Chapter One: Stormbringer

Chapter One: Stormbringer

            Dahres Anfaman watched the city of Dakan bustle beneath him. It was mid-day and the markets were thronged with people, bartering and arguing, drinking and laughing. The peace of the last forty years had been good for the people of Elliny, long enough for them to forget the plight that they had endured at the hand of the Elementals.

He stood on one of the many balconies adorning the higher levels of the Serpent’s Citadel, which was home to the High Guardian and his family. Constructed in the early days of the High Guardians, the Citadel had high walls of stone that separated it from the rest of the city. From there, the similarities between the Citadel and the duns elsewhere throughout Elliny ended. The Citadel had taken many years to build; the hardest part was dragging all the earth from the hills surrounding the city. It was widely known that the Citadel could not have been built without the builders and the sorcerers brought to Dakan by the Dragon Ti’Urak herself. The earthshaping took months, but the end result was a mountain that towered over the rest of the city. It was here that the High Guardians made their home for generations. Dahres, with all the places he had been and the things he had seen, could not help but be impressed by the feat. He stepped back into his room, which was filled with light, despite the fact that he was in a mountain. Such was the case throughout the Citadel. He admired the high, marble ceilings of his room that eased the feeling of claustrophobia. Deep within the Citadel, where the High Guardian himself lived, as well as where he met his petitioners within the Hall of Ancients, the ceilings were even higher and the builders had gone to great lengths to fill those rooms with natural light.

It was to the Hall of Ancients that Dahres had been summoned mere moments before. Rewn Falaich, the leader of his household guard in Dakan, adorned in his black and silver armor had brought the message. Dahres knew that he had little time to answer his summons before the High Guardian would notice his lateness. He was making his way to the door when he heard rasping laughter. He turned, even though he knew he would find nothing there.

<You left your son in his time of greatest need,> the Joker whispered, chuckling.  Dahres steeled his will, sharpened his mind to better understand the spirit’s words. <Bold move, my lord. Bold, but foolish.>

<You said you weren’t a threat to him,> Dahres said, angrily. <You said you would leave him alone.>

<My desires, my plans, my dreams,> the Joker replied. <They mean nothing. He and I are pulled together, no matter how much we fight to stay apart.>

Dahres was silent for a moment, weighing the words of the Joker. He knew, deep down within his soul, that what the spirit spoke was true. Something was happening to his son, something that he could not control. It was something that he could not protect Kol from, and it killed him.

Perhaps sensing his distress, the Joker’s constant chortling ceased, albeit for a moment only. It seemed a bizarre demonstration of sympathy, particularly from one so mad. <Things happen for a reason, even to innocents such as your son.>

<Kol does not deserve what you have and what you will put him through,> Dahres said, sharply. <He is just a boy, he knows nothing about the ways of the world or even why this is happening to him.>

Dahres paused, realizing something. <Even I do not know why this is happening to him,> the edge in his words grew stronger. <You refuse to tell me and you speak to him in only riddles.>

<Certain things can only be revealed by time, my lord,> the laughter was back , although Dahres could tell the Joker was doing his best to restrain himself. <You must go now, and present yourself to your High Guardian. He and his court…> the Joker paused and the laughter suddenly was everywhere, surrounding Dahres. For a moment, Dahres felt everything slipping away, and he was falling into a dark place, where all he could hear was the laughter. Was this what Kol felt? Was this why he tried to drown himself in his bottles? The thought brought tears to his eyes. Finally, the Joker controlled himself enough to get a few words out. <Particularly his court…do not like to be kept waiting. Beware the outlander, Lord Anfaman. Flee, before it is too late.>

Dahres waited a few moments more, standing in the silence of the room that once seemed so filled with light, though all he could see now was the shadow. Even though he could still feel the presence of the Joker, the spirit did not speak. Sighing and composing himself from the disturbing encounter, Dahres walked from the room. Behind him, he heard the laughter begin once again and he felt the coldness spread up his spine.

*            *            *                        *            *            *                        *            *            *

Kol sat in his father’s chair, though his body no longer felt sore. Indeed, his pulse was racing and there were traces of sweat upon his brow. He was nervous, until he felt the reassuring squeeze of his mother’s hand on his arm. As always, his mother was seated to his left and her warm smile gave him more comfort than any number of words. Everything about the day had been planned down to the moment, down to the most miniscule detail. Kol wore the colors of his Clan, a dark tunic accented with silver and black leggings. His blond hair had been carefully combed, oiled, and anointed with pleasing scents. Zephyr stood to his right, his appearance also carefully constructed, through his tunic was silver edged with sable. When Zephyr felt Kol’s eyes on him, he managed a curt nod that seemed appropriate given the gravity of the situation. There was no smile there, as there had been fewer happy moments between the two of them since Kol had regained his wits. Inwardly, Kol wondered if his brother resented his return.

Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, Kol focused himself on the task at 

hand. Today, he would meet someone a handful of people across the entire island of Elliny had seen. The Dragon had come. 

The entirety of the hall had been meticulously cleaned and polished, in every spot the marble and wood shone with reflected sunlight. Three pairs of Clan Guardsmen stood in front of each of the marble pillars, their black helms and platinum armor carefully arranged, swords sheathed in beautiful hand wrought sable scabbards, adorned with strands of gold. Everything had been carefully prepared by Wendell, the Clan steward, who also stood in the hall, just off the dais, but well in view of the great oak doors. Kol could tell that the old man, even though he seemed to be confident, was nervous as well. Kol was comforted by the knowledge that his father’s steward, who had orchestrated the welcomes of the most powerful men and women in Elliny, was nervous. Even from where he sat, Kol could sense Wendell’s distress.

Wendell’s concern, despite his voluminous knowledge of hospitality, was not without merit. No one had met with the Dragon in years. Even the High Guardian, Kol’s grandfather, had not been granted an audience despite repeated and frequent requests. Orion Soulfire had sought the counsel of Ti’Urak for many years, as did many of the other heads of the most powerful Clans in Elliny. Despite all this, Ti’Urak remained in seclusion atop her Mountain, attended only by her devoted monks. For some reason, however, the Dragon had answered his father’s call. For some reason, Ti’Urak had come to see him.

Outside the doors, Kol heard the three distinct knocks of the herald’s staff against the stone of the foyer. Wordlessly and without order, the two guards closest to the door moved quickly, their silver cloaks billowing up behind them as they moved with haste to open the way for the Dragon.

Kol, unconsciously, felt the urge to rise from his father’s seat. He felt his mother’s touch, a slight one this time, which reminded him of tradition. Even though they were meeting the Dragon, the venerable Ti’Urak, this was still the hall of Kol’s father and the dun of Clan Anfaman. In the absence of Dahres, Kol was the one to be honored and respected here, even by Dragons.

Three men entered first, silently, and Kol could hear Zephyr suck in his breath as the cerulean runes came into the light of the hall. Kol himself had to fight the urge to lean forward to get a better look at these men, the devoted monks of Ti’Urak, the ones who lived with her atop the Mountain. They were shirtless, despite the crispness of the spring day outside. They wore simple white trousers and sandals and carried no weapons, though Kol knew that these men needed no weapons.

The use of magic had long been banished in the armies of Elliny. The last time the Clans had used sorcery in conflict was during the Second Elemental War, twenty years before. Kol and Zephyr had been born amongst the ashes of that war; they had seen the mark that the destructive magic had left upon the land. Ever since Jenor Nova, Consul of Elliny, had triumphed, he had gone to great lengths to ensure magic was no longer used. When the Consul had revealed himself as a leader amongst the Godspoken, Kol’s father was not surprised. Jenor Nova had taken such a stand against what the Dragon’s followers preached it was no surprise he had joined the new movement. Some said that Consul Nova had gone outside his bounds by preaching the folly of the High Guardianship, and that he openly said that by worshipping the Dragon the people of Elliny would inflict the wrath of the Immortals. He did all of this despite the oaths that he frequently made swearing himself to defending the life of Orion Soulfire.

