossed those hundred meters in the blink of an eye, but the stag still noticed and had time to look over in confusion before the arrow sank deep into its body, penetrating its heart, and killing it instantly.

Leon drew another arrow, preparing to let loose another shot, and watched the stag.  After several moments, he began moving towards his kill.

“Good kill, boy.  No hesitation.” Artorias said with pride.

“Thanks.” Said Leon, with a big smile on his face.

“Now come on, we have to get this thing home soon as we can.  Wraiths tend to be drawn towards death, and we don’t want to be caught out here when night rolls around.” Artorias allowed Leon only a small moment to savor his accomplishment before getting back to what needed to be done.

The two found a large tree branch, fallen from a huge white tree.  Leon cleared off the leaves and smaller twigs while Artorias tied the stag’s hooves around it.  They lifted it up, and after a few seconds of adjustment, began the trek back home.

Leon had a little trouble, as the stag was quite large and he was only a first-tier mage, but Artorias was far more powerful and able to pick up the slack with ease.

The two made good time, not stopping even for a moment to rest or to admire the brilliantly colored flowers and leaves seen in this forest.

After about several hours of walking, the trees and foliage began to thin out.  They approached the clearing where they had built a fort, their home for more than a decade.  However, the sun had nearly disappeared in the west, and creatures were beginning to stir in the darkening woods.

The hair on the back of Leon’s neck began to rise, and he felt the eyes of awakened beasts and other nocturnal beings.

“Damn, we need to hurry.”  Leon said, nervously looking around into the darkened forest.

Artorias, too, was looking into the forest, but he saw much more than just the trees and the dark.  He saw the things stalking them among the trees, the black shadows and the cold blue eyes.

“No, stop.  Put down the stag.”  Artorias and Leon slowly put down the stag, as per the older man’s instructions.  “Good, now stay low, and stay put.  Concentrate your mana in your legs, and should anything happen, just make your way back home.  Don’t stop for me, or for the beast.”  Artorias looked at his son, who nodded in response.

Leon watched his father move off into the darkness, drawing his sword.  It was a rather unremarkable weapon, a leather handle, round iron pommel, and a straight guard.  Though the blade looked to be made of good steel, it seemed to be of a quality that any city blacksmith in the southern kingdom could make with little effort.

But no ordinary blacksmith could make this plain-looking sword.

Despite how ordinary the materials were that made up this weapon, in Artorias’ hand it appeared to be something out of legend, sparking with lightning and rumbling with the sound of thunder.

It was with this sword in hand that Artorias went out into the dark forest.

Leon couldn’t tell what all was happening in the dark, but he heard the terrible screeching of banshees and the cracking sound of an ice wraith freezing the ground it was walking on.  Every scream from the banshees sent his blood into turmoil, and his mana began to boil.  But Leon stayed still, with the utmost confidence in his father.

His confidence was rewarded when he saw Artorias’ sword, with flashes of lightning piercing through the dark of the trees.  He felt the wind from every swing, and the cold seeping off the wraith.

Soon, the noises ceased, and Artorias returned.  No words were spoken between the two.  This was a normal thing, a hazard Artorias accepted when he decided to come here.  This was something that Leon had always known, and he didn’t find this sort of thing too remarkable.

They silently picked the stag back up, and continued onwards.

Leon still felt the attention of beings in the woods, but after Artorias’ show of force, they backed off, though never quite leaving completely.

It wasn’t until Leon and Artorias reached the clearing of purple grass that they were finally left alone.

In the center of the clearing were four thick wooden walls, fifteen feet high and warded to keep the creatures of the night from approaching.  This could be considered the only safe place in the entire vale once the sun went down.  The entrance into this fort was a small depression leading to a tunnel about 30 feet away from the walls.  Leon descended the familiar dirt ramp, placed his hand on a runic circle etched onto the front of the deceptively flimsy looking door, and after a brief flash of light, the door opened.

Upon entering, Leon looked down the underground stone passageway, and began to relax from the long hunting trip.  He started to walk down the ramp, and paused only for Artorias to close the door behind them.  As the door closed, there was a moment where hundreds of runes carved into circular glyphs on the door lit up, only to just as quickly darken again, confirming that the door had been locked and the wards had been raised.

The stones that made up this passageway were simply, yet expertly carved.  Each stone brick was cut exactly like the others, and even a mage as weak as Leon could feel the magic flowing through them.

There was another, larger door in the tunnel, and more heavily warded as well.  It, too, lit up with magical energy as Leon pushed it open, and when Artorias closed it.

When Leon climbed the ramp on the other side leading up and into the fort, he sighed.

“It’s good to be home.”

Comments

  • Chapter 2:  Magic


    The most noticeable thing about Leon and Artorias’ home was the large stone obelisk in the very center of a large stone square.  It was almost twenty feet tall, and every side was covered in carved runes and magical formations.  This obelisk was the keystone for almost everything magical within the compound.

    Magic was omnipresent in the world, but there are places where it is naturally denser.  This obelisk could control the flow of magic within almost two miles, channeling it through itself and into the formations carved onto it.  This allowed for a myriad of functions, but its primary purposes were to create a magical field that repelled most weaker creatures that inhabited the forest, and to increase the density of magic in the air.

    Was the former function strictly necessary?  No, as the wards in the walls of the compound did the same thing.  However, Artorias refused to take any chances when it came to personal safety, and indulged every crazy fantasy that popped into his head.  He had felt the sting of loss before, and was not going to take any chances.

    There were five buildings around the obelisk, forming three sides to the pavilion, with one more side for the tunnel exit.  On opposite sides were the two largest buildings, Leon and Artorias’ homes, and were the only ones with windows.  The far side had the three smaller buildings, consisting of the ice shack, the main storage room, and the pelt storage room.  All five buildings were made of the dark wood from the forest, and contained similar wards to the walls of the compound.

    By the time Leon and Artorias returned, night had long since fallen, and all they could think about were their beds.

    “Just stick the thing in the ice shack, we’ll deal with it tomorrow.”  Said Artorias, eyeing his house.

    Leon led them to the door of the shack and kicked it open.  He was immediately assaulted with a gust of cold air.  The floor of the shack was made of a single slab of stone which had an ice glyph etched into its surface, keeping the wooden building chilled to below freezing.  While there were a few carcasses already hanging up in the room, Leon and Artorias just lazily tossed the stag down on the ground and left, closing the door on their way out.

    “You did good today, boy.  I’ll let you sleep in tomorrow, but don’t think tomorrow’s training is cancelled!”

    “Sure thing, dad.”

    Leon smiled.  He wasn’t sure if his father was letting him rest longer as a reward for killing the stag, or as an excuse to sleep in himself.  ‘I suppose it doesn’t matter, either way I’m getting a ton of sleep tonight.’, he thought.

    He walked towards one of the houses by the pavilion, while Artorias made for the other.  As Leon pushed open the door, there was a brief flash of blue light quite similar to the one on the door leading into the compound, indicating that even Leon’s house had been heavily warded. 

    Leon’s house wasn’t particularly big, only three small rooms.

    One was the living area, with a table, two chairs, and a bench covered in furs near a fireplace.     

    His bedroom was just as simple, with a fur-covered bed, four large chests, and a small furnace.

    The final room was no larger than a closet, and the only thing in there was a crude toilet leading to a thin underground trough the flowed out of the compound, and a water rune to flush everything out.  Not a perfect solution to the waste problem, but neither Artorias nor Leon were engineers skilled enough to make a standard sanitation system.

    As Leon entered his house, he casually brushed his hand against a gently glowing magic circle next to the door, and the fire rune carved onto the bottom of the fireplace lit up, instantly forming a crackling fire.

    He placed his bow on a pair of hooks on the wall, and set his quiver in the nearby corner, next to a woodcutting axe.  He then took off his grass shirt and collapsed onto the bench in front of the fireplace.

    There was nothing he wanted more than to go climb into bed and pass out, it had been a physically draining day.  The hunt itself wasn’t anything special, but that stag they brought back was large and heavy.  There was also the attack Artorias had fended off, and even though he didn’t let Leon help fight the attackers, it had still left Leon tense and on edge.

    All told, Leon had expended quite a bit of mana keeping his body moving, and he needed to recover a little before going to sleep.  As he was only a first-tier mage, and couldn’t generate mana on his own, he needed to meditate and perform some breathing exercises to take in the magic in the air.

    Before he began in earnest, though, Leon got back to his feet and opened both wooden panels covering the windows in the living room.  He then sat back down, enjoying both the heat from the fire and the cool night air the wind brought in through the windows. 

    He breathed in, held it for a moment, then breathed out.  He breathed in, held it, then exhaled.  He breathed calmly and consistently, holding in his breath for several seconds each time.

    As he breathed, Leon’s heartrate slowed.  His heart began to beat so slowly that it almost seemed like Leon had died, as the color in his tanned arms and face began to drain away, matching his pale chest.  His extremities grew cold, but Leon didn’t shiver once.

    As Leon’s bodily functions slowed to a crawl, his breaths began to sync up with the wind, inhaling as it blew, and exhaling as it died down. 

    The magic from the air filled his lungs, and bit by bit, made its way into his bloodstream.  This magic energy flowed alongside his blood, but it didn’t truly fuse to become mana until entering his heart.  Not much magic made it into Leon’s blood, but every heartbeat fused it into his blood, slowly increasing his mana reserves.

    Humans are not naturally able to use magic, and must adapt their bodies to make use of it.  As a first-tier mage, Leon has completed the initial steps of this process, and adapted his lungs to absorb magic energy alongside the air he breathed.

    This magic then entered his body, fusing with his blood to form mana, and then rushes throughout his body.  The next step in the adaptation process comes when Leon’s muscles have been saturated with mana long enough to start storing magic power.  During the adaptation, physical training is of paramount importance, as the more blood that can flow through the muscles, the faster they grow and adapt to magic.

    The biggest change at this point, the one that brings a mage up the second-tier, is when their heart fully adapts to magic power, allowing a comparatively immense amount of magic to be stored within the mages body.  The heart becomes the core of everything a mage is, no longer simply pumping blood, but storing more than ninety percent of their magic supply.

    At Leon’s current level of power, once his heart adapts, his supply of magic will almost triple overnight, and continue to rapidly grow for several weeks afterward.  Given that he is able to channel magic through the muscles in his palms and into the runic enchantment on his bow means that he is getting close to crossing this boundary.

    After that will come his bones.  As the bones adapt to magic, they strengthen and harden.  A late-second-tier mage would think nothing of jumping off a four-story building, as they would be completely uninjured from the fall.

    That mage wouldn’t step into the third-tier until their magic sinks deep into their bones, though, and their bone marrow adapts.  Once this happens, the mage will be able to generate magic within their bones, creating it alongside their blood.  A third-tier mage would no longer need lengthy meditation sessions to recover from magic depletion, and even stronger mages can recover magic power at a noticeable rate.

    It is only once a mage has crossed the boundary into the third-tier that they are no longer considered a novice, but most tribesmen who practice magic are unable to surmount it.  Those who do are usually the tribal chieftains, or their thanes.

    This was very different in the south, though, as Artorias had told Leon that knights of the Bull Kingdom were all of the third-tier or higher.  Most knights reached the third tier before the age of twenty, that being when they were awarded their knighthoods.  If they were still a second-tier mage by then, they might still earn their knighthood, but their career in the king’s service would be limited. 

    Leon wanted to meet that standard, and when he became a first-tier mage at the age of eleven, after only two years of training, he was elated.  It had been five years since, five years of very slow growth.  Leon had been growing nervous at the seeming lack of progress, but when he asked his father about it, Artorias had simply smiled and told him not to worry about it, to let things happen in their own time and to not try and force anything.  Leon had tried to put it out of his mind, but the fear and frustration was still there, always in the back of his mind.

    Leon meditated within his house for over an hour before finally going to bed.  He had recovered a good portion of his power, but he would still need to meditate tomorrow before being back at his peak.

    By the time he woke the next morning, the sun was already high in the sky, and he could hear Artorias training outside.  Despite this, Leon still laid back in bed, enjoying a few moments of peace and rest before he began his own training.

    He left his house about thirty minutes later, dressed in light leather shorts, a sleeveless shirt of woven grass, and leather sandals.  Artorias was dressed almost identically, which wasn’t too surprising given their simple lifestyle.  And, of course, because those woven grass shirts were light, comfy, and deceptively sturdy, making perfect training wear.

    Artorias was sitting cross-legged in front of the stone obelisk, with his eyes closed and back straight.  There were no visible changes to the obelisk, but Leon could vaguely feel the magic in his surroundings being channeled through the obelisk and towards Artorias, but never actually being absorbed by him.  It didn’t even feel like Artorias was actively pulling the magic energy towards him, more like the magic moving towards Artorias was something natural, like water flowing downwards.

    As Leon got closer, he could feel the magic surrounding his father, rapidly revolving around him like a magical cyclone.  Artorias didn’t often train where Leon could see him, so the boy decided to observe his father for a while, to see if he could learn anything it.

    He couldn’t tell how Artorias was controlling the magic, or if he was even controlling it all.  All he could sense was the effect, and even then, it wasn’t much.  The magic flowed around his father, forming a small tornado with Artorias at the center.  Leon could see tiny water droplets being pulled from the ground and entering the cyclone, but the dirt and gravel of the pavilion remained largely motionless.

    As Leon watched, whatever Artorias was doing intensified, as the cyclone grew in power, and started affecting the air around Artorias and formed an actual cyclone.  It was too weak to even pick up pebbles more than a few inches off the ground, but it kicked up a ton of dust and dirt and nearly knocked a very surprised Leon backwards.

    Several seconds later, the wind died down and Leon wiped the dust and water droplets off his face.  Artorias was standing, looking at him with a big smile on his face.

    “All right, consider me duly impressed.  That’s what you were going for, wasn’t it?”, Leon said as he regained his balance.

    “Oh?  You think I need to impress my own son?  Whatever would give you that impression?”

    “Because you always disappear when you want to train, and it’s almost invariably when it’s raining.  You most certainly don’t come out here for demonstrations, especially when it’s this sunny out…side…”  Leon had just looked up for a moment when his words got caught in his throat.

    The weather was beautiful, without a cloud in the sky.  The only exception was a single, dark grey storm cloud directly above Artorias.  The cloud wasn’t very big, small enough that Leon hadn’t noticed until now, and was gently spinning like the cyclone that had surround Artorias just now.

    “Finally noticed, have you?  I almost though I would have to point it out.”

    “…”  Leon had never seen something like this before.  When the weather would take a turn for the worse, Leon would always head inside, but Artorias would always leave the compound and go… somewhere.

    “When you took down that stag, it showed me that you’re ready for a more intensive training schedule.  You’re almost a second-tier mage, and there are things you need to know.”

  • Chapter 3:  Inherited Blood


    “What sort of things?” asked Leon.

    “Where you come from, and the power within you.”, answered Artorias.

    Artorias had never said anything like this to Leon before, and the young man was understandably confused.

    “All right, I’m all ears.”

    “First, tell me something.  What does it mean to be a mage?”

    “It means that a person can use and control magic.” Leon answered with no hesitation.

    “A good answer, but not quite the one I’m looking for.”  Artorias continued to smile at his son.  This answer was close, but still not what he was getting at.

     “It means they have achieved strength through their hard work.”

    “You’re not wrong, but again, not right either.”

    “It means they are smart and wise, and have achieved an understanding of the world around them.”

    “You were closest with your first answer.  A person who can use and control magic is most definitely a mage, but that is more of a symptom, a byproduct of what using magic means.  As for the other two, a strong, smart, and wise person isn’t necessarily a mage, are they?”

    Leon frowned in thought.  He didn’t quite get what his father was talking about.

    “Perhaps I haven’t asked the question right.  How does a mage come to be?  A mage has magic, but before that they are just a weak mortal.  How do they go from mortal to mage?”

    “They change their body.  They allow magic to permeate everything within them until their body adapts to it.  Then that person can use magic, and thus, is a mage.”

    “Exactly, their body must adapt.  A mortal is someone who hasn’t started this process, a first-tier mage has adapted their lungs, a second-tier mage has adapted their muscles, and so on.  This is a process that allows one to walk the path of magic.  We are born mortal, weak and powerless, and must adapt to our surroundings to fight and survive against the monsters that seek our downfall.”

    Artorias began to get a bit worked up, gesturing with his hands for more a dramatic effect.

    “Listen to me, little lion, we are at the edge of the world, living away from the safety of civilization so that we grow strong through adversity.  Up here, we can focus on our own training, and we can hone our killing intent.  This is the way my father taught me, and the way his father taught him, and so on.  Though, admittedly, they didn’t go this far out into the wilds, heh heh heh…”

    Artorias seemed to look off into the distance, and his smile changed a little into one that was prouder, and perhaps a little more smug.

    “What is the point you’re trying to make, father?  I think you might be getting a bit off track.”

    “Ah! Right!  Well, we are born weak, and must gain strength and power through our own efforts.  Every scrap of magic we possess is something we had to work to achieve.”

    “Yes, this the way of things.  An iron-clad law.”

    After hearing his son’s words, Artorias’ smile faltered for a second, and he grew more serious.  He lowered his hands, and took a few small steps closer to Leon.

    “Is it?” he asked quietly.  “There are exceptions.  You’ve even seen them, they’re all around us.”

    Leon was shocked to hear this, and looked at Artorias with more seriousness.

    “Humans are weak when they are born, but what about an ice wraith?  Have you ever seen a powerless banshee?  How about the wind wolves that can kill a man from over a hundred meters away?  Or the black-iron bears, with hide stronger than steel?  These are creatures born with great strength and power, though they are unable to raise it much in their lives.  Only a select few individuals can become truly great, but all are born strong.”

    Leon calmed a bit after hearing this, thinking that such ‘exceptions’ don’t really count, but he let his father continue without interruption, wanting to see where he was taking this.

    “A monster that has the potential for a large amount of growth is rare, and is dangerous beyond measure.  They can gain true intelligence, and at higher stages can even take on human forms!  Some even take humans as wives and husbands, having children with them.”

    Leon’s eyes grew wide at hearing this.

    “What kind of beings would these children be?  Are they the exceptions?  Are they strong from birth?”  Leon had many more questions than that, but Artorias cut him off.

    “Hang on a bit, little lion, let me finish, I’m getting to it.”

    Artorias was glad at his son’s interest, as these were things that pertained to him was well.

    “It would make sense that these children would have both traits of their parents.  Strength from their inhuman parent, and growth potential from their human parent.  Unfortunately, this was not the case.  Most of these children were born with both weaknesses rather than both strengths.  An innate weakness and limited growth potential.”

    Leon frowned again, disappointed.

    “Well, it was that way for a while.  The beasts and monsters that could grow that far were powerful indeed, and managed to find a way around this, a way for their children to grow at least as fast as their human counterparts and with some of their monstrous power as well.”

    Artorias had gotten his fire back again, speaking in dramatic tones as if he were telling a story to hype people up rather than speaking to his son alone.

    Leon was looking more interested now, and getting a bit tired of Artorias’ dramatic pauses.

    “Come on, dad, cool it a little.  There’s only me around to witness your performance.  So what sort of process was this, that allowed these children to grow in power?”

    Artorias’ smile quickly disappeared, before being replaced with an aggrieved expression.

    “How did I raise such an unfun and humorless son?  How about you get into the story a little, huh boy?”

    Leon’s face began to turn into a smile not unlike Artorias, and he said, “How about you tell the story a little, rather than chastise me for my seriousness.”

    Artorias’ look of aggrievement vanished quickly seeing his son’s own smile.  These two had been living together for 16 years, and no one knew them like they knew each other.  These little play fights where they poke fun at the other were one of their favorite pastimes.  At this point, they knew exactly how far they could push things, and how far not to go.  Some things are always off-limits, after all, no matter who you’re talking with.

    “Damned killjoy.  All right, where was I before you so rudely interrupted?”

    “Interspecies parents learning how to make less-shit hybrids.”

    “Right!  Well the process they learned to do this was more than a little gruesome, in that they needed to find a suitable enemy to sacrifice in order to ‘awaken’ the dormant power within these hybrids.  These children were made to drink the blood of their enemies!  Normally, doing such a thing would be repugnant, but little more than that.  For most of these children, however, this proved to be fatal.  But a few survived, and this ritual allowed their inner power to awaken and they grew exceptionally strong as a result.”

    “This ritual was to drink blood?”  Leon had a more than a little disgusted expression on his face.  He had seen quite a bit of blood, and had spilled more than a bit, as he and Artorias’ main source of food was hunting, and so thought nothing of it.  But he couldn’t stand the taste.  Artorias had some trouble teaching Leon how to cook properly without overdoing it, as Leon would typically often overcook his meat to get the taste of the blood out as much as he could.

