“One day, as the heavens weeps and the devil’s tongue bleed, a child shall rise with revenge in his heart and black blood in his veins. He will be the flesh of my flesh, the blood of my blood, and hail from the forgotten lands where the sun shall rise for the last time. Thousands will follow his steps, for only ruin and death awaits those who oppose him as he marches upon the false kingdoms. And none, from the weak earth dwellers to the arrogant upplanders will be able to stop him as he claims what’s rightfully his since the dawn of time. Oh, yes. The Dark Prince is coming.”
-Last words of the Daemon King Maelogor
Chapter 2 – The Quartet Council
The man, or rather the being looking like a man was in a hurry. The sound of his quick steps was muffled by the expensive carpet covering the floor as he crossed the long, empty hallway leading to the meeting room. Now and then he passed under a ray of feeble, multi-colored light as the sun shone through exquisite stained glasses depicting scenes of legends and battles of the past. He went with his hands clutched behind his back and clad in white robes, a cowl covering his head and hiding his features in shadows. As he neared his destination, two golden-armored guards saluted with respect and pushed open the iron-wrought double doors leading to the council room.
The occupants of the room instantly fell silent when the figure entered the chamber, almost all heads turning to witness his arrival. His cold eyes gazed upon the entirety of the room in a few moments; in the back of the spacious room stood six master-crafted statues twice the size of a man, representing the Gods of men. In the middle was a round white marble table, with four people sitting in each cardinal direction. In the North position was seated a huge man, looking more like a barbarian than a King. His silver battle plate was made of steel and dragon bone and covered with various furs and pelts, and a broadsword as long as a man was tall rested on the table before him.
The Warrior-King of Helungard, he thought, unmistakably. Behind him was standing a relatively young knight, hand resting on the pommel of his sword. His face seemed locked in an arrogant sneer that the man – who was not a man- didn’t like much.
He turned his head to the person sitting on the left of the Northern King, now looking at another giant of a man. But where the King of the North was regal in his bearing, this one was the complete opposite. Black, oily hair was falling on his scar-covered face and he vigorously tried to pick something from between his teeth with a large wooden splinter, apparently oblivious to the disgusted glances he received from the rest of the room. His black armor seemed out of place in the excessively luminous room, like a persistent stain on a pure white cloth. Behind him was standing a hunched old man staring at his King while shaking his head disapprovingly.The Usurper, he concluded. How fitting.
There was only one who was more interested in his own reflection displayed in the mirror-glass he held than by what was happening around him. The man was the youngest of the four people sitting around the table, or rather the one who looked the youngest. Not wearing any armor but for a light, leather padding, the brown and red outfit he affected looked more expensive than protective ; the man looked more like a dancer or an artist rather than a warrior. Instead of a weapon like the two before him only a pair of red woolen gloves was laid in front of him, and he was combing his hair with a ring-covered hand. Next to his gloves also rested an opened purse that seemed replete with gold coins, so full that some started to fall out on the table.
Ah, the Merchant-King; always quicker to choose a purse over a sword. Behind him stood a hooded figure not unlike the observer’s, his built and face hidden by the folds of large, plain orange robes. He felt the figure’s gaze meet his and he couldn’t help but feel a certain kinship with the mysterious henchmen.
Finally, his eyes rested on the impatient face of the only woman present in the room. Her light-blue hat, removed and set down on the table in front of her, had revealed an intricate hairdo with her hair drawn back in long, scarlet-red ringlets. Her make-up was flawless and obviously the result of prolonged work, and the observer frowned at such useless coquetry. Her sky-blue bouffant gown was reaching the floor, and various bracelets and rings were covering her arms and hands.
For reasons he couldn’t fathom she was staring at him with unveiled anger, the hard look quite out of place on her doll-like face with a pointy noise and round cheeks. Behind her stood a knight not unlike the ones depicted in children books or old legends, gently staring at his queen as he thought no one could see him. Straight blond hair was reaching his shoulders and his delicate features made him look more like a woman or a boyish man, the golden stubble on his chin only proof of his adulthood. Splashes of dried gore were still scattered across his silvery armor, and his hand stayed near the hilt of his sword as if ready for anything.The Princess and her Knight in shining armor, he added for himself. One would almost root for them; A pity that their kingdom tears itself apart in such fashion.
The man who wasn’t one slowly drew back his hood under the room full attention, drawing a gasp from some of the attendees as he revealed his face. Long, straight silver hair was falling on each side of his elongated face, which was almost human but not quite; His features were too sharp, too perfect and too beautiful. His white complexion was only enhancing the radiance of his shining golden eyes and the pointy tips of his ears were sticking out from under his long, silver hair.