Kol felt the air around him grow still and quiet, until all he could hear was the sound of his own breathing and his own heartbeat. Then, the Dragon entered and the appearance she had chosen was not what Kol had expected.

A small girl, brown-haired, took small steps through the doorway. Clothed in a dark green cloak and brown tunic, she looked rather ordinary. Suddenly, he smelled smoke. He looked around at first, anxiously expecting something to be aflame. He saw Zephyr and his mother with a similar mask of panic upon their faces, and he knew that they smelled something different on the air. At first it was a hint, a faint scent, but as the Dragon approached it grew stronger and stronger, until it was nearly overpowering. Kol, for the first time, noticed the roots of the girl’s brown hair were dyed silver, right above her forehead. What drew him in, though, were her eyes. They were odd; one was green, as green as the forest’s leaves, the other brown, as brown as the earth. And then, for the first time in generations, mortals outside the Mountain heard the Dragon speak.

<I have heard much of you, Kol Anfaman,> the Dragon said and although her lips did not move, her voice, the voice of a small girl, echoed in his mind. There was raw power behind her words, power that was barely contained. Out of the corner of his eye, Kol saw his mother and Zephyr stiffen, and he knew that they heard the words as well. <Little of it good, I’m afraid.>

“Thank you for agreeing to come here, Lady Dragon,” Kol said, carefully, ignoring her words for the sake of tradition and courtesy, though he bristled inwardly. He felt a brief pang of pity for Wendell; the poor man probably thought he was breaching etiquette by speaking to the Dragon first. “We are always in awe of your power and your sage counsel.”

The Dragon, however, seemed to read his thoughts. <We should speak alone,> she offered. <Your brother, your mother, they may remain. The others must go.>

“You are all dismissed. Wendell, I am certain that you have much to prepare for,” Kol said, his voice draped in authority. When he received a questioning look from Wendell, he smiled. “The feast, Wendell. We should not be rude to our guests.”

            His guards, recognizing a dismissal, turned and left the room and closed the huge oaken doors behind them. Wendell nodded stiffly, clearly unsure of Kol’s actions, and he left through a side passage behind the dais. Kol smiled faintly as he caught Wendell looking back for certain.

            When the room was quiet was again, the Dragon spoke. <You are marked, Anfaman. More than the first High-Guardian, more so than any other I have met in my time here. You will do great things that will shake the very foundations of everything we know.>

            The implications of what the Dragon had said washed over Kol and for a moment, he could not speak. So, his mother did it for him.

            “Your words mean little, Dragon,” her tone was amiable, though Kol knew that his mother was trying to remain peaceable. “What ails my son, why does he scream out in the night, why does he see things that are not there?”

            The Dragon smiled enigmatically. <As I said, he is marked. Are you familiar with the stories of the Dreg, Kol?>

            Kol finally managed to find his words. “I remember the fairytales, the legends. They were a people that grew powerful and built cities amongst the clouds. In their arrogance, they sought to overthrow the Immortals, and the Immortals destroyed them. The Godspoken mention them frequently in their sermons.”            Zephyr nodded and spoke up. “Their stories say that we all should obey the will of the Immortals, or we will perish in flame as the Dreg did.”

            <That is correct,> Ti’Urak replied. <The Dreg committed a great folly, and they were punished for it. Their cities were torn from the sky and earth, they were put to the sword and flame. The Immortals took any surviving children and banished them to the grey world between our realm and the Realm of Gods.>

            Kol saw his mother quirk her head. Unsure of what she meant, Kol cleared his throat and leaned forward. “What do these stories that those cultists mutter have to do with me?”

            <Everything,> Ti’Urak said. <I believe that a spirit of the Dreg, one that remained here after his body was destroyed, has chosen you. You would be careful, Kol, elsewise you will anger him.>
            Celeste spoke for the first time since the meeting had begun. “You said, however, that this was a ghost, a phantom. What harm could he do?”
            <Drive your son insane,> the Dragon said, simply. <Tear him apart from within, sunder his mind until he longs for the silence of death.>
            Kol felt his stomach tighten and his mind fumble over the Dragon’s words. He thought he could hear a distant chuckle, somewhere in the shadows of the room. He jumped and suddenly found himself straining to hear Zephyr speak, as if his brother was far away. “Have you come to tell my brother that he is doomed, that nothing can be done?”
            <I had to see him with my own eyes before I could know for sure,> Ti’Urak replied. <Much damage has already been done and it will only get worse if I do not train you to control the spirit.>

             “Where can this be done?” Kol asked, again finding his words after a few moments of panic. “When?”
            <We must leave for the Mountain at once,> Ti’Urak said firmly. <It is a place of great power and significance to the spirit. There, we will begin your trials, to see if you may yet be saved. A storm comes, and I fear that your son is the one who brings it.>

            “Do you know this spirit, Lady Dragon?” Celeste spoke softly, but Kol felt the air shift and change around him. “Have you met him before?”
            The Dragon looked sharply at his mother and Kol saw something dangerous flash in those mismatched eyes. <What I know is not of your concern mortal. I came here to fix your son, to try and repair the damage done to him. Do you want my help or not?>

            “Of course, forgive me,” Celeste said, her voice chastened. Yet, Kol knew his mother well enough that she was far from beaten.

The Dragon turned back to him and the impatience was clear on her childish face. <Come, Kol Anfaman, we do not have the luxury of time to discuss every minute detail of the crisis we all face.>

Suddenly, Kol felt something spark deep within him, from a dark place where he had only heard laughter and screams. He suddenly felt very afraid. What boiled in him, however, was something far different than fear. It washed over him and as it did, he felt the fear fade away, replaced by a confidence, a swagger, and a great anger.

Consumed by the rage within him, he rose to his feet. “I will not follow the commands of someone I do not know, who hides her true motivations,” his voice was a roar, now. He was standing, and felt his entire body tense with the rage flowing through him. He knew not where this was coming from, but it felt good to be in control once again. “I will not come with you, Dragon. I will not submit to your trials. Be gone from this place and never return. For if you do, I will destroy you.”
            Out of the corner of his eye, Kol saw both Zephyr and his mother standing as well, staring at him, agape. His mother reached for him, but he violently thrust her away and she felt to the ground with a yelp. Zephyr quickly went to her side, and Kol noticed that his brother had his hand wrapped tightly around the hilt of his sword. The Dragon did not move, but her gaze was steady. She seemed to be studying him. Kol recognized a faint flash of sorrow in her eyes, as she turned and left the room without further words, her monks trailing silently behind her.

            It was only after she had left that Kol felt himself relax, the rage flowing out of him in a torrent as he fell into darkness. This time, however, he did not fight it. He welcomed it.

*            *            *                                    *            *            *                        *            *            *

            Dahres stood in the Hall of the Ancients and for a moment, he could not help but be awed by the room in which he stood.

            The Hall was carved into the depths of the Serpent’s Citadel, with six large marble columns on each side, polished with silver and gold. The ceiling, covered in marble, depicted various scenes from Elliny’s history: The burning of the first High Guardian and his subsequent naming; climatic battles from the Rebellions; the armies of Elliny, under the leadership of Jenor Nova, fighting again against the Elemental threat. They were all threads of the dark tapestry that was the history of the Clans. Three tunnels, cut into the rock of the ceiling, led all the way to the surface of the Citadel, allowing natural light to flow in, shining sunlight down upon the dais where the High Guardian of Elliny sat.