    “Well, technically, they had to drink mana, but blood sounds better, no?”

    Leon looked a little less queasy after Artorias clarified.  Mana had a far different taste then blood, even though it was basically the same stuff, just more magical.

    “Well, eventually this ritual was refined to be significantly less dangerous, with the right materials and preparations, and when these bloodlines awakened, these kids could rid themselves of their limitations.  They would gain their monstrous parent’s power, and their human parent’s adaptability.  An impressive combination.

    “These kids would eventually go on to have children of their own, starting dynasties and passing down their own power as well as the knowledge to unlock it.  This passed-down power is usually referred to as an inherited bloodline.  The Bull Kingdom in the south is ruled by a dynasty with an inherited bloodline.  Their ancestor was a sacred bull, and through its power they have built a kingdom that has lasted over five thousand years.”

    “And we’re from the Bull Kingdom, aren’t we, father?  I remember you telling me that you were in the service of the king once, did he tell you all about this?”  Leon was asking the question, but the look on his face was anything but casually quizzical.  In fact, he was looking at Artorias with great expectation, expecting something else.

    “Why even ask me that, it’s not what you want to know.  Just ask me what’s on your mind, and don’t play at being humble with me.”  Artorias knew exactly what Leon was doing.  The boy wanted to appear like he wasn’t he wasn’t too interested, but he had likely begun to piece things together from his own troubles with magic and what Artorias had just told him.

    “Do we have an inherited bloodline?  You’ve taught me so many things, from how to handle a sword to how to ride a horse.  You’ve taught me how to hunt, how to carve runes, and how to build shelter when in the wild.  You’ve even taught me military strategy, despite it only being the two of us here.  Past few years I’ve been feeling like you’ve been preparing me not to survive up here in the Northern Vales, but how to live in the Southern Kingdom, with their knights and wars and nobles. 

    “But for all your work in training and educating me, you have never once taught me anything but the very basics of magic.  I’ve asked you about this so many times, but you’ve always been so frustratingly vague and deliberately mysterious about it, saying ‘don’t worry about it’.  So, is this why?  Have we inherited some kind of power from our ancestors?  Is this why my own progress in the adaptation process has been so slow?”

    Artorias’ smile widened.  His son had picked up on so much, but hadn’t let on any of his suspicions until now.  And he was right on the mark with a lot of his points.

    “Yes, little lion.  We have an inherited bloodline.”

    With Artorias’ words, Leon felt a great feeling of joy welling up from within him, and almost jumped in excitement.  But he restrained himself.  He wanted his father to finish, first.

    “We don’t just have an inherited bloodline, either.  Our family was one of the highest among the nobility down south, and were even once kings, when the Bull Kingdom was nothing but petty kings and independent dukes fighting for what little territory they could acquire.”

    “We were kings?  But then how were we also nobles of the Bull Kingdom?”  Leon was a little confused now.  They were descendants of royalty, and even had an inherited bloodline, so how was it that they had been subordinated to the Bull Kings?

    “Our power is not without a certain degree of cost.  All those with inherited bloodlines have significantly lower birthrates, and there is always some danger when awakening their dormant power, but our family has it worse, and can lead to problems if we don’t have a genius in our younger generation.  Far as I know, our family was strong, but not enough to repel the first Bull King and all his armies.

    Not to mention, one of the last times we went south, I overheard that the Bull King had his sixth child, at the age of one hundred and twenty.  Barely middle-aged at his power, but still.  He has a royal harem with dozens of concubines, and has had been sitting the throne for over eight decades, yet only has six children!

    My own father, your grandfather, died at age two hundred and forty-five, yet he only had two children, me and my older brother, your uncle.”  When Artorias mentioned his father and brother, his smile faded a bit, to be replaced with an odd look.  His eyes seemed to glaze over, as if he were seeing something far away.

    Leon knew not to continue this line of conversation.  His father had gotten that look before, and when he had asked him about it, Artorias had gotten weirdly serious and even almost angry.

    “What about the dangers of awakening our bloodline?  You said that we have more trouble than others.”  Leon decided to try and move past the talk of his father’s family, and simply continue the conversation.  There are always some things that are best left unsaid, even to the closest of family.

    The question seemed to pull Artorias back from wherever he went, and the smile returned to his face, though maybe a little too wide and forced this time.  Leon knew it would take his father a few minutes to return to normal, so the odd-looking smile went by unremarked. 

    “Ah, yes.  Ours is damned difficult, but in ways that are hard to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it.  During all awakenings, we see an apparition of our ancestor.  I spoke with several relatives of the Bull King, and they all said that they were able to speak with their ancestor, but I barely even caught a glimpse of ours before I woke up within the ritual circle.”

    “Our ancestor doesn’t speak to us?  Why the hell not?”

    “I’m not too sure.  Maybe it can’t, maybe it doesn’t want to, maybe it simply doesn’t care.  Whatever the reason, our ancestor is quite aloof compared to the Sacred Bull.”

    Leon frowned, clearly somewhat insulted.  “Well then, can you tell me what our ancestor is?”

    Artorias glanced at Leon with wide grin.  “No.  Wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise, now would I?”

    This evil man.  He just wants to seem mysterious and cool.  Probably also wants to see me sweat a little.’  Leon decided to drop it, to Artorias’ secret disappointment.

    “All right, so why are you telling all this to me now?  We’ve had years training, and you’ve never mentioned this even once, so what changed?”

    “I saw you channel power into your bow’s enchantment.  You’re getting close to the second-tier, and so I’ve decided you’re ready to know these things.  I’ve also finished acquiring just about everything I need for your ritual.”

    “Wait, what?  What did you need to get and where did you get it?”  What was Artorias talking about?  He’d barely left Leon unguarded in this forest for the past decade, so what then was needed for this ritual?

    “Last night, when I killed that ice wraith, I managed to take its core intact.  In the past few years, I’ve stockpiled magical cores from some of the beasts in the forest, and now I have one that’s suitable for the ritual.  There is little else we need, apart from the mana for you to drink, and some… special herbs.”

    Special herbs, you say?  Not the kind the tribesmen use, right?  I’ve heard that crap can burn the insides, thoroughly set back magical adaptation, and turn the user into an idiot.”

    “No, not those kinds of herbs.  These are more medicinal, and uh… poisonous, than recreational.  Besides, with our bloodline, even when dormant, it is nigh-impossible to get intoxicated.  Most of what the tribes use would just pass harmlessly out of our system.  There are a few things that can knock us out, though, and it is some of those herbs we need.”

    Leon sighed in relief.  He’d seen some of the tribesmen who had gotten addicted to some of the wilder herbs of the north, and he wanted nothing to do with those.  Some of the tribesmen had also tried on a few occasions to offer him some safer and gentler herbs, but he always declined.  Leon wasn’t a particularly friendly person with strangers, either, so he he’d typically decline quite… emphatically.

    “And now that you’ve mentioned it, I can’t believe I haven’t noticed you stockpiling magic cores, you’ve never sold any when we go to the tribes to sell furs.”

    “Don’t worry, son, we can’t notice everything.  Besides, it’s not like you were ever paying much attention when we went to the tribal markets, always looking everywhere but where our deal was being made.  Now then, you know what your goal is, right?”

    “Get ready for the ritual!”

    “Good!  I did say that we need both the materials for the ritual as well as adequate preparation.  With that in mind, we’ll start with a little training.”

  • Chapter 4:  Preparations


    Leon walked over to the storage shack and grabbed a wooden practice sword.  Artorias also picked up a practice sword, and both walked back to the pavilion.

    “Alright, little lion, show me that you are ready to awaken your power.  Come at me, let me taste your strength.”

    Leon slowly circled Artorias, his weapon held at the ready.  Artorias, on the other hand, barely even bothered holding a decent sword posture, simply letting his arm hang at his side with the sword all but stuck in the ground.

    The practice weapons that Artorias had made were all lightly enchanted.  Nothing too fancy, just a small light enchantment that made them glow when filled with magic.  This allowed Artorias to see how well Leon was imbuing his weapon with magic power, and allowed Leon to get accustomed to using his magic in this way.

    Leon continued to slowly circle Artorias, but the older man didn’t even turn to face the younger.  Eventually, Leon had made his way to behind Artorias, but at his father’s level of strength, this hardly mattered.  Artorias hadn’t even moved his head, but Leon had never left his sight.

    Leon swung his sword down towards Artorias’ shoulder, but right before the wooden blade hit the man, Artorias took a half step to the side and spun to face Leon, and the sword tasted nothing but air.  Leon wasn’t discouraged, though, and followed up with an upward slash, this time aimed towards Artorias’ arm.  Again, Artorias easily dodged at the last second.

    Leon drew back, and stabbed towards his father’s stomach, but Artorias simply raised his own sword just enough to deflect Leon’s sword away from him.

    Their training sessions always began like this, with Leon not even being able to touch Artorias no matter how fast he moved, and Leon moved fast indeed.  Every time he attacked, Artorias would dodge, block, or deflect like it was the easiest thing in the world.  Leon barely even got angry over it anymore, one thousand and one losses is hardly different than one thousand, after all.

    Eventually, Artorias would slow down, and allow Leon to start getting close and would start fighting back.  An enemy would never let Leon simply attack without making a move, and Artorias’ training would never be so passive.

    After about half an hour, Leon and Artorias changed out the wooden swords for swords of blunted metal.  These blades of low-grade iron had similar enchantments to the previous, lighting up when magic is channeled into them.  Leon’s blade glowed a dull white, but Artorias didn’t even bother with it.

    At first, Leon pressed his attack, slashing and hacking at Artorias, aiming at joints and vital points.  Artorias blocked again and again, and started throwing his own counter attacks into the exchange.  Leon would dodge just like his father, but much slower and with less precision.

    Artorias slashed down at Leon’s chest, but Leon swiftly parried and followed up with a counter attack.  Artorias blocked, and slammed his body into Leon’s.  The younger man reeled, but stayed upright and quickly regained his footing.  However, Artorias had taken advantage of Leon’s brief vulnerability and attacked again, with Leon barely dodging in time.

    At this point, Artorias had Leon completely on the defense, not able to get a single attack in.  Artorias finally ended it when Leon blocked his attack, only to have his feet swept out from under him, bringing him to the ground.

    “You still over-swing.  Getting all your strength and body weight behind your attack is good, but the windup you have beforehand gives it away.  And you overstep when lunging forwards.  Makes your footing rather unstable and leaves your leg vulnerable.  An experienced fighter will knock you to the ground before you know it.”  Artorias bent down to help Leon back to his feet.  “Remember, don’t take one step when you need two.  But you can’t take three when two will do, either.  Keep your forward steps in battle about the same distance as when walking, and you should be fine.”

    Leon began again, trying to keep Artorias’ words in mind.  He carefully measured his movements, but began to get distracted when Artorias pressed his own attack.  Eventually, he was knocked down again with another sweep of Artorias’ leg.

    “Good.  Or, well, better at least.  Again!”

    Leon rose again and attacked, only for Artorias to knock him down again.  They continued like this for about an hour, before having a brief rest and moving on to other weapons.  Artorias made sure that Leon was at least semi-competent in several weapons, but Leon favored longswords so that got the most attention.  Artorias himself preferred swords so it worked out well, but he also gave basic instruction in shorter one-handed blades, spears, and axes.

    After the morning’s weapons training came strength training.  This mostly involved using carved rocks and boulders as weights.  Only Leon participated in this part, as Artorias was too strong for such conventional means of training.

    While Leon sweated lifting stones, Artorias went back to sitting and meditating before the obelisk.  Leon slowed down to better observe Artorias as the older man formed another magical cyclone, until a powerful gust of wind nearly knocked him over.

    “Don’t slow down, keep going!”  Artorias may have reprimanded Leon, but he was still smiling at the interest his son showed in his magic.

    The training eventually stopped when Leon’s stomach growled like an angry bear, and Artorias’ responded in kind.  The two almost literally dropped what they were doing, and walked over to the ice shack.

    “So, what are you in the mood for, little lion?”  Artorias asked with a smile.

    “That bread we made a few days ago was damned good, and maybe some of those Greenhand potatoes.  We still have some of that wild turkey, right?  Maybe some of that.”  Leon responded with the utmost seriousness.  The two men treated their food as business of the utmost importance, and oftentimes would debate for longer than an hour about what to eat.

    “Yes.  Yes to all of that.”  Fortunately, they both agreed about their meal, and pushed open the door of the ice shack.  What they saw immediately stopped them in their tracks.

    The smile disappeared from Artorias’ face, and he said, “But first, we should probably deal with this.”

    The stag from the day before was still on the floor.  Both had clearly forgotten about it after getting caught up in training.

    They looked at each other, and their stomachs growled again.

    “Should… we just hang it up and deal with it tomorrow?”  Leon suggested.

    Artorias looked conflicted for a moment, but a quick glance at the bread basket was all he needed to agree.  They quickly tied up the stag and hung it from the ceiling next to several other, smaller, animals.

    The two grabbed what they needed for their meal and went outside. 

    In front of Artorias’ house was a small awning over a stone slab.  The slab had several heat runes carved into it, and the two used them like oven burners.

    After a hearty meal, Leon walked over to the small pond behind his house and sat down to meditate.  Artorias had dug a pair of three-foot-deep holes, one behind his house and one behind Leon’s, and lined them with stone bricks.  On the center-most brick on the bottom of the ponds he carved a water rune, which kept the ponds filled with clean water that each of them could use for bathing.

    Leon liked to meditate in front of his, and had even planted a few bushes and small trees around to give himself some privacy.

    Meanwhile, Artorias had pulled out a number of wild plants he’d picked and had begun to boil and grind some of them down into a light-grey paste.  Others were boiled and mixed into a brown tea that he filled a water skin with.  Others still had been dried and preserved, and he simply packed them up into a small satchel.  His paste and water skin joined them in the satchel, and he moved on to weapon maintenance.

    Leon and Artorias would often venture out of the Forest of Black and White, usually to trade their pelts with the local tribe in the nearest Vale, but sometimes Artorias would take Leon down south to the kingdom for training. 

    Most of what they’d buy from the tribe would be clothing or food, but sometimes Artorias would get something like weapon oil for his longsword, paper for making spell runes, or certain alchemical ingredients.

    Artorias had little skill or knowledge in alchemy, but he did know how to make what he needed for bloodline awakening, and that was what he prepared and packed away into the satchel.

    His longsword didn’t need a whetstone to keep it sharp, as it was clearly a magical weapon even though there weren’t any obvious enchantments, but he liked to keep it polished to a near-mirror shine.

    After polishing the blade, he pulled out some of his paper, and inscribed several lightning runes onto the sheets.  These lightning spells then went into the same satchel he’d prepared before, next to a few first aid spells.

    All this took about four hours, and by then Leon had finished meditating and regained his full strength.  Not that that was saying much at his power level.

    “Leon! Come over here.”  Artorias called out to his son when he saw him come out from around his house.

    “What’s up?”  He asked as he walked over.

    “We’ll be leaving tomorrow for a few days.  Make sure you’re packed and fully rested by morning.  We’ll need to find something good to kill so you can awaken your bloodline.”

    Leon smiled in anticipation.  “What do you think we should be on the lookout for?”

    “Obviously, something with magic.  That stag you brought down yesterday, while impressive, won’t do.”

    “How about another wind wolf?  I’ve already killed one of those.”

    “No, that won’t do either.  Wind wolves are far too weak.  You need something stronger than you, or it won’t catalyze the change in your blood we want.  What the ritual does, basically, is poison you with the mana of a magical beast, with the body forced to awaken its blood in order to combat it.  If we go too weak, then your blood won’t be woken.  We’ll have done all this for nothing and I’ll have to reacquire the ingredients I’ve gathered.  We only have enough for one try, so we have to get it right.”

    “How about a black-iron bear?  I think I could bring one down, given the opportunity.”

    “Hmmm, that might work, but I’d prefer a surer thing.  A river nymph or a tree sprite would be better, but they don’t fill me with confidence.”  Artorias’ expression suddenly changed.  He normally had an easy-going smile, but now he looked rather conflicted, and maybe a little worried.  A possibility had occurred to him.  “There is something that would all but guarantee success.” he said softly, more to himself than to Leon.

    Leon waited a few seconds before asking “What?”

    Artorias hesitated a moment before answering.  “…An ice wraith.”

    Leon’s expression of excitement immediately fell away, to be replaced with one closer to fear and dread.

    “An ice wraith would definitely be sufficient… but we’d need another core.”  Artorias looked at his son after saying this, and continued.  “You’ll need an enormous amount of preparation, but it might be possible for you to do it.”

    Practically speaking, Artorias could kill an ice wraith with relative ease and take its core, as he had done the day before, but that was not the point.  There were some things about parts of this ritual that Artorias wanted his son to do himself.  But an ice wraith was unquestioningly out of Leon’s league, and if push came to shove then Artorias would rather spoil his son than let him continue to grow up with his bloodline remaining dormant.

    “Here’s what we’ll do, we’ll go out tomorrow, and spend a few days scouting around.  We might find something more suitable, but if not, we can always risk taking on an ice wraith.”

    Leon looked a little better after Artorias said this.  He desperately wanted to get stronger, but not so bad he’d take that great of a risk.  Long ago, Artorias had told him that he should never fight any kind of wraith head-on unless he was at least a fifth-tier mage.  Leon had taken this advice to heart, and the prospect of fighting a wraith terrified him.

    “Alright, we’ll head out tomorrow morning, so go pack your things and get some rest.”  Artorias was back to his usual smiling self, but Leon was decidedly less cheerful.

    As Leon walked back to his house, there was only one thing on his mind.  ‘Dad said a river nymph or a tree sprite would probably do.  I’ll just look for one of those in the next few days.  Fighting a wraith is suicide, and there is no damned way I’m fighting one anytime soon.’

  • Chapter 5:  The Hunt I


    The next morning, Leon had everything he would need packed up and ready.  His bow was slung over his shoulder, arrows on his back, knife at his belt.  He had a bag with him full of food, and a full water skin at his belt.

    Artorias was dressed similarly, just with his sword and satchel as well.

    Seeing Leon, Artorias asked “Ready to go?”

    Leon nodded in response.

    “Alright, go open the door, I’ll lock things up here.”

    Leon walked down the ramp leading out, while Artorias went to the central obelisk.  There were three small formations on the side facing the exit, runes carved into a circle, and he placed his hand in one of them.  The obelisk briefly shook and the runes on its surface lit up.  A nigh-imperceptible barrier had been raised around the compound, its highest level of defense.

    With this done, Artorias followed Leon out.

    As the two men locked the door behind them, the compound became like a mighty fortress, all but impenetrable.

    “So, what should we be on the lookout for?”  asked Leon.

    “Keep an eye out for any beast with significant amounts of magic power.  I suppose we could settle for a black-iron bear if we absolutely have to, but I’d rather find something with a higher degree of power.”

    “Yesterday, you said a river nymph or a tree sprite might do, but they’re weaker than a black-iron bear.”

    “Make no mistake little lion, a black-iron bear is stronger and will kill you faster and bloodier, but nymphs and sprites have more magic, and magic is what we need.”

    And with that, the two made their way into the forest.  The morning was uneventful, with the two trudging through the outer-forest and seeing nothing bigger than a few large hares, so they rested a while for lunch.

    Leon hardly touched his meal of dried meat and bread, and couldn’t seem to sit still.  He was still a first-tier mage after spending five years training, and the knowledge of having hidden powers he had to awaken filled him with excitement every time he thought about it.  But the one thing that really gave him pause was the ritual itself.  He knew next to nothing about it, save that he needed to drink mana.

    “Father, there’s something I’d like to ask.”

    “Go for it.”  Artorias responded between mouthfuls of bread.

    “What did you kill to awaken your bloodline?”

    Artorias stopped chewing, and got an odd look on his face.  He was a man who enjoyed his food, and Leon had somewhat of a difficult time seeing what kind of expression he made around the swollen cheeks.

    “Sorry, is that a question I shouldn’t ask?  You didn’t explain the etiquette for this ritual.  If there even is etiquette for it.”  Leon asked worriedly.

    Artorias finally swallowed his food, and smiled.  “No, it’s fine.”  His faced his son, and had a big smile on his face.  “When I was your age, my father brought me out to hunt down a certain flying beast.  We had been getting reports of this thing swooping down into farms and stealing an entire pig in each claw, and flying away before the farmer could defend his livestock.”

    “What kind of beast was it?  A light-winged eagle?  A griffin?”  Leon asked excitedly, but quieted down before asking “Was it a drake?”

