Seventeen years ago
Near the Greymarsh village, borderlands of Molthune and Nirmanthas
Two brothers, barely eight, are running through the thick woods, leaping over fallen trees in their haste, evading rocks and mounds without losing any momentum. It is early autumn and their quick, pounding steps rustle the first-fallen auburn and yellow leaves beneath their feet.
“Here, he went here”, the boy at point, black-haired, brown-eyed, yells to the other, hair of silver and eyes of icy blue, behind him. The silver-haired nods as he hurries and they keep on going, past the birches and the oaks and the pines, scaring a pair of nearby birds into flight. “Hurry”, the black-haired boy urges, between breaths.
Their path ends suddenly as they emerge from the woods. A raging stream, ten strides wide, blocks their way. Leaves, twigs and a few thin logs crash and roll in the foaming waters. The boys skid to a halt, to catch their breath. They look around, frantically searching for something.
“Brownpaw!” The black-haired yells, and his high-pitched child’s voice echoes in the clearing, momentarily overcoming the rumble of the stream. “Brownpaw!” The silver-haired boy shouts as well, to another direction, his palms cupped around his mouth.
“Where is he”, the black-haired asks, his voice shaking with fear, growing anxiety and hopelessness as his head turns left and right. His brother steps to stand beside him. “He can’t be far”, he assures his brother. Before them the stream worms like a snake, and foam and dark water splashes to the rocky riverbank where the stream curves, as if marking the heights where the coming autumn floods will rise.
The black-haired spots something in the distance, down the riverbank. “There he is”, he exclaims and spurts into a run. “Wait”, the silver-haired calls after him, but goes as well. A brown and grey furred lynx is sitting on a pile of twigs just a few feet away from the river surface, and the black-haired boy runs towards it in a beeline. His wet feet are slick against the stone but he does not care – he has other things to worry about. “Brownpaw, stay!” He musters his authority to a command as he runs. The lynx hears its name, raises its head and watches its little master approach. He gets nearer, slows down. The rock beneath steepens as he get closer to the edge of the stream. “Stay”, he calls again, more carefully now as he takes slower steps. The big cat hisses to him. It’s not to be told what to do.
The black-haired boy is two strides away when he leaps forward, arms spread and knees bent like a brawler. The animal sees him coming and jumps away as his fingers almost touch its fur. The boy misses his target and loses his balance, the twigs tripping him, the wet stone offering no help, but the opposite. He cannot control his fall. His brother screams the black-haired’s name. He rolls along the steep stone bed towards the raging waters, unable to stop himself. Then he hits the surface of the stream and vanishes underwater.
The current snatches him but he struggles against it, tries vainly to find something to hold on to. Sharp rocks and branches hit him as if punishing him for disobedience, and the pain is unbearable, but when he opens his mouth to scream he only inhales the murky water. It pulls him deeper and further. His arms flail and he kicks around, but he still can’t find any purchase. But then his foot gets stuck and arrests his plunge. Weak light shines at him and he can see the surface. The riverbank is so close, but he can’t get up there. He pulls his leg, but it doesn’t move. He is so tired and cold. It hurts so much, and he wants his mama. His world begins to darken. Fear takes over.
A small arm like his breaks the surface above. It reaches down, feeling, searching for something. The boy’s arms are like two heavy stones but he reaches up, towards the little hand. They connect, and another arm pierces the surface like a diver and grabs his. Then a face emerges and their eyes meet. It is the boy’s face, but different in tiny ways. There is determination and worry in the boy’s expression but he does not hesitate. He pulls with all his strength. Nothing happens. The black-haired boy knows he can’t hold his breath any longer. His brother pulls again, and bubbles of air rush out of his nostrils. Something snaps in the leg of the black-haired boy, causing new pain, but he doesn’t notice it. He is free. The surface inches closer. Then, blinding light. Warmth seeps in through the wetness. There is air to breathe. He hears the songs of birds in the forest. The splashing torrent, its roaring no longer muffled.
The silver-haired groans deep in effort like he has heard his grandpa do when he lifts a log, and he pulls his brother off the stream and onto the rock. The black-haired boy coughs water out his lungs and tastes fresh air. It has never felt so good to breathe.
“Don’t even think about leaving me”, the silver-haired, tear-eyed, tells his brother and to emphasize his words wraps his arms around him, protectively.