Orion Soulfire looked older than he had last time Dahres had seen him. The years seemed to be weighing more upon him with every passing day. Dahres noticed, for the first time, a cloaked and hooded figure sitting to the High Guardian’s right, whispering in his ear. Disconcerted, Dahres strode forward, past the golden armored shadows that stood watch over the Hall of the Ancients.

The Dragoons, an ancient order that had existed since the advent of the High Guardianship, was sworn to protect the High Guardian and his family. Despite the warm weather, they were girded in golden plate mail and heavily armed. Even though they did not move, Dahres knew he was being watched carefully.

            When he reached the foot of the raised dais, he knelt, bowing his head.

            “Rise, my son,” Orion’s voice sounded older. “How is my daughter? How are my grandsons?”
            “They are all well, anam,” Dahres said, using the ritualized greeting in the old tongue of Elliny. He rose to his feet and rearranged his silver cloak. “They all send their love.”

            “Good, good,” Orion muttered and then he fell silent for a moment, his old blue eyes fading as he lost himself in some distant place. The cloaked figure next to him leaned in and whispered something in the High Guardian’s ear and he suddenly stirred to life. “I suppose you wonder why I have summoned you all the way from your home. I am sure that you have received word that the Godspoken are building a chapel in Tiya. I trust that you, as Lord of Tiya, will ensure that the construction will proceed…unhindered.”

            He asked me to travel all this way just to speak of some cultist chapel? Dahres thought to himself, but he did not speak. Instead, he waited patiently and after a few moments of silence, the High Guardian continued. “I have also heard tidings. Grim ones that contradict what you just told me. I will ask you again, and this time, do not lie. How is my grandson?”
            Dahres felt a chill flow through the room. He knows. As he contemplated his answer, he heard a whisper of movement and looked behind him. A newcomer stood there, leaning casually against one of the pillars. Clothed in a crimson cloak with a gold fringe, the man was clearly of the High Clan Soulfire.  There was something familiar in his face, something that Dahres recognized, but it took the words of the High Guardian’s cloaked counselor to trigger his memory. “How good of the youngest son to join us at last,” Dahres was surprised to hear the voice of a woman. “Do the mundane affairs of court finally hold interest for you, Tyair?”
            “No,” Tyair Soulfire, the man who had no dream of holding the throne of his father, replied. “I am here to make sure you do not poison my father’s mind against my brother-in-law, En’Jal.”

            The woman chuckled and finally lowered her hood, to reveal an otherworldly face, and Dahres knew this to be no mere mortal woman. He sucked in his breath and did his best to restrain himself as he spoke. “What is an Elemental doing in the court of the High Guardian? Did not thousands of brave men perish to drive these monsters from our lands?”
            The one Tyair called En’Jal smiled. She was beautiful, but not in a way that most men would envision. Her face was comprised of hard angles and sharp lines, her black hair unkempt and wild. Her brown eyes were filled with a quiet fury as she beheld Tyair and Dahres. “Such is not your concern, Anfaman,” she said, her satin words belying the danger that lingered underneath. “This is the High Guardian’s court. He asks the questions.”
            “And I will not tolerate such dissension!” Orion said, spittle flying from his mouth as he stood, shakily, raising a bony finger to point at Dahres. Once again, Dahres sensed himself falling away, until he was watching the scene from above. In the shadows of the room, he saw three figures, one with the mask of a laughing man; the next wore a mask of man in terrible agony and was wreathed in chains; the third burned with a quiet, but noble flame, and he wore a mask of ash and smoke. As he beheld them, they all seemed to sense his gaze and as one turned their heads to look up at him.

            He was brought back to his body by a firm hand on his right arm. He looked and met the steady gaze of Tyair Soulfire. Orion Soulfire spoke again, his fury still shaking the aged shell of his body.

“I may be weakened by the burden of my office, but I cannot believe that you would come here and lie,” Dahres could not believe the words that came from the High Guardian’s mouth. “I have been wrong to lead the way I have, my whole life. Consul Nova and my wise advisor En’Jal have shown me the errors of my ways. I intended to invite you to the crowning of the new High Guardian of Elliny.”

Dahres felt the earth drop out from underneath him. The words that Celeste had spoken to him when he had first come to this island came to him now.  A new High Guardian must be named by the Dragon and burnt as his ancestors were. If not, the bond that joins the people of Elliny will be broken.

“Apologies, aman,” Dahres bowed as deeply as custom allowed. “I did not know the Dragon was to come here.”

Orion did not even wait for the Elemental to whisper in his ear, not this time. “The Dragon will never come!” he roared, the terrible voice issuing forth from the High Guardian’s mouth did not sound like the frail old man that stood before Dahres. “She will never come again, we are lost to the shadow, as the Dreg were before us. The Patriarch of the Godspoken, Jenor Nova, will name my son Dougal, as the new High Guardian,” Orion nodded to himself. “You would be wise to attend, Dahres Anfaman.”

Dahres felt the tugging on his arm grow more insistent. “Forgive my father, he has not been himself lately,” Tyair Soulfire whispered harshly. “We should discuss this in private.”

Reluctantly, Dahres withdrew, but he could not help but look back at the High Guardian of Elliny. En’Jal was once again whispering into his ear, her brown eyes focused intently on Dahres. What drew Dahres’ gaze, however, were not the enigmatic eyes of the Elemental. Instead, it was the eyes of Orion Soulfire, the ones that had looked upon him with such joy on the day when Dahres Anfaman had married Celeste Soulfire. Instead, he saw only madness. The same madness that burned deep within the young eyes of his firstborn son.

*            *            *                        *            *            *            *                        *            *            *

            “Everything seems to grow quiet, when I’m with you,” Kol murmured into the sunlit blond hair of the girl, who was nestled into his chest.

            They sat under the boughs of the Dragon Tree, within the walls of dun Anfaman. “Well, I don’t know why it took you so long to find me again,” she whispered and looked up at him, her green eyes full of mirth. Melawyn Werelach was someone he had known for years since he had first wandered out of the safety of his father’s house. They had met in the fields that surrounded the dun and the town. They had played, they had talked, and for months and a few years they had kept the secret from their parents. Eventually, as parents are wont to do, they discovered the secrets of their children. Kol had been forbidden to see her, until Dahres realized that the wills of a firstborn son typically win out over the will of the mother.

            He felt her press closer to him. “I thought I had lost you to the madness,” she said. “I thought I would never have you again.”
            Kol sighed and leaned back against the trunk of the Dragon Tree. For a moment, he lost himself in the way the sunlight danced between the boughs. When a cloud drifted in front of the sun for a moment and he felt the shadow fall across him again, he looked down at her. “I may still be lost,” he sighed. “Mother has not spoken to me since Ti’Urak left. Once again, Zephyr has risen to the occasion and has taken over all affairs of state. I am beginning to think that he was better suited for lordship than I.”

            Melawyn raised her head and looked him in the eyes and there was no mistaking her intent. “Do not speak that way, Kol. You were born to lead; you have that aura about you that men are drawn to. Zephyr simply…” her voice trailed off into thought and it was a few moments before she continued. “It is perhaps that he desires to be the big brother. That is why he took care of you so well when you were…sick.”
            “Perhaps you are right,” Kol said, leaning back once again. “Even with you, I feel myself beginning to change. I am not who I was when we first met. Not anymore.”