    Artorias was slightly taken aback with Leon’s sudden passionate questioning, and looked a little embarrassed as he answered.  “No… it was actually a Cartallian Hawk…”

    Leon’s look of excitement quickly vanished.  “A Cartallian Hawk?  Really?  How did one of those things carry off two pigs at once?!  They’re maybe twice the size of a crow, no way they could steal even one pig, let alone two!”  He stared at Artorias, waiting for an answer.

    “Ok, well maybe it was only a single pig.”  Leon kept staring at Artorias, clearly not believing his father.  “A baby pig is still a pig.”  Leon could only roll his eyes at that.  “Well, we went out to the areas it had been seen most frequently, and we waited.  For three days, we slept in a tree, watching the sky.  But our patience bore fruit, for we saw that hawk flying around on the fourth day.  So, I did what I had to, drew my bow and put an arrow through the things eye on my first shot!”

    “Really?  First shot?”  Leon asked incredulously.

    “When did you get so damned cynical?  You used to believe my stories.”

    “Yeah, but then I learned you exaggerate more than you don’t.”  Something quickly occurred to Leon, though.  “If you only needed a hawk, why did you say I needed an ice wraith?”

    “A hunch.  I can sense our bloodline’s aura coming from you, but it seems off.  Familiar, yet strange and foreign.  That you have yet to awaken may be the problem, but I just get the feeling that your awakening may be a little harder than most.  A better, higher quality mana catalyst than mine would go far in soothing my worries.”

    May be the problem… Is there anything else that may explain it?”  asked Leon, looking rather troubled now.

    Artorias was silent for a while before answering.  “All I am comfortable saying, is that your mother had her secrets, secrets probably passed down to you.  Secrets she didn’t even tell me, though I probably wouldn’t have believed her if she had.” 

    I’d believe her now, though’ he thought.

    Leon watched his father, hoping he would continue, but his hopes were dashed.  Artorias simply put away his half-finished meal, and sat there, leaning against a tree and staring off into the distance.

    Leon didn’t try to talk to Artorias now.  There would be little point.  He’d tried to talk about his family before, but simply mentioning these things would more often than not make Artorias so depressed that he wouldn’t say a word, and would even stay silent for the rest of the day.

    The next few hours were spent in silence.  Artorias got them moving again about fifteen minutes after Leon finished his food, and they continued walking around the forest.  The forest was quite large, and much of the terrain was very rough, with a thick underbrush and more than a few small hills and cliff, so Artorias had no expectations that they would find what they were looking for in a single day.  But there were still a few hotspots he knew of that he wanted to check.

    The first they arrived at was a small shallow tributary of a larger nearby river, filed with extraordinarily clear water.  But this small river had no fish, no obvious living things within.  Even the trees and grass stopped growing several dozen feet before the water’s edge.

    They didn’t stray too close to the water.  The safest place was well within the tree line, and that was where they were.  The simply followed the river upstream, but at a safe distance.  It didn’t take long before they found something.

    This ‘something’ looked like a bathing goddess, splashing water onto herself in the middle of the river.  Most men would immediately lose themselves in her otherworldly beauty, but Artorias knew better.  Leon was a little taken in, but he quickly regained control over himself before doing anything stupid.

    She had the kind of pale and unblemished skin of a rich noblewoman that spent all her days indoors and out of the sun, and slender body that all but cried out to be embraced.  She had long blonde hair that fell halfway down her back, and a face with soft features and an innocent, carefree look.  Her eyes were closed, enjoying the feeling of the water on her body, but if she opened them Leon and Artorias would see her yellow reptilian eyes.

    But they didn’t need to see her eyes to know what she was.  They only had to look down, as her body below the waist merged with the river water, completely disappearing just below the hips.  This was a river nymph, laying out a trap to catch anything that came close.  If Leon hadn’t been able to control himself, was captivated by her beauty and ran over to her, she would’ve wrapped her arms around him and dragged him under the water.  She would then use her magic to transform into water to enter his body, and eat him from the inside out.

    Despite their beautiful appearance and rare intelligence, river nymphs were cruel and uncaring beasts, and those that crossed their paths would rarely be heard from again.

    Leon, quiet as he could, went to draw and his bow and an arrow, but was stopped by Artorias.

    “Wait, she’s got friends.”

    Leon froze, and continued to watch.  Sure enough, three more nymphs rose up out of the crystal-clear water, their bodies appearing only after leaving the river.  All four then immediately began rapidly swimming upriver.

    Leon frowned and asked “They’re probably going to meet up with more of their kind.  Should we follow?” 

    “We can, for a ways.  We might catch one on its own.  Might not, too, but taking a quick look at where they’re going won’t hurt.”

    They pursued the river nymphs for a while upriver, going steadily north, always staying out of sight of the water.  Artorias could make this rather easy, as he and Leon could stay well into the forest and he wouldn’t lose sight of the nymphs, but this was Leon’s hunt, so Leon would have to rely on himself for most of the work.

    Suddenly, contrary to that policy, Artorias grabbed Leon’s arm and told him to hold back.  He could see where the nymphs were going, now, and it was not a place they should follow.

    The river went far enough north to start getting close to the edge of the mountains that surround all the Northern Vales, and it is from the melting snow on the mountains that the river is formed.  The nymphs were making their way towards the bottom of a waterfall, where several dozen other nymphs had gathered.  They were all gazing up in reverence at the top of the waterfall.  A monster had come down from the mountains, and was looking down at all of them, a monster with the upper half of a beautiful woman, and the lower half of a dark-green snake.

    A Gorgon, a terrifying monster that has a great control of both earth and water magic, eats stone, and possesses the unique ability to petrify someone simply with eye contact.

    Artorias could fight ice wraiths, but a Gorgon would not be so easy, so he had them turn around and leave quick as can be.  He knew that if he could see the Gorgon with his own magical senses, then she could see them as well, so he and Leon abandoned stealth and tore off back into the depths of the forest where the creature wouldn’t follow.

    There wasn’t much time left in the day, but enough to go to one more place.

    The one closest was a large glade, a section of the forest surrounded by immense boulders, that almost sealed off a portion of the forest.  Within this glade were a number of heartwood trees, with dark brown bark and bright golden leaves.

    There was always some creature of the forest that desires to call this glade home, but heartwood trees are not so welcoming.  They are extraordinarily beautiful when viewed from afar, and even when walked among, but lingering too long will see them start to emit a powerful magical aura so strong that not even the most terrifying beast of the forest would dare stick around.

    But there are still a few creatures drawn by the immense amount of magic power that gathers around the trees, and Artorias thought they might be able to catch one of sufficient strength around the glade.

    But in truth, going there was also just a way to avoid sleeping out in the open during the night.

    When they finished the uneventful trek over, the sun was already setting, and they could feel the darker things in the woods beginning to rise.  They quickly entered the glade, and were spared having to set up a defensive magic circle.

    “This place is always quite the sight to behold.”  Leon whispered.  Artorias simply nodded in agreement.  Neither man spoke anymore, and they grew solemn.  There were old legends about the trees, that they were brought to the plane by fallen gods and contained little hints of divinity.  They didn’t really believe these stories, but they still kept the peace within the glade.

    The night passed peacefully, but they could still hear the shrieking of banshees and the screaming of dying animals out in the distant dark.  They kept their distance from the heartwood trees, sleeping in a clearing in the center of the glade.

    Artorias had a hard time sleeping that night.  The day’s conversations had brought things up that were hard to put out of his mind. 

    It had been more than fifteen years since he had to leave the capital, with nothing but his sword, the clothes on his back, and his son in his arms.  He remembered having to find a skilled healer to treat his burns, for his first aid skills were inadequate.  He was at least able to stitch up the cuts and lacerations from wind magic on his own, though.

    He’d considered stopping at his family’s palace, though he hadn’t parted on good terms with his father last time they’d met.  His noble father didn’t want Artorias marrying some girl he’d never heard of before, but Artorias had married her anyway.

    It was a good thing Artorias didn’t stop there.  He’d brought Leon south when he was twelve, figuring it was safe to come out of hiding.  He found his family home in ruins, and the locals told him his father and brother had been dead for almost a decade.  Artorias immediately took Leon back north, and didn’t even entertain the thought of going back south until a couple years later.

    Leon believed that Artorias had been preparing him for life in the south, in the kingdom, and that may have been true when he was younger, but now Artorias taught him different things.  Where once, Leon’s days had been spent learning to read and write, learning strategy and the history of the kingdom, Artorias now made him hone his killing intent, and his fighting skills.  He doubled down on teaching Leon everything he knew about magical engineering, enchantments, and the runic arts.

    But the thing Artorias hoped for now was that Leon could successfully awaken his bloodline, then he could grow strong enough to no longer need Artorias to look out for him in the forest.

    Artorias always regretted never reconciling with his father, and not going back to him when his home in the capital was attacked, but his biggest regret was the loss of his wife.  He loved her with all his heart, and wished she could see how Leon had grown.  He wanted to hold her in his arms again, hear her voice, feel her presence.

    Thinking of these things made him anxious.   When he got anxious, he could never sit still.  Leon was fast asleep not too far away, so Artorias quietly got up, and went for a walk in the glade.

    He breathed in the cool night air, and released a small bit of his magic.  The wind blew in response, and the clouds overhead split apart revealing the night sky, filled with the stars of distant planes, like tiny silver coins.  Every so often, one of these planes would vanish into the darkness, and another would appear somewhere else in the heavens.

    He released more of his magic, and the wind blew stronger, rustling the leaves of the trees and drowning out the distant sound of banshees.  If Leon could see him now, he would be struck speechless at the ease with which Artorias was using such powerful magic.

    He kept walking like that for half an hour, lost in his memories, when he noticed something in the dirt in front of him.  Upon closer look, he realized it was a pair of heartwood seeds, each about the size of a fingernail.  One was gently glowing a dull gold, and the other was black as night.

    The sight brought a frown to his face.  Heartwood seeds are not so easily obtained, but the legends and myths about the trees used to say that the seeds would only fall for the gods, to be used in their funeral rites.

    Seeing the trees in person, Artorias found it hard to say he disbelieved the stories.  There was an aura to the trees, a majesty that radiated from the bark. 

    Down south, most heartwood trees were grown in copses, to be cut down and made into weapons and ships.  But here, they still thrived, and Artorias could feel their heavenly aura.

    He decided to slip the seeds into his pocket, and began to make his way back to the camp.  He’d cleared his head, and calmed down.  It was time to sleep, for there would be plenty of work to do the next day.

  • Chapter 6:  The Hunt II


    Leon woke early the next morning to the smell of bread and bacon.  Artorias had woken up a little before, and thrown together some breakfast.

    The two gave each other terse greetings, and immediately dug in.

    When finished, they quickly packed up and began to make their way out of the glade.  As peaceful and serene as it was, it was also not a place to stay for very long.

    “Any idea of where to go now?” asked Leon.

    “East.”

    Where east?”

    Artorias looked a bit uncertain, but answered without pause.  “We need to cross the river, but we should actually go south a bit, to avoid the nymphs.”

    “Why avoid them?  I just need to kill one and we’re done, no?”

    “No.  That Gorgon we saw yesterday didn’t leave.  Or, at least, I doubt she has.  Those nymphs worship her, and so long as she doesn’t return to the mountains, we don’t touch her people.”

    “So, then what do you have in mind?”

    “If we find a tree sprite, that would be good.  A wraith nest might be better, but significantly more dangerous.  If all else fails, we could go south to the Banshee Lake, but I’m certain we won’t have to.  There are other things in the forest to hunt, so we’ll go further in to check.  But first, to cross the river we’re going to have to go south to the Troll’s Bridge to cross, otherwise we’ll have river nymphs all over us.”

    Leon frowned.  “I’d rather not have to deal with any of them, especially the troll, but if we must then we must.”

    Artorias sighed, looking a bit resigned.  “We must.  Else, we’d have to go all the way around Banshee Lake and that would take days.  Better to just grit our teeth and deal with it.”

    With that settled, they went south a ways before turning east, towards the river.  Artorias even found the last of the herbs he needed on the way.  It didn’t take too long, but the sun was quite high in the sky by the time they came within sight of the bridge.  It was an old thing, but still strong, made entirely of what seemed to be a single piece of stone, it spanned the entire width of the river, all three hundred and fifty feet. 

    The bridge had been made from earth mages digging up and setting the granite rocks, while fire mages slightly melted it all into one single massive stone.  It was then cut and smoothened with more earth magic, and carved with intricate patterns.

    But that had been many millennia ago.  Now, the bridge was cracked and covered in moss and vines, the carved decorations had all but faded away, and had become home to a troll squatter.  Still, the first time Artorias had seen it, he was amazed.  The bridge itself didn’t amaze him so much, as there were similar construction techniques down south, but he recognized what few carvings remained on the stone railings as being from a kingdom that had long faded from all but the most ancient of history books, and even then, the references to it had been frustratingly vague.

    This bridge, unremarkable it may be on its own, was proof that that kingdom had extended from the very center of Aeterna to almost as far north as north goes.

    But that kingdom had been gone for so long that no one even knew its name, and its works fell into ruin, if they still existed at all.

    As Artorias and Leon crossed the bridge, they saw on the other side, a large ten-foot tall creature with thick, oily, brown and white fur covering its body, and an immense nose that took up over half of the creature’s face emerge from underneath the bridge.  As they neared, they could see small, beady black eyes, and a hunched back.  It had arms that hung down to its knees, and legs thick as tree trunks.

    This was the troll, and it quickly moved to block off the opposite side of the bridge.  As the two men approached, it began to beat its fist into the ground, causing the bridge to shake, and screamed in a harsh guttural language.  Neither could speak this language, but they got the gist of what it was saying:

    This is my bridge! Leave!

    But they continued to advance.  When they had closed to within several dozen feet of the creature, Artorias drew his sword and began to channel his magic through it.  The sword lit up with electrical sparks, and arcs of lightning travelled between the ends of the guard and the tip of the blade.

    The troll stopped its screaming and restrained itself at the sight.  Artorias slowly reached into his coat and took out a large silver coin, and tossed it at the troll.  The troll caught it, and brought it closer to its snout to examine it.  After a few short seconds, it slowly, almost reluctantly, turned around and left, disappearing back beneath the bridge.

    Artorias and Leon finished crossing, and continued walking into the forest.

    “Dad…”

    “Yes, little lion?”

    “Why do you always pay that thing when we need to cross?  I might not be able to fight it, but I’m sure you could kill it with a single swing of your sword.”

    “Why would I do that?  Just to save a few coins?”  Artorias stopped, and looked at Leon.  “Yes, I could obliterate that troll with ease, but that doesn’t mean I should.  Remember this, boy, strength does not equal righteousness.  There are many people who think that being strong means they can do whatever they want, but they are little better than animals.  We are not animals.  We are civilized men, and we might kill for food, but we don’t kill just to save a small inconvenience.  That troll is intelligent.  It wouldn’t leave when paid if it weren’t.  All it wants is to live in its territory in relative peace, and if it lets us pass for only a few shiny coins than all the better.”

    Having said that, Artorias began walking again.  Leon had a look of contemplation, but he followed his father.

    As they walked through the black and white trees, Artorias kept a lookout with his magic senses.  He saw many animals that would otherwise make for good prey if they were simply hunting like normal.  He saw pure white foxes living in equally white trees, large hawks flying overhead, rabbits, squirrels, and boars.  None escaped his sight, but none had even the slightest trace of magic, making them worthless for their purpose.

    Leon was still lost in thought when Artorias suddenly stopped.  Leon didn’t notice and ran into his father, being almost knocked to the ground in surprise.  Artorias, however, barely noticed it.

    “What do you see?”  asked Leon.

    Artorias was staring off into the distance, with wide eyes and a slightly open mouth.  Leon looked into the same direction, but all he saw were trees and leaves of various colors.

    It was almost ten seconds of staring before Artorias finally spoke.  “I think I just found our goal.”

    “What do you see?”  Leon repeated.

    “A Snow Lion.”

    Leon’s eyes widened, his heart beat faster, and his hands began to shake.  Snow lions made their home within the caves of the Frozen Mountain range, and very rarely came down into the vales.  They were aloof, solitary beasts, and possessed of great skill with ice magic.  Leon had never seen one, but he had occasionally seen what had become of the creatures the lions hunted.  Everything from river nymphs to black-iron bears were considered prey by the snow lions.

    He took a few deep breathes to calm himself, and his hands stopped shaking, though he was still both terrified and excited.  This lion would make for easier prey than an ice wraith, but he would have to be perfect to bring it down.

    The two began creeping towards the beast’s lair, high up on a nearby mountain.  There were a few small mountain clusters within the vale, heavily forested and several hundred feet high.  The lion had made this particular group of mountains its home, as there were no other mountains around this deep into the vale.

    The forest was dense enough that it took over an hour to approach the foot of the mountain.  They didn’t start climbing the mountain upon arrival, however, as Artorias had said that the lion was out hunting, and its lair now lay empty.

    There was a small path among the mountain boulders leading up, and it was at this path’s entrance that they stopped.

    Artorias looked around, and smiled.  “If that lion wants to go home, it will have to come through here.  Let’s prepare for when it comes back.”  He then looked at Leon expectantly, and didn’t move.  It was up to Leon to plan and carry out the ambush.

    Leon looked around, carefully analyzing the surroundings.  The area was filled with trees, but they thinned out considerably as the forest approached the foot of the mountain.  The mountain itself was quite thick with trees, but the path leading up was virtually bereft of any plant life.

    He saw a large oak fairly close to the start of the mountain path, with plenty of branches to climb and brilliant green leaves to hide behind.  Leon quickly scampered up the trunk to the lowest branch, about twenty feet off the ground.  He was about to settle in, but decided to climb up a bit more, reaching another branch ten feet higher.

    Artorias, meanwhile, climbed up another nearby tree, a white poplar with dark blue leaves and lighter blue marks along the trunk, like blood vessels.  He climbed to where he wanted and got comfortable, and if Leon hadn’t seen his father climb the tree, he never would have guessed Artorias was there.

    There they waited, for several more hours, barely moving.  Leon fished out a few pieces of dried bread to snack on, but otherwise remained completely still.  At Artorias’ level of power, he ate food for pleasure, not out of necessity, so he simply allowed his magic to fill his body with energy rather than eat lunch.

    Leon started to grow worried about whether or not the snow lion was actually going to come that way when he heard something off in the distance.  It was the lion, snapping fallen tree branches and brushing past the bushes without any attempt to hide.  As it got closer, Leon saw a few glimpses of moving white in between the trees and plants, but the beast was still well concealed within the forest.

    It kept coming closer.  Leon slowly drew his bow and one arrow, made a few last-minute adjustments to his quiver so it was easy to access, and began to channel his limited magic into his bow.  His mana rushed into his hand, then magic power flowed into the bow, and concentrated in the middle, right where the arrow rested against the weapon.  The minor enchantment within activated, and though there was no outward sign, the bow was now ready to fire an arrow at a terrific speed.

    By the time Leon was done preparing, he looked up just in time to see the lion emerge from the tree line.  It was a massive beast, over six feet tall and nine feet long.  It could probably swallow his entire upper body in a single bite.  It had a beautiful coat, white as freshly fallen snow.  Its mane was thicker and slightly darker than the rest of it, but it only added to the majestic aura the lion gave off.  The only parts of the beast that weren’t some shade of white or extremely light grey were its pitch-black eyes and claws.  Its snout was covered in the dark red blood of the small fox it had in its mouth.

    Leon was awed by the beauty of the lion, but he drew the arrow back anyway.  He aimed at the creature’s eye, intending to kill it in a single shot.

    The lion paused, sensing a sharp killing intent directed towards it, and it began to channel its own magic.  It looked around carefully, attempting to find where the killing intent was coming from, but it failed to notice Leon or Artorias.  Until Leon released the arrow.

    The bow’s enchantment was weak, but well made, and the arrow flew across the clearing so fast it was nearly impossible to see it, but see it the lion did.  In fact, the lion was fast enough to cover the side of its face in ice and the arrow bounced off harmlessly.

    The lion dropped the fox, glared at the tree the arrow had come from, and gave an earth-shattering roar.  Birds half a mile away took flight in terror, and smaller animals rushed for shelter.  The lion charged at the tree, and had begun to climb before Leon had even drawn his second arrow.

    As the lion climbed, it saw Leon, and knew it was he who tried to kill it.  Leon drew his second arrow, and loosed.  Again, the lion protected itself with icy armor.  It easily climbed the tree to Leon’s branch, and snapped it off with a single swipe of its claw.

    Leon fell, managing to grab the branch below, then dropping to the ground.  He drew a third arrow, turned, and fired at the lion in the tree.  The arrow flew towards the beast, and had about as much effect as the first two.

