Eighteen years ago
Two brothers, barely eight, ran through the thick woods, leaping over fallen trees in their haste, evading rocks and mounds without losing any momentum. It was early autumn and their quick, pounding steps rustled the first-fallen auburn and yellow leaves beneath their feet.
“Here, he went here”, the boy at point, silver-haired, blue-eyed, yelled to the other, hair of coal and eyes of earth’s soil, behind him. The darker twin, his face twisted by anxiety, managed a nod as he hurried and they kept on going, past the birches and the oaks and the pines, scaring a pair of nearby birds into flight. “I don’t like this”, the boy yelled, between breaths.
Their path came to an end suddenly as they emerged from the woods. A raging stream, ten strides wide, blocked their way. Leaves, twigs and a few thin logs crashed and rolled in the foaming waters. The boys skidded to a halt, to catch their breath. They looked around, frantically searching for something.
“Brownpaw!” The silver-haired yelled, and his high-pitched child’s voice echoed in the clearing, momentarily overcoming the rumble of the stream. “Brownpaw!” The black-haired boy shouted as well, to another direction, his palms cupped around his mouth.
“He can’t be far”, the silver-haired said, his voice shaking with growing anxiety and hopelessness as his head turned left and right, “we have to find it.” His brother stepped up to stand beside him. “We should leave”, he said.
Before them, the stream wormed like a snake, and foam and dark water splashed to the rocky riverbank where the stream curved as if marking the level to which the coming autumn floods would rise. The river was a line that the boys were told not to cross, in any circumstance, and the river was a furious guardian.
The blue-eyed spotted something in the distance, down the riverbank. “There he is”, he exclaimed and spurted into a run. “No, wait”, the other called after him but went as well. A brown and gray furred lynx was sitting on a pile of twigs just a few feet away from the river surface, and the silver-haired boy sped towards it in a beeline, leaping from rock to another, over dead branches and driftwood. His wet feet were slick against the stone but he did not care – he had other things to worry about. “Brownpaw, stay!” He mustered his authority to a command as he scrambled forward. The lynx heard its name, raised its head and watched its little master approach. He got nearer, slowed down. The rock beneath steepened as he got closer to the edge of the stream. “Stay”, he called again, more carefully now as he took slower steps. The big cat hissed to him. It wasn’t a trained dog. It wasn’t to be told what to do.
The silver-haired boy was two strides away when he leaped forward, arms spread and knees bent like a brawler. The animal saw him coming and jumped away as his fingers almost touched its fur. The boy missed his target and lost his balance, the twigs tripping him, the wet stone offering no help but the opposite. He couldn’t control his fall. His brother screamed his name. He rolled along the steep stone bed towards the raging waters, unable to stop himself, so in shock he couldn’t even shout.
At the last second, his pale hand caught a jagged stone, arresting his fall. Water splashed on him, like eager fingers reaching, betrayed of their prize.
“Help”, he mumbled to his brother who was hurrying to him, watching his step. “Help”, he called out as he held on as tightly as he could. His head was woozy from the impact and his ankle hurt bad, forcing tears out.
His brother saw his plight and his steps became more hurried. Reckless.
“No, watch out-” the silver-haired had the time to say before his brother lost his footing on the wet boulders, just like had.
The dark-haired hit the surface of the stream like a log thrown into the water.
“CAEL”, the silver-haired screamed in terror.
Underwater, the current snatched the darker twin but he struggled against it, trying vainly to find something to hold on to. Sharp rocks and branches hit him as if punishing him for disobedience and carelessness, and the pain was unbearable, but when he opened his mouth to scream he only inhaled the murky water. It pulled him deeper and further. His arms flailed and he kicked around, but he still couldn’t find any purchase. But then his foot got stuck and arrested his plunge. Weak light shone at him and he couldn’t see the surface. The riverbank was so close, but it was impossible to get up there. He pulled his leg, but it didn’t move. He was so tired and cold. It hurt so much, and he wanted his Mum. His world began to darken. Fear took over.
A small arm like his broke the surface above. It reached down, feeling, searching for something. The boy’s arms were like two heavy stones but he reached up, towards the little hand. They connected, and another arm pierced the surface like a diver and grabbed his. Then a face emerged and their eyes met. It was the boy’s face, but different in tiny ways. The boy’s expression was laced with determination and worry but he did not hesitate. He pulled with all his strength. Nothing happened. The black-haired boy knew he couldn’t hold his breath any longer. His brother pulled again, and bubbles of air rushed out of his nostrils. Blood mixed with the water. Something snapped in the leg of the black-haired boy, causing new pain, but he didn’t notice it. He was free. The surface inched closer. Then, blinding light. Warmth seeped in through the wetness. There was air to breathe. He heard the songs of birds in the forest. The splashing torrent, its roaring no longer muffled.