            “Would it help if I sang to you?” Melawyn asked, her eyes bright with hope. “It was what calmed you after meeting with the Dragon. It is what always helps find your way back to us. Back to Zephyr, your mother, and back to me.”

            She reached up and brushed her fingertips against his face and lightly brushed her lips against his. And then she began to sing.

            Kol did not know the words, for they were in some lost dialect that was rarely used in this region anymore. He did not have to understand, for Melawyn made his heart soar with her voice alone. The music she sang forced the darkness to withdraw. It had been increasing in strength since his encounter with Ti’Urak. Of course, as it had grown stronger, he had felt more and more desperate in his efforts to escape it. Despite how good it had felt, when he had faced down the Dragon, Kol knew that he could not return to that place. Not again. Even so, it still felt good to erase all the doubts that he had about himself. He felt that power, that confidence, when he gave himself over to the laughter within him.

            He closed his eyes and felt himself drifting away peacefully as Melawyn sang to him. He did not know how much time had passed, but abruptly the melody ended with a strangled sound, as if it had been throttled. He opened his eyes to see Melawyn looking out with fear towards the gates of the dun. For the first time, heard the hoofbeats of the rider, who was cloaked in red and silver. The peace of Melawyn’s song was shattered, and Kol disentangled himself from her slim body as he rose to greet the rider, whose horse was lathered and panting heavily. As the rider drew rein, the beat fell to the ground with one final deafening sigh, dead. Kol quickly called for help, running to the riders’ aid. He looked up to see guardsmen running from the dun, townspeople coming out from the safety of their homes, concern and fear illuminating their faces. As he reached the rider, he realized that the red the man wore was no cloak.

            The man’s breathing was labored and he coughed as blood rose up in his throat. Kol felt his pulse quicken as he fought to remain calm. Even then, it took Kol a moment to recognize the face behind the mask of pain, hidden behind the dust and blood.

            Rewn Falaich breathed his final words to Kol Anfaman, firstborn son of the man he had sworn to protect in Dakan. “The Order of the Dragoons lies broken, scattered. Tyair Soulfire has fled to Zeron and is calling for an army to save the north from the Godspoken. The land burns.  Those Dragoons that did not escape with him have been executed at the order of Consul Jenor Nova, who has gathered an army of Godspoken to him. Orion Soulfire has been deemed unfit to lead, and his firstborn son Erikon Soulfire has claimed the High Guardianship in his place,” Rewn coughed one last time, and put all of the power of his soul into his last words: “I am sorry, Kol. I could not bring him home. He would not let me save him.”

 

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Prelude: Whispers in the Dark

                       

 

                                                            Prelude:

                                                 Whispers in the Dark

           

            It all began with whispers in the dark.

Kol rose, shocked from sleep, his blue eyes wide, his face stained with sweat; the visions still stark in his mind.

Burning cities, falling from the sky, smoke and flame standing stark against the clear blue summer sky.

Millions of voices screaming in terror as they are consumed by shadow and fire.

He recognized the smells of his bedroom, his home. Safe. Rubbing what little sleep remained from his eyes, he tried to collect his thoughts.

Laughter in the shadows of the room. Soft, barely audible, but it caused Kol to start yet again, fresh sweat streaming from his brow. The laughter continued, but it carried no mirth, no happiness. It was the laughter of a madman.

Kol reached out blindly with his hand, looking for a lamp to drive the shadows away. “Who are you?” he called out, uncertainly, his voice quavering in the dark.

More laughter, with further echo of insanity. Now, without a doubt, Kol knew he was no longer dreaming. He gave up the futile search for the lantern, and instead turned his gaze to the dancing shadows in the dark corners of his moonlit chamber, searching for phantoms that are not there.

I know you can hear me, a whisper in his ear. He whirled, seeking its source, but found nothing there but dimly lit space.

“Where are you?” Kol asked, gathering what little strength he can find. He threw his blankets and furs aside, standing naked in the moonlight, determined to be defiant. “Make yourself known!”

Oh, you know me, son of the Dragon Prince, the voice whispered, a hint of that same amusement in his voice. I am your past and your future.

“I know nothing of you!” Kol exclaimed, shouting at the empty room around him. “And I am the son of no Prince!”

You know not what you truly are, Stormbringer, the voice taunted him from the deepest shadows of the room. Kol, forcing his footsteps to be resolute, began exploring the darkness that torments him.

“What am I, then, if not the son of my father and his heir?” Kol asked, brushing a sweat drenched strand of blond hair from his face.

So much more than you will ever know, boy, the voice whispered. Kol stopped, listening carefully, certain that it is now behind him. You indeed are heir to your father’s lands, but do you know who your father really is?

            “I will not repeat myself!” Kol shouted, confidently assured that he will find the source of the voice. “My father is a good man.”

More laughter, more manic and insane than Kol had ever heard before. He could feel his bravery leaking away from him. Perhaps as you know him, yes, he would not hurt an innocent soul, he heard the words yet again, but still cannot find their source. Then again, you know him not as I do.

“How do you know him?” Kol asked, uncertainty again creeping into his voice. There was little he could do to stop it now, as he creeped towards one darkened corner that seemed to consume all light nearby. Indeed, it was pitch black, a black so deep and so whole that Kol found it calling to him, dragging him unwittingly toward it.

The question is not how do I know him, the voice mocked him, yet again. Kol would have been angry, would have felt the anger rising up inside of him, if he was not so afraid; the coldness of fear had fallen over him like a shroud. His skin prickled and the hairs on his arms and neck stood straight up. Despite all that, Kol continued to walk towards the shadow, feeling bizarrely soothed by its presence. The voice again in his mind: How do I know what he will become?

            Finally reaching the corner, Kol for the first time noticed a seated figure that had never been there before. In the back of his mind, his instincts were screaming, warning him of imminent danger and the stark wrongness of everything. The chill had long since sunk through to his bones and soul. The shadow was seated in a golden throne, arcane runes carved into the stone. For once in his life, Kol would not and could not listen to his own instincts.

He reached out with a single, unwavering hand. Suddenly detached from the whole situation, Kol found himself surprised that his hand, his arm, his entire body was not shaking with the fear that had permeated every fiber of his being. And as he touched the cold, dead skin of the figure seated before him, more images bombarded his fragile consciousness.

Winged men and women, flying through an azure sky, with swords, spears, and bows of fire and light in their hands.

Countless crowds of people, every single one’s a mask of fear and terror, as they attempt to flee the coming apocalypse.

            Bodies scattered everywhere, burned beyond recognition. The ruins of a once-proud city smoldering and smoking. One not-man, kneeling amongst the bodies, cradling a small, burnt, lifeless shadow of a life in his arms. His armor is blood-stained, but not with his own. His sword lays discarded at his side, forgotten, next to the once-body of the woman he loved. The not-man cries out, tears streaming down his face unhindered, his sobs echoing eerily throughout the ruins.

Kol found himself standing there, amongst the shattered bones of this destroyed city. For a moment, yet again, he felt detached from the whole scene, as if he was watching it from afar. In front of Kol sat the not-man, and the body that he held dearly. Kol, uncertain of what to do, knelt down and reached out, intending to comfort the not-man as best he was able.

The not-man snarled and Kol jumped back, snatching his hand away instinctively. The not-man rose to his feet and picked up the discarded sword, the steel scraping against the stone of the courtyard. The not-man advanced on Kol, and the young lordling backed away, desperately searching for aid. Kol found his heart beating faster and faster until he felt it was about to burst, and then suddenly everything stopped. Frozen in time.

In a surreal moment, Kol watched as the leather, scaled wings of a dragon unfold behind the back of the not-man.