6th of Gozran – Starday – 195th day in Varisia
The road to the white tower of Karzoug was open. With the rings of the Sihedron in our fingers and protected by magic against the hostile environment of Mhar-Massif, we teleported to the peak. Grim determination was a good pair of words as any to describe our mood. A wise person once told me brave men tend to die, so I wouldn’t have called us brave. But we were as prepared as we could be, and we knew that the final secrets of Karzoug were soon to be uncovered. And with them, the runelord himself.
There was no opposition when we scaled the last few hundred strides the white tower. It was surrounded by barracks and buildings that looked like storehouses, but there was not a single soul in sight. Unhindered, we went beneath one of the hundred arches that supported the tower. No-one attacked us as we circled up along the screw-like ramp up thousand feet to the top. There, massive golden doubledoors awaited us, and beyond them we knew were the best of the best, the chosen and closest of Karzoug.
Alfred, on point, didn’t even need to push open the door. As his palm was less than an inch away from its surface, it retreated, as if it had been waiting for us and welcomed us in. The first line of defense was, just as Alice had scouted, a group of cloud-kin giants. We had not planned for stealth and secrecy, so battle was joined immediately.
All the while, my mind was distracted. My brother could have been waiting behind any corner. After seven years of running and searching, fleeting moments of hope and despair, bouts of anger, rushes of determination and crushing disappointments I was finally going to face him. I gazed past nearest foes, trying to find a familiar face among or behind them. My lack of attention almost got me killed when a cloud giant whacked me with a morningstar, only narrowly missing my head. But thankfully, the others were more concentrated and we dispatched the four guardians with relative ease.
However, one of them managed to shout a warning that echoed through the chambers. The top of the tower was like its outside – white to sheen, built of marble and granite, highlighted in places with golden etchings. Massive rooms and massive doors to befit a megalomaniac and his giant underlings. When the last guardian fell, Karzoug made his first appearance to us, forming before our eyes from nowhere.
“So the fools have found me”, he spat in sneering disgust, talking to us with his nose almost pointing to the ceiling. “I must applaud your tenacity. You are much more persistent than the worms I thought you to be. You are more like hungry maggots in your endless squirming and writhing to get to the death that awaits-“. He, or his phantasm, never got the chance to finish his speech when Alice, closest to it, suddenly stepped forward and slashed once with her scimitar. The scimitar cut only air but shattered the ghost of the runelord into a thousand imaginary pieces.
“I liked how he praised us”, Alfred guffawed, making Alice snort.
Harsk just spat to the floor. “He must now know we are here.”
I didn’t comment how he probably knew already thanks to the rings in our fingers. Instead I was taking in the surroundings. The hall we were in led into two directions. I was facing a long straight passage that ended with yet another golden doubledoors, while behind me the hall began to curve to the right, its termination indiscernible.
“That’s the door you saw”, I half-asked, half-informed Saffron and Harsk. The dwarf stopped abreast and remained there, staring at the same doors. There was no sound coming from any direction, no bands of giants or demons were approaching to challenge us. The silence was.. haunting.
“Yes”, he admitted after a moment.
Suddenly, I felt very afraid. I swallowed hard. My feet disobeyed me. If the tables were turned, would my brother be as nervous, I wondered. As if to answer me, a memory surfaced, reminding me of one autumn day long ago.
A small arm like his breaks the surface above. It reaches down, feeling, searching for something. The boy’s arms are like two heavy stones but he reaches up, towards the little hand. They connect, and another arm pierces the surface like a diver and grabs his. Then a face emerges and their eyes meet. It is the boy’s face, but different in tiny ways. There is determination and worry in the boy’s expression but he does not hesitate.
He didn’t hesitate a second, I remembered. So shouldn’t I.
I cleared my throat and paced alone to the door. “My brother is beyond those doors. We must take him alive at any cost, whether he comes willingly or he fights us”, I told the others and I placed my palm on the door’s gleaming surface. It vanished, allowing me a brief glimpse inside.
The long red carpet with rubies sewn into the fabric, covering a checkerboard patterned floor, was the first thing I noticed. Along its length, at both sides, were five pillars filled with intricate silvery carvings. Golden light filled the room – throne room – for at the end was a throne on a podium that was decorated with onyx. The throne itself was ludicrous, covered from top to bottom with all kinds of valuable jewels from diamonds to sapphires. Next to the throne stood at watch a single menacing rune giant, and around the throne room were three storm giants. Each looked ready for war, facing the door, one at the back, two closer to us. I disregarded them all, for on the throne sat a man, hunched, a cloak’s cape drawn over his head, a golden greatsword across his lap. But I could see his eyes and recognize the ice-cold blueness of them. It was then I knew my brother would not come peacefully, but I prayed he had not chosen to be there of his own volition.