He was one of the Aerys, a race of nearly-immortal beings. Aerys – or Skyborn as men called them – did age, but at an extremely slow rate compared to humans; even if the man had youthful features, there was no telling if he was fifty or two-hundred years old.
When he spoke it was with a slight accent, as if the words were coming out a mouth used to a finer, more elaborated speech.
“Greetings, leaders of Enycia. My name is Ranaël, and I bring grave news before you all today. I hereby declare open the fourth Quartet Council.”
Each of the sitting Kings nodded in turn, the sigil and colors of their clan displayed behind them on large banners; a black dragon claw on a white background for the King of Helungard, Loken Dragonclaw; a yellow, raised fist on an orange banner for the King of Kyosos, Karl Garanaï; a green snake, depicted eating its own tail on a black background for the King of Logos, Klegos Snakeskin; and finally, a silver watching tower over a blue banner for the Queen of Berthesa , Luciana Meathar .
Ranaël nodded back to everyone, before taking place behind a wooden lectern directly in front of the round table.
“Time is of the essence, so I will cut short to the heart of the matter. The portents are as clear as numerous, and the time of the prophe-”
“Is it going to be another boring lecture about signs and bad omens?”
All heads turned to the speaker, shocked by such a blatant lack of etiquette even from a man such as King Klegos, who was not famed for his politeness or his manners. Ranaël, showing relative patience, did not even bother to answer; instead, he gave the man a condescending stare before speaking up again .
“As I was just saying, the time of the prophecy is nigh, humans Kings. Many of the Cursed Ones had been sighted walking the Kingdoms of Men and little by little the nights grow longer and the days shorter. Rain had started to fall on Jeres’taeres, in accordance with the prophecy.”
“One day, as the heavens weeps…” quoted the Northern King, using the words from the prophecy to confirm what the orator was saying. Next to him, Queen Luciana was shyly raising her delicate hand. Ranaël, taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly as his patience was stretched near its already short limits, beckoned her to speak with a gentle hand gesture.
“Yes, Queen Luciana?”
The Queen stood, not sure how to handle the formal protocol of such a meeting.
“I’m sorry, dear Sir, but what exactly is Jeres’taeres? And how is it such an unusual thing that rains fall over that… place, wherever it may be?”
The King of the West chuckled under his breath, and even King Karl had to refrain from laughing at the apparently stupid question. The Aerys seemed upset, as if personally insulted but responded in a calm and collected manner, as always.
“I apologize, young Queen, for I did not realize you might not be as… learned as the older attendees. Let me explain, if I may. My people, the Aerys… you do know what Aerys are, don’t you?”
This time, none could refrain to snort at the obvious mockery, drawing angry stares from Sir Leon. The Queen slightly blushed, but simply acquiesced with a nod. Ranaël expression did not change at all.
“Well, the Aerys are originally from – and currently living- in a land above what we call the ‘lower earth’ where Enycia is situated. Our kingdom, made of two islands floating in the sky is called Jeres’taeres, or literally ‘earth above earth’ in your language. “
The Queen was now intensely listening to the Skyborn, her face a mixture of awe and wonder.
“There is a land… in the sky? “
“Yes, there is a kingdom in the skies. And, as you may have deduced by now, it never rains in the Sky Kingdom as it’s located above the clouds. The last time it did was thousands of years ago, during the Age of Terror.”
The King of the West raised an armored hand in fake hesitation, mocking the Queen’s earlier intervention.
“Will we have to explain that as well to Queen Luciana? At this rate, it would be faster to have someone bring her a children’s history book really.”
The Queen shot him a dark look, only provoking more hissing laughter from Snakeskin.
“I am no uneducated Lowborn, King Klegos. I know of the old legends. Thousands of years ago, the world was under the rule of Maelogor the Demigod, Daemon King. Men were no more than slaves and cattle to the daemons in those uncivilized times, and our species was on the verge of extinction. Mankind would have all but disappeared if it wasn’t for the intervention of the Aerys led by Enraël the Godslayer, son of Ganraël the first King and Prince of the Aerys. He defeated the Daemon King in the lands of Berthesa, forcing the daemons and their offspring, the Cursed Ones, to flee across the Devil’s sea and retreat to the cursed continent of Braun. His victory marked the end of the Last War, thus ending what we came to know as the Age of Terror. Before leaving back to his lands, Enraël named four Kings and placed them on the throne of each of the kingdoms of Enycia, giving birth to the Quartet and the First Clans. I know my history just as well as any of you. I just always assumed their land was a foreign one, not a flying one.”