“Don’t you see, son of the Dragon Prince?” the not-man whispered in the darkened gloom of the city ruins. The not-man was smiling, but there was nothing human in that smile. “Life is but a joke.”

Then, the not-man, with his dragon wings, raised his sword and the cold steel bit deep. Kol felt the blood start to flow down his side where the sword had left a broad gash. The not-man laughed maniacally, his pain and his sorrow pouring out of him in a torrent of hysterical mirth as he raised his sword again and again. Kol fell to the ground, his hands feebly trying to stem the flow of his lifeblood from his body. All he could hear is the maddening laughter as he died, screaming.

*            *            *            *                                                *             *            *

The city square was bustling, for it was a warm spring day and on the breeze was the slightest hint of the summer to come. Shops and stores throughout the square had their doors opened wide to the public, barkers were beckoning the more curious of the passerby to enter, and everything seemed to pulse with the liveliness and vigor of spring. A single figure stood apart from the ebb and flow of the crowd, cloaked in black and cowl drawn over his face to hide his features. No one paid him heed, though, for they all had more important matters on their mind to notice the enigmatic character in their midst. His eyes swept the square carefully, noting the landmarks that had been discreetly passed to him. Figuring his route, he set off through the crowd, taking purposeful strides. Passing by a cart drawn by two black horses who stood tall and aloof from the sea of humanity that surrounded them, he turned down a side alley. Here, things were quieter, though the ever-present din of a growing city. Taking this turn, then that, the man finally arrived at an old, cracked wooden sign that marked his destination. There was no smiling storekeeper here, showering you with platitudes in hopes that you would buy something from his shop. Instead, the door was kept closed even with how warm the weather was. The windows were shut and latched closed, keeping the bright sunlight from entering. Indeed, this place rejected the very idea of wanting people to enter. Whoever owned this place seemed to be determined to drive the more curious souls away. Sighing once, the man opened the door and stepped into the gloom within.

Allowing his eyes a chance to adjust the dim light that flickered from the lanterns overhead, his hand instinctively came to rest on the pommel of his sword. For a man like him, one could never be too careful. The smells told him all he needed to know of this place: the spicy, strong scent of liquor was so thick he could practically taste it himself; and the stale, disgusting smell of day-old vomit. Fighting the urge to add his own contribution to the scent, he looked around the tavern, scanning the faces of the drunks who inhabited this place at such an early hour. Most did not concern him, for he was looking for one drunk in particular. He felt curious eyes upon him, and turned to see the barkeep staring at him. Realizing how alarmed the owner must be, the stranger pulled down his cowl, revealing his dark brown hair that fell to his shoulders. His face revealed, he evenly met the other man’s gaze. For a moment, there was nothing, and then a brief flare of recognition. Within an instant, the barkeep had adverted his eyes, but not before looking over at a man seated at a table by himself. Acutely aware of tell, the outsider strode over to the solitary drunk. The man was unshaven; he had a week old beard, which matched his shaggy, platinum blond hair. The smell of the man was overpowering, the stink of sweat and bile overriding all other scents in this place. Without even looking up, the drunk mumbled something that sounded like another drink order, before taking another heavy draw from the mug in front of him.

Feelings of anger mixed with concern contorted the stranger’s face as he looked down at the pathetic figure in front of him. “What has happened to you, brother?” he finally spoke.

The drunk looked up, his unkempt visage barely registering any sort of surprise. “Zephyr?” he croaked in disbelief. He belched loudly and shook his head as if to clear I his own thoughts. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m here because no one else dared go looking for you,” Zephyr replied harshly, still disbelieving that this was in fact his older brother. “Did you really have to threaten that poor boy with such violence?”

“Of course I did,” the drunk replied, his words slurring. “I had to save him from what these eyes have seen. “Besides, the barkeep seemed not to care much of my indiscretions, as long as I continued to pay him the fine gold I have in my pocket.”

Zephyr shot a disgusted look at the barkeep, who had been watching them. Seeing the young lordling’s fierce gaze, the man dropped his own and sought to busy himself behind the bar.

Turning back to his brother, Zephyr reached into his cloak and drew out a flask. “Here, drink this,” he said, roughly shoving it in his brother’s face. Thinking it more of the poison that filled his veins, the intoxicated man drank from it eagerly, then spat it out when he realized it was water. Confused, he looked up at his brother. “Come now, we need to get you sobered up and home,” Zephyr said easily, seeking to ensure the situation remained calm. “You are lucky father hasn’t heard word of this yet, otherwise he would’ve come down here himself.”

Instead of invoking fear in his brother, as Zephyr desired, the man’s shoulders seemed to sag even more and he set the flask down in front of him. “I would stop drinking…if they would just leave me alone.”

Concerned, Zephyr sat down on the stool across from his brother. “Who bothers you so that you are forced to drink your days away in places like this?”

“I know not who they really are,” he whispered, an echo of madness in his voice. That concerned Zephyr, for the moment, but then he found himself further disturbed by what followed. “For I have never seen them in the light of day. They come to me in…visions and dreams.” He seemed to be choosing his words carefully, trying to come across as coherent as possible. “I know not their true names, for I understand very little of what they say. This one hides behind the mask of a jester, always laughing. The other is cloaked in a mask of shadow, always silent.”

“Do you know why they appear to you?” Zephyr inquired. “How long have you been seeing them?”

“They first appeared a week ago, and I have not slept well since,” the brother shook his head. “The only peace I’ve found is at the bottom of this bottle. I know not either why they have chosen me. Is this some sign, Zephyr? Have I angered the spirits somehow?”

Before Zephyr could answer, the others’ eyes widened. “What?!” he whispered. “They have never…why would you appear now?”

Zephyr felt his stomach churn in fear. He had never seen such a look in his brother’s eyes, such madness and fear. He looked about, sickness growing in his stomach, as he knew he would find nothing. No one was near, and no one dared look at them, and Zephyr understood that this was not the first time the man before him had spoken to people that were not there. “Whom are you talking about, brother?” Zephyr leaned forward, whispering harshly. “Who’s here?”

“…The Joker,” he croaked. “He’s filling my mind with these images, terrifying things. Make him stop, just make him stop, please.” He began to shake his head, tears rolling down his face. Zephyr had never seen his brother so scared. “Why is he laughing? All those people…why is he laughing?”

Zephyr stood and quickly moved to stand beside his brother, placing a reassuring hand on Kol’s trembling shoulder. “All will be well, we just need to get you home, father will…”

“Don’t you dare speak of him!” the maddened one leapt to his feet, and steel whispered from the leather sheath at his side. Zephyr did his best to ignore the sword in his face, staring instead at his brother. “He has a part in this, I know it. I’ve..I’ve seen it!” 
            “What are you doing, boy?” a gruff voice said from behind him. “Has your father not taught you better than this?”

The brother whirls around to face this new stranger, haphazardly swinging the sword away from Zephyr. Losing not a second, the younger Anfaman rises quickly to his feet, and knocks his brother in the back of the knee with his right foot. The other lets loose a yelp of pain and surprise and as he falls, Zephyr quickly clubs him over the head with the wooden mug that his brother had spent so long trying to hide inside.

Zephyr looked up into the green eyes of the man who had helped him. The man had brilliant red hair, kept in a ponytail behind his head and was garbed in black and silver. Zephyr had known the newcomer the minute he had heard that distinguishable gruff voice. “Thank you, Rion,” Zephyr said to the Captain of the Anfaman Guard. “I did not want to harm him.”

