Twelve years ago
“Step aside, girl”, the guard growled, his nostrils flaring.
“No. Leave him alone!”
Nyra was standing tall, shielding Jak, holding her arm and palm forward as if she had magicked a field of force before her. Seagulls laughed around them as they circled in the air, enjoying the entertainment between snacking and shitting on the docks. Rain pattered on the the wharf, making it slippery, mixing with blood that dripped from Jak’s nose. The boy was sobbing and hiding behind Nyra’s small figure.
“This ain’t your business, girl. Step aside or I’ll whip your pretty face!”
Nyra frowned, unthreatened, unbending. She knew the guards of Fishtown to be scum, no better than the criminals they supposedly chased. They didn’t deserve her respect.
“He’s done nothing and you know it.”
“That little bastard stole from a fisher”, said another guard, a step behind and to the right of the first guard, trying to sound reasonable. Both of the men had wooden clubs in the hands and they looked eager to use them. The growler had drips of crimson on his – Jak’s.
Every now and then, the guards came to Fishtown and caused a stir, calling it “an increase in security” while it was nothing more than a series of rampant, mindless acts of violence, usually directed at the weakest of the poor district. Jak, her friend, had been in the wrong place at the wrong time when the guards had arrived and was now paying the heavy price for his bad luck.
Nyra had seen it happen far too often. This time she was having none of it.
People around them were gathering, some laughing and pointing, others wondering or frowning at the commotion. Little children were resisting the city guards, enforcers of the law. What a disgrace to both sides.
“Get the fuck away from him”, the growler guard roared and pointed his club at Nyra. He had a sword too, a short one but deadly enough, but it was thankfully still in its scabbard. Her and Jak’s backs were against the sea, and there was nowhere to run anymore, but she prayed the watching eyes would force the guards to relent and let them go. Who would hit a decent girl like her? No-one in free and proud Andoran.
Nyra raised her clear voice higher, so others would hear her words.
“I don’t think so, sir – this boy has stolen nothing, I swear on my name!” Scrawny little Jak went smaller behind her, cowed by her voice as well as the looming guards.
The guard at the back looked over his shoulder at the crowd while the first one’s frown deepened, wrinkles appearing on his nose.
“I don’t give a shit”, he grunted and stepped closer, gripping the club tighter, watching Nyra straight in the eyes. Nyra didn’t flinch – big bullies like him didn’t scare her – but she tensed. The rain got worse and the sea wind picked up, as if willing the girl to lower her halting hand.
“Gregg, maybe we should let the little shits be”, the one in the back murmured, his gaze still on the jeering crowd. Gregg, the angry one with the bloodied club, spat to the wharf.
“You should listen to your friend, sir”, Nyra yelled aloud as rain streamed down her face and wind pulled at her hair. Defiance replaced her courtesy. “You come here and always break the weakest ones. Do you feel strong when you do it, do-”
The growler, Gregg, lost it and took another step towards her. Then the club swung without mercy or hesitation and struck Nyra on the cheek. The girl spun from the impact and fell, her ears ringing, already not feeling her face when she hit the rain-soaked wood head and shoulder first.
“Nyra!” Jak cried and then the club swung once more, at the boy. Nyra barely understood what happened. She couldn’t see straight, but she saw her friend, her closest friend, one she had helped feed for months, one who had shown her a world she had never seen, fall wildly over the edge of the wharf.
He can’t swim. He can’t swim. It was all she could think of. Everything went blurry.
“Jak”, she tried screaming but her mouth didn’t open right and it was full of blood anyway. She tried to get up, to reach for him, to force herself up. The world felt so heavy. Why was it so dark? I need to help him. I.. Always the weakest..
She lost consciousness.
Jak fell to the murky, cold waters and never resurfaced. No-one went after him to help, for who would risk their neck for a poor orphan boy?
The day after their arrival, Nyra had an audience with the Imperial Governor of Molthune, Markwin Teldas. She didn’t meet her one-to-one, of course. General Lord Davonnii joined the meeting, if not anything but to present the paladin to the supreme leader of the military oligarchy.