The silver-haired groaned deep in effort like he had heard his grandpa do when he lifted a log, and he forced his brother off the stream and onto the rock. The black-haired boy coughed water out his lungs and tasted fresh air. It had never felt so good to breathe.
After a moment the shock began to subdue and he could sit.
“It was my fault”, the silver-haired, teary-eyed, told his brother and to emphasize his words wrapped his arms around him.
Later the boys dragged themselves from the forest, one limping and soaking wet, the other less so and his arm supportively around the other’s shoulder. Both looked like whipped dogs. Their mother, a young farmer, comely in her own way, was cleaning vegetables and apples on a veranda and happened to look up from her work. She saw the boys, bloodied, trembling with cold and sniffling, and her jaw fell open in surprize and distress.
“Cael! Belon! What happened!” She yelled and scrambled to her feet and towards the boys, leaving her chores behind. When she reached them, she locked them both in a tight embrace and whispered a prayer to Erastil.
“Brownpaw ran away”, the silver-haired boy began to explain, “we saw him at the river and I tried to catch him and I fell but Cael came to help and fell into the water..”
His words came in a flood, only to be broken by sobs. The mother tightened her embrace as if trying to give her little boys all the warmth she had and to make sure they would never leave her side. “Belon saved me”, the black-haired boy whispered in his mother’s lap, and his tears mixed with the waters of the stream.
“It is all right child”, the mother told him. Her heart raced and she could not find the will to be angry, or horrified. Beneath the shock, there was only gratitude. “You did well, Belon. Mum’s so proud and happy.”
“You told me to look after him, Mum”, Belon cried and held his mother as tight as he could. “It was my fault.”
The first day of the brothers’ journey passed in the plains east of Korvosa. This was the farmland that provided the bread to the city-state, both literally and figuratively. Bloodsworn Vale Road wormed past well-tended and carefully organized fields of crops. Of course, the first crops were only just growing. The lands, enjoying a warm climate, produced one or two harvests each summer, depending on the plant, but it was only Desnus, the fifth month past new year. Still, the seas of different greens and yellows were quite beautiful.
While Cael had decided to remain at the back, alone with his thoughts, Belon rode at point with the lead carriage. There was little to no threats of robbery or monsters so close to civilization, so none of the guards rode ahead as scouts. The road was in fine condition, and they were making good progress.
“Sir”, called out the younger of Pavo’s sons from the bench of the lead wagon. He had to call anew before Belon realized the boy was talking to him. He turned his helmeted head.
“Sir.. how can you see with that thing on”, Mico asked bluntly if timidly. He had evidently spent some time wondering before he had mustered the courage to ask. His brother snorted as if he was embarrassed by his younger brother’s question, but Belon could see he was interested too. Beneath his helmet, Belon smiled.
“It’s a magical helm”, he replied, his voice hollow and metallic to the boys. “To my eyes, it’s like it would have a visor open”, he explained and waved his hand over where his eyes were. There was the slit, but even it was just decoration, a gilded line of shadow across the helm’s face.
“Oh. Can I try it on?” Mico asked, more boldly now.
“Sure”, Belon replied and rode closer to the carriage before pulling the helm off and handing it to the boy. Mico took it almost reverently with two hands, examined it with even more care from every angle and finally slid it to his head.
It was all too big for him but it worked all the same. He exclaimed in joy and wonder.
“It’s true! It’s like I have no helm at all!” He took the helmet off and offered it to his older brother. “You try it.” Marco just murmured something that sounded like a denial and kept his hands on the steering ropes. Mico had none of it and carefully placed the helm on his brother’s head.
“See?” Mico asked Marco, grinning. The older brother directed his comment straight at Belon. “It’s very nice, sir”, came his muffled, metallic response under the helmet.
Belon got his helm back but instead of replacing it, he bound it into the saddle, preferring to feel the gusting wind against his face.
“Have you two traveled with the caravan all your lives?” He asked after a moment. Mico nodded emphatically.
“All my life”, he replied, trying to appear and sound like a man grown. It wasn’t really that long a life yet, Belon reflected and chuckled a bit inside.
“And so has Marco”, Mico added. “Mum gave birth to both of us on the road.”
And she probably cut the umbilical cords herself, Belon thought to himself, recalling the rough woman.
“Have you been traveling from and to Korvosa all this time?” The silver-haired warrior went on.