The Western King clapped his hands together with a wry smile on his face.
“Well done, young Queen. I’m afraid you missed your calling .You should have been a story-teller, not a monarch.”
At his words, a rasping sound came from the back of the room as Leon’s sword came free. The Knight was shaking in anger, barely restraining himself from running to assault Snakeskin. His eyes were locked into the older man’s, his face distorted by a burning rage.
“My Queen”, he said between gritted teeth, “You don’t have to take that kind of disrespect from a usurper to his throne. Just give me the word and I will-”
“And you will what, little hound? Mind your betters, servant. I could have you put down for such heated words.”
The thundering voice of the northern king resonated through the room, and even the King of the South was startled by the sudden fit of anger, dropping his mirror glass on the table. Loken Dragonclaw stood up and brought down his massive gauntlet on the table in a loud noise that reverberated against the walls of the circular chamber.
“What kind of madness took hold of all of you? I will not have the leaders of the Kingdom of Men squabble like young pups! You are free to indulge in your petty arguments anytime once this is done, but you will stop this mockery of a council at once!”
Silence fell over the room, so deep everyone could hear the heavy breathing of the Northern King as he fought to regain his calm. He sat back in his chair, looking in turn at each one of the Four as if daring them to speak, but none – even the foul-tongued Western King- was fool enough to provoke the one nicknamed the Barbarian King when his blood was up. Even the Aerys seemed taken aback by this unexpected burst of anger, and looked upon the Northern King with renewed respect before clearing his throat.
“Now that everyone is on the same page, I shall continue. As the portents clearly indicate, dark times are approaching. Even if unsure of what will come to pass exactly, we can tell for certain that some kind of scion of the Daemon King Maelogor is underway to this world. You shall, nay, you must investigate the land you call Braun at once, and assess what kind of menace we are facing.”
All eyes turned on the Queen except King Karl who was staring with insistence at the Northern King, fear written on his face as if he expected to see him leap from his seat and butcher everyone in the council room.
“I apologize,” began Queen Luciana, “But didn’t our two people swear an oath to stand as allies In the face of the Daemon kin threat? It is bad enough that you stand by in passivity while tragedy befalls the Kings you placed in power, but you won’t even stand united against an enemy anathema to all life, regardless of our race?”
“Varis ‘nakesaï” said the hooded figure behind the King of the South.
All but Karl turned to look at him, surprise clear in their features. The man drew back his orange hood to reveal a face not unlike the one of the council leader. He had the same, non-human traits but his visage was slightly more wrinkled that the one of the other Aerys. Furthermore, his silvery hair was pulled back in a knot and his eyes were pure black, two pools of darkness without pupil.
“Daemon witchery!” cried out Leon, before rushing toward the newly-revealed Aerys.
The Queen’s steward was fast, and in less than two heartbeats his naked blade was in his hands, darting towards the slender form of the un-hooded Aerys. But the Shadow was faster still, and Leon froze on the spot when he felt the cold iron of a curved dagger pricking at the skin of his neck, gently pressed against his carotid in lethal precision. The Shadow had neither a face he could see nor a voice he could hear; but the threat needed not to be voiced to be clear: Move and you die, the blade silently said.
The first sound to break the room’s tension was King Karl’s laughter, echoing through the council chamber.
“Hush, brave fool. Sathaël is no witch, but my trusted advisor. Vajir? Please leave Queen Luciana’s pet alone.”
The Shadow did as he was told, and pulled the black blade off the man throat as he took a step back. Leon slowly turned his head, still shivering at the idea of being at the mercy of another without even having time to realize it. The Shadow was a man shorter than him, cloaked in black from head to toes. A drawn hood rested on his shoulders, revealing a pale face extensively covered with black tattoos and runes of which Leon ignored the significance. Cold, merciless eyes were staring at him, and a murderer smile revealed pearl-white teeth. One side of his jet-black hair was pulled back in thin braids against in scalp, while the other side fell down at shoulder length. His eyes finally left his prey’s face to turn upon his master’s.
“Very well, my Lord” he just said as he bowed, before retreating to the back of the chamber. The King of the North gestured to the retreating assassin.
“I wasn’t aware that members of the Sons of Sotheros’ assassin’s guild were invited to this gathering of Kings, Garanaï.”
He shook his head, disapproval clear in his hard features. King Karl offered him a big, reassuring smile.
“Fear not, my friend. Vajir here is just present as my protector, not under any contract. I paid his guild a king’s ransom to ensure his permanent services as a bodyguard, and he never failed me so far.”
