Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Legacy of the Hero: The Last Meets the First-9

Treacherous Companions

The palace soon quieted from the clamor of combat to the subdued din of cleaning the halls and walls, dragging away corpses of friend and foe for accounting, and assembling the key courtiers for royal council. In a sealed side room, secret from most that walk the halls of the Solar Nation’s royal palace, an unwelcome—yet sadly familiar—meeting commenced. Therein the privy council of the Solar Nation met in circumstances that would be shocking to the majority of courtiers at court.

Zebulon sat on a stool, naked to the waist, bleeding from a number of cuts about his arms and torso. Behind him Keela stood, herself bereft of queenly modesty as she again assumed the demeanor of a doctor, bandages covering her own wounds as she wielded her instruments again upon her royal husband. The council, slim in number, consisted of long-time trusted companions- but that didn’t mean that they found the scene acceptable, only that it was unwise to voice such opinions.

“Now that all five of you are here,” Zebulon said, “I expect a report.”

The Lord Chancellor, a man as ancient as Ilker, and thus remembering when his king was but an infant in his mother’s arms, looked up from a hastily-written letter to say “My king, the assassins are no more. All of the traitors are slain, as are their confederates, save for one.”

“Lord Chancellor, I bid you hold that a moment. Lord Marshall, what word of my daughter and the boy?”

A man in his prime, the Lord Marshall was once Zebulon’s squire during the wars. “Master,” he said, out of long habit, “neither I nor my men can find either child within the walls. The last report was that they got to the stables and defeated a group of traitors that assailed them there, leaving a few slain and the rest dazzled.”

Quickly, the Court Fool—also the Master of Spies—added that “…two of my men saw them ride hard away from the palace out a sally port. They are gone, Your Majesty, but not beyond the eyes and ears of my people.”

Keela tapped her husband on the shoulder, and he gripped two iron holds on either side of him- holds anchored to great weights of stone. She took up a short iron bar, whispered an unheard word in a curt and insulting manner, and saw it immediately grow red-hot as if plunged into a forge or fire. Then she seared closed the wound on his shoulder, and all saw his grasp on the holds tighten instant as the touch- but not a sound passed his lips. Keela removed the brand, and with her free hand whispered a second phrase unheard to the seared flesh in a loving and tender manner; instantly the scar healed and only a red bruise-like mark remained.

Keela handed the brand to a woman next to her, who whispered to it and cooled it thereby, before putting it aside. This woman was the Mistress of the Palace, the Lord Chancellor’s grand-daughter, one of Keela’s former students and the lover of the Master of Spies. “Majesty,” she said, “if they are followed, then certainly they shall flee for safe and friendly places. Would we not be wise to send word to those closest to the palace, telling them to expect our precious personages?”

Another woman, the Court Healer (sister of the Mistress, student of Keela and the Marshal’s wife), disagreed with this proposal, saying “Word of disaster travels faster than word of warning, and more so at short distances, and thus I say that our friends would already expect them. Instead, let us have words with the living traitor. I suspect that this was an attack of opportunity, not a well-planned act of treachery, but nonetheless the first move in a great scheme of treason and insurrection.”

Keela and Zebulon looked knowingly at each other, then smiled.

“Proceed now, Lord Chancellor.” Zebulon said.

The old man harrumphed. “The guard captain we have chained and isolated in the Sorcerer’s Cell. We stripped him from head to toe, having discovered nothing by way of hidden marks of any sort.”

“Did you have him shaved?” Keela said.

“No, my queen.” the old man said, “You intend to have him examined?”

“I intend to secure his health.” Keela said as she bound up her husband’s wounds,

“Transfer him to the House of Healing and place him under guard therein. His wounds shall be cleaned and dressed as if he were a free man.”

“Mistress,” the Chief Healer said, “shall I attend personally?”

“Yes, in my presence.” Keela said.