“No, just a year or so. We used to travel between Druma and Molthune”, Mico explained, “but Dad got into trouble with some people, and we had to leave.”
“Dad didn’t get into trouble”, Marco interjected in a sudden.
“He did! I heard him talk with those bad people!” Insisted Mico to his brother. Marco just kept his gaze level and on the road, unwilling to continue further. They had apparently had the same argument before. Belon chose not to pry – it wasn’t his business.
“How about you, sir, where are you from and what do you do”, the young merchant’s son instead asked.
“I and my brother there are from Molthune, or Nirmathas, depending on who you ask. The borderlands, you see.”
“So are we going to pass close to your home?”
Belon shook his head. “No, we aren’t.” And a good thing we aren’t, since there is nothing there but burned houses and painful memories, he added to himself.
“Are you soldiers, you and your brother? Of King Arabasti’s army, or the Molthuni army?” Mico queried, eagerly.
That made Belon chuckle. “No, we are not soldiers.”
“So you’re mercenaries?”
“No, not really.”
“I know! You’re crusaders or champions of some lord or deity”, Mico guessed, enjoying the guessing game.
“Stop bugging Master Greymarsh”, his brother told him, but he didn’t seem to hear.
“Or.. you’re..” He stopped to think of other possibilities.
“I was trained to be a bodyguard for a lord”, Belon told him. “And my brother.. well..”
“He’s a killer”, Marco blurted with certainty before the half-elf could get a word out.
Belon frowned at the boy, almost a man. But he was right. Despite his lack of expression – or perhaps due to that – Cael was painfully easy to read.
“I was going to say manhunter”, he offered instead.
“But you don’t have a lord or lady you serve?” Mico asked, his surprize evident in his voice.
“Not anymore. We’re free to do as we please, go where we want.” It felt good to say it, Belon realized.
“You must’ve been great at your job, to have your former lord or lady grant you such armor and weapons”, the youngest son wondered aloud.
This made Belon pause. Mico was right, in a way. He was very good at what he did, but it had never been his choice to serve his former lord. The evil wizard had granted him powers and weapons other warriors could only dream of, but he had subdued Belon’s mind and will in the process. For a moment, he had been a slave again. Until Cael and his handful of friends had arrived.
“Who was the person? Is he or she from around?” Mico was already asking.
“What has Dad told you about harassing the customers”, Marco spat in irritation and slapped the back of his little brother’s head. Mico let out an ouch and held his head as he frowned at his big sibling.
Belon let out another chuckle. “Now I understand why your father calls you the caravan pest. But it’s fine, I don’t mind.”
Mico turned his attention back to the blue-eyed warrior riding next to the lead wagon.
“He was an old evil wizard, but he’s dead now. And he was from a faraway land, you wouldn’t know him.”
Mico nodded once slowly and kept silent, but Belon could imagine new questions were already brewing in his head.
But he never got the chance to ask them as in the second wagon, Pavo emerged from beneath the cover and blew into his little horn. “We stop to rest the horses for one bell”, he shouted and placed a big hourglass onto the driver’s bench as the wagons gently came to a halt.
“I can tell you all about it later”, Belon smiled at the boy and made him hurrah.
After the break, the caravan went on for another four hours before stopping for the day when the evening began to fall. The neatly cultivated farmlands had been left behind, but they were still on the plains. The ground had turned rockier and more arid, a preamble to the mountains they were approaching, and islands of woods spotted the land. The wagons had never ventured far from the wide and fish-rich Jeggare River that flowed almost in a straight line to their south and after a few dozen miles started to curve north. Their campsite was a few hundred strides from the main bridge leading over Jeggare, along the road they’d used.
It was a sound place to spend the night, Cael reflected on Pavo’s decision. Two watchtowers manned by Korvosan soldiers stood as guardians at each end of the bridge, and their presence made the area somewhat more secure.
An almost full Moon and fireplaces lit the cloudless evening. While Pavo, his sons and the rest of his crew had begun to orderly set up a campsite, Therese and one of the drivers had prepared a trail dinner for the entire group. After receiving their share from the big pot full of chicken stew, people had taken places by the fires. Not surprisingly, people from each carriage huddled around the same fireplace, while guards not on duty gathered around one. The Utti family had theirs, and Pavo had asked the brothers to come over and share the warmth, but Cael had lighted their own fire, clearly separate from the others. He wanted to talk with his brother, in private.