The Imperial Castle, the seat of government of the nation, was maybe once been an administrative office of a colony, but now, Nyra saw nothing but military efficiency. After Molthune’s declaration of independence almost eighty years previous, the castle had been expanded, but only to house more soldiers, arms and supplies. Anything beautiful, all aesthetic details, had been peeled away as inefficient and useless. First and foremost, the new architects had had defense in mind. Two sets of walls ringed the castle and separated it from the already quite formidable fortress that was the city guard barracks, where Nyra’s company was residing with several thousand guardsmen. The outer wall was designed in a way that made approach deadly – should the attack come from any direction, rocks could be catapulted, blasts of magical energy hurled and arrows launched from multiple positions against the attacker. And should the enemy reach and cross the first wall, between and the second was a deep moat, that – according to hearsay – was poisonous and full of flesh-eating creatures. Finally the castle itself was distributed into neat, even sectors where attacking enemy forces could be contained if one sector became occupied. Thus getting in was just the beginning for the enemy. He would pay dearly in blood for every stride he gained.
Seeing the castle with her own eyes made Nyra subconsciously question her goddess. As she walked the granite and marble covered halls and corridors, past stupendous number of gruff and serious watchmen that seemed to populate every junction and every major doorway, she wondered what force could possibly threaten such a military power. How could she possibly make Teldas believe something threatened his fortress-like capital? Where is my confidence?
“Is another Worldwound going to rip itself into existence here and vomit an army of demons?” She wondered aloud without intending to do so, and it drew the attention of General Lord Davonnii who was walking beside her.
“Commander?” He asked, curious.
“Nevermind.” She had to have faith.
Davonnii smiled lightly, though his eyes laughed. There was something out of place with the man – Sheran had said as much, and Nyra felt it too. He was overly polite and accommodating with Nyra, and she felt his stare more often that was of comfort. She had first considered the General Lord simply was attracted to her, but she soon had discarded the thought. It was something else.
“How do you like the city and the castle so far?” He asked, still smiling ever so slightly.
“I take that as a compliment, coming from a soldier such as yourself.”
“It was intended as such, my lord.”
“Please, call me Lucius.”
“I’d rather not, if you may. My creed-”, she stopped to consider her words, “it would be inappropriate for me not to.”
“Very well, Commander.”
They had walked along a slightly curving corridor, its length filled with old statues of nobles and warriors, none of which meant anything to Nyra, but now they reached a massive brass double door, guarded, as every other place in the castle, by two finely clothed, heavily armoured Molthuni soldiers. They nodded their respect to the General Lord, who didn’t return the gesture.
The doors were opened and inside was a massive dome-shaped council room.
“The Imperial Governor likes to receive his important guests here, at the War Room”, Davonnii whispered to Nyra.
The room had true sunlight, channeled with massive mirrors through a large cavern at its top. Easily thirty strides across and ten high at the center, the room breathed authority. It was a place of decision-making – at its center, from the floor, rose a massive, fifteen strides wide slab-like table on which were painted Lake Encarthan and its surrounding nations. It reminded Nyra of the map she had, now tucked away with her other belongings in the barracks. On the painting – or rather, a map – were figurines – soldiers, horsemen and ships that represented armies and fleets. Beyond the table were ten stone chairs with back rests as high as a man, organized evenly along the length of another, wooden table. It was black and the form of a half-circle, like an open mouth about to swallow the magnificent, detailed map.
The War Room as Davonnii had called it was empty save for a short man with broad shoulders and a bald head. With him was none other than Imperial Castellan Pia Hemdor. They spun when the door opened, cutting short a lively discussion they had been engaged in.
Nyra saw immediately that Hemdor hadn’t magically become her friend overnight. So despising was her gaze.
“She wanted to be present as well”, Davonnii whispered again and strode forward, showing no hesitation and nothing but confidence.
The paladin let the General Lord go first, and quickly removed her right gauntlet. As she did, a small translucent crystal, like a grain of sea salt, dropped to his palm. In a swift motion, she brought her hand to her mouth as if she was only wiping it and swallowed the crystal. It burned her throat for a second.