The council saw Keela’s intention, and that ended discussion. The corpses, once identified, were disposed of properly—lest unclean things foul the palace—and by dawn the palace betrayed no signs of its overnight occurrence.

When the prisoner awoke, he found himself naked and chained to an infirmary bed. Standing over him was the woman he betrayed, Queen Keela, and the Chief Healer- her former student. Two of the royal ladies-in-waiting stood by to assist their mistresses in their intended task of interrogation.

“You are wounded.” Keela said to the surprised prisoner, “I chose to attend to you myself.”

The Chief Healer motioned to the waiting ladies to bring water and cloth as Keela prepared to administer treatment.

“I ordered your transfer during the night.” Keela said, “I have prepared you for treatment, which is why you might feel utterly exposed.”

The prisoner looked closely at his arms, for that was all the more of himself that he could see, and noticed that what hair he had was gone- his flesh now seemed smooth like a baby. That was when he noticed the lack of hair upon his head, and his countenance withered from shock to horror.

“What are you going to do?” he demanded, his voice trembling.

“Heal you.” Keela said, and just then the other women began washing his body- starting at the feet and moving up, “I shall clean and close your wounds, as I’ve done for so many men before, such that you shall be back on your feet before midday. I shall not harm you in any way, nor allow others to do so.”

His disbelief needed no words, for his face said all that Keela needed to hear. She took a wet cloth and wiped clean a wound, and with that bloodied cloth she whispered a question. She then stood as if listening to an unseen messenger speaking into her ears, and then she again looked at her patient.

“I thought as much.” Keela said, and the Chief Healer nodded her agreement, having done the same into another, differently-soiled cloth.

“You are a fool.” Keela said, “Tell me this woman’s name, and mercy may yet be had despite your weakness.”

“I guarantee sanctuary for your daughter,” the Chief Healer said, “and a future greater than any that her mother would grant her, an honorable and harmonious future.”

They looked at him, wordless, for another five minutes as all four women finished preparing him for treatment. Then he broke down, sobbing, and could not stop. Keela wiped away his tears, and then soothed him with words whispered into his ears. She handed that cloth to the Chief Healer, who then took her leave and reported to the Master of Spies the name of the spy that compromised him and got her in chains before midday. By evening, she too confessed- and revealed that civil war had begun.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Legacy of the Hero: The Last Meets the First-8

Along the Road at Midnight

Zacharion and Sihaya, unaware of the three men scrying from afar, ran swiftly from their pursuers and escaped them before they could recover their night sight and chase the two of them down once more. Soon they reached the stables, took up two horses and rode out from a hidden sally part. Now free of the palace, they rode hard and fast into the night-shrouded countryside, soon rejoining the road connecting the palace to the rest of the land.

Some time thereafter, as they rested their horses at a pond near the road, the two sat on the ground and rested themselves.

“I should go back.” Sihaya said, slumped on the ground, “Not yet, but soon.”

Zacharion shook his head. “No. Not soon. We’re the targets, so returning to the palace will play into their hands. Your parents, I have no doubt, will defeat this attack and respond forcefully in short order. Let them focus upon that task, princess. Stay for now, and stay until recalled.”

She looked over at him, her eyes screaming her refusal, but he sat unmoved.

“You also have the power of the purse. What we require, you can easily procure, where I have no wealth of either status or coin to do such things.”

This frank assertion hit her mind like a hammer, and instantly she sat up.

“I feel no shame in it.” Zacharion said, anticipating his companion’s mind, “You are the sole princess of this realm, daughter of two heroes and quite ready to assert your own quality when you think yourself provoked. “

“Your consistency of behavior unnerves me. “

Zacharion now got up and drank deep of the water in the pond. Splashing his face with it, he turned to his royal companion once more.

“Most boys aren’t raised as I was. Ilker demands a great deal of his charges, which your father can confirm for you if you doubt my testimony. He not only trained me to fight, but also to think and to feel- and to listen when thoughts and passions uncalled for seized upon me, for they often tell us what we need to know right then and there.”