“I do not doubt it, King Garanaï”, interjected Ranaël, “for even in the skies the Sons of Sotheros are famed for their lethal mastery of the art of dealing death, just as their God is if one was to believe the human’s myths.”
He beckoned to the silent, almost invisible form of the assassin cloaked in the shadows of one of the statue. The sculpture, representing a cloaked man with empty hands but eyes full of murderous intent was the one depicting Sotheros, the human God of Death.
“But, my dear King, please refrain to come to the council chamber with more than one aide by your side in the future. Such a breach of protocols will not be tolerated a second time, as it is unfair to your peers.”
King Karl held the Aerys’ stare for a minute before nodding in understanding, conceding the point. Satisfied the message was clear, Ranaël offered a slight bow to the other Aerys standing beside the King of the south, before raising his hand in a gesture indicating he should keep going.
“Please, Ajïrazuni. “
“There is no need for such honorifics, brother” said the other Aerys, still slightly inclining his head in thanks before facing the rest of the assembly.
“Varis ‘nakesaï or ‘The Oath of Unity’ in the common tongue was sworn by the first Four before the departure of the mighty Enraël, after their investiture. It bound them to the promise of answering the call of the Aerys, shall the Daemon kin manifest anew on Enycia and threaten the peace and stability of the Kingdoms of men. King Enraël himself is bound to naught, and took no such oath; thus the Aerys have no obligation whatsoever to help the humans. To say it in clearer terms, the Aerys won’t come and save you again, young Queen. Believe it or not, but the people of the sky have their own issues to face.”
“What kind of problems can befall a people living in heavens?” asked the Queen with genuine curiosity.
None of the Aerys answered right away, but Luciana could have sworn she saw something pass over their faces, some hidden emotion between guilt and shame.
“The worst kind, Queen Luciana” finally answered Ranaël.
“Very well “said the Queen, clearly upset. “ In that case, the East won’t answer the call of the Aerys. As it is, we also have our own issues to face. The traitor Fireborn poisons the hearts of my people, instilling dissidence among loyal men and the kingdom of Berthesa is in turmoil. We cannot deal with a menace from the outside long as the country is under assault from the inside. I will not have my reign overthrown by some dishonorable man the way the Nemarians lost theirs to the ancestors of King Klegos over here.”
The King of the South followed her example, standing as he spoke up:
“The citizens of Kyosos enjoy a well-earned peace, and I fully intend to keep it that way. I deeply respect the people of the skies and will be forever thankful for what they did for my people, but I do not understand why we should face a threat they fear. I deeply regret to say that the South won’t answer either.”
All turned to King Klegos, already shaking his head in refusal.
“Portents? Signs? Are we some shamanic people of old, reading fate in the intestines of animals? Show me a daemon and I will fight it on any given day. But I shall not quiver in fear of monsters from ancient myths and legends. You can play heroes without the West.”
The King of the North was shaking his head as well, but in denial.
“You people call yourselves Kings and Queen, but have no honor. Our ancestors swore an oath and I intend to see it fulfilled, for the honor of Clan Dragonclaw is at stake. In the name of the first Four Kings of Enycia, I call you all oath-breakers.”
Loken slowly rose again, ignoring the threatening glares he drew with that last remark, and solemnly bowed to Ranaël.
“The kingdom of Helungard will answer the call of the Skyborn. I shall, upon my return in the Northern lands, raise a party of my most loyal and accomplished warriors and send them to investigate the cursed lands of Braun. This I vow before the six Gods of Men and on the Four Kingdoms.”
“And I, Arek Dragonclaw, shall lead it!”
Everyone present took a minute to realize that it was the figure standing behind the Northern King who spoke for the first time. The young warrior had taken a step forward, and kneeled before his standing father as if ready to be dubbed. The shadow of disappointment seemed to pass over King Loken’s face before his hand fell on the kneeling knight’s shoulder.
“You shall do no such thing, my son.”
Muffled laughter echoed through the room as Arek stoop up, his features distorted in anger.
“I will not repeat myself, Arek” cut in Loken.
“This is neither the place nor the time. Do not speak out of turn again.”
The King of the North sat back, making it clear that the argument was over.
Satisfied that every King – and Queen – voiced their opinions, Ranaël stepped aside the lectern and nodded slowly. If he was upset at the monarchs’ decisions, he was doing an excellent job not letting it show.
“It grieves me that only one of you heeds our warnings and recognizes the threat of the Prophecy for what it is, but so be it. If none has any other matter to broach, let this conclude the Quartet council. May your Gods and the Gods of the Aerys watch over you in the coming times, and may this day be remembered as the one where Loken Drangonclaw stood for the entirety of mankind. For our sakes, I hope that will be enough.”