    The lion leaped out of the tree, landing in front of Leon before knocking him down with a headbutt, and roared at him.  The beast’s own killing intent was slamming down onto Leon, putting pressure upon him and making it difficult to breathe.  The lion raised its claw, and swiped at the vulnerable young man.  Leon raised his arm to block it, and the claws slashed the flesh of his left arm to ribbons.

    Artorias, watching this, felt his heart almost stop.  He cursed himself for bringing Leon here, for targeting the lion, and for allowing it to go this far.  But as he drew his sword, and tensed up to leap out of the tree at the lion, the beast raised its paw for another strike.  Leon moved fast, drawing his hunting knife as the claw came down.  He raised it as fast as he could and felt the blade sink into the beast’s paw, pushed in by the weight of the lion’s own attack.  The impact broke his wrist and nearly shattered his arm.

    The lion roared in pain and rage, but Leon had avoided the death blow.  It staggered backwards, unable to put too much weight down on its paw with a six-inch knife stuck in it.  Leon took the opportunity to grab his bow and one more arrow, painfully drawing back the bowstring with all the strength he could muster, and infusing every drop of magic he had left in his body into the weapon.

    The lion ripped the knife out of its paw with its teeth, before turning to glare at Leon and roaring again.  Leon immediately released his arrow before dropping his bow with a yell of pain.  The arrow crossed the space between the man and the beast before anyone could blink, entering the lions mouth and sinking deep into its throat.  The beasts roar was cut off with a yelp of pain, and it staggered backwards.

    It seemed confused as blood and mana poured out of its mouth, and its eyes began to dim.  It glared at Leon one more time before limping towards him.  It could feel itself about to die, but it intended to take this young human with it to the grave. 

    But as it approached Leon, it felt another killing intent, this one orders of magnitude more powerful than Leon’s.  It froze in terror, completely unable to move its own magic within its body.  It didn’t even see Artorias before his blade entered one eye and exited the other.

    Seeing the lion collapse, Leon breathed a sigh of relief.  The entire encounter took less than twenty seconds, but he had been nearly killed several times before Artorias acted.  The lion made a few more ragged breaths, but Artorias ignored it.  He rushed over to his son, but Leon had already passed out.

  • Chapter 7:  Ritual I


    As the snow lion breathed its last, Artorias sheathed his sword and ran over to his son.  Leon had passed out from his wounds, and Artorias immediately began administering first aid.  He wasn’t a doctor by any stretch of the imagination, but he had been raised as a soldier, and that had included first-aid training.

    He frantically began searching in his satchel for a few emergency spells, and once he found the papers they were written on, he wrapped three of them around Leon’s bleeding arm.  With a little bit of magic from him, the runes written on the paper lit up with a golden light.  After a few seconds, the light died down, but Leon’s arm had stopped bleeding.

    Artorias sighed in relief.  The bleeding had been very bad, and though the injuries on the arm remained, at least Leon had been saved from bleeding to death.

    Artorias carefully removed the spell paper, and took out some bandages.  He wrapped the arm up in the bandages, and began to look for a couple of sticks that could serve as a splint.  The forest was thick, so finding what he needed was quite easy.  He wrapped up Leon’s other arm and splinted it, making sure not to jostle the broken wrist too much, then checked the rest of Leon’s body for injuries.  From what he could tell, when Leon had jumped from the tree he had sprained both ankles, but not too terribly, and the rest of him was relatively fine, so Artorias finally turned his attention back to the lion.

    He walked over, drawing an empty water skin, and used his hunting knife to cut open the lion’s chest.  Only a few minutes had passed since it had died, so not too much blood or mana had leaked out of the carcass.  He cut all the way to the heart, where the crimson blood being pumped in was replaced with red mana, so bright it almost glowed.

    He examined the mana after collection.  “This should be good enough, but I might as well butcher the rest before the ants get to it.”

    He sliced open the rest of the lion, and with practiced ease removed the hide, dumped the entrails to the side, and deboned the beast.  He placed the heart to the side, then wrapped up the meat in the hide, using it as a makeshift sack.

    After he finished, Leon began to stir, so Artorias quickly made a fire.  He impaled the lion heart upon a stick and started cooking it.

    Within his hazy waking up head, Leon smelled the cooking meat, and opened his eyes.  With greater clarity, he saw the cooking heart and Artorias smiling down at him.  He tried to quickly sit up, but the pain in his arms was still there, so with a grimace, he lay back down.

    “Careful there, little lion.”  Artorias said with a smile.

    “What happened?”  asked Leon.

    “You did damned good, that’s what’s happened.  You took a few hits, will probably have a few scars to remember this old cat by, but you killed it.”

    I killed it?  It was still moving after I shot my last arrow.”

    “It was a mortal wound, so all I did was to help it on its way.”

    Artorias kept up his usual smile, beaming with pride, but inside he was still berating himself about the decision to come after the lion.  The only consolation he had was that he hadn’t insisted on hunting down an ice wraith.  If Leon had this much trouble with the lion, then an ice wraith would’ve torn him apart.

    “Rest now, little lion.  Firing those arrows out of your enchanted bow took most of your magic, so just rest and recover.  We’ll stay here for the night.”

    Leon closed his eyes and took a deep breath, letting the magic in the air be absorbed by his lungs.  The magic density was far greater back home thanks to the obelisk, but he still figured he would be strong enough to move again by the morning.

    Artorias, meanwhile was still cooking up the lion heart.  He pulled it away from the fire, and sniffed at it a few times.  Then he offered it to Leon.  “This was your kill, so you should eat the heart.  It’ll be good for getting some more magic into your body.  Might even help you crack into the second-tier tomorrow, when we perform the ritual.”

    Leon immediately opened his eyes in excitement.  “We’ll do the ritual tomorrow?  What all do we have to do for it?  Will it take long?  Where will we go for it?  Do you have any tips?  What do- “

    But Artorias cut him off before Leon could continue.  “Slow down, boy.  Rest, get your magic back.  I’ll try to answer what I can, but your current priority should be to eat that lion heart and perform your breathing exercises.”

    Leon smiled, and laughed with some embarrassment.  He slowly regulated his breathing, while carefully using his non-splinted arm to bring the heart to his lips.  It smelled delicious, and he eagerly took a bite.  The meat was tough and very chewy, but Leon savored every bite.  He could feel a warmth spreading out from his stomach, and felt small amounts of magic entering his blood.  It didn’t take long to finish the heart, despite its size, and by then Artorias had made himself some food.  Leon relaxed, and started his breathing exercises, looking at his father expectantly the whole time.

    Artorias pretended not to notice Leon’s gaze, and ate deliberately slowly.  The lion meat was cooked to perfection, and filled with mana.  Artorias wouldn’t see too much gain from eating it, but he loved his food.

    Finally, he turned to Leon, and began to speak.  “There is a tall mountain further to the east, that is our destination for tomorrow.  The peak of this mountain is a large flat space, and we’ll be digging a large magic array onto it.  I wrote a few spells before we left, and we’ll set them up at the focal points of the array.  There will be two larger focal points near the middle.  You will sit in one, and the ice wraith core will be placed in the other.  The core will provide most of the raw magic, the spells will change the nature of that magic, and the array will direct the magic into you.

    “Meanwhile, you will take off your shirt, and I will paint a few runes onto your body with a salve.  You will also be drinking an herbal tea, to prepare yourself for drinking the lion’s mana.  I need to add a few things to the mana I’ve collected, and then it will be ready for you to drink, after the tea. 

    “There are a few more things I need to prepare before the ritual begins, but I suppose the easiest way to describe it would be to say that I need to make sure that the magic in the area is dense enough.  A few runes similar to what I carved into our obelisk ought to do it.”

    Artorias smiled at Leon, waiting for his response.  Leon, for his part, looked beyond excited, and Artorias guessed that were he not as injured as he is now, he would’ve insisted that they go to the mountain immediately.

    Artorias glanced up, and noticed the sky starting to redden.  “It’s getting late, I’d better set up a few wards to keep us safe.”

    He went to several trees around them, and carved a simple runic circle into their trunks.  Then, he placed his hand in the middle of each circle, and channeled his magic into it to activate it.  He grabbed a few large stones from the mountain path, carved a few runes into them as well, and scattered them around in a small magic array.  There would be no banshees disturbing their sleep this night, though a determined ice wraith would still be able to force its way through.  But then, it would be faced with Artorias and his enchanted blade, and that would be the last thing it would ever see.

    Leon, meanwhile, began to meditate, to regain his lost mana.  He relaxed, allowing his body to synch with the movements of the world.  The wind picked up, and he inhaled.  The wind died down, and he exhaled.  His heart beat slower, but each beat began infusing magic into his blood.  The resulting mana surged through his body, relieving his pain and fatigue.

    Artorias looked at his son.  Mana greatly accelerates the healing process, and Leon would be well enough to walk by morning.  He sat down across the fire from the young man, and lay down.  He stared up at the sky, watching it grow darker, until the sun finally set.

    The wards did their job, their sleep went undisturbed.  They both awoke feeling hale and hearty, and set off early the next morning.  Artorias easily carried the lion meat in the lion’s own skin, while Leon followed. 

    The slashes on his left arm had scabbed over, and even looked slightly smaller than they had the night before.  His right wrist was still very broken, however, so there wasn’t much he could do to help his father carry the lion’s remains.

    It didn’t take long to reach the ritual mountain, it wasn’t even midday when they arrived.  It was very tall, over fifteen thousand feet high.  Leon paled a bit when he looked at the distant peak.

    “We really have to climb that?”

    “Yes and no, little lion.  We need to get to the top, but there is an easy path we can use.”

    Artorias guided them towards a small path, hidden behind a number of huge boulders, and they began their ascent.

    Leon was slightly confused.  This path was just a little too convenient.  “How did you find this path?”

    “I made it.”  Artorias answered simply.

    “You made it?”

    “Yup.  This is called Storm Titan’s Mountain.  It’s the mountain where I come to train.  Every time I sense a storm coming, I leave for the top of this mountain.  I carved a path for myself to make the climb easier.  In fact, it’s no longer even a climb, we simply need to walk to the top.”

    Leon didn’t find this too awfully strange, he knew his father would always disappear when it started to rain.  He also knew that the slow pace they’d been walking at these past few days were for his own benefit, as Artorias could travel from their compound to this mountain in less than an hour at his usual pace.

    They remained silent the rest of the climb up, with Artorias mentally going through all of his preparations to make sure he didn’t leave anything out, and Leon doing all he could to remain calm and suppress his excitement.

    The arrived near the mountain peak by the time the sun started to fall.  The very tip of the mountain continued upward another hundred feet or so, but Artorias had carved out a flat surface about fifty feet in diameter years before, and that was where they stopped.

    Leon was shivering, due both to anticipation and the cold mountain air.  Artorias set down the lion meat, and began rummaging in his satchel for a large chisel.

    “Leon, sit down and eat something.  I’ll get started on the magic array.” 

    And with that, he began carving in the rock of the mountain top.  Leon had his food, and Artorias worked.  It only took an hour for Artorias to be done, and when he finally stood up, Leon walked over to see.

    The magic array was twenty feet long, and about fifteen feet wide.  There were four small circles near the top, connected by lines that made it look like a storm cloud.  A carved lightning bolt was emanating from the bottom of the cloud, and it intersected two larger circles in the center before landing on the ‘ground’, where there were three more smaller circles.  The two circles in the middle were connected by a pair of lines that formed an oval, and the ground was connected to the cloud by two more lines, all of which formed a pair of concentric ovals.  Lastly, Artorias had carved straight lines connecting the seven smaller circles with the very center of the formation.

    Artorias explained all this to Leon, but the younger man didn’t quite see the pattern.  Artorias was certainly no artist, but what he was confident that what he carved would do the job.

    Next, the elder man pulled out seven lightning spells, written on spell paper, and placed them in the seven smaller circles, weighing them down with small stones.  He then carved a few more runic circles all around the formation, and the magic in the surroundings began to gather around them.  The density of the magic in the air nearly doubled over the next few hours, while Artorias finished his preparations.

    During those next few hours, Artorias pulled out a small pestle and mortar from his satchel, and ground down a few of the plants he had brought with him, and mixed them into a ceramic bowl.  He then poured all the lion’s mana into the bowl, and thoroughly mixed the mana with the herbs.  Then, he looked to Leon.

    “Take off your shirt, and put down your things.”  Leon complied, removing his bow and quiver, then his small pack of supplies, then his shirt, leaving his upper body bare.  He sat down in front of his father, facing away, and Artorias retrieved his grey paste from the satchel.  He dipped his finger in it, then began to paint runic circles and patterns onto Leon’s body.

    Fifteen minutes later, Artorias had finished, and had Leon kneel down in one of the center circles.  Relax, and perform some breathing exercises, he told his son.  He then took two more things out of the satchel, before tossing it away.  One was a water skin, and he gave that to his son to drink in between breaths.  The other looked like a diamond, or a thick piece of glass, about the size of an orange.  It gave off a dull blue light, and an unnerving chill.  Leon could feel it pierce directly to his bones, even from ten feet away.  Artorias placed the core in the other central circle, and Leon finished off the potion he’d been given.

    Leon’s vision began to blur, and his stomach felt like it was doing somersaults.  He saw little flashes of light in the distance, and motion blurs in the corners of his eye.

    “Dad, what the hell was in that potion?”

    “A few things, some to dull pain, some to prepare your body for the lion’s mana.  A little queasiness is fine.  Now then, are you ready?  This is your last chance to prepare yourself.”

    Leon took a deep breath, then nodded towards his father.  Artorias passed him the bowl of lion mana, then put some distance between himself and the array, and settled in to watch.  After he had woken up from his own ritual twenty years before, the surroundings had been severely damaged, so he wanted to give Leon some space.

    Leon looked down at the bowl, and the slightly glowing red mana within.  He closed his eyes, steeled himself, then brought the bowl to his lips, tipped it back, and began to drink.  The air was cold that high up, and the ice wraith core wasn’t helping, but the mana was oddly warm, as if it had just been extracted.  Leon didn’t stop until the bowl was empty, and he felt the last drop of mana slide into his stomach.

    Artorias let his smile fall as he watched, and waited for the change to start.  He remembered his own ritual, and was both eager and very nervous about seeing it happen to his son.  So, he simply watched, and waited.

  • Chapter 8:  Ritual II


    Artorias didn’t need to wait long.  Leon’s vision continued to worsen, blurring more and more until finally, all he could see was a blank white void.  He felt woozy, and could barely manage to continue kneeling, and felt like he would collapse at any second.

    His stomach churned and roiled, as if it were a living thing struggling to escape his body.  His blood felt like it was boiling, and the magic within the lion mana flooded his body.  His muscles seized up, and if he were capable, he would have screamed bloody murder.  Leon had never felt so much pain in his entire life, but after a few more minutes, he began to compose himself.

    But that was before the real process began.  His body felt like it was on fire, and it radiated heat and magic power.  The lion’s aura had been icy cold, but when its power entered Leon, he felt like he had fallen into an erupting volcano.  What he didn’t realize, is that this was his body’s way of trying to fight against the lion mana that he had drunk.  The magic he radiated increased in intensity, and finally, the array he was in started activating.

    The array was powered by the ice wraith core, and its dull blue glow grew brighter, until it lit up the entire mountain top.  The array lines gave off light as the array activated, glowing a bright blue just like the core.  It took a few more minutes for the power to reach the lightning spells, and when the spells activated, the lines changed color into a brilliant gold, a light so bright that Artorias had to start covering his eyes.  After the color change, the magic power changed direction and flowed into Leon’s body.

    Leon grit his teeth, as the power entered his body and began to clash with the lion’s power.  He felt his muscles begin to tear, his bones crack, and his mind crumble.  In minutes, all coherent thought had left his mind, and he fell unconscious.

    This continued for some time.  The array continued channeling the ice wraith’s power into Leon, destroying his body from the outside.  The lion’s mana continued emitting power from within Leon, destroying his body from the inside.  Artorias watched, with a look of utter seriousness on his face, alert for any and all changes in the surroundings, waiting for Leon’s body to begin fighting back.

    The sun went down, and the sky turned to darkness.  The ritual had been going on for several hours, and Leon was just about at his breaking point.  He’d collapsed onto the ground, with not a single unbroken bone in his body.  He bled from the eyes, ears, mouth, and the injuries the lion had left him with.  His breaths were ragged and uneven.

    Artorias wasn’t too familiar with this part of the ritual.  He had experienced his own just as unconscious as Leon was now, so he only had his father’s word about what happened.  Artorias was told that his bloodline didn’t awaken until his body had almost completely fallen apart.  His father had almost intervened to make sure he didn’t die.

    Artorias continued to watch for signs of Leon’s awakening.  Small amounts of lightning magic should start getting absorbed, rather than passing through his son’s body ripping apart everything it comes into contact with.  This influx of power should then allow Leon to fight against the lion’s mana, and absorb it as well.  The power in the mana would then be used to heal Leon’s shattered body, and he would probably enter the ranks of second-tier mages at the end.

    Artorias didn’t let a single detail escape his notice.  Watching his son’s body break so thoroughly was a struggle, to put it lightly.  He was confident that he could heal Leon should he stop the ritual soon, but it would take months and he wasn’t going to stop this unless he was sure the ritual had failed.

    Artorias frowned, and continued to wait.  The glowing array pumped vast amounts of lightning into Leon, but the young man didn’t even twitch in response.  His body had almost become too damaged to breathe, let alone react to the magic entering it.

    Artorias was so fixated on watching his son, that he didn’t notice something very important.  When the sun had gone down, the sky was perfectly clear.  If he had looked up, he would’ve seen all the stars orbiting distant planes, and the moon as it rose.  Now, the sky had become filled with dark storm clouds, and all the creatures of the forest had taken shelter, for they felt the tension in the air.  They knew that something was coming, and they wanted no part of it.  Even the banshees were quiet this night.

    It wasn’t until it started to rain that Artorias finally noticed the oncoming storm.  It was a gentle drizzle at first, but then it turned into a light shower, building up to a thick downpour. 

    Artorias swore, and started channeling his magic to protect the magic array, but before he could, lightning fell from the clouds and struck the mountain.  Artorias froze on the spot.  He felt his heart beat so hard that he thought it might burst from his chest, and his body felt like it was being pressed down into the ground by some unseen force.  What terrified him the most, though, was that this pressure was coming from Leon.

    Artorias barely managed to keep from falling to the ground.  It was all he could do to keep standing there.

    The wind picked up, escalating from the gentle breeze of fifteen minutes ago to a howling gale.  Rain fell in great sheets that threatened to wash away the entire mountain, and lightning struck the peak more times than Artorias cared to count.  Before long, however, lightning stopped striking the mountain top, and began to fall upon the magic array.

    Artorias’ heart almost stopped at the sight, but he noticed something that served to calm him down, somewhat.  Leon had begun to absorb the storm’s lightning, filling his body with lightning magic, and the wind swirled around him in a large cyclone visible for miles.  The rain washed Leon’s body clean of blood, and his numerous wounds began to stitch themselves together.  The cracks in his bones closed, and when Leon had finished healing, the storm left as quickly as it had come.

    Artorias felt strength return to him, as the pressure coming from Leon disappeared.  He immediately ran towards his son, to check him for signs of any lasting damage.  The magic array he had set up had been completely destroyed, with the ice wraith core shattered and the lightning spells shredded and scattered to the wind.  The ground was charred and blackened from the lightning, and the lines of the array were dark and broken.

    Artorias’ nervousness only abated when he probed Leon’s condition with his magic.  He gave a sigh of relief, as Leon’s body was in perfect condition.  Even the injuries from the battle with the lion had completely healed.  The only thing left to do now was to wait for Leon to wake up, and run him through a few tests to gauge his gains.

    But, if Artorias knew what kind of attention Leon had attracted, he would be left speechless in terror.  Far to the south, past the Bull Kingdom, and past ten thousand miles of squabbling kingdoms and independent duchies, lay an enormous sea.  This sea was in the very center of Aeterna, and here, magic was at its strongest.  The magic density was greater around the sea by several orders of magnitude than in the Northern Vales.

    Four great empires had claimed the lands around the sea as their own.  They generally stayed out of the affairs of the kingdoms, believing themselves above the petty disputes of lesser monarchs.  For the most part, they were right.  Destroying the Bull Kingdom wouldn’t be particularly difficult for them, but such a remote and comparatively desolate land held no interest to their rulers, so they barely even acknowledged its existence.