Slowing rising to her feet, Sihaya joined him at the pond’s edge. “You’re still a boy, Zacharion. What man shall be your father now?”

Zacharion smiled. “I need no other father. Ilker shall always be with me.”

Sihaya looked, as best she could, at this boy’s face. Despite her own youth, she learned her lessons on how to read a face well- her mother, in particular, saw to it. In a guileless face, she usually found a foolish and often unfinished mind. Yet she knew Zacharion to be not only finished, but also of a mind more like her father than the silly boys she is long familiar with. Again, the Kiss cannot be ignored: all that bear it are noticeably apart from the common example of their type and kind.

Just then, he took her hands into his own. He put one upon his heart, and the other upon his brow. “Know for yourself.” he said, and in a moment’s passing she came to see through his eyes- and hear through his ears. Then she felt a distinct presence, a warm and brilliant one of great power and heavy with authority.

“Hello, daughter of my first apprentice.” said a voice old and powerful, a voice that showed itself through the boy’s eyes as Great and Holy Ilker himself. Sihaya gasped, astonished and unable to move or even think.

“My child,” Ilker said, continuing, “I allowed this because now is the time to listen and not speak. You must understand that this boy, my final apprentice, has a sacred charge to execute. It transcends the concerns of the Solar Nation, as it involves the future of the entirety of the free peoples of the world. Yet you have a place in this plan, more than one, and right now that place is to show him out of the Solar Nation. You must place your trust in him, for I have already done so, and now that my lawful time in life is complete this is all the further I may intervene into the world. Your father and mother were my disciples, so I am certain that you also possess that disciple quality. Be the first for the son of the sun.”

At last able to think, Sihaya immediate prostrated herself before the boy.

“Great and Holy Ilker!” Sihaya, reflexively, genuflected. “I am un-“

“Nonsense. Your parents taught you well, despite the cancers worming their way through their court, and what I ask of you now is no harder than what you have already done on my behalf. Arise, my grand-daughter, and take up your place beside my son.”

She did, and she felt the presence ease away. He took her into an embrace and kissed her on her forehead, saying “Don’t lead. Don’t follow. Be beside me. That is all I ask.”

She didn’t know it, but on her brow formed a mark of her own- Zacharion’s Kiss, a Kiss like and unlike Ilker’s own, and it soon took the form of a dot enclosed in a circle. What she did know is that now she is like her own parents, taken into a realm of existence unlike what she had before, and this sense of purpose suffused her being from crown to feet.

She then left his arms and took up the reins of the horses, handing one to him, and mounted her horse saying “I now remember clear the way to a place friendly to the crown. Come, let’s go before we’re tracked down.”

Friday, July 16, 2010

Legacy of the Hero: The Last Meets the First-7

The Midnight Sun Rises

The royal palace of Solland now erupted in a terrible clamor as the royal family bellow a hue and cry, calling forth those of the guard not killed or suborned by the assailants. All throughout the castle a clash of steel rang as loyalist and traitor ambushed one another in the halls and the rooms. Floors soon stained red, slick with the shed blood of hero and villain alike.

From the royal quarters, Zebulon and Keela cut their way through a section of men clad as his own bodyguard- some of whom were his own bodyguards! Husband and wife, king and queen, fighting as a preternaturally-attuned team carefully cut down the traitors seeking to murder them while their daughter fights alongside Zacharion as they seek an escape from the palace.

Outside the palace halls, astride their horses, are a trio of men as black-clad as the infiltrating dagger-men inside. Two of them are, even in the darkness, visibly men of arms. The third man, carefully concentrating on a crystal sphere, was nothing of the sort- instead, frail and withered as if drained by years of dissipation and debauchery had extracted a deep toll.