Another second later, Nyra saw everything more clearly as if she was more present in the current moment. Colours were brighter, their differences more vivid. Her heart stopped racing and she felt calm and confident. She knew her voice would not falter now. It felt good, but she knew it was wrong. But it had to be done. She needed it.
The paladin with the sunset in her hair sighed inside and followed her sponsor to the map table. No-one had noticed her little trick.
Nyra knew precious little about Imperial Governor Markwin Teldas. It was a problem, given that she had to persuade him to co-operate with her. She had heard people call him aggressive but smart, so she had considered trying to reason with him. Up close, she first realized why people considered him aggressive.
He’s an attack dog, the young paladin thought. Nyra wasn’t terribly tall for a woman, but Teldas was barely her height. Thick veins bulged in his neck and bare forehead, feebly covered by combed straws of hair, grey-gold like his beard and thick moustache. His neck and shoulders were muscular like those of a bull. His fierceness was accentuated by his strong jaw and slight underbite. I wonder if he bites, Nyra mused, not at all amused. She had to focus. The weird trails of thought were a common side effect of the crystal.
Davonnii presented Nyra.
“My lord, I bring you Nyra Sunn, commander of the 126th Augustana.”
“The paladin of Iomedae”, the ruler of Molthune started with a gruff voice that sounded like he had been yelling for a decade straight.
“Your Eminence”, Nyra replied and bowed.
“You claim I have a problem, Commander.”
Straight to the heart of the matter, I see.
“I do”, Nyra started, all too boldly without really thinking, and cursed her overflowing confidence. Focus, fool. “Your Eminence-”
Teldas cut her short. It became obvious he had never intended her to reply to his rhetorical question.
“I’ve talked with the esteemed General Lord and Imperial Castellan here, and they have conflicting points of view. I understand both points, though I’m inclined to remain consistent and let you and your company stay as I’ve previously declared.”
He seemed to think himself quite agreeable and obliging.
Hemdor by his side frowned but remained otherwise silent and motionless. Her hands were clasped behind her back, and Nyra noted a scimitar hanging from her belt. Maybe she brought a sword this time so she can stab me in the gut if the opportunity arises.
This time, Teldas seemed to expect an answer, or praise.
“I’m grateful, your Eminence”, Nyra kept it simple and short. She decided to let him do the speaking. Or barking. Focus, Nyra!
Instead of barking, Teldas harrumphed.
“Has Iomedae.. shared any new insight on this threat you claim is endangering the peace of our capital?”
“I have no new knowledge to bring to the table, your Eminence.” She had hoped for a vision during the night before, but she had seen nothing. No matter. She began to explain herself, but never got the chance.
“Why am I not surprised”, Hemdor spat. Teldas raised his hand, and the General Lord shut her mouth. But Nyra, her confidence sky high, wasn’t going let her get away with her snarky comment. Her eyes narrowed as she regarded the dark-skinned Castellan of the Imperial castle.
“Castellan, my lady Iomedae is a goddess. She does not need to explain herself to anyone. She grants me new visions when Her Brightness deems it necessary.”
“Commander, that may be, but I will not sit idle and wait for your goddess to reveal herself if a real threat exists. And do not misunderstand me – I said I’m inclined to let you stay, but it doesn’t mean I believe you. I need proof of this.. darkness you call it. If there is solid evidence, then I will act – and then you will have my permission to act, as a support force.”
Nyra nodded in the affirmative. She knew it was the best she’d get. So much for the need to persuade him. Yet, there was something out of place. Words left unspoken.
“How do you like the barracks?” Teldas asked off-hand, changing the subject.
“They are excellent”, Nyra replied.
“Yet, some of your men have moved to the Cathedral of Iomedae?”
Teldas had good sources. The 126th Augustana been given an empty barrack building that could house a little over four hundred soldiers. It wasn’t enough for her company, so she had decided to send a contingent of half a hundred to live in the Cathedral – that way, they could bolster its defences and help protect followers of Iomedae from the increasingly numerous attacks.
“By my order, yes, your Eminence. I’ve come to know my brothers and sisters of faith have suffered from violence because of their belief, and their security hasn’t been guaranteed.”
Hemdor, responsible for the security of the capital and its surroundings, snorted and rolled her eyes. Nyra gave her a challenging look but kept her mouth, this time.