“Nor did I, Zephyr,” Rion replied, suddenly sounding very tired. “I know nothing of what goes on in heads of lordlings, but even this seems to be far from expected.” 
            “Yes, Rion, I would agree with you,” Zephyr said softly. He knelt by his brother and motioned for Rion to do the same. Together, they lifted the young man to his feet and swung his arms so that he was suspended between them. He then said to his barely conscious brother, “Come, Kol. Let’s get you home.”

            *            *            *            *                                    *            *            *            *

Kol opened his eyes to find the familiar setting of his bedchamber. His head pounding, he winced as he rubbed his temples, rising to a sitting position. Taking stock of his surroundings, he noticed a figure, cloaked in silver, standing in the bright light of the afternoon sun at the opened doorway to the balcony. The fresh scent of blooming flowers mixed with the salty smell of the nearby sea made for a pleasant aroma, though Kol could not enjoy it without his stomach lurching.

“Father?” he asks, his voice cracked from lack of use. “I did not know you had returned.”

Dahres Anfaman, the Lord of Tiya, turned from the picturesque view of the gardens and the seascape beyond. His blue eyes, so much like Kol’s, were cold. “I know, I returned early when I heard news of your…troubles.”

Kol looked away, unable to meet his father’s gaze. “Where were you?” he asked, while looking determinedly at the floor. “How far this time?”

“Not far enough, apparently,” Dahres said, gruffly. “Word of your exploits followed me everywhere I went. People saw you, Kol. They knew you were my son and my heir. Why did you behave so rashly?”

“Because,” Kol started, then stopped. Suddenly, gathering his strength, he looked his father in the eye, tears welling in his eyes. “Because something is happening to me that I don’t understand, not at all. Everyone seems to think I’m just crazy; that I should be locked up, so I cannot hurt anyone, including myself.”

“What makes you think you are not crazy, Kol?” Dahres demanded, a stern edge in his voice. “How do you know what ails you to be so real?”

“I don’t know!” Kol cried, throwing his hands down to his side in frustration. “I very well could be crazy, but I just have this feeling, that all of it is real, that all of it is happening for a reason.”

“And what reason would that be?”

“The man in the mask is somewhat unwilling to share his motives, father,” Kol said bitterly. Almost immediately there was a change on his father’s face. Zephyr clearly had not shared what was said in the tavern with anyone. Kol, in that moment, was thankful to his little brother. Kol saw the flare of recognition in his father’s eyes quickly disappear behind a veil of disinterest. “What do you know about this?”

“Nothing,” Dahres muttered, shaking his head. “Just stories that I’ve heard along the road and sea.”

“Stories of what?” Kol moved closer to the edge of the bed.

“Ghosts,” Dahres whispered, his eyes fading to somewhere Kol had never been before. “Phantoms.”

Kol remained silent, expecting his father to continue. Instead, he was surprised when the Lord of Tiya moved quickly towards the broad oak door of Kol’s bedchamber. “We will speak again soon. There are matters I must look into, matters that do not concern you,” Dahres said, silencing Kol with a look before the boy could even utter a protest. “We will speak again soon, at dinner. Your mother is expecting you there.” Dahres paused at the door and looked back, a faint smile uncharacteristically on his face. “May want to lay off the wine, though.”

*            *            *                        *            *            *                                    *            *

After his father left, Kol finally realized that the overpowering stench in the room happened to be him, despite the blooming flowers both inside his room and outside in the gardens. He called for Wendell to draw a bath for him and prepare a light meal of cheese and lamb, something that would sooth his roiling stomach. Wendell was an old man, but his sharp tongue and fearless demeanor invoked an almost irrational fear in the household servants. Within minutes, Wendell had a few serving girls fill the broad porcelain tub with warm water. As Kol soaked, he felt his muscles relax, the tension flowing out of his body and into the tranquil water.

Reveling in the renewed sense of peace he felt, Kol ate the lamb and cheese and washed it down with a glass of cool water. His stomach satisfied, he leaned back in the marble bath and breathed deep, inhaling the light scent of mint in the water, and felt himself drifting away from the chaos and the madness.

He stands in a field of grass, the bright sun beating down on his sweat-covered brow. He holds a toy, a wooden sword in his hand. Across from him stands a boy with brown hair, but the blue eyes are the same as Kol’s own. The two boys wear nothing more than light tunics and leggings, and both are decorated with more than their fair share of bruises. Kol feels something warm at the edge of his lips and brushes at it. When he looks down at his hand, the crimson stain there does not alarm him. A voice of rock and stone grinding together calls to him, “Blood is the sign of progress, boy. You’d be better to remember that next time he tries that move on you again.” 

Kol turns and recognizes Rion vas Lune, an outlander like his father, standing not far away, his arms crossed, his own sword, this one of steel, sheathed at his side. Without another word, the swordmaster nods and the other boy raises his sword and attacks.

            Another memory, stronger than the last.

            He lies on the same field of grass, but he feels older now. A young woman, close to him in age, rests next to him. Her eyes are closed, but her brilliant, platinum blond hair spills out behind her head. She wears a plain dress, but its lack of ornaments and jewels only seems to further beautify her appearance. She seems to feel his gaze on her, and turns and opens her eyes, which are a brilliant shade of green summer grass. She smiles, and he feels his heart fill with warmth. He tries to speak her name but cannot. Her smile broadens, and she puts a finger to his lips and leans close. Her eyes are mere inches from his own, and he cannot, even if he wished to, draw away.

            Kol opened his eyes, startlingly blue, finding himself in the cold water of the bath. The light had long faded from the eastern windows, meaning that he missed most of the morning. He shook his head as to clear it from the deep memories that he had found himself in. He then, for the first time, heard a polite, insistent knocking at the door.

“Yes?” he called. “What is it?”

“My lord, we have towels and fresh clothes for you,” a faint feminine voice replied. “May we enter?”

“Yes, of course,” Kol answered, turning his back to the door.

Without looking, Kol heard the creak of the door on its old hinges and the soft footsteps of the servant girls. There was a faint rustling as they set down the fresh linens and then there was a pause. One of them cleared her throat uneasily.

“Will there be any else, my lord?” her voice seemed to quaver.

“No, thank you, that will be all,” Kol replied, somewhat concerned at the undisguised fear in the girl’s voice. Had stories of his troubles spread even among the smallfolk of his household? What of the other greater and lesser clans of Elliny, would their Lords and Barons know the truth as well? He did not hear the girl’s footsteps as they withdrew, but he heard the door’s hinges once more, confirming their departure.

Troubled, and the peace of his memories long gone, Kol rose from the bath and dried himself using the fresh, thick towels. He then dressed himself in the fresh clothing they had left for him; a plain white tunic, with black leggings and black boots and, still distracted by the fear he invoked in the servant girls, opened the door to his bedchamber.

He stepped out into bright sunlight. Kol threw up his arm instinctively to shield his eyes from the new glare of the sun. Squinting and bewildered, Kol took stock of his surroundings. He found himself in a stone garden, with many bizarre and beautiful plants he had never seen before. Above him stretched a clear sky, unmarred by clouds of any sort. He walked through the garden, still attempting to divine where exactly he was, when he saw a man and a woman, sitting with a child on a bench. He walked by them, but they did not seem to observe his presence. He instead noticed the plain, true love on the man’s face as he looked at the woman and child. The woman had the child in fine swaddling clothes of brilliant orange and red, for it was less than a year old, and she was making cooing noises, drawing pleased gurgling laughter from the child. The man wore a plain black coat, unornamented except for unrecognizable insignia on the collar and shoulders. The way the man sat, the way he held himself, Kol knew this man to be a soldier. Kol, distracted by the sight of this happy family, suddenly found himself looking off the edge of the world.