“Resistance gathers within,” the withered man said, his voice as ruined as his body, “now that surprise is gone. Even with the assistance of those you…convinced…to turn against the king, their failure to slay them in the initial moments is likely to lead to this assault’s failure.”

One of the two warriors dismissed the withered man’s report with a wave of his hand. “It matters not.”

“I concur.” The second warrior glanced over at the withered man. “The men sent are entirely expendable dupes, members of secret groups that we control by the purse and outsiders ensorcelled easily by easy coin for bloody work. Let the Usurper and his whore butcher them like cattle. They shan’t be missed by us, and their deaths serve our ends- beyond this night if need be.”

The withered man cackled, his mouth smirking. “Your necromancy is far more subtle than any I’ve seen in the tomes of the Old Regime.”

The first of the two warriors moved alongside the withered man. “I’d expect humility and prudence from such an experienced scholar of things long forbidden by the Usurper’s master, and not insolence. Now, tell us of the boy.”

The withered man sighed, as if disappointed, and then returned his focus to the sphere. A few moments later, he nodded his head as if satisfied with himself.
“The boy evades your men, and he has the princess with him.” The withered man shot a look at the first warrior. “She seems to be quite good at sticking grown men like pigs with that spear she wields. The boy is no novice either, cutting down men twice his size.”

The second warrior now joined the other two and clapped his hand against his fellow’s shoulder. “The boy, fellow Master, is the objective. The girl can wait.”

The first warrior gritted his teeth, biting down his frustration.

“Masters,” the withered man said, “something is happening. Attend! Look into the sphere with me, and see as I see.”

The three now gazed into the sphere. Therein they saw, as if watching from above, the boy and the princess quickly cut away yet another handful of hostile invaders. As they escape, more come unto them and now outnumbered greatly they are pressed into a corner. As their minions close for the kill, the boy grabs the girl and turns her face to the corner. Then, facing the murderous jackals, Zacharion glared at them- and then a brilliant light, like the midday sun, flashed before them. It burned their eyes, and their horses reared themselves for being spooked. Unable to shield their eyes and regain control as one act, each fell from their saddles- and the sphere of crystal shattered upon the ground.

Stunned, dazed and confused the three men did not arise immediately. Fortunately, their horses did not run; some patron of fools took mercy on them that night. Yet, as the clamor from the palace revealed, their assault would indeed fail- but their objective is had nonetheless. By morning, confirmation would reach their ears that the boy escaped in the night- the game is on!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Legacy of the Hero: The Last Meets the First-6

Red Hands, Keen Knives and Character in the Dark

Nightfall in the royal chambers brings Zebulon, Keela and Zacharion together at a quiet table. Joining them is a girl, finely attired, about the same age as the boy Zacharion. She acknowledged her royal parents, and then walked up to the boy—standing before her seat—and looked curiously at him.

“Are you noble or common?” she said, her voice betraying her intent.

Zacharion smiled. “I am.” He then seated the girl, who looked to her parents for some form of relief from confusion, and then sat opposite her.

“I shall have words with your attendants.” Keela said, “We taught you better.”
Zebulon sighed. “The old houses still cling to the myth that accidents of birth involve inherent worth.”

“Those people willfully ignore the advantages that their wealth grants them, such as not working from dawn to dusk on back-breaking labor in the fields or fearful service to themselves in person, with all of the denials of a decent upbringing that they enjoy- all marks of privilege.” .” Zacharion said, his voice heavy with an authority far beyond his years, “They deny the inherent nobility that all hold in common, thinking it peculiar to their class, which is a fundamental fraud. I am. That is enough.”

Sihaya shrank in her chair, stung deeply by the three-fold chastising of her parents and guest, and towards the boy she felt a deep sense of shame mixing with confusion- how can a boy no older than she is speak like an old man?

“Daughter,” Zebulon said, “this boy is—as I am sure that you’ve heard by now—Holy Ilker’s final student, and that alone will shake the folly out of anyone if they are to endure such an upbringing.