    In the capital of the western empire, a young emperor holds court.  He hears the appeals of his vassals, administers justice to the common people, and does his best to rule the empire in a just and fair manner.  He is overseen by an old man with silver hair, dressed in all white save for a large purple sash, and sporting a thick silver beard.  This old man is watching with pride as the emperor handles the business of ruling such a large and prosperous nation, but he suddenly freezes, and his eyes widen in surprise.  He slowly turns north, and his gaze seems to penetrate the myriad enchantments of the palace, the thousands of miles of plains, rivers, deserts, mountains, and all between him and the ritual mountain. 

    The sight of the raging storm and the young man within make him recall old memories of his youth, over a thousand years past.  He had spent those years buried in the old books of the palace library.  There was one book there that he had been forbidden to read, a very old book from an age long past, but he had read it anyway, and the stories therein had left him nearly petrified in awe and fear.

    He had read about a cruel and tyrannical king in those pages, one who commanded the power of storms, who could summon wind, rain, and lightning and used that power to conquer the entire plane, leaving hundreds of millions dead in his wake.

    This was the legend he thought of now, noticing this ritual take place, the legend of the Storm King.  ‘We need to send spies north.  We need to find out who this boy is.’ he thought.

    This old man was not the only person who noticed these events, however.  In the northern empire, within an opulent palace not far from the royal keep, an old woman was with a very young girl.  It was the girls twelfth birthday party tomorrow, and the old woman was helping her pick out an outfit.  The old woman had aged very gracefully, with a body as fit and strong as when she was six hundred years younger, though with a few more wrinkles.  Her long hair was still the shining gold of her family, and she was more than capable of defending her empire from any who dare threaten it.

    But suddenly, this titan of a woman who could look down upon all the world, stiffened in shock.  She, too, looked north, and saw the storm.  ‘We must be the first to get to him!  If he comes south, it should be under our banner!’, she thought.

    In the east, a simply dressed bald man who appeared to be in his mid-forties sat on the floor of an equally simple room.  There were no decorations, no trappings of power, and no creature comforts.  The only piece of furniture in the room was a stone bed.

    This serious man adjusted his plain brown robe and prepared to leave the room, when he noticed the storm, and looked to the north.  His reaction was slightly more subdued than the others, but his fists clenched, and his aura became murderous.  His killing intent dropped the temperature in the room to below freezing, and frost appeared on the floor and walls.

    In the south, a seemingly young man was in bed, enjoying a group of gorgeous women.  Most of them had already been left panting and gasping from pleasure, and the last mounted him, intending to join the others in ecstasy.  The man suddenly threw her off him, and sat up, staring to the north.  He smiled when he saw the storm, and fought the urge to burst into laughter.

    All four of these people stood at the pinnacle of magic in Aeterna.  There were those who, not without justification, worshipped them as gods.  They were the ultimate weapon of their empires, and their ultimate deterrent.  Their existence elevated their empires above all the rest of the nations in the plane, and made them unassailable to the rest of the world.  And now, all of them noticed Leon’s ritual.

    Before any of them could act, however, they all heard the same voice in their minds.  “Don’t worry, I’ve already seen it.  There is no need to worry about it any longer.”  It was the voice of a man who lived in the center of the sea, in an immense circular stone tower, two miles tall and more than half a mile thick.  With him involved, any thoughts they had of going north were immediately quashed.

    The young emperor in the west saw the old man acting strangely, and asked “Are you alright, father?”

    The old man turned back to the emperor, and nodded, struggling to put the storm and the boy who conjured it out of his mind.

    The young girl looked at the old woman quizzically.  They had been discussing her birthday party, when her grandmother had gone quiet.  A few silent seconds passed, before the old woman turned back to her granddaughter and the party preparations.

    The simply dressed man unclenched his fists, but his killing intent didn’t abate.  It took him a few more minutes to compose himself before he returned to his sacred duties.

    “Are you alright, Your Majesty?”  The young woman who had been about to couple with her emperor asked in a nervous voice.  She had heard stories of those who displeased their monarch, and had no wish to experience it firsthand.

    The young man turned and smiled at the woman.  He didn’t say a word, he just grabbed her hips and pulled her closer.  Fairly soon, she too was left in the same state as the other women.

    These four had seen the ritual, and all had the instinct to go north to the ritual site.  But as soon as they heard that message, all desire to involve themselves in this affair vanished.  All feared and respected the sender of this message, though none had seen him in person.  They understood his position, and theirs in relation to him.  If he said they didn’t need to worry about it, then worry about it they would not.

    The very top of that stone tower in the middle of the sea was flat and mirror smooth.  There was no visible way to enter the tower, and it was perpetually surrounded by fluffy white clouds.  If a mortal were to find themselves at the top of the tower, they wouldn’t be able to see a thing. 

    There were, in fact, two people there, though neither were mortal.  They were mages of incredible power.  The master was sitting at the very edge, gazing north.  He was the one who had communicated with the gods of the four empires.  The apprentice was standing at a respectful distance, waiting for his master to speak.

    “Hmmm.”  A smile broke out onto the face of the master.  “I had thought that bloodline had vanished from this plane.  Things would probably be better if it had.”

    “Does Master want this apprentice to go there, and extinguish it for good?”

    “No.  He’s just a boy, and the one with him is no threat.  I’ll continue to watch, and if the need arises, I’ll deal with it personally.”  And with that, the two disappeared.

     

  • Chapter 9:  The Vision


    Leon felt like he had just been shaken up and thrown away by a rock giant.  His head spun, and he felt like he was about to vomit.  Most of all, though, he felt absolutely drained.  He couldn’t even muster the energy to open his eyes, let alone do anything else.

    He wondered why he was awake if he was so devoid of energy.  No answers came to him, so he simply decided to perform some breathing exercises.  It took a little while, but he eventually managed to muster up the energy to crack open his eyelids.

    He saw very little when he did, however.  The sky was filled with mist, with a pale golden light permeating through it.  This light was bright enough for Leon to look around, but it seemed there was nothing around to see.  He was on a small grassy island, floating in a vast sea of endless mist.  There was no wind, no sound, no anything out there.  Leon had no idea how long he remained lying down, but it took him a while to begin to move.

    It was a struggle to sit up, but when he did, he got a better look around.  There were no buildings or plants on the island, apart from grass, but he noticed something behind him he hadn’t before.  The island was only about one hundred feet in diameter, and in the very center was a white marble slab, perfectly square, about ten feet to a side, and completely flush with the ground surrounding it.  Set within the center of that slab was another square, this one made of black granite, sparkling with tiny lights like the night sky, and only taking up one square foot.

    There was nothing else around, and Leon was unable to ascertain the purpose of the marble slab, so he simply paced around near the edge of the island.  He calmly walked in circles, trying to think of a way out, but nothing occurred to him.  He was still a beginner mage, and whatever or wherever this place was, was far beyond his meagre knowledge.

    Time passed slowly here.  Or was it quickly?  Leon couldn’t tell.  The light remained consistent, and he didn’t feel the need to eat or drink, so there was no way to tell the time.  It could have been days he was pacing around the island, or simply a few hours, but there was nothing else to do, so he just kept leisurely walking and staring out into the mist.

    After what felt like a long time, he finally noticed a change, and it was a very subtle change at first.  It started as a gentle breeze.  Leon hardly thought anything of it, until he realized that it was the first time he had felt the wind since waking up.  He quickly put some distance between himself and the edge of the island, and began to look around, trying to notice any other changes to this strange space.

    And notice something he did.  It looked like a rapidly approaching clump of darkness.  He saw it when it was still just a speck in the distance, but in less than ten seconds it had doubled in size.  As it came closer and closer, he saw brief flashes of bright light within, and seconds later he heard the sound of distant thunder.  This was actually an approaching storm!

    The dark clouds were upon him in minutes.  Rain poured down onto this little island, washing away much of the grass and dirt, revealing stone tiles beneath.  Lightning arced through the sky, and Leon was deafened by the thunder.  The wind turned into a howling gale, and buffeted him ceaselessly.

    There was little he could do, there was no shelter around and he was too weak to make any, so all Leon could do was try and keep his head down, brace himself against the wind, and try to keep away from the edge of the island. 

    Eventually, Leon just hit the deck, laying down on his stomach with his arms covering his head and ears.  He felt the island rumble and shake, but he kept his head down. 

    The storm raged for fifteen minutes, until the wind began to let up and the rain slowed considerably.  Once he felt secure enough to do so, Leon lifted his head, and saw that much of the grass had been swept away, but was still present on the perimeter of the island.  The stone beneath the grass was white and red, arranged in a checkerboard pattern.

    The island’s surface was covered in this tile until about five feet away from the edge, which was the only part of the island that still had grass.  He took a look back at the marble slab, but nothing about it had changed that he could tell.

    Leon couldn’t see any other changes to the island, so he turned his eyes upwards.  The thick mists were still present, but the golden light that had shone through it was gone, blocked by the storm clouds.  The rain had slowed to a light shower, but there were still quite a few arcs of lightning crossing the sky, and they all seemed to be concentrated in a single direction. 

    As Leon looked that way, he heard a noise through the thunder.  It sounded like an eagle’s cry, but he doubted it at first, thinking it was just some kind of auditory hallucination from all the thunder that was still ringing in his ears.  But only at first. 

    In the distance, amidst the deep black storm clouds and arcs of lightning, he saw a large pair of feathered wings.  It was hard to tell from where he was, but he estimated the bird to be at least three times taller than he was.  But even from that distance, he could tell that its golden beak and talons were razor sharp, and its matching golden eyes pierced through him, seeing everything as if he were a naked mortal under the eyes of a god.

    He felt a tightness in his chest, and his legs began to shake.  His blood felt like it was boiling, and he instinctively knew that it was in response to this bird’s presence. 

    The bird opened its beak and cried.  Instantly, all the lightning in the area ceased, the winds quieted down, and the rain stopping falling.

    The bird circled the island a few times, staring at Leon, before deciding to land directly in the middle, right over the granite square.  Now that it was this close, Leon could see that his estimate was off, it was at least five times his own height, maybe six, and its feathers were flecked with gold.  But now, Leon’s blood and mana were resonating with the bird so much that his legs gave out and he fell to his knees.  He looked up, and made eye contact with bird.  He immediately felt a sharp pain in his mind, and the island trembled.

    It didn’t take much for Leon to figure out who this was.  This bird was his ancestor, the founder of his clan, and the progenitor of his bloodline.

    He tried to look up one more time, and the bird spread its wings and screeched one more time, staring down at Leon.  When Leon’s eyes met the bird’s, his vision blurred and faded away.  His mind grew hazy, and he began to slip back into unconsciousness.  His thoughts went foggy, and he had a bad feeling that allowing himself to let go would be a very bad thing, but he didn’t quite know why.  His last coherent thought was to follow his instinct and fight back, somehow.

    He slowly brought his right index finger up to his mouth, and bit down hard.  His teeth went so deep that the finger almost came off, but clarity returned to Leon’s mind.  He glared back up at the bird, enduring the pressure it exerted with its presence.

    The bird glared back, its golden eyes burning with resplendent light, but it slowly retracted its wings.  It screeched again, for the last time, and the storm clouds dissolved away in seconds.  There was no more rain, lightning, or thunder, and the winds died down entirely.

    The bird looked down at the marble and granite slab, and the light from its eyes seemed to melt it down and reshape it.  The marble slab grew, until it became a raised platform five or six steps high, and the granite rose and became a simple black chair in the middle.  It almost looked like a throne, but one for a decidedly humble monarch.

    With one last glance towards Leon, the bird flapped its wings once and disappeared into the distance.  Leon took a few moments to collect himself, and struggled to his feet.  He hobbled over to the platform, up the steps, and stood before the throne. 

    He felt it was pretty obvious what he needed to do now, but took one more look around.  The surroundings had returned to their previous serene state, there was no hint that there ever was a storm here, and the bird had disappeared into the mists.

    With that one last look, Leon smiled, sat down in the chair, and closed his eyes.

    ---

    Leon felt himself lying down on hard rock.  The air was cool, and he felt the heat of the sun on his skin.  His body felt both drained of magical power, but also filled with great strength.  His eyes were closed, and he couldn’t quite summon the willpower to open them.

    He lay there for quite a while, an hour or two, he guessed.  All he did was enjoy the feeling of the sun, and quietly breathe.  When his eyes finally opened, he found himself back at the top of the Storm Titan’s Mountain.  The peak next to the platform had been shattered, leaving it half as tall as it had been before, and there were more than a few burns around him.  All signs of the magic array were gone, save for a few blackened lines, and there were puddles in the shallow pits of the stone.

    Artorias was sitting on the edge of the platform, looking out over the forest, when he noticed that Leon had finally woken up.  He breathed a sigh of relief, allowing his tension of the past night to dissipate.  He got up, as calmly as he could, and walked over to his son.

    “How do you feel, little lion?”

    It took Leon a few moments to really process what he was asking, before giving an uncertain reply.  “All right, I guess.  Very tired.”

    “That’s understandable.  Your body was just flooded with foreign magic, nearly torn apart from both inside and out, and had to awaken its own dormant power in order to not completely break.”

    “So, I’ve awakened?  The ritual worked?”

    Artorias smiled with pride.  “Of course it did, you need only examine your own physical condition to see it.”

    Leon did just that, letting what little mana he had accumulated this far flow through his body.  He felt small amounts of energy return to his muscles, he felt the absence of his previous injuries, but the biggest thing he noticed was that every time magic flowed into his heart, not that much would be turned into mana.  Most seemed to simply disappear.

    “I can feel magic vanishing into my heart, does that mean it’s being stored?  Have I achieved the second-tier of magic?”  Leon asked with excitement.

    “Yes you have.  It’s an easy enough thing to sense when you get stronger, but trust me when I say that you are now counted among the ranks of second-tier mages.”  Artorias beamed down at Leon, every word bursting with pride in his son.

    Leon fought the urge to burst out into laughter, but an enormous smile still appeared on his face. 

    He was about to continue his excited questioning when his stomach gave a huge growl.

    “I suppose you would be a little hungry, you’ve spent almost an entire day unconscious.”  Artorias said, looking at the setting sun.

    “More than a little.”

    Artorias whipped up some of the lion meat into small steaks, and threw together the last of the herbs he’d brought into a pick-me-up for Leon, before serving them to the young man.  Leon tore into the food as if he hadn’t eaten in years, and all the meat was gone in minutes.  The bread soon followed, as did all the dried fruit they’d brought along.  It was truly a feast to the young man, and he had much to celebrate.

     

  • Chapter 10:  Soul Refinement


    Artorias slowly ate his food, in contrast with his son.  “You know, you had me quite worried for a while.”

    “Oh?  How so?”

    “My ritual wasn’t so dramatic.  Yours had quite the storm appear, while mine barely summoned more than a light shower.  Not to mention, it took me no more than a few hours to wake up, whereas you took most of the day.”

    Leon’s eyes widened in surprise.  He’d already passed out from the pain when the storm rolled in, so he had no idea about any of that.  “The storm wasn’t too bad, was it?”

    “Nothing I couldn’t handle, but the magic array was struck by lightning more than a few times.  Nearly gave me a heart attack.  Fortunately, you seem fine, so all’s well that ends well, I guess.”

    Leon lay back down, gazing up at the darkening sky.  “Will you teach me how to perform that ritual?  Seems like the kind of thing I ought to know.”

    “Sure thing, little lion.  When we get back home I’ll show what you need.”

    It wasn’t too much longer after that that Leon fell back asleep.  Artorias had no intention of waking him, the entire ordeal that was the ritual was unbelievably draining, not to mention being suddenly catapulted into the second-tier.

    One thing that truly marks the difference between the first and second-tier is the change that takes place in the heart.  Throughout the first-tier, all of a person’s muscles adapt to the magic that flows through them, roughly in the order of what muscles get used the most.  With this in mind, it makes sense that physical training would be very important to advancing through this tier.  As they adapt, muscles grow stronger and tougher, doubling or even tripling the mage’s strength and speed as they get closer to the second-tier. 

    This applies to the heart as well, but the real change is that the heart becomes capable of storing magic power.  Before this, all of a mage’s power is fused with their blood, kept as mana.  Blood can’t store very much magic, however.  Leon could barely fire off four arrows from his enchanted bow before running low, and his bow doesn’t even have that robust of an enchantment, just one that increases the speed of the arrow as it leaves the bowstring.

    Now that Leon’s heart can store magic power, it will be a while before he’ll be back up to top shape.  Artorias guessed that it would take about three or four weeks for Leon to recover from the ritual and get used to his new power.  These things are far more gradual for other mages, and crossing into the second-tier is far less taxing for them.  Those with inherited bloodlines have it much tougher in that regard, but ask anyone from those families and they’ll agree, the power bestowed on them by their ancestors is most definitely worth it.

    Artorias finished his meal and leaned back, laying his head down on the cool stone.  He didn’t need any kind of shelter or protection from the elements, not even that far above sea level.  Normally, Leon would still need to bundle up a bit, even in the second-tier, but now he needed to absorb as much magic as possible, so Artorias left him uncovered.  He simply stoked the fire a bit more, then laid down, joining his son in sleep.

    It was not long after dawn the Artorias woke up, but Leon didn’t stir until several hours later.

    Artorias glanced over at Leon, as the younger man slowly pulled himself up into a sitting position.  “How do you feel today?”

    “Much better.  I think I can even start the walk back home.”

    “Good.  Get some food in you, we’ll test your words in thirty-ish minutes.”

    With that said, Artorias gathered up all of his things.  It didn’t take long; his satchel and food pack was considerably lighter than it was when they set out.  In fact, they only had enough food and water for another two days in the packs, so they would’ve had to begin the return journey today regardless of how the hunt had gone.  Fortunately, they were heading home victorious, with a completed ritual under their belt and a large amount of lion meat ready to fill their food stores.

    Once Leon finished eating, and everything was packed, they set off down the mountain.  It was slow going due to Leon’s fatigue, but Artorias didn’t mind.  At the pace they started at, they would reach home before the end of the next day, so he wasn’t in any particular hurry.

    The first few hours went by in relative silence, but it was finally broken by Leon, who still had questions about the ritual, and what he saw afterwards.

    “Dad, I have a few questions about the ritual, if you wouldn’t mind.”

    “Sure, I’ll answer what I can.”

    “You said that during the ritual, we see our ancestor, and some of the other bloodlines can even speak to their ancestors.  Can you tell me what you saw during your own ritual?”

    “Yeah.  My ritual went as well as yours did, through significantly less intense, and when it was over I was left as unconscious as you were.  But I wasn’t simply asleep, as I’m sure you know full well by now.  I was in my soul realm!  A world formed from the concentration of magic power within me.  I didn’t spend that much time there after the ritual, a matter of seconds, really.  I remember hearing a screech that tore at my ears, and feeling the rumble of something very large landing very near to where I was laying.  I opened my eyes, and saw a great bird.  It looked down at me, and when our eyes made contact, I was ejected from my soul realm and woke up back at my ritual site.”

    Leon was shocked at this.  He had been at his ‘soul realm’ for who knows how long, and he had been around the bird for a much longer period of time compared to Artorias.

    Artorias glanced at Leon, and noticed that the younger man had started to frown and asked, “Why don’t you tell me your experience, I’m sure it must be quite different than mine, given the sheer power exhibited during your ritual.”

    Leon carefully explained as much to Artorias as he could, and the older man stopped walking, before turning to face the younger.

    “Really?  A storm within your soul realm…”  Artorias took a long pause before continuing.  “My father and his father had a theory about what our ancestor was.  It’s not something we can verify, but if it summoned a storm within your soul realm, then it lends some credence to it.  They believed that that bird is what was known as a Thunderbird.”

    “Thunderbird?  I’ve never heard of it.”

    “It’s a being that no longer exists, if it ever did in the first place.  It’s worshipped in some of the Northern Vales as the ruler of the heavens, and can control the weather.  According to the legends, the Thunderbird was granted the heavens by the sun itself, and sends lightning down to punish those who go against the will of the heavens.  Its greatest enemy was the Great Horned Serpent that ruled the sea, but the Thunderbird threw lightning down upon the Serpent, killing it forever.

    “These are just legends, but given our own family’s skill with lightning magic, and the visions we receive upon our awakening, it seems likely that the Thunderbird existed at some point.  But, ultimately, there’s little concrete proof to be had, and it’s not like our ancestor is in any kind of hurry to speak to us, so I guess we’ll never have the complete truth.”

    Artorias grew solemn as he continued to speak.  Leon didn’t make a sound, he just stood there, listening in fascination.

    “Our family were kings before the Sacred Bull’s descendants conquered or vassalized all of what is now the Bull Kingdom, but the oldest records we had indicated that we had come from somewhere else.  We don’t know from where we came, or when we moved, or even if the records are correct.  They held no information about our ancestor, only referencing it in vague terms, as if it were written for people for whom that knowledge was obvious and didn’t need to be repeated.”