The others gathered around me, and I whispered what I had seen. Harsk enchanted us with powerful defenses against lightning and electricity, and Alfred, again ten feet tall and iron-skinned, positioned himself next to the doors. I was right behind him, my bow strengthened by the magic of my wand, two giant-bane arrows resting across its side. “Two storm giants, one to each side of the door, ten strides away”, I told him and he nodded. But instead of rushing in, he patiently waited for my call. I am coming for you, brother, I thought to myself.
“Kill everyone but my brother.”
Alfred forcefully kicked the doors open and barged in. I instantly felt the rising tide of anger and fury of battle. Again, I felt the burning wrath under my skin light up and my vision took a hue of red. I screamed the true name of my brother.
As my rage echoed in the room I was already letting loose arrows. My enchanted boots turned me into a whirlwind of death and the first storm giant perished before it could even take a step forward. My voice has never been strong or clear, but somehow, that moment, my bellowing filled the massive chamber.
“BROTHER! OF ALL THE PLACES IN THE WORLD, I WOULD NOT HAVE BELIEVED TO FIND YOU HERE.”
Alfred went to the second storm giant with a battlecry of his own while Alice blazed it with rays of fire. Harsk focused on the two giants beside the throne, calling holy fires to strike them, but whereas the storm-kin burned, the rune giant just bathed in the flames like it was enjoying it.
My brother stirred from his paralysis at the throne. I saw his mouth move but couldn’t discern the words, and he tried sluggishly to push away the sword from his lap, but couldn’t move it an inch. It was as if I were two people, one fighting, the other speaking. I let loose both arrows of destruction and words of condemnation.
“FOR SEVEN YEARS, BROTHER, I TRAVELED AND SEARCHED THE WORLD FOR YOU. AND HERE YOU ARE, IN THIS DEN OF GREED AND WICKEDNESS?”
My brother unseated and lifted the greatsword up like it was a knife, pointing it at us. The second storm giant died to the relentless fire magics of the pale-faced magus. Last of the storm-kin charged us and Alfred went to greet it head-on.
“You will face your doom here”, my brother responded finally. His voice was strong, but clockwork. I knew he wasn’t being himself. His mind and will were bound by something. There was hope. And there was a burning desire for vengeance, against those who had imprisoned him. Hope was good but I clung to the latter feeling.
“HAVE YOU TRULY CHANGED ONE SLAVEMASTER TO ANOTHER, BROTHER?” My challenge was to push him, to make him stand against whatever was controlling him. Fight it, fight it. It’s me. Reach for me from wherever you are. Take my hand.
Lightning cracked and boomed, the discharges licking most of us, but we stood unharmed thanks to Harsk’s magical protection. The storm giant who had tried to attack us died quickly at the hands of the sellsword after its ill-fated attempt. As its body, burned, decayed and hacked, slumped to the marble floors, the rune giant snorted and turned to regard my brother at the throne.
“Come, Chellan, let us destroy these little worms”, the giant rumbled and in response, my brother nodded slowly. The rune giant needed no other commands and it stomped forward along the red carpet, towards us like a tsunami of the faraway lands.
But waves, even huge ones, break against rock and our rock was Alfred. He laughed a taunt as he stepped to the red carpet and looked up. His opponent was four times taller than him. The rune giant effectively dominated the throne room with its mere presence. It came at us, its eyes and the countless runes on its hide flashing in anger of the little man’s incredulity and it cut once, a sideways blow of a longsword twenty feet long aimed at his head or neck. The sellsword ducked and the sword smashed against a nearby pillar, sending dust and marble flying.
“Too slow”, Alfred snarled and leaped forward. The rune giant had overextended and was in a bad position, stooped down, presenting its chest and head to the fighter on a platter. Alfred required nothing more. His battleaxe cut thrice with unbelievable speed and his shield bashed once for emphasis. I gave it three bane arrows in a neat cluster to and around its left eye.
The red carpet became the giant’s deathbed.