Sihaya shrunk even further into her chair, blushing a deep red to mirror her embarrassment, but then Zacharion fixed his eyes upon her. Without a word, he got up and moved to her side. Taking her hand, he swept away the girl’s hair.

“I am not mad.” His voice, softened, captured her attention. “I know, already, that you can see as well do- but too many around you wish to blind you as they are, to make you crippled at heart as they are, because of your parents and my master.”

“You’re so different from the boys I know. It’s-“

“-like being in Ilker’s presence.” Zacharion said, and then she looked up to see—vividly—the mark that made him like her parents: Ilker’s Kiss. An iconic mark, but unlike any other she ever saw—which, to be fair, was not many—in that it seemed to be as if a blank coin had been stamped upon his forehead. Then, it seemed that there was some sun-like gleam in that mark—a trick of the light, maybe—but nonetheless she felt a serenity from him that was both unsettling and sublime.

That explained why she did not scream when, without warning, all light snuffed out. A clamor arose outside the room, an onrushing din of steel and roaring of voices. Zebulon grabbed the belted sword nearby and girded himself. As he drew steel, Keela retrieved a pair of knives and herded both of the children near the window.

“My boy,” Keela said, whispering, as she handed each of them a knife, “take this- you will need it. We shan’t hold you you’re your task any longer. Daughter, go with him and tell him how to reach the armory. If you must, ride away with him.”

The assailants reached the door, and as they assailed it a second silent surge crashed through the windows. Zebulon whirled about and cut the first man through-and-through across the waist, each half landing on the table with a dull thud. Keela grabbed the arm of a second invader, stabbed the pit of that arm and then slashed his neck open. She let go and let the man fall to the stone-girded courtyard below. A third man’s hand gripped the open portal, but Keela stabbed it through and then crushed his skull with a handy candlestick. With the door cracking and giving, Keela checked the way and then sent the children out that same window.

“Fly, children. To the armory, and then to safety- now go!”

As they began their descent, using the same rope as the doomed third man used to ascend, the door shattered and felt away from its hinges. More men surged into the room. Back to back Zebulon and Keela stood—not merely King and Queen, nor Husband and Wife, but Warrior to Warrior—and with a voiceless, practiced precision born of decades of experience did they fight despite terrible odds. Each covered the other’s back, he extending her reach while she kept free his space from contention, and soon that small room filled with the cooling corpses of black-clad and full-masked men of foul intent.

Once on the ground, Sihaya took Zacharion by the hand and led him through the halls. Their unknown enemies spotted them as they came close, and they ran as deer flee wolves. Once inside the armory, they closed the doors and barred them.

“I can fight.” Zacharion said, “Are you your mother’s daughter?”

Sihaya answered by picking up a spear and a sword- and tossing him the sword.

“I am my father’s daughter.”

Quickly they found the training armor that the squires wear and helped each other get it on, and then they hid. The door splintered as axes and hammers beat upon it, but once holes appeared they put what skills they had to purpose. Sihaya drew first blood with a thrust that caught a man in the groin, and Zacharion stuck another in the gut. For as long as that door held, they unleashed what fury could be burned by children of that age- enough to escape and live on.

Legacy of the Hero: The Last Meets the First-5

Darkness Comes to the Solar Court

Lord Acton left the seat of Zebulon’s power, returning to his family’s city lodgings just outside of the palace, when the royal couple retired to their chambers and took the boy as their guest. Several of his allies and followers left with him, all of them accompanying him to the Acton House. Over the day, a steady flow of callers arrived and left, until the evening when Lord Acton hosted a score of lords at his table for dinner.

Once served, the men sealed the room and the house at Acton’s order. Each man present held forth their hands, making the sign of a pyramid with them. “Masters of the Temple” Acton said, his voice intoning a ritualist’s cadence, “we meet because the Great Design demands our attention. We of the Temple, the true brothers of the Brilliant Ones, must now know that the Usurper’s Master is dead.”