    Leon began to get even more excited now.  It was rare for Artorias to speak so much about the family, though it’s been coming a lot in the past few days what with the ritual.  He suppressed the excitement as much as he could, and calmly asked, “How old were these records?  And you said ‘had’ when talking about them, do they still exist?”

    “… Maybe…”  Artorias stopped to think.  This subject started to overlap with things he wasn’t quite ready to talk about, so he was silent for a moment.  “What I can say is that our oldest record, a letter written by an old Thunder King to one of his sons, was estimated to be almost ten thousand years old.  As for whether those records still exist, I don’t know.  I never went to the vaults to check.”

    With that, Artorias started walking again.  Leon followed him, and though he couldn’t see Artorias’ face, he knew that he started to push into things his father didn’t want to speak of.  Although he wanted to push a bit more, he decided to stop there.

    “What about this ‘soul realm’?  Can you tell me anything about that?”  asked Leon, deciding to change the subject.

    Artorias didn’t stop again, but he answered readily enough.  “Sure.  Advancing through the tiers of magic is adapting your body to its use.  But first, how about you tell me what the third and fourth tiers are?”

    “Changing bones and bone marrow is the third, then comes internal organs and the brain.”

    “And the fifth?”

    “Learning to change mana type.”

    “Does the fifth-tier sound like a bodily change to you?”

    Leon took a moment to think, before hesitantly answering “No.”

    “It sort of is, but it’s the last change that happens to the body for a long time.  Advancing to the fourth-tier involves adapting inner organs to use magic.  This usually triples human lifespan at the very least, but longevity is not the point of it.  The best part comes when the brain adapts, that is when one becomes a fourth-tier mage.  This allows for far greater control of magic, and even allows you to control your adaptations, to a degree.  Advancing to the fifth-tier, changing your mana type, would be impossible otherwise.”

    “What does changing mana type even mean, though?”

    “What kind of magic do I use?”

    “Lightning, mostly.”

    “Adapting mana type is something that happens in bone marrow.  We change the type of mana we produce to better use our own magic.  Some people practice fire magic, so they can change the mana they produce into fire mana, to better use fire magic.  In my case, I can create a kind of ‘lightning mana’, which greatly increases my strength.”

    “But changing mana type isn’t permanent, right?  Otherwise that would mean sacrificing compatibility with more utilitarian magic, like powering runes and certain enchantments.”

    “With the control added when our brains adapt, We can more or less change at will.  In fact, once we can change back and forth at will is the mark of a true fifth-tier mage. 

    “Unfortunately, getting to that point means allowing magic to enter our bone marrow in more… extreme locations.  A fire mage would train in a volcano, where the magic in the surroundings has more fire energy in it.  Likewise, an earth mage would train underground, a water mage would train underwater, and wind mages might go to a canyon or a beach, where wind speeds pick up.  Lightning mages like us have great power, as lightning magic is incredibly potent, but this also means that we have to train primarily during storms, and allow lightning to strike our bodies and sink into our bones.”

    Artorias looked back at Leon, and seeing the slightly fearful look on his face, gave a light chuckle. 

    “Don’t worry, little lion, you won’t have to worry about that for a while yet.  Now, what’s the sixth-tier?”

    “…Soul refinement?”  Leon said with uncertainty.

    “Even if you think you’re wrong, say it with confidence.”

    “Soul Refinement!”

    “Good.  You’re not wrong in this case.  The heart stores magic, but have you ever asked yourself where this magic goes?”

    “I haven’t, actually.  That was something I never really questioned.”

    “The heart is the very core of our bodies.  It is where magic condenses within our body, and this condensed magic will form an entire world within us!  Thus, it is through the heart that we access our soul realm, our inner world.  The amount of magic we can store in our bodies is directly proportional to the size of our soul realm.  As we advance through the tiers, our soul realm naturally grows bigger, and when we reach the soul refinement stage, we start training to access it.

    “But things are a little different for us, being scions of an inherited bloodline.  That vision we all have when we undergo the awakening ritual wakes more than just our dormant power.  It also awakens our ancestor.  I’ve heard it theorized down south that we all have a shard of our ancestor’s soul within us, and that is what we see in our soul realms.  Because we have multiple souls within us, our soul realms are slightly bigger than others’.”

    Leon looked quite intrigued at this, asking “Does this mean that we can store more power than other people, since the soul realm is where our stored magic goes?”

    “Not really.  The differences in our soul realms compared to those of others is negligible in a practical sense.  That extra space you have was what, a one-hundred-foot-wide island?  A soul realm, by the time of the seventh-tier, is ten miles in every direction, and continues to grow.  It wasn’t hyperbole to say that it is an entire world within us, though not one that we can physically enter.

    “With that said, let’s get back to soul refinement.  This is the process of constructing a magical body, and learning to transfer your consciousness into it.  This body used to be thought of as our soul, and were even mistaken for ghosts, but nowadays, is simply called our ‘magic body’.  This magic body is refined within your physical body, but you can also manifest it outside of your physical body at will.  Initially, it’s unable to affect the world around it, but it can observe things a great distance from you.  As it grows and develops, that restriction can even be lifted.  The mark of becoming a sixth-tier mage, however, is when your magical body develops to the point that it can manifest within your soul realm.

    “But the biggest, and arguably most important thing a magic body is capable of, is saving a person from death.  Once a physical body is destroyed, a magic body might live on, if the dying person was strong enough.  With the death of the physical body, the mage can transfer their consciousness over to the magic body.  Unfortunately, this means that any hope of continuing to grow in power is all but gone, as the soul realm dies with the physical body.”

    Artorias looked over his shoulder at Leon, and slowed his pace a little.  He then asked, “Do you think you’re ready to learn what makes a seventh-tier mage?”

    Leon looked at his father, his golden eyes shining, and positively beaming in excitement.  He immediately answered “Of course!”

    “A sixth-tier mage has refined their soul, and can thus actively enter their soul realm.  There have been a few records of people entering the soul realm while sleeping, and we enter during our rituals, but it takes a refined soul, a magic body, to consciously enter the soul realm.  When they first enter, the soul realm looks quite similar to what you saw; an island floating in mist, with little else around.  This mist is called the Mists of Chaos, and can be used to build something called a mind palace.  It is a palace in the very center of the soul realm, and it’s where your magic body resides.

    “To become a seventh-tier mage, you have to construct your mind palace.  Just like your physical body, your magic body will also continue growing as you gain strength, and completing your mind palace indicates that you have reached a point that you can even bring physical objects into your soul realm!  Never forget, little lion, just because it’s called a ‘soul’ realm, and it’s the place where your magical body, resides, doesn’t mean that it’s intangible or imaginary.  I meant it when I said it’s like a small magical world deep within you.”

    Leon was blown away by this sudden onslaught of information.  To an extent, he expected this once he underwent the ritual, but now he was buzzing with excitement about the future.  But he still had questions for his father.

    “How would I know when my mind palace is complete?”

    “It resonates with your soul realm.  To a degree, since it’s your soul realm, it will be complete once you’re satisfied with it.  It’s a difficult feeling to put into words, but trust me when I say that you’ll know it when you’re finished.”

    The two continued on like this for some time, with Leon asking many questions and Artorias doing his best to answer.  But Artorias wasn’t all knowing, and he wasn’t trained as a teacher, so many of the more detailed and nuanced questions Leon asked only left the younger man with more questions, and few answers.

    But, they kept walking.  They arrived back at the Troll’s Bridge, paid the toll, and continued across.  The sun went down, and Artorias put up the standard defenses.  They woke the next morning after a relatively peaceful night’s rest, and set off again not much later.  They made good time, and made it home before dark.  Despite the sky still being fairly bright, once Leon made it back to his own bed, he immediately collapsed upon it and passed out.

  • Chapter 11:  Mana Glyph


    Leon spent the next week resting.  He did train a bit, but Artorias mostly insisted on it as a way to keep Leon active and limber. 

    Leon’s training mostly consisted of getting used to his new strength.  With his newly adapted muscles, he was now far stronger than he was before the ritual.  He estimated that he had more than doubled the amount of weight he could carry, and he wasn’t even finished recovering yet.

    But this light exercise wasn’t the only thing Leon focused on.  There were his meditations, lessons with Artorias on runes and enchantments, and he finally got around to skinning that stag the two of them had been ignoring. 

    He left the meat in the food shack, but hung up the fur in the shack next door.  The next time they were to trade furs with the tribesman was coming up, it having originally been planned for not long after the ritual, but Leon needed more time to recover than Artorias had initially thought.  So, the journey was postponed, and Leon spent a good twelve to thirteen hours a day sleeping or meditating, to fill his soul realm with as much magic as he could.

    After filling it up with magic, he would then pull it out and allow it to course through his body, through his extremities, and back out into the world.  This process of filling up and then draining his soul realm was critical, said Artorias, so Leon could get used to the feeling of being drained as well as full of power.  Most other mages wouldn’t need to get used to it, as such dramatic increases in power were so rare.

    This also counted as a form of training, as Leon was getting faster at filling his soul realm than before.  He was learning to consciously prevent magic from being fused with his blood into mana, and instead channel it into his soul realm.  He was also getting faster at calling upon that power, fusing it into his blood as fast as he could.

    The following week, Leon went back to weapons training.  Leon had been learning from Artorias for over a decade now, and there was little Artorias had left to teach, so the training was mostly just sparring so the two of them wouldn’t let their skills get rusty.  But there was another reason, to fix a problem that the hunt had made Artorias keenly aware of.

    When Leon was about to shoot the snow lion, it had sensed his killing intent.  No real mage would ever allow their killing aura to be so obvious, but Artorias had realized then that he had never taught his son how to restrain it properly.  If he had, Leon might have succeeded in killing the lion with that first shot, and would not have been left severely injured after the lion’s counterattack.

    But, this was easier said than done.  Killing intent is exactly what it sounds like, just the intent and willingness to kill.  However, for mages, this intent can manifest as an aura, and be extremely overwhelming to the unprepared.  Unfortunately, if the mage’s opponent is prepared, far stronger, or possesses a more potent killing intent, then the mage’s own killing intent will be far less effective.

    Artorias had raised Leon in a dangerous environment, where they had to hunt and kill to survive, all to instill in his son a powerful killing intent.  But, he had neglected to teach Leon exactly how to control it and unleash it only at the best possible moment.  This mostly comes down to keeping a tight hold over the magic that courses through the body and preventing it from leaking out.

    Keeping a lid on killing intent isn’t too difficult, even first-tier mages are taught how, but it still isn’t a skill that is learned in a day.  Artorias showed Leon a few techniques and exercises to help him restrain his killing intent, and moved on, trusting his son to practice and improve on his own.

    Artorias also tested Leon’s knowledge of runes and the glyphs they form when arranged in magical formations.  Upon seeing Leon’s results, he knew that his son was ready to start thinking about his own Mana Glyph.

    A Mana Glyph is something that a mage creates after they reach the fifth-tier.  Before then, a mage can only use magic by relying on enchantments or written spells.  After reaching the fifth-tier, they are strong enough to use their magic without specific enchantments or spells, although those still have a place in any mage’s arsenal.

    Every mage has their own Mana Glyph.  They create it themselves, and it ends up inscribed at the very center of their mind palace.  It is a mark that comes to represent the mage, and their impact on the world.  If inscribed on a weapon, it can help the weapon become more in sync with the mage, strengthening its enchantments.  If a mage grows strong enough, then their Mana Glyph can even exert pressure down upon someone nearby, or allow the mage to control spells and enchantments remotely.

    A mage can use another’s Mana Glyph, if they acquire something inscribed with it and they are at least of the third-tier, allowing them to tap into some of the other mage’s power.  High nobles who are strong enough will often give their third and fourth-tier family members weapons and spells with their Mana Glyph upon them to allow them to use magic without enchantments.

    The uses of a Mana Glyph are many, given that they represent their mage, and are typically only limited to the mage’s imagination.

    A mage needs to be at least of the fifth-tier to write their Mana Glyph, but those with inherited bloodlines are exceptions to that rule, as they so often are.  The rules of magic for humans often don’t quite apply to descendants of ascended beasts, as they are not entirely human themselves.

    An ordinary mage creates their Mana Glyph to start work on their mind palace.  A mage with an inherited bloodline can make their Glyph as soon as their blood awakens, though they still can’t begin work on their mind palace until the fifth-tier.

    Leon was still too weak to use a Mana Glyph in battle, even if he did make his own, but Artorias still wanted the former to start thinking about what he wanted the Glyph to be. 

    Mana Glyphs were usually runic symbols arranged into large circles, but could even be self-made symbols, and they often said quite a bit about the mage who made it.

    For example, Artorias’ Glyph was the end of a long story about a mortal who sought eternal youth.  He journeyed all across the world, seeking the greatest mages and wise men, consulting the most renowned sages, and the most isolated hermits.  Eventually, he found what he sought; a golden apple, said to bestow eternal life upon the one who ate it.  The mortal raised the apple to his lips, only to have it stolen from his hand by an eagle just as he was about to take a bite.

    Artorias loved that story, as it reminded him that sometimes, no matter how certain your victory might be, it can always be taken from you at any time, so one should always prepare for every eventuality.

    Life in the compound went on like normal for several more weeks before the two started to prepare to travel out of the Forest of Black and White, and head for the neighboring vale.  They intended to trade their furs for more food and a few items Artorias wanted.

    Leon spent these few weeks’ meditations thinking about his Mana Glyph, though he hadn’t a clue as what it should be.  Artorias told him to take his time, as it would accompany him throughout his entire life.

    Neither of them had any idea that very soon, their relatively peaceful lives would come to an end.

    ---

    The palace in the capital city of the Bull Kingdom had always impressed Roland Magnus.  From its shining towers of white stone to its marble halls filled with gold and silver, he never failed to marvel at the great estate.

    He smiled as he crossed the long bridge across the lake towards the palace.  It had taken no small amount of time and effort, but he had finally managed to be appointed as the sixth paladin of the Kingdom.  Typically, paladins weren’t appointed unless they achieved the seventh-tier of magic, but he was only a sixth-tier mage.  Roland was only in his late twenties, so Prince August, who had arranged for his appointment, was able to use his great potential as justification.

    Roland had been summoned by Prince August, and was now on his way to meet him.  This was to be his first mission as a paladin, and he was determined to live up to his new rank.

    He calmly rode his horse up to the gate, while the guards there watched his approach.  Roland was dressed in white formal wear, a short-sleeved silk shirt that was covered in silver runes, and cloth pants tucked into his dress shoes.  His dark brown hair was cropped short, and his face was closely shorn.  But all the guards saw was the sash across his chest, deep red with the golden paladin sigil, and his sword, a long blade in an ornate silver sheathe.

    The guard captain made a gesture, and the large iron gate began to move.  It took a while for it to open, and a bit more time to lower the wards and defensive enchantments for Roland to enter, but he finally rode his steed past the six-foot-thick doors and into the royal estate.  Behind the walls lay dozens of acres of forest and riding grounds.  These were there for the pleasure of the king and his family, though they were rather devoid of human life at the moment.

    Roland still felt pride as he rode along the royal road towards the guest stables.  Here, even the road was worthy of being noticed.  A pair of brilliant earth and fire mages had designed most of the roads in the royal capital, laying down bricks of enchanted stone, and melting them down until the seams disappeared.  The road was smooth and without flaw, flanked by large trees, marble statues, and ivory archways carved into depictions of great victories by the kingdom’s legions.

    Roland arrived at the stable and gave them his steed.  They led the horse into its designated building about a hundred feet away, and Roland began walking towards the main palace.

    The palace complex was actually over a dozen different buildings, from the opulent royal apartments, to the more humble guest house, to the secluded royal harem, it sprawled out over the island in the middle of the lake.

    Roland walked for several minutes before arriving at the main palace complex, an enormous building containing the throne room, the Assembly rooms, three courtrooms, innumerable offices, and a number of waiting rooms for visitors.

    Roland walked through the large archway of polished granite and stepped into the courtyard.  The floor was shiny black and white marble, with a fountain built around a large statue.  The painted statue depicted a charging bull, the very same Sacred Bull that had reached the eighth-tier of magic and transformed its shape into that of a human, the progenitor of the kingdom’s royal family.

    The paladin walked past this fountain, and into the palace itself.  The building was made of perfectly uniform white stones with a roof of red ceramic tiles.  It looked like a large villa, with little defensive value, but Roland could feel the magic flowing through the walls.  It would take an incredible amount of power to even scratch the surface of those white stones.

    The guards at the entrance recognized him, and let him through.  There, an adjutant to the fourth prince saw him, and led him to Prince August’s office.  Upon arrival, Roland was immediately led into a richly decorated room with red carpets and walls lined with filled bookshelves. 

    Behind a large desk of dark oak sat the young prince.  He wasn’t conventionally handsome, a young man barely twenty, with a thin body and scholarly disposition, but he carried with him a dignity that only came from royalty.  His pale face looked fresh and energetic, but the slight bags under his dark brown eyes betrayed his fatigue.  He absentmindedly brushed his long dirty-blonde hair away from his eyes while he finished reading the paper in front of him.

    A few seconds after he heard the door close, the prince looked up from his paperwork, and smiled when he saw his guest.  He rose from his desk, and after Roland made a respectful bow, he went over and embraced his friend.  “Roland!  It’s good to see you, my friend!  How has the capital been treating you?”

    “Good, Your Highness.  My family has settled in well, and are enjoying the warmer climate, to be sure.”

    “Wonderful.  If they need anything, you only need to ask, and I’ll have it taken care of.”

    “Your Highness is too kind.  We want for nothing after you made me a paladin.”

    “Good, good.  Can I get you anything?”  The prince gestured at a servant in the corner who stepped forward, waiting for Roland’s response.

    Roland looked at the servant, and merely said, “Some water will do.”

    “Are you sure, we may be here a while.”  said the Prince.

    “I’m sure, Your Highness.”

    “Well, I won’t be so reserved.  Bring me some apple soda and some of those orange crackers.  The ones made of baked cheese.”

    The servant bowed, and left.

    “Come now, my friend, have a seat.”  August and Roland took a seat in fancy mahogany chairs covered in red velvet, with a small table in between and a fireplace in front of them.  They made more small talk while waiting for the servant to return.  When he did, the prince dismissed him after placing a tray with what they ordered on the table.

    “Now then, let’s get to business.”

    Roland listened intently, ready to perform his duty.

    “I need you to assemble a team of knights and their retainers, go north past the Frozen Mountains, and into the Northern Vales.”

  • Chapter 12:  The Mission


    Roland stared at the prince for moment, stunned.  “The Northern Vales?  What could the king possibly need there that he needs to send a paladin?”

    August sighed, then took a sip of his drink.  He looked Roland in the eyes before saying, “The king isn’t sending you.  I am.”

    This left Roland almost speechless.  The prince certainly had the power to make a paladin, but the paladins only took orders from the king.  The prince had no authority to give him any assignments, so why was he ordering Roland to go north?

    “Your Highness, I…”

    “I understand.  You’re uncomfortable with this mission since is doesn’t come directly from my Royal Father.  But let me ask you something, where is the king now?”

    “He’s entered secluded training, leaving the kingdom in the hands of Your Highness and the Second Prince.  I had thought there was some emergency when I received your summons, for the king to issue a mission to a paladin, and I came here in all haste.  I even had to leave my squire behind.”

    August looked out the windows for a moment, before looking back at Roland with a bitter smile.  “The king isn’t in secluded training.”

    There was a brief pause, while Roland rapidly thought through the possibilities.  ‘Prince August seems a little reluctant to part with this information, so clearly the king isn’t ruling from behind the scenes.  But if he isn’t training, then where is he?  Is he retired in all but name?  Is he allowing his sons to rule as co-regents to see who ought to be his successor?’

    August watched Roland’s face rapidly shift, from worried to contemplative, to slight anger, then back to worried.  “There’s no need to speculate, my friend, I’ll tell you the truth.  You do have a right to know, as a paladin.  However, you must make a blood oath not to speak a word of this to anyone without my explicit approval.”

    It didn’t Roland long to agree.  In fact, Prince August was surprised that he agreed so fast.  He brought out a contract he’d had drawn up not too long ago, and placed it before the paladin.  Roland read the short contract, and satisfied that there were no hidden clauses, he drew a knife and made a small cut on his hand.  He then dipped a nearby quill in his blood, wrote his name down on the paper, and wrapped his hand in a handkerchief that August passed to him.

    “Good, I’ll have this taken to the priests at Lineage Hall.  I’m glad you were able to trust me, Roland.  Finding good men like you is quite difficult these days.”  August rose from his seat at the table, and walked over to his desk. 