They were yet to put up their tents, so the twins sat on the ground, leaning on the bags, a small fire crackling between them. They had eaten in silence, and now Belon’s pipe let out a swirling cloud of smoke. Cael didn’t understand the sense in smoking hallucinogenic substances, even if they were mild like the koda leaves Belon liked to smoke but had learned long ago not to complain about his brothers’ habit. Instead, he looked up to the sky. He had always enjoyed watching the countless stars and the hues of turquoise and purple against the canvas of black and midnight blue of the night sky. Since he had been blessed with darkvision, or the ability to see in the dark, to him the nocturnal heavens were a hypnotizing sea of shining pinprick lights and mind-blowing maelstroms of different colors. It was what he needed to relax. But it wasn’t the time to let the mind wander the skies.
“We need to start thinking about how we’ll proceed with our plan”, Cael began, making sure he wasn’t overheard even though the nearest fireplace was thirty strides away. His brother kept the pipe, a rather long one, in his mouth, puffed some smoke out and nodded.
“We need to lay the groundwork first and identify the current hierarchy of the House. Who’s who.”
“Who we need to get rid of, you mean”, Belon clarified and puffed smoke.
“All those who might come after us. Last time Eximedes Horryn was the only one I could finish off. This time I won’t let the job half-finished.”
“We’ll have a kill list, and then what? We start assassinating the nobles one by one? We’ll have half the city after us by the third body. It’s a family of assholes but they have friends, Cael. And what we’re planning isn’t actually something the Imperial Governor and General Lords of Molthune would approve.”
The stubble-headed brother rubbed the bridge of his nose, between his eyes, with a thumb and index finger. “I say we find out when they’re gathering in numbers, and go in and slay them all, and vanish without a trace. If we leave none alive, no one will know who did it. They’ll blame Horryn’s competitors and other enemies.”
“‘Slay them all’, you say? Even the children?”
“Children grow to become men and women, and the cycle will continue. They will send new hunters after us eventually. If we ever want to live in peace, House Horryn is a poisonous weed that we must unroot in its entirety.”
“Simple as that? A complete massacre, followed by a disappearance into the night like ghosts? ”
Cael made a scowl but kept his response curt. “It is a realistic plan.” If his brother wanted to goad him into a discussion about morality and what was righteous, he was not going to succeed. He was even a bit surprised his brother cared that much, given his past of fatalistic indifference.
Belon chuckled dryly. “By Pharasma, I can understand the bleak ruthlessness, but you have such trust in our abilities. Do you remember how many house guards Horryn employed at any given time? Fifty? A hundred? Plus his retinue of personal guards and gladiators.”
“It won’t be a pitched battle with us two against them all”, Cael argued. “We would have the element of surprize at our side, and we can make our limited numbers work for us, instead of against us. It would be us two against a handful at a time.”
“A true assassin’s plan”, Belon observed aloud, but not yet fully agreeing. Cael nodded. There was a certain grimness in the way Cael acknowledged how his twin labeled him.
“We just need to find a way to get inside without alarming the entire estate-” Cael went on until he saw someone approach at the corner of his eye. It was Galicus, the one Pavo had called a Magister. He had risen from his carriage’s fireplace and was marching towards them.
“Warrior-brothers”, he said in a way of greeting, “good evening. I was wondering if I could come and introduce myself properly”.
Cael said nothing and looked at Belon. He nodded and gestured to the ground. “Go ahead, Magister Galicus. I apologize for the lack of seats or covers.”
“No matter”, the salt-and-pepper bearded gentleman replied and swept his green cloak aside before sitting on the dirt before the fire. He seemed to be in his late forties, maybe fifties, but he sat cross-legged surprisingly nimbly. And for a man of wealth and visible prestige, he didn’t mind getting his clothes dirty.
Belon leaned forward and offered him the pipe.
“What do you have there?” Galicus asked, intrigued.
“Ah, one of my favorites!”
He took the pipe and had a taste.
Wisps of smoke rolled from his lips as he exhaled. “Delightful”, he commented and returned the pipe. “One of the better vices in life.”
“That’s what I tell my brother”, Belon smirked.
Cael harrumphed. He was trying to read the stranger.
“You don’t agree?” The old man asked Cael.
Galicus flashed a perfect row of teeth.
“You disagree on moral grounds, or because of its legal restrictions in several nations, or its acute mental effect, or its long-term addictive qualities?”
“It slows you down”, Cael responded with a low voice.
“Aha, so its mental effects. A rational and utilitarian perspective. But you have elven blood, don’t you? Doesn’t that shield your from the koda leaves’ effect to the mind?”
“It does?” Belon asked, interested, and examined his pipe like he was seeing it for the first time. “I’ve always wondered why full-blooded humans have often passed out when they smoke but I haven’t.”
Galicus smiled at the silver-haired warrior. “But you use the substance to calm your mind? And you think it works?”
Belon just shrugged. “It tastes nice. And when I started people said it would help me relax.”
“Ah. A placebo effect then.”
“A what?” Belon looked mildly worried.
“The effect is not really there, but you tell your mind it is, so you become relaxed even if your mind is not physically affected.”
“Damn”, Belon muttered and turned his smoking pipe around in his hand.
To Cael, the old articulate man felt odd. “How do you know all this?”
“I am something of an alchemist and scholar with wide experience, if you may”, Galicus began to explain, and the light of the fireplace reflected from his eyes as he watched it. “I’ve dedicated my life to understanding the order of Nature, so I’ve had some lessons of matters herbal during my life’s journey.”
“Don’t alchemists study magic as well?” asked the darker twin. Not that he knew though.
“Of course we do. But I have found magic uninteresting. It is too.. chaotic. Too inexplicable. To me and my work, magic gives way to natural sciences. It exists only to support and facilitate my work.”
The twins remained silent.
“Have you ever thought about how magic in our world has stifled our progress?”
“I always thought the gods have stifled our progress”, Cael murmured.
“Ha!” Galicus exclaimed and pointed the hooded killer with a finger. “A very good point! But what I mean is that our civilizations’ reliance on magic, and gods, has made us conservative and we haven’t even realized it. We are unable to move forward. Magic is like sand – you try to mold something new from it, and it might become a sand castle, or it might just as well flow between your fingers. It cannot be built upon, it lacks the order and predictability required.”
“But Nature doesn’t”, Belon pointed out.
“Indeed, Master Greymarsh. There are laws of nature that govern everything we see. Magic and its chaos are.. a disruption of that order.”
“You sound like you’d ban all magic if you had the chance”, the silver-haired brother noted.
Galicus shook his head. “But on the contrary! I would just make it so that the laws of nature would be the prime area of study, and the basis of our civilization. Magic, while it is pervasive in Golarion, is, in fact, a tool of the few. The knowledge of nature.. that is something everyone could utilize.”
“Are you religious”, Galicus asked Belon.
“Yes”, Belon said, the pipe still in his hands, as if he didn’t know what to do with it. “I’m a follower of Pharasma.”
“The only god of the pantheon who is actually neutral”, Galicus chuckled. “I guess the judge of souls of the dead has too much on her plate to intervene with anything else, our mortal world included. But consider how the gods use Golarion as their playground, but how much more independent we could be if we wouldn’t have to rely on their divine magic.”
The fire crackled happily between them, and the choir of crickets rubbing their wings together filled the quickly chilling air with their concerto. “Look at me, talking to you like you were my students”, Galicus sighed, reanimating from his thoughts.
“You have interesting viewpoints”, Belon stated, trying to be polite, and Cael found himself nodding in agreement.
“Well, how about you? I’ve blabbered enough. We are all going to Canorate, yes? What brings you there?”
The twins shared glances, and they lasted a second too long as the old man immediately picked up their meaning.
“So, a secret? I don’t want to be nosy. Forgive me.”
Belon cleared his throat. “We have personal matters to attend to in the city”, he explained levelly.
Galicus grinned now. “I hope no-one has angered you. I don’t want to appear too intrusive, but I cannot help but sense the powers, magical powers, that emanate from your beings.”
Cael kept his mouth tightly shut and stoked the fire with a branch.
“We have a history”, his brother commented and shrugged. Vague enough. Galicus was still knowingly smiling at the two. “It must be a rather interesting history.”
Cael knew Belon would’ve happily shared the details but to his satisfaction, his brother pursed his lips and stared at the fire.
An awkward silence fell to the fireplace, only to be cut by the old man getting back to his feet. “It has been a pleasure, gentlemen. I hope we can discuss another time during the trip, if not else than share our experiences of the city and its inhabitants. The nobles in particular, whom I work for, like House Jovan, Periger, Horryn and Illupsos to name a few, by gods they are a.. colorful folk.” A darkness of regret fell on the old man’s face as he listed the names and turned to leave.
Cael stopped him. “You work for the noble houses of Canorate?”
He could see Galicus’s chest heave in a weary sigh and the man replied without turning back. “Yes, but only for the gold. Their needs are.. often violent, so I’m forced to apply my expertize to build them tools of destruction. But alas, their gold keeps my research going.”
As far as Cael knew, alchemists were a mixed bunch, researching whatever pleased them. But what Galicus meant by tools of destruction had to be explosives. The most powerful explosives rivaled the strongest destructive magic. Indeed, they could be manufactured in masses and could potentially level the playing field by allowing the majority who had no magical capabilities to wield