As one, the others responded “The flaw in the Design is repaired.”

“Yet there remains a threat. Ilker’s final student, though a boy, bears the man’s symbol upon his brow. He is not to be dismissed, or underestimated, but treated with the seriousness of a grown man.”

“Yet the Design remains unfulfilled.”

“Masters, now we must decide on what to enact next.” Acton said, and with a wave of his hand the mood shifted and the men relaxed out of their ritualist poses.

A secured servant tended to their wishes for food and drink.

“Lord Acton,” one said, “news of Ilker’s death has indeed moved fast. Already word speeds away to the Sea Princes, to the Legion-Fold Lakes, and one of my sons heard from one of the Sons of Ken that they already knew. That boy’s arrival was no mere fulfillment of a dying man’s wish.”

“All explainable by plain means,” another said, “because as soon as we left court runners and riders and flyers great and small flew away from the Usurper’s seat to all places hither and yon.”

“Ilker’s Peace shall die with Ilker.” Acton said, “The Usurper must know this to be true, so he has to act soon if he wishes some measure of it to remain.”

A third grinned wickedly. “We have an opportunity, masters, one wherein we can regain our former dominion. My spies within the court tell me that the boy intends to seek out the entirety of Ilker’s surviving allies and students, or the heirs thereof, as he did with the Usurper and his whore.”

Acton smiled. “I concur. This boy will lead us to the rest of Ilker’s companions, allowing us to strike them from the Design one by one. I would think that the ostensible reason is to return items of personal value to their former owners, but in fact it is to put this boy on a journey meant to foster his development into Ilker’s true and faithful successor- to recreate our now-deceased foe in a new form. We cannot allow this to happen.”

The other lords at the table paused in their feasting and looked at Acton, stunned.
“Fellow Masters, before the sun rises tomorrow we must move against Zebulon and the boy. Do we not have means available to do this?”

“Hold there,” a fourth said, “for is this not rash action? The boy will be held here for a few days, as the Usurper shall surely seek to assess his late master’s last student for himself, and there is sure to be a state funeral to celebrate Ilker’s death and make orderly the widespread knowledge of that death. If this is to be done, it must be done with precision and accuracy for we shan’t get a second chance.”

“No, think a bit more, fellow master.” Now a fifth spoke up, “We need not succeed in killing either, so long as the Usurper is struck down long enough to remove him and the boy’s flight allows us to track him without error. Only one target actually needs to die, and that’s the Usurper’s daughter.”

The men of the table quickly concurred by nodded ascent.

“Masters,” Acton said, “I think we are agreed on the immediate issue then?”

As one, they acclaimed their consent by a show of hands. Acton then continued: “Then let those with the ears of the disgruntled, degenerate and desperate whisper words into them. Whisper that Old Zebulon intends to marry his daughter to the boy, cementing his hold on the realm past his own days and ensuring that his regime endures also- at their continued expense. Promise them riches and glory as liberators and heroes, and see that foreign treasure fills their purses.”

Already, some of the lords present produced pens and called for paper and ink.

“Then others with the ears of the old houses should warn them of the treachery, and compel them to make ready. Help them put their sons into the watches and stations at the needed times, and their daughters in the beds of unwary allies and minions of the Usurper. Quietly ensure that Solarian gold fills their vaults, so they be able to procure passages fair and foul to see this done.”

More lords now called for ink and paper.

“We perceive the flaw, engage the problem, prompt a reaction- and then enact the solution. Once the Usurper is put down and his ties severed, we let the old houses flood the streets and fields of the realm with the blood of the fools so as to restore order. Their debts to us ensure our continued rule in the manner which we desire. Is this not wisdom?”

As one, the lords said “It is the sublime truth of the universe. The Masters rule, the Servants obey- and none serve best but those unseeing of chains.”