            Stumbling back with a shout, Kol eventually calmed his heart and body enough to step back to the edge. Looking over, Kol saw a great forest stretch out far beneath him, the treetops hidden beneath a veil of wispy clouds. Still struggling to regain his breath from his near brush with death, Kol saw in the distance, far to the north, the glistening white peaks of mountains, their stony fingers frozen in their eternal struggle towards the sky. Kol quirked his head, a familiarity in the back of his mind, something seemed to cry out to him about those mountains, something he knew but could not remember. For the first time, Kol heard the distant thrum of crowds, the steady heartbeat of a city. Kol turned, and looked back past the bench and the family, to see a great metropolis before him, floating in the clouds. It was built from stone and marble, with gleaming spires of gold and silver reaching even higher into the heavens. What looked to be thousands of people crowded the city streets, which were also filled with floating steel carriages, drawn by no horse or man. This floating city stretched as far as the eye could see, shimmering in the heat of the sun. Kol detected movement at the edge of the gardens, and saw a man running towards him. Kol tensed, ready to flee if need be, but realized the man also did not see him. The newcomer was dressed in the same manner as the seated man, and Kol realized the plain tunic to be some sort of uniform. Kol did not expect to understand them, these strange people that lived in the clouds, and indeed when they began to speak, Kol did not understand them for a few moments. Then, oddly enough, their speech morphed into what he could understand. The newcomer threw his hands up to the sky, gesturing madly.

            “They are coming,” he said. “They will-”

            The man stopped, his mouth falling open in surprise, as he looked to the sky. The seated man looked up to the sky as well, but he masked his shock more adeptly. The woman too, searched the sky, and clutched her babe tighter to her breast, her look of concern dissolving into fear. Kol jumped as great alarms began to sound all around them, seemingly coming from the air itself.  The city itself seemed to become aware at once of the threat approaching. A great sense of foreboding filled Kol as he finally followed the others’ gazes.            

Comets of fire scorched through the sky, blazing a trail of smoke and flame through the previously pristine heavens. Two slammed into the cityscape behind them, and the entire city seemed to shake violently for a few terrifying moments before stabilizing.

            “Your orders, General?” the man stood stiffly, his eyes locked straight forward, his training finally taking over.

“Get them to safety,” the General stood, his fists clenched as he gestured at his wife and son. “Call up the men.” he smiled, clearly seeking to calm his anxious wife. “I love you. Everything will be well, I promise.”
           

“Yes, sir,” the messenger replied, and quickly led the woman and babe away. Marson himself walked and stood right next to Kol, eying the sky as it seemed to burst into flame above them. The flames seemed to be coming closer and closer, until Kol could feel the searing heat on his skin.

            Crying out from the pain, Kol fell backwards onto a plush Parisi rug. He found himself no longer looking at the sky of flame, but instead at the comforting, welcoming plainness of his bedchamber ceiling. It was there that they found him, drawn by the screams.

Kol felt the coolness of a cloth on his brow and heard the mutterings of the wyrder, Galien. “Galien? What happened?” Kol whispered, stirring, looking up at the careworn lines drawn by age in the old wyrder’s face. As his vision cleared, he noticed two guards at the door, dressed in the black and silver armor of his Clan. It was unadorned, so he knew them to be low ranking amongst the clan guard. Their weapons were sheathed, but they seemed to be tightly wound, as if they were ready to strike at a moment’s notice.

Galien seemed surprised to see the lordling awake. “We were drawn by your cries, my lord. It was most terrifying; some thought you were being attacked. What happened to you?”

Kol remembered the skies of flame, remembered the warrior and his family. He also recalled the fear in the voices of the servant girls. “Nothing,” Kol murmured. “I did not mean to alarm anyone.”
            “I suspect your father will want to hear word of this,” Galien sighed, standing. “I will go tell him now, you should rest.”

“No, I will find him myself,” Kol said, finding the strength to rise. Even though Galien was many decades his senior, the young man towered over the wyrder. “I cannot be coddled forever, despite what has happened to me recently.”

“Aye, my lord,” Galien nodded his balding head, the old brown eyes looking at Kol with what seemed to be a newfound respect. “You will find him on the cliffs. He prefers to go there to think sometimes.”

“Thank you, Galien,” Kol said, brushing himself off and making sure he looked presentable in the mirror. “I cannot have everyone thinking I have lost my mind forever, can I?”

“Certainly not,” Galien agreed. “People have been concerned for your safety.”
            No more than I’m sure they are concerned for their own. “No one has anything to fear, Galien,” Kol said firmly, but the next words to come out of his mouth were not his own. “Everything will be well, I promise.”

*             *            *                                    *            *             *

Kol found his father on the verdant cliffs that looked out over the white-capped Sunset Sea. Dun Anfaman, seat of his Clan’s power, had been built not far from these legendary cliffs, because his father loved the sound of the sea. Kol looked back at his family’s home, built from limestone, marble, and oak. The central keep, where the Anfaman family slept, stood proudly in the center of a broad courtyard, its sides marked by unfurled banners displaying his family’s colors. The servant’s quarters, guesthouse, grand hall, and stables all lay close by. Outside the dun was a small town, where people directly working for the Anfaman Clan lived and worked. The town was no more than two-dozen buildings centered on a Dragon Tree. Dragon Trees were rare in Elliny, for they typically grew only in the Duns of the Greater Clans and major cities of Elliny. The Tree stood strong and tall, but still had many years to grow, for Kol’s grandfather had only planted it a couple decades ago, not long before his own birth. Kol smiled, as he remembered playing in the shade of the Tree’s gargantuan boughs.

The dun and its town, as they stood here, were without any formal defensive structure, though the keep was designed to withstand a siege. That was because, no more than a league away, there stretched a great wall that cut through the rolling foothills until it met the sea at both ends. Safely within those walls, his father’s people worked fields of barley, wheat and hay. They did this both out of fealty to Clan Anfaman and to support their own families.

Turning away, Kol stood for a moment and admired what lay before him. The day was, once again, cloudless, and the sun shone brilliantly. The clear blue sky stretched until it met the cold, gray waters of the sea at the distant horizon. Kol looked about for his father, but it did not take him long to find the Lord Anfaman. He saw his father sitting cross-legged, heavily cloaked in black and silver despite the warm summer air. Kol thought nothing of it, as Dahres always dressed in a cloak, tunic, and leggings that represented the colors of his family. Kol began to walk towards his father, when suddenly he heard a whisper behind him.

            <He is beginning to see, my Prince,> Kol whirled, to find no one there. With a sickening sense of dread, he recognized the whisper. <You cannot keep him from me forever. He has a destiny, one that for some reason you refuse to see. He will confront the enemy.>

<I had only heard stories of your people still wandering this world, haunted by what had happened to you,> Kol was shocked to hear his father’s voice as well. He stopped moving forward and instead listened carefully. <Why did you choose my son?>

<For the same reason that he chose me, my prince,> the Joker’s laughter almost made Kol drop to his knees in deep-seeded terror. <We speak to each other across the waters of time. I have known him since he was a child, and he has known me as an old man.>

<You never lived to be an old man,> Dahres said. <And I know the lies and falsehoods that your people are legend for. You are not be trusted.>

<Who told you that? Him?> the Joker’s voice had a sudden, dangerous edge to it and Kol found himself fearing for his father. Did Dahres Anfaman understand danger of this ghost? <Your world is a world of lies, Anfaman. Every breath you draw, every moment you live, it is all lies. The falsehoods which he forged and wove into the fabric of everything until no one knew where the truth lay hidden.>

<How do you know him?> Dahres asked, suddenly sounding intrigued.