Teldas crossed his arms on his broad chest.
“Commander Sunn, we drove a Hellknight order off Canorate twenty years ago. We don’t need another group of pompous knights imposing their will and collection of laws on our people.”
Hellknights were ruthless in their pursuit of maintaining order and themselves emulated the stringent obedience that was characteristic to the armies of Hell. The comparison made Nyra curl her lip in disgust. Her voice, for once, was adamant even though clear and high. “My intention is not to impose anything, merely to protect the well-being of my brothers and sisters.”
Hemdor, for all her apparent dignity, military training and experience, couldn’t contain herself.
“Maybe that’s why you’re here. Your cult’s power wanes and Cleric Oldcreek seeks out swords to fix the issue. Do you think you can try to struggle for power behind the scenes? Threaten people to submission? Let blood flow in the streets?”
Despite the effect of her crystal, Nyra’s clear, young voice wavered as she grew agitated.
“Absolutely not. I am honour-bound. Iomedae’s true followers all are. We would not lower ourselves to back-alley stabbings and senseless, criminal violence that has befallen our church.”
“Enough”, Teldas barked, but his irritation was mostly directed at his subordinate.
“Sunn, I will allow your company’s presence here in Canorate, but if I hear there are troubles, I’ll kick you out. If I were you, I’d concentrate on finding evidence to back up the visions of your goddess. By Abadar, we will do the same. Won’t we, Imperial Castellan?”
“We will, my lord.” To Nyra, she might have as well as said we won’t, my lord.
“Understood?” The stern Imperial Governor demanded from the paladin. She willed herself just to nod.
“Good.” Then he unceremoniously waved her and Davonnii, who had been silent for the entire exchange, away.
When they exited the War Room and the doors closed behind them, Nyra found Davonnii almost grinning.
“General Lord?” Nyra asked, partly irritated, partly alarmed.
“That went relatively well.”
“I could barely make my point to him. Thank the Inheritor he has sense.”
Immediately, Nyra regretted her drug-fueled candor. Yet the answer was surprising in its equal honesty.
“Teldas had made his decision before you walked into the room.”
Nyra had to admit that the Imperial Governor didn’t seem like a negotiator or being wasteful with his words.
“He knew exactly how the discussion would go”, Nyra muttered, the realisation dawning to her.
“Even Hemdor’s outbursts?”
“Calculatingly allowed by Teldas”, Davonnii admitted, smiling, “to raise the tough questions and to keep you on your toes.”
Nyra harrumphed. “Are you all playing some sort of game? Was that a scene from a play?” The effect of her crystal was making her uncourteous and belligerent – something she usually wasn’t. But she had arrived to a proud, straightforward military oligarchy, expecting something else.
The General didn’t mind – he seemed to understand where was was coming from.
“We are soldiers with a clear hierarchy and chain of command. But we also run a nation, one of the most powerful in the region. The Imperial Governor has to deal with various diplomats, emissaries, clergymen, merchants and our nobility as well, so he has to play political games that help him understand the factions, just like every King or Queen.”
“Of course”, Nyra responded, reining her impatience. Molthune was a nation like any other. While her experience with politics was painfully limited, she could imagine Molthune struggling with its share of corruption and double-dealing.
Hell is within the gates.
The message of the fire-eyed brother in her vision surfaced. Molthune was on the rise, economically and militarily. She had a hard time imagining threats to the city that were external.
But what if the darkness was brought about by someone inside, within the nation?
“How liked is the Imperial Governor among your nobility?”
Davonnii shrugged. “Not loved, but respected. He has made decisions that have been very disagreeable by the noble Houses.”
Nyra sensed Davonnii wasn’t being completely frank, but understanding more of the generals and the governors, she wasn’t surprised. In fact, she wondered why the General Lord was so helpful and willing to share insights with her. It was suspicious. The entire city emerged as more suspicious the more familiar it became. Power games of the generals, disappointed noble houses, changes in the power dynamic of the religious cults.
She would listen to the fire-eyed brother. The enemy was already within the gates. But who could unleash something so dangerous that Iomedae had chosen to send her and her crusaders to stop it?
She had to find out.