    Roland rose as well, as it wouldn’t do for him to continue to sit while a member of royalty had risen. 

    August picked up a small bell and gave it a quick ring.  The servant from before entered at the sound, and bowed to the prince.  August carefully folded the contract before placing it in a thin metal box.  This box was sealed with Augusts’ personal Mana Glyph, so he’d know if anyone opened it.

    “Take this to my Eldest Brother at Lineage Hall.  It is for his eyes only, on the pain of execution for treason.”  The servant grew a little pale after hearing that, and seeing the prince’s stern look, but accepted the box and made for the door.  He gave one more bow, then left.

    The prince took a deep breathe, before returning to his seat.  Roland joined him back at the table, and waited for the prince to speak.

    It took several moments, but August finally began.  “My Royal Father went into secluded meditation to attempt to finish breaking into the eighth-tier.”

    Roland didn’t speak a word, but he understood the king’s decision.  Entering the eighth-tier was a long and complex process, involving greatly expanding the soul realm, so it’s no surprise that many mages choose to enter private long-term training to accomplish it.

    The prince continued.  “That was six years ago.  I was barely fifteen, yet my Royal Father left the kingdom in the hands of myself and my Second Brother.  This worked fine for a while, but an accident occurred about four years ago.  The servant tasked with bringing my Royal Father his meals found him unconscious on the ground.  He wasn’t able to be woken, and the healers were called.”

    Roland listened with rapt attention.  He hadn’t a faintest clue this had happened.  He was also quite concerned, as it meant a great deal for the kingdom if the king died now, when there was no clear heir.

    “My Royal Father has been in that coma ever since.  There have been no changes to his condition, but the Royal Physician has told me that every day he lingers in that coma, the chances of him waking lessen.”  August’s face grew solemn, before quickly changing into anger.  “Making the situation worse is my Second Brother all but abandoning the capital last year.  Even now, he’s travelling all over the kingdom, supposedly placating the high lords and keeping the nobles in check, but I know better.”

    This talk started making Roland very nervous.  King Julius Taurus had six children, four of them sons, but only his second son was by his wife, the rest by concubines.  The eldest, a powerful sixth-tier mage in his sixties, had renounced the title of Crown Prince, and ran off to join the priests in Lineage Hall.  The Third Prince, a rather weak and timid man, more prone to burying himself in books and legends, also renounced his claim to the throne.  This left the Fourth Prince, August, the thin and erudite man that he was, and the Second Prince, Octavius, a tall, muscular, handsome and energetic man who seemed every bit the heir to the Sacred Bull that August didn’t.

    But despite the Second Prince expecting be named heir, King Julius never did clarify the issue.  Then, when going into secluded training, he left the kingdom to be ruled by both the thirty-year-old Second Prince and the Fourth Prince, the then fifteen-year-old August.  The Second Prince was left angry and humiliated.  Many nobles had supported his claim, and had spoken of their support for him publicly, but the king refused to name him Crown Prince, and made him share the position of regent with his younger brother!  It would have been one thing if August had been the child of a noble concubine, but instead he was the child of the king’s favorite mistress, a woman of common birth.

    Now, with the king indisposed, it made sense that August was feeling the pressure, and went so far as to name Roland, a commoner by birth but longtime friend, as the Sixth Paladin of the Bull Kingdom.  He needed to shore up his own power base, and find, or make, reliable allies.

    August had paused here, waiting for Roland’s response.

    “Your Highness… This is an issue of monumental importance, but as a paladin, I’m sworn to no one but the king.  I’m not too sure what your purpose is in sending me north.  Are you trying to gain the support of our tribal allies?  They couldn’t even contribute a single legion’s worth of warriors.  They’d be cut down by our soldiers in no time flat.”

    “I’m not sending you north for warriors, though you will have to make contact with our tribal allies.  No, what I’m sending you north for would hopefully avert civil war, rather than feed the fire.

    “Not too long ago, I managed to persuade a healer from the court of the Sacred Golden Empress to come north and examine the king.  He told me that the king suffered a backlash from trying to forcibly grow his soul realm, rather than letting it grow naturally.  The chances are abysmally low for the king to wake on his own, but fortunately he knows a potion that could heal him.  The bad news is that he doesn’t have all the ingredients.

    “What I’m sending you north for is something called Heartwood Amber.  Heartwood trees secrete a resin that hardens into amber over many millennia.  Unfortunately, all the heartwood trees south of the frozen mountains are regularly harvested to build ships before they’re old enough to produce the amber, making it prohibitively scarce.  There are still old heartwood trees in the Northern Vales, however, so I need you to find some of this amber.”

    Roland still looked fairly conflicted.  He didn’t expect his first mission would be in such a remote and uncivilized place.  Maybe dealing with a rebellious lord, or hunting a troublesome monster, but not dealing with northern barbarians.

    At least, he hoped it would only require dealing with a few barbarians.  There are more than a few nightmarish stories about some of the less inhabited vales, stories about wraiths ripping souls out of people to use in profane rituals, creatures made of darkness that seep into a person’s body during the night and consume them from the inside, forest creatures that ensnare men with their otherworldly beauty, before turning them to stone, or worse.  Roland wasn’t too keen on finding how accurate these stories were.

    But, if what the prince had told him was true, then he was receiving an order from as close to royalty as he was going to see for a long time.  So, he finally, reluctantly, gave his answer.  “I’ll go, Your Highness.  I’ll find this Heartwood Amber, and bring it back for the king.”

    August warmly smiled in relief.  “Wonderful, wonderful.”

    Roland opened his mouth to speak once more, but seemed to think better of it, deciding to keep silent, but August noticed.

    “What’s on your mind, my friend?”

    “It’s… nothing.  Forgive me, Your Highness, it isn’t my place to question orders.  I’ve already been insolent enough by hesitating.”

    “I give you permission to speak freely.  No one else is here, only the two of us.  Besides, who would dare to suggest that a paladin cannot ask a question of a prince, especially when receiving a mission?  So fret not, all words spoken here are said in confidence.”

    Roland seemed to struggle a bit more, but eventually gave voice to what was on his mind.  “I must ask Your Highness, why send me?  There are five other paladins in the kingdom, all of whom would gladly undertake this mission for the well-being of the king.”

    August’s smile turned bitter again.  “The Penitent Paladin and Bronze Paladin don’t move unless personally ordered by the king.  They already know of my Royal Father’s condition and have taken it upon themselves to guard his chambers.  There’s no way they’ll ever accept a mission from me, no matter how necessary.

    “The Sapphire Paladin grew up with my Second Brother, much like how you grew up with me.  She would see me as a pretender to the throne and would never undertake a mission under my orders, let alone one that made her leave the kingdom.

    “The Earthshaker Paladin is the younger brother of my Second Brother’s mother.  He won’t listen to me, either.

    “I’ve been making headway in bringing the Brimstone Paladin over to my side, but I doubt he’d go so far on my orders, especially as he’s out exterminating a vampire nest right now.

    “This leaves you.  We’ve known each other for over ten years, you’re as close a friend as I have.  This is a well-known fact, and I’ve caught no small amount of heat for appointing you to the position of paladin.  The other five are all seventh-tier mages, but you are only of the sixth-tier.  I know my Royal Father would never have approved of my decision to give you that title, not until you completed your mind palace, at least.  I believe that accomplishing this task will not only bring me the Heartwood Amber I need to heal my Royal Father, but will also prove definitively that you deserve your new position.”

    All this rather blew Roland away.  He’d barely considered what the nobles might think of his appointment, as he’d thought he had the approval of the king.  August waited for Roland’s reaction, and didn’t have to wait long.

    “Your Highness, I’ll go and find that Heartwood Amber.  I’ll assemble a small team, and head north after acquiring provisions.  I’ll find the amber, and return as soon as possible.  I won’t let you down.”

    August felt relief and joy.  He knew he could count on his friend, but he had still felt some apprehension when calling Roland to the palace.  He wasn’t the king or the crown prince, so Roland was well within his rights to refuse.

    But he didn’t.  His friend agreed.

    The two stayed in the prince’s office for another half hour, going over a few more logistical details and doing what they could to make Roland’s journey north easier.

    Eventually, Roland departed from the palace.  On his way out, he saw his squire, a boy of nineteen.  He’d been so worried at being given his first mission that he’d left his home without a moment’s pause.  The last order he gave to his servants was to inform his squire that he was heading towards the palace, and to wait for him at the entrance.

    And sure enough, there he was.  This boy was of average height, with neutral brown hair, and average build.  Looking at him on the street, Roland would have described him as being ‘the embodiment of average in appearance’.  His naturally fair skin tone had darkened considerably from the amount of time he had to spend outdoors when training, and almost matched his leather armor.

    But he was a solid fighter.  Roland had been assigned him almost a year ago, from before he had been made a paladin, and had come to know just how good this boy was with a sword from encounters with bandits, smugglers, and wandering monsters.

    Roland stepped out of the palace’s door, walked out of the peristyle, and waved to the squire.  “Luke!  I’m glad they let you past the gate on the bridge.”

    “They almost didn’t, Sir.  I had to show them all of my identification papers before they allowed me to enter the island.  I still had to wait for you here, though, they wouldn’t let me come find you in the palace.”  Luke gestured at the royal guards by the palace doors.

    Roland shrugged.  “That’s understandable, but I hope you haven’t been waiting too long.”

    “No, Sir.  I just got here about fifteen minutes ago.  Is it time to leave?”

    “It is indeed.”

    “Then I shall fetch the horses.”

    Roland smiled.  Luke was a diligent squire, and if a two-year squireship wasn’t required to graduate from the Knight Academy, then he would have already knighted the boy.

    It didn’t take long for Luke to return with two horses.  One was the stallion that Roland had rode in on, a magnificent courser with a deep black coat.  Luke had to make due with a cheaper, less impressive horse, a small mare with a significantly less shiny brown coat.  The stallion was lean and muscular, but the mare just looked rather thin, and didn’t respond to Luke’s hold nearly as quickly as the stallion did for Roland.

    The two men climbed onto their horses, and began riding towards the bridge, with Roland taking a slight lead.  They rode away with neither speaking a word.

    After a few moments, after they had put some distance between them and the palace, Roland finally broke the silence.  “Best get some good rest tonight, Luke.  We’ve a long couple of months ahead of us.”
  • Chapter 13:  The Team


    “What sort of mission have we received, Sir?” asked Luke.

    “We’re going north, past the Frozen Mountains, and into the Northern Vales.  We are looking for an alchemical ingredient called ‘Heartwood Amber’.”

    Luke frowned.  He had a casual hobby of alchemy, but had never heard of Heartwood Amber before.

    Roland continued, “We’re also going to need a small team.  Maybe four or five, plus their men-at-arms.  I already have a few in mind, we’ll go over it when we get back to my place.”

    It took them half an hour to get back to Roland’s villa.  It had a similar aesthetic to the royal palace, as did most other villas in the area, all white stone, red roof tiles, marble floors, and granite columns, and was built on a large estate of about four acres.  The place was also quite magically advanced, with enchantments regulating temperature, even in the open-air sections of the villa, and enchantments that lock doors, purify water, preserve food, maintain the gardens, and even enchantments that repelled the rain and brought running water to the villa.

    Roland and Luke rode in through the gate into the entrance garden.  There was a small stable off to the side, with space for four horses.  Roland left Luke to unsaddle the horses, and walked inside to greet his wife.

    Melissa was a common-born girl, of slightly less than average height, light brown hair, and warm, gentle features.  She was certainly a beauty, but of a more cute and earthly quality than more dazzling and gorgeous highborn ladies, who often invested heavily in magic that preserved or amplified their beauty.

    When Roland walked in, she was giving orders to the servants who maintained the villa and operated her side business.  Roland was quite well-paid as a paladin, and as a knight before that, so she’d taken some of that money to start a small masonry business, cutting and polishing some of the white stone that the nobles of the kingdom seemed to build everything out of.  Next to her was a middle-aged woman holding an infant boy. 

    She turned to see who had walked in and saw her husband in his bright formal suit.  She’d had a stern, stoic business face on before, but that broke into a warm and loving smile.  Roland walked over, and gave her a gentle hug, making sure not to squeeze too hard, given that she was only a second-tier mage and he was of the sixth-tier, and smiled down at his son in the arms of the servant.

    Melissa gave her husband an inquisitive look, wordlessly asking what had been asked of him at the palace, but he just gave her a kiss and told her that they would talk about it later, and for now he would be in his study with Luke and a few others.

    So, Roland settled into his study, with ink and paper, making a list of essential supplies and starting to map out the route to take.  When Luke returned, the squire diligently began making a list of needed provisions, and two started discussing who to bring on the journey north.  Paladins always had a good number of subordinate knights and men-at-arms assigned to them as personal retinues, and there were a few in Roland’s service that he wanted on this mission.

    Soon, couriers departed, summoning those he had chosen to his villa.

    The first to arrive was Sir Andrew Clement.  He was a great bear of a man, easily six and a half feet of solid muscle.  His long dark brown beard barely fit under a helmet, though he rarely bothered with one, preferring instead to armor himself in light leather so he wouldn’t be weighed down while wielding his heavy double-bladed battle-axe.

    Then, there was Dame Sheira Evensen.  She too was quite tall, pushing six feet, but far leaner than Sir Andrew.  She had fine, noble features, long blonde hair, and piercing blue eyes.  She had a calm temperament, and was an artist with a cavalry lance.

    The last person invited was Sir Roger Stanley.  He was fearless, almost to the point of recklessness.  Roland had seen him charge into a werewolf nest without armor, wielding only a morningstar.  He was a thin and wiry man with short red hair and a fair amount of unshaven stubble.

    These three were the knights that Roland had decided on having with him as he went north.  All three were fifth-tier mages, and battle-hardened warriors.  What’s more, they had all been serving as his subordinate knights for several years now, and their loyalties were without question.

    Naturally, they were curious as to why they had been summoned to meet Roland so quickly, as meetings would usually be scheduled days in advance, but Roland wouldn’t say until everyone was present.

    When Roger finally arrived, Roland clapped his hands and got down to business.  “I have been tasked with a mission that concerns the fate of the kingdom.  I must go north in search of a material called Heartwood Amber, and I have decided that you all shall accompany me.

    “We’ll be going north via the Julian Road, all the way to Clear Ice Fortress.  It should take about two weeks to go that far, so we’ll stop off for a few days’ rest at the fortress, then continue north past the Frozen Mountains.  We’ll make contact with the chief of the locals, the Brown Bear Tribe, and proceed from there.  If all goes well, we’ll be back in the capital within two months.

    “Any questions?” Roland looked at each the knights in turn.  Roger simply smiled in anticipation.  He had no qualms about going to the less civilized parts of the world.  Sheira, too, didn’t question Roland’s plan.  They had been with Roland through thick and thin, and would follow him wherever they were needed.  Only Andrew spoke up.

    “Sir, wouldn’t it be easier to simply ask the Heaven’s Eye Merchant Guild?  I’m sure they would be able to find some of this Heartwood Amber without us risking our lives that far from home.”

    Heaven’s Eye Merchant Guild was a multinational financial organization from the central empires.  It specialized in all things gold, from trade to banking.  It was so trusted, in fact, that it handled the banking needs of just about every state in Aeterna.  They almost completely controlled the entire plane’s economy, but in return they had made many blood oaths that they would separate themselves from politics, and never take sides in national conflicts, whether internal or external.  This wasn’t always feasible, especially in civil wars, but the Guild was the single most trusted organization in existence, and it had earned that trust.

    “His Highness Prince August has already met with their representatives.  They indicated that it would be several years before any amber might become available, and even then, it might clear out a huge chunk of the kingdom’s reserves.”

    Andrew was almost dumbstruck.  “It’s that expensive?  How the hell would we even find some, then?”

    “That very question is why a paladin has been dispatched, rather than sending diplomats to recruit the tribesmen, or sending a foraging party.”

    While Andrew sat there, attempting to process just how valuable Heartwood Amber was, Sheira finally decided to ask something.  “Sir, I get the idea that this mission is somewhat time sensitive?”

    “You’re not wrong.  The sooner we can accomplish this task, the better.”

    “Why then are we taking the Julian Road?  If we take a barge up the Naga River, we’d be at the Duchy of Morena, and from there it would be only be a quick journey through the Grandison March, and we’d be at the Clear Ice Fortress.  It could cut days off the travel time.”

    Roland made a bitter expression.  “We’re not going that way.  We’ll stick within the Royal Demesne as much as possible.  Nobles don’t take kindly to me, a common-born knight, being named as the sixth paladin.  A sixth-tier common-born knight.  The Duke and Marquis would undoubtedly get in our way.”

    Since his talk with the prince, Roland understood that the higher nobles didn’t take too kindly to his appointment, so he wanted to avoid entering their lands as much as possible.  Fortunately, over forty percent of the kingdom was ruled directly by the royal family or an appointed governor, so it was easy enough for him to get to where he needed to go.

    “There is one more thing.  We are the only knights who will be going.  I want you to pick three men-at-arms each.  Your own squires can come as well.  We’ll be travelling light, and we’ll have to leave our horses at Clear Ice, so no heavy armor.”

    The knights all nodded, though with some trepidation.  It was true that passing the Frozen Mountains with horses would be almost impossible due to the roughness of the terrain, but it was still hard to hear.  Roland and his knights had made their names in a heavy cavalry unit, and their horses were symbols of their status.

    But they still knew that as much as they might want to, the horses couldn’t come with.

    So, the five continued to talk for another hour, hammering out the details of the mission, where they would go, the specifics of the route, the supplies they would bring, and who they would speak to.  When they were finished, the three knights left to make their preparations.

    Luke wasn’t too far behind, as he too had to make arrangements for himself and Roland.

    When Roland left the study, he made for the meeting room off the entrance hall.  Melissa was there, sitting behind a large table with a table covered in papers.  She was examining one of them, quill in hand, pretty face scrunched up into her ‘concentrating face’.

    The servants at her side bowed once they noticed he had come in.  Melissa then looked up, and her face brightened into a dazzling smile when she him.  Roland nodded to his servants, and they bowed once more before exiting the room.

    Roland crossed the hall and took his wife into his arms.  She was bit surprised, but lovingly returned the hug.  They stayed that way for several minutes, neither quite willing to separate from the other.

    But, finally, Roland had to say something, so he moved his head to whisper into Melissa’s ear.  “I have to go away for a while.  A few months at the least.  I’m going to have to leave tomorrow.”

    Her face was buried in his chest, but he felt her tremble, before looking up into his eyes.  “This is what you were called to the palace for?  The King wants to take my husband from my arms and send him off to ancestors knows where.”  Her radiant smile was still there, but it had faltered somewhat.  She removed herself from Roland’s arms after a sigh of dejection.  “Gracchus!” she shouted.

    An elderly man came in from another room, wearing a plain gray robe, and what little hair remained on his head was cut short.  He was almost seventy years old, and he was only a first-tier mage so his lifespan was no longer than a regular mortal.  He was an accountant, hired by Roland to assist his wife and her other employees in keeping the books at her business.

    He bowed as he came in, first to Roland, then again to Melissa.  “How may I assist you, my lady?”

    Melissa waved her hand at the table.  “Go over these documents.  They all should pertain to transportation permits and import taxes, but you can brief me on them tomorrow regardless.”  She then gave Roland a sultry look, and started walking further into the villa.  Roland, of course, followed, and Gracchus bowed as they left the room.

    Once through the door to their bedroom, Melissa threw herself at her husband.  It took them a while to undress, as their lips almost seemed glued together, but eventually they made it to the large bed, leaving their clothing in small piles on the way.

    Melissa had jumped into Roland’s arms, and he carried her the last few steps before throwing her down onto the bed.  He lowered himself over her, going for one last kiss before continuing, but she wrapped her legs around his waist, preventing him from moving.  Roland gave her a look that was both surprised and aroused, and she twisted her hips, throwing him down beside her.  She quickly pushed herself up, getting on top of him.

    She sat on his waist completely without any shame, letting her husband see and touch everything.  She brought her face closer to his, and he moved to kiss her again.  She stopped him by placing her finger on his lips, and pushed his head back down while giving him an impish smile.  She brought her lips in close to his ear, whispering, “When you leave tomorrow, you are the Bull Kingdom’s Sixth Paladin, but until then, you’re mine.”
  • Chapter 14:  Two Journeys


    It took an enormous effort for Roland to get out of bed the next morning.  He lay there with his sleeping wife in his arms for almost an hour before he could muster the willpower to get up.