“You seem like a worthy foe”, my brother noted from the podium and jumped down, landing next to the ruined head of the rune giant. As he did, the etchings of his cloak twinkled and he began to appear and disappear seemingly randomly.
“Brother, I am here”, I urged him and pushed up my death’s head mask so he could recognize my face. “Resist the influence of Karzoug!” But he disregarded me completely, instead charging past the corpse of the giant and towards Alfred. “I promise not to hurt you.. too much”, the sellsword promised him as he came. To our right I heard a woman’s scream – Alice – and beyond the pillars two pairs of golden manacles had emerged from the floor, capturing the magus by hands and feet. She spat words of magic and became incorporeal, and the manacles fell to the ground limp and lifeless.
Above me Saffron soared through the air on her broom, cackling madly. Unnatural energies coruscated around her as she turned words into physical things and hurled them against Macharius. Harsk hesitated, unsure how to proceed.
The sellsword tried to bash my brother when he got into fighting distance, but he disappeared for a split-second and the shield hit nothing but air. Right after, my brother returned where he had been and slashed once, a masterful stroke that pierced his armor and made the sellsword bleed and stagger back. The old warrior cried in pain. I ordered Macharius to halt, to no avail. Beside me, Dûath bared his fangs and growled in sympathetic anger, but we were both spectators in this fight. I could not bring myself to shoot him.
I knew death in this world was not always ultimate. Souls could be brought back from oblivion. But Pharasma, the mother of fates and souls, was a fickle bitch. She didn’t always return what was once given to her for her final judgment. My brother’s soul was not to be risked.
“Harsk! Saffron! Alice!” I called the magic wielders of our group. “Try something, make him sleep, or scramble his mind so that Karzoug loses his power over him!” Anything, I added to myself in desperation.
Alfred was locked in a fight to death with Macharius. As he fought, I saw the golden ornate full plate he was wearing under his magical cloak. Its mass did not slow him down one bit. His skin was covered in gold as well – veins of it reached up to his face from somewhere on his neck and chest. I remembered the mithral-skinned wizard and the half-golden animals in the wing of Greed in Runeforge, and I shuddered in fear and disgust.
Again, the sellsword was struck past his defences and new blood spattered to the checkerboard floors. My brother was dueling in a trance, and evading the blows of his opponent mechanically. Alfred was hindered by my orders and he was paying for them with his blood.
“BELON! BELON! IT’S ME, CAEL!” I roared now, my desperation mixing with anger. But nothing dissuaded my brother. It was as if there was only him and Alfred in the room.
Harsk had tried a spell but failed, so he yelled Alfred to give him some space. He was going to try to disarm my brother. It would’ve been a good plan had not two more storm giants entered the throne room beyond a corner at the back. A part of me welcomed them. They offered me something to kill, something to vent my anger into. Harsk, instead of flanking Macharius, went to challenge the other giant, his holy sword blazing with sunlight.
“Urgh”, Alfred coughed blood as Macharius’s greatsword wounded him for the third time. “No more games”, he spat, all joviality gone from him. He went all-on against Macharius, hell-bent to bring him down. Now it was an even match. The mighty battleaxe hacked once, scoring a deep gouge into my brother’s plated side and he roared in pain. The sellsword followed with a shield bash to his face, buying himself some breathing space.
This has to stop. The giants had to die, so that the magic wielders could concentrate their efforts on my brother. We had to take control of the situation, I realized. The first perished soon enough to Harsk’s prowess and my arrows. Then, the second, to Alice’s magics. My last shaft was the period to its life story.
We were too slow. You cannot control a battle for life and death. You just fight it, and hope to win.
Alfred was bleeding from wounds too many to count, but my brothers cloak and armour did not save him from the sellsword’s skill. A terrible downwards slash struck Macharius to his shoulder, near his neck. Blood and gold flew in rivets as Alfred pulled his weapon free and with a grunt of effort he pivoted and brought the side of his shield once more to my brother exposed head. His body went flying backwards ten feet. Where he landed he remained unmoving. In shock and horror I called to my brother as I ran past Alfred, who was crouching in exhaustion.
My bow slipped from my fingers as I got to him.
No no no no no.
Not now. Not here. Not you.
His mouth hung loosely open, but his eyes were closed, and a pool of blood had begun to spread out under him. I dropped to my knees and pulled him to my lap.
“Don’t even think about leaving me”, I told him and cried.