<That is a story for another time,> the Joker answered. <The boy has been listening.>

Almost instantly, Kol saw his father turn and rise to his feet. Expecting a stern scolding, expecting some sort of cold, disdainful response, Kol was surprised when his father approached him and laid a hand on his shoulder. Kol saw a look of deep concern in his father’s sky blue eyes and felt his stomach tighten. Whatever was happening to him, it was enough to concern his father. Behind those blue eyes, Kol knew that Dahres was hiding the fact that he did not know what to do.

“Kol,” his father broke the silence, turning to look back at the ocean. “I must admit, I did not know the depth of what you were dealing with. I am sorry that I did not take this threat seriously from the beginning.”

“What do you mean?” Kol asked, fighting to keep the fear from his voice. “What is happening to me?”

“Something that even I do not fully understand yet,” Dahres answered. “We must seek the Dragon, and see what he has to say about your condition.”

“Ti’Urak?” Kol whispered, not even bothering to disguise his awe. “The Dragon of the Mountain?”

The Dragon Ti’Urak was a figure draped in myth and legend. She lived atop the Mountain, a towering peak in the Lands of Never Summer, far to the north. Perhaps one hundred devoted monks, who, legend says, mutilated themselves with archaic runes to give their magic more power, attended the Dragon. Ti’Urak was also the one who had chosen the first High Guardian so many years before and ever since she had played a significant part in the affairs of the Court in Dakan.

“Yes, he has lived here for millennia,” Dahres said, thoughtfully. “If anyone were to know the truth of your plight, it would be him.”

“When can we meet him?” Kol asked anxiously.

“I will send word to the Mountain,” Dahres said thoughtfully. “I suspect he will heed my summons given the nature of what is happening.”

“Even with the construction of the new church of the Godspoken in Tiya?” Kol said, but was momentarily taken aback by a flash of anger that crossed his father’s visage.

“No mere cult will be enough to sway the influence of the Dragon,” Dahres’ anger was evident in his voice. “There will be a reckoning, and these heretics will be driven from the shores of Elliny.”

Kol was surprised to hear his father speak this way. Despite their familial ties to the High Clan Soulfire, he had never heard Dahres Anfaman speak so vehemently in defense of the High Guardianship.

Kol opened his mouth to respond when the distant hoof beats of a rider from the north drew his attention. Dahres, too, heard the sounds and turned to face the newcomer, one hand on the hilt of his greatsword, his mouth drawn into a firm, tight line.

The rider soon drew rein nearby, the horse lathered and panting from what was obviously a long ride. He was dressed in green and crimson, fringed with orange. Kol knew those colors from all his days, for they were the colors of the High Clan Soulfire, and Kol felt a sense of foreboding as the messenger approached.

“Marshal of the Wood, Lord of Tiya” the man rambled off Dahres’ many titles as he went to one knee. Kol stole a glance at his father as Dahres rolled his eyes slightly. The messenger extended a scroll, emblazoned with the sign of a man wreathed in flame, the sigil of the High Clan Soulfire. “I bring tidings from Dakan. A falcon came in moments ago.”

Dahres looked at his son as he took the scroll. The elder Anfaman attempted a smile as he broke the wax seal. “Let us see what your grandfather wants of us now.”

Dahres unfurled the scroll and read its message swiftly. He pursed his lips, glanced once more at Kol, but nodded and turned back to the messenger from Orion Soulfire. “Tell the High Guardian I have received his message and acknowledge his summons. I will leave for Dakan immediately.”

*            *            *                        *            *            *                                    *

“What do you mean, we cannot come with you?” Zephyr and Kol chorused, before looking at each other in disbelief.

Dahres smiled and for once the stress that had lain so heavily upon his shoulders seemed to temporarily be lifted. “A journey of this magnitude should not be attempted by such boys, so new in the ways of the world. Besides,” he said, raising a finger to silence further protest. “I need someone here, holding court and caring for the people that are sworn to us.”

Zephyr seemed ready to argue more, but Kol laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder. Zephyr looked at him, curiously, seemingly surprised to see such a gesture. When Kol looked up at his father, he recognized a look of pride that was,  as always, quickly concealed. Kol realized that both of them had gone some time without seeing him act like the older brother. “We understand, father,” Kol said, doing his best to keep his voice from wavering. The Joker had been silent the last few days as Dahres had prepared to leave, and Kol did not know if his father’s departure would rekindle the spirit’s interest in Kol. Silencing his doubts, Kol did his best to smile. “Give our best to grandfather, and bring me back something from Dakan.”

“Me too!” Zephyr exclaimed, punching Kol in the shoulder. “Do not forget about me, father.”

“I could never forget either of you,” Dahres said, and Kol heard the wistfulness in his father’s voice, and Kol felt a fear rising within him, something he could not explain, a sickening sense that ran so deep that bile threatened to rise up in his throat.

*            *            *                        *            *            *                                    *

A week later, Kol sat in his father’s chair, and his whole body was sore.

He had been training with Zephyr and the remaining guardsmen for hours each day, doing his best to revive his long-dormant skills with a blade. Months of drinking himself into stupor had done their damage, for he had a sizable paunch and moved sluggishly. Despite his best efforts, Kol could not strike his younger brother at all, and even the greenest of the guardsmen was able to leave Kol with several bruises. That, combined with the bare oak of his father’s chair, did not give his body any sort of comfort. The only source of reprieve as of late had been the silence of the Joker. Whatever the spirit’s motives were, he seemed to respect the wishes of Kol’s father. Adjusting his weight and wincing at the effort, Kol waved a hand and the day began.

His mother was seated to his left, and frequently throughout the day he sought her counsel, as he was still young and did not know much about governing, save what he had seen his father do. Celeste Anfaman was the beautiful, brown-haired daughter of the High Guardian, Orion Soulfire. Her words carried weight with anyone that spoke to her, and she was well respected throughout Elliny for her sharp wit and sage counsel. As the day wore on, Kol found himself getting bored, but dared not show it, for he knew his mother would not hesitate to berate him, even in a public forum like this. Kol’s interest, however, was piqued when the doors to the Grand Hall opened and Galien strode in, his dark green wyrder’s robes swirling behind him. He raised a hand to silence the droning of a farmer who was protesting, yet again, the taxes imposed upon him by the Clan. Abashed, the sun-darkened farmer closed his mouth and stepped aside, bowing to the wyrder as he did so. No matter the faith of the farmers and workers, they all respected the wyrders.

“I bring word, my lord,” the wyrder said, bowing first, as was custom. Kol hurriedly bid him continue. Kol leaned forward, eagerness evident on his face, but it took a few seconds for the old man to straighten.  “Two falcons came today, one from Dakan.”

“Word from my father?” Kol asked.

“Yes, my lord,” Galien’s voice sounder older than it ever had before. Clearly, the sixty years he had served as a wyrder, an advisor to lords and barons, had started to take its toll. “He has arrived safely in Dakan. They encountered no bandits on the road, and have been met with gracious welcome by the High Guardian. He says that he will send word when he knows how long he will be in Dakan.”

“And the second falcon?” Kol leaned back, and he could feel his mother relaxing as well. He had been worried that his father had been waylaid by some peril on the road. Now that Dahres was safe in Dakan, they could both breathe easier.

“Word from the Lands of Never Summer, my lord,” Galien said, his words slowing as he once more read the small text printed on the scroll. The old wyrder looked up and Kol saw a bright fervor, a reverence in his eyes. “The Dragon comes.”