    Melissa, for her part, didn’t make it easy.  He had woken her as he got up, and began to dress, but she just lay there, without a stitch of clothing on.  Needless to say, Roland’s willpower wavered, and it took the couple another hour before they managed to leave the bedroom.

    By now, the sun was high in the sky, and servants were scuttling around the estate preparing for the departure of Roland and his retinue.  Roland himself spent the rest of the morning having a late breakfast with Melissa and their son.

    But, inevitably, it came time for Roland to leave, so he had to head for his dressing room just off the armory, where Luke helped him into his silver runic armor.  Roland had told his knights not to bring their own armor, as it would slow them down when crossing the Frozen Mountains, but he was a paladin, and it was expected that he would wear his gleaming silver armor and blood red cape, emblazoned with the paladin sigil. 

    Once suited up, Roland made for the entrance of the villa, where several more servants were waiting, with his three knights, their men-at-arms, squires, and the horses.  Luke hurried forward to take the reins of his and Roland’s horses, while Roland gave one last goodbye kiss to Melissa and their boy.

    “Everyone ready?”  Roland asked, as he mounted his horse.  Everyone nodded, mounted their own horses, and the group set off.

    Melissa watched them go as calmly as she could, but as soon as they had ridden past view, she could no longer suppress her tears.  It took her a few minutes to compose herself, but when she realized that the servants were waiting on her next orders, she immediately straightened up, handed her son to the nanny, and began instructing the servants.

    “Get the stables clean!  There won’t be any horses in there for a while, and I want it spotless when my husband returns.  And bring me Gracchus.  I want an update on that paperwork, and on how well our latest foundry has been operating.”

    There were three young ladies at Melissa’s side.  They were common-born women, but had been trained as scribes.  Roland had hired them to act as her assistants, and when they heard her commands, they immediately relayed them to the servants as required.

    Melissa sighed wistfully, took one last look in the direction Roland had ridden off in, and went back into the house.  She now planned to throw herself into her work until he returned.

    As for Roland, he felt the same pain of separation, but he was in front of his knights.  He could be affectionate with his family at home, but now he was Roland the Paladin, and had to be their cool and calm leader.  He maintained a stoic expression, and led his knights out of the city.

    The capital was an enormous city, with a population of several million.  It took almost the entire day of riding before they had left the suburbs, and almost a dozen more before they finally made it to the Great Plateau, the last region they had to cross before entering the Frozen Mountains.

    It was fairly boring the entire way, but they made good time.  There wasn’t much conversation, as Roland pushed them hard, but there was no trouble on the royal highway.  Roland’s instinct was to stay at the cheapest inns on the way north, but he was now a paladin, and had several nobles in his party, so he compromised and allowed them all to stay at much nicer places.

    Dame Sheira, for her part, was quite grateful.  She knew that Roland had little desire for the luxurious trappings of nobility, but she had grown up as the second-born child of a marquis, and was used to a standard of living far above that of a cheap inn. 

    Victoria, her squire, a young girl of seventeen, was also noble-born, and appreciated the finer things much more than Sheira, however.  The lady knight had to reprimand her squire several times on the road for complaining about lodgings. 

    No one else made a sound about it, though, which was fairly surprising, as there was one more noble in the group, one of Sir Andrew’s men-at-arms.  This man was quiet and rarely stood out, in stark contrast to how most nobility acted.  Any other high-born would have demanded a knighthood by now, but he still served as a man-at-arms, even though he was a fourth-tier mage.

    What was even more odd about him was his background.  He had come from a city that had been recently granted to a noble family that had moved to the kingdom less than a decade ago, known as the Isynians.  Twelve years ago, when the king had appointed the head of their house as governor of a large and prosperous city, there had been some pushback from older families, but the king hadn’t budged on the issue.  Fortunately, Lord Justin, the head of House Isynos, was a private man who rarely made public appearances, and his family was only marginally more social.  Eventually, the clamor around his appointment died down, and most simply forgot about him.

    There wasn’t much known about this new house, not even where they had come from.  All anyone knew was that had come from ‘south’.  And now there was a man from that house serving one of Roland’s knights.

    There were some knights in Roland’s retinue that openly distrusted this ‘Adrianos Isynos’ when Sir Andrew introduced him, but in the year and a half since he arrived, he more than proved himself in battle, eventually achieving acceptance among the other knights and men-at-arms.

    This group made their way further north, passing the city of Teira, the seat of the old Thunder Kings.  Roland had always wanted to visit this city, walk its streets, and see the grand palace where the Archdukes of House Raime lived.  Apparently, their palace was so majestic that it made the palace in the capital look like a beggar’s hovel.  It had been an enormous structure, with gigantic halls seemingly built for giants, baths so large they could fit an entire battalion, and luxurious apartments that left House Raime’s guests so pampered that many almost burst into tears when it came time to leave.

    But now, all that remained of this once jaw-droppingly gorgeous palace were a few broken walls, lonely columns, and shattered stone.  The last Archduke that ruled the Great Plateau was Kyros Raime, who, alongside his eldest son, had been assassinated almost fifteen years ago, not even a year after his only other son had disappeared after an attack on his villa in the capital.  King Julius had loved Archduke Kyros like a brother, and openly wept when he heard the news.  He decreed that no one was to ever build upon the old palace grounds again, and that its remains would be a memorial to House Raime.

    But there was more to the city than just the palace.  There were the immense lightning rods, that collected the lightning from the frequent storms in the area and channeled it into a training holy ground for lightning mages.

    There was Konstantine’s Dome, a staggeringly large arena built into a crater that could seat over two hundred thousand people.  All kinds of sports and magic competitions were held under the massive painted dome, which depicted a great bird of prey surrounded by rain and lightning pulling a horned sea serpent out of the raging ocean.

    And then there was the plateau itself, which was regarded as a paradise for just about everyone.  Green grass, trees with leaves of every color, clear and gentle rivers, and stunning flowers, both medicinal and decorative.

    But as much as Roland wanted to see the sights, he and his party could only stay one night in the city.  In the morning, he sighed in dejection as they rode past the last building of this great city.  ‘Maybe on our way back, we can stop for a few days.’, he thought to himself.

    A few days later, the group arrived at Clear Ice Fortress.  It was a giant castle of black stone, guarding a large wall of clear enchanted ice on the northern side.  The wall was almost a hundred feet tall, and stretched the entire half mile gap between mountains that the fortress guarded.  The mountains at the two ends of the wall were similarly fortified, being covered in small forts.  Any northern barbarian stupid enough to attack Clear Ice Fortress would be surrounded on three sides once they came down into the valley.

    The knights were exhausted as they brought their horses in past the fortress’ southern wall and prepared themselves for the last good night of sleep they would have before the march north.

    But unbeknownst to them, two men in the vale to the east of their destination had set off on a journey of their own at the same time.  They were Artorias and Leon, and their destination was the same as the knights, the Brown Bear Tribe, the Bull Kingdom’s primary ally north of the Frozen Mountains.

    It had taken Leon a month to get used to his new strength and begin training in earnest again, and Artorias had decided that they had enough furs to justify the journey west to the Brown Bears for trade.  The two gathered up the furs they intended to take with and packed them onto an enchanted sleigh.  This sleigh had rudimentary wind enchantments carved onto its bottom that allowed it to float about a foot off the ground, making it good for transporting cargo.  The two would barely have to pull to get their furs to the tribe’s market.

    This was a journey that the two had made many times before, about once every six months for the past decade.  It would typically take three to four days of travel to arrive at the city, even though it was only around eighty miles away.  Of course, Artorias could make it in less than an hour, but Leon was much slower.  Now that he made it to the second-tier, however, Artorias fully expected to be able to shave half a day or more off their travel time.

    They set off the same morning as Roland and his team, heading for a mountain pass in the west.  First, though, they had to head north, as there was an enormous canyon running north-south not too far to the west of the purple grass clearing.  It had incredibly smooth sides, though it was starting to crumble in places.  Artorias had theorized that a mage of at least the ninth or tenth-tier had carved the canyon with a sword strike, and so he had taken to calling it the ‘Divine Scar”.

    It was well over five hundred feet deep, where the last rays of light vanished into darkness, so going around was always the best option.  Leon and Artorias went north for about a dozen miles before turning west, towards the mountain pass.

    It took a few more hours to reach it, and they settled in for a late lunch.  There wasn’t too much to chat about, so Artorias mainly focused on reinforcing Leon’s understanding for basic enchantments.  From simple runes to complex runic glyphs, Artorias did the best he could to explain the concepts behind their carving.

    Leon soaked it all up, but Artorias was no master.  He could tell that Leon had both a passion and talent for enchantments just based on the practice ones he drew on spell paper and the questions he asked about their underlying theories, but he wouldn’t get very far just asking him.  All Artorias knew were a few first-aid spells and practical enchantments he was taught as part of his knight’s training twenty years ago, such as some defensive wards and sanitation enchantments for use in setting up a fortified camp, and a few to apply to weapons.

    But he had done a bit of research into his family’s enchantments.  Most were lightning related, of course, and he didn’t have very much material to research in the first place, but what little he had learned had been used when he carved the obelisk in the center of their compound.

    Those few days passed quickly, but they eventually left the mountain pass and proceeded through the neighboring Vale towards one of only two cities that exceeded twenty thousand inhabitants north of the Frozen Mountains.

    This particular Vale was much less colorful than the Forest of Black and White.  All the trees here only had regular brown bark and green leaves, as opposed to the black and white tree trunks and multicolored leaves of Leon and Artorias’ home.  There were fewer flowers, as most of the flora were bushes and grass, with neither being the wide gradient of colors seen further to the east, either.

    Whenever they went west to trade, Leon was always reminded that the Forest of Black and White was something special.  It wasn’t just the vibrant plant life either, as no other Vale was so infested with dark and powerful creatures.  The rivers in the west were not filled with river nymphs, one didn’t have to constantly be on the lookout for tree sprites when in the forests, and wraiths were almost unheard-of west of the mountain pass.

    All in all, the vale the Brown Bear Tribe lived in had little difference to the forests seen in the south.  It just surrounded a large plain, roughly sixty miles in diameter.  This plain was mostly filled with small villages and equally small farms, but the tribesmen had built a city in the very center of the vale.  Most of the buildings were made of wood, and rarely exceeded a single story tall, but at almost twenty thousand townspeople, it was the largest settlement in the Northern Vales.

    The father-son pair finally arrived at the city before noon on the third day, almost a full day before they would have before Leon’s ritual.  They weren’t particularly tired, but Artorias decided to look for a place to stay before anything else.  He was a good friend of the Brown Bear clan chief, Torfinn Ice-Eyes, and had stayed with him before, so the chief’s hall was their destination.

  • Chapter 15:  Vale Town


    The chief’s hall was a large longhouse near the center of the city, at the top of a hill.  Artorias and Leon could see it from this distance, and never lost sight of it even after entering the city proper.  They made their way directly there.  There weren’t many crowds in this part of the city, as most people went to the market district at this time of day.

    The buildings were all made of heavy timber wood, and the streets weren’t paved.  The city layout was chaotic and haphazard, with no semblance of order.  There were no city planners around to keep the roads and buildings orderly, unlike down south, and there were no masons or bricklayers to pave the streets.  Every southerner managing to come this far north would almost always feel a sense of disappointment when arriving here.

    Down south, the stories of the Valemen are all about huge hulking brutes with large axes, who worship the mountains and sky, and even sometimes practice human sacrifice.  If they come south, they’d steal everything that wasn’t locked down, and kill everything that gave them a sideways look. 

    The stories never mention the state of their villages or their construction techniques, so those who come north usually do so without leaving their own preconceptions behind.  When they hear of the northern city, most often called Vale Town, they imagine a town with well-ordered blocks, paved streets, magic lanterns at night, and a city guardsman on every street corner.  That’s what they have in the south, so why should the north be any different?

    But then they see it, the fabled Vale Town, center of the faith for sky worship, and home of the most powerful of the Valemen, and they feel abject disappointment.  Crude, wooden huts are in the majority, with dirt roads, and not a single lantern in sight, magical or otherwise.

    And the people are even worse!  They imagine unwashed barbarians, with long beards, longer hair, and always ready for a good fight whether man or woman.  They imagine them having sex in public, human and animal sacrifices in every marketplace, large shrines dedicated to the sky covered in the harsh, angular northern script, and fights breaking out every ten feet.

    What they find are relatively normal people, quietly going about their business as best they can.  Not many exotic shrines, few bloody sacrifices, and even less public sex, unless they were in a brothel.

    But for Leon, this place was perhaps the most inhabited and civilized place he had ever spent significant time in.  The market was loud, and there were people everywhere!  Leon was a quiet and reserved person, not used to the hustle and bustle of civilization, so even this backwater town was enough for him to need preparation before entering.

    But whenever he was starting to feel overwhelmed, he would think about the great southern cities and the places his father had told him about, places like the great capital of the Bull Kingdom, the old city of Teira, the merchant cities of the south, the massive ore refineries in the east that would light up the entire night sky.  He wanted to see it all, but if he couldn’t handle this, then he never would.

    Leon took a deep breath before following Artorias down the muddy streets.  They were a famous pair, and there wasn’t a single person who had thoughts about trying to steal from the sleigh they pulled behind them.  In fact, they were given a rather wide berth as they walked towards the center of Vale Town.

    As they approached the chief’s longhouse, they saw the only stonework’s around, with parts of the longhouse being reinforced with stone, and a large circular stone table surrounded by archways that served as the primary shrine.

    Within the longhouse, the chief was simply having some fun with his friends.  They were drinking, telling embellished stories of personal glory, and casually sparring.  It was a grand old time, until a man quickly ran into the hall.  He was one of the warriors sworn to Torfinn, the chief, and he had seen Artorias walking towards Vale Town.  He then immediately ran to Torfinn to alert him.

    This man went over to a large man with thick brown hair and a magnificent beard.  This man’s hair was so full that his face could barely be seen, but his bright grey eyes couldn’t be hidden.  The young warrior barely had to lower his head to whisper into Torfinn’s ear, despite the chief being seated.

    When the warrior had said his piece, he immediately left the longhouse; it was no place for someone as young as him.  Torfinn laughed uproariously, so loud, in fact, that the jokes and stories resounding through the hall quickly ended.  Everyone there wanted to know what had made the chief so happy.

    Torfinn’s laughter didn’t last long, but his smile remained.  He looked around at his most trusted companions, before saying, “The Wraith Killer and the Little Lion just strolled into town.”  He began to laugh again, and most of the other warriors joined him in celebration.

    When Leon and Artorias walked in through the longhouse’s doors and into the main hall, they found that the partying had ended.  The warriors were waiting for them, and Torfinn came forward to pull Artorias into a joyful hug, which Artorias happily returned.

    “It’s been a while, Wraith Killer.  I thought you would’ve came into town almost a month ago.”

    “That was the plan, but we got caught up in a little extra training.”  Artorias smiled and patted Leon on the shoulder.

    Torfinn looked over to the young man, before bringing him into hug as well.  “Ahhh, Little Lion, you’ve broken through into the second-tier!  Congratulations!”  All the other warriors in the hall joined their chief by raising their mead horns in celebrating Leon’s accomplishment.

    “Yeahh!”

    “Well done, boy!”

    “That’s the way!”

    Torfinn had lifted Leon completely off his feet with the hug, and when he let Leon back down, Torfinn examined him a bit closer.  “By the Mountain Bones, you have an incredibly stable aura!  You southerners really know how to train, don’t you?”

    Artorias only smiled in response, while Leon looked embarrassed and a little uncomfortable at the attention.

    “Well, you’re a step closer to being a great warrior, just like me!  Ha ha, welcome!  Welcome! I assume you’re both here to trade the furs you get in that cursed Vale to the east?”  Torfinn glanced at the sleigh hovering on air by the door.

    Artorias nodded.  “That we are, and if it’s not too much trouble, we were also looking for a place to stay for a few days.”

    “Well then look no further!  You will stay here, as my guests.  I welcome you to sleep beneath my roof, eat my food, and sit by my fire.  You there!”  Torfinn glanced at one of the servants off to the side.  “Prepare two rooms for my friends!”  The young servant quickly scurried off.  The longhouse wasn’t large, but it was certainly big enough for Torfinn to show two guests the proper hospitality.

    “Come on in, we were just regaling each other with tales of our first battles!  I’m sure yours was far grander, however.”  Torfinn clasped Artorias’ shoulder, and was about to lead him further into the hall, when Artorias calmly declined.

    “I would, my friend, but I just came here first to greet you.  You know me, I have to get these furs to the markets or they’ll be on my mind all day.”

    “Ah, of course, of course.  Well, come back here when you’re done, I’ll have a feast prepared tonight to celebrate the Little Lion entering the second-tier!”

    Artorias and Leon then grabbed the sleigh that was left by the door and made for the markets.  Torfinn watched them go with a little bit of regret, but knowing that they would return put the spring back into his step.  Artorias was quite famous in the Brown Bear’s Vale, as he was the only known person strong enough to live out in the Forest of Black and White without being torn apart by ice wraiths, and Torfinn valued his friendship.

    Artorias had met Torfinn when he had come north, when Leon was barely old enough to walk.  Torfinn wasn’t the chief of the tribe back then, but the two had struck up a quick bond after Artorias had seen Torfinn defend a small farming village from raiders that had come from their rivals, the Red Crow Tribe.  Artorias had then stayed with Torfinn for almost an entire year and watched as the man rose to become chief of the Brown Bears, then as he united the entire vale under the tribe.

    Artorias destination now was a particular tailor out in the markets.  He usually sold his furs there, as he got a good price for them, but this tailor was also one of the best in the entire Vale.  Most of the businesses run in the city were done in stalls out in market squares, but this tailor was well off enough to be able to afford a proper building for her craft.

    When Artorias and Leon walked in dragging their sleigh, the middle-aged shopkeeper barely looked up from her work.  Currently, she was sewing together some of the grass fibers the Vale was known for into a small shirt.  A young boy that Artorias recognized as one of the tailor’s assistants, came forward.

    “Hey, Leon, why don’t you wander around the market a bit?”  Artorias tossed his son a small pouch of the copper coins used in the Vale.  Leon deftly caught the pouch, jingled it a bit, and left the shop smiling.

    The assistant was used to seeing Artorias here, so he began to go through the furs, cataloguing them and preparing to give Artorias an offer.  While he was busy doing that, the tailor finished up her own work, and finally came out to speak with Artorias.

    “Got something special this time?”

    “How did you know that?”

    “You don’t usually send the boy away when doing business.”

    The tailor was quite sharp, and had been paying close attention even when appearing not to.  Artorias had always kept Leon close when selling the furs, as he wanted Leon to get used to doing business with other people.  As it was, he was lucky if Leon even bothered to speak to anyone on a given trip to Vale Town.  As they approached anything that even slightly resembled civilization, the younger man would grow quieter and quieter, and the happy and energetic young man he was in the Forest of Black and White would give way to a silent and far more subdued person.

    Artorias could sympathize, as he had even begun to feel himself closing up around other people too.  Living so far away from other people has its advantages, but there are drawbacks as well.

    “Indeed, I do have something a bit more today.”  Coincidentally, as Artorias said this, the assistant boy found something well hidden beneath all the other furs.  It was a brilliant white lion’s pelt, the skin of the very lion that Leon had killed for his ritual.  “I want you to make a coat using this.  Use the regular skin for the coat itself, and trim it with mane.  Oh, and I’ll also want any that’s left over, so don’t get any ideas about it.”

    There was plenty of fur for Artorias’ purpose, so the tailor asked, “Are you sure?  I can give you a good price for it.”

    Artorias shrugged.  “I still want the leftovers.”

    The tailor went over to inspect the fur.  It was truly of high quality, the mane was thick and full, while the rest of the fur was thin and soft.  It was perfect for making an unobtrusive fur coat.  But it seemed there was a bit of a problem when she examined it closer, as she began to frown.

    “This was a Snow Lion, probably of the late-third or early-fourth tier.  I might not be able to properly cut and sew it up.”

    Artorias smiled when she said this.  He knew exactly what she was doing, so he simply said, “I have confidence in your abilities.  Don’t go getting greedy now by pretending it will be more work than it is.”

    The tailor made a small grimace at that, he had seen right through her.

    “And I know that the other furs I brought today are worth far more than the job I just gave you, so how about let’s get around to talking money?”

    The tailor glared at Artorias.  She was a respected member of the community, and a third-tier mage!  If anyone else had spoken to her like that, she would have them thrown out.  But this was the Wraith Killer, a man who possessed enough power to live in the Forest of Black and White.

    She finally broke down when faced with his smug smile.  She gestured to him, and they went over to the counter where the assistant had arranged the other furs, and began to make their deal.

Sign In or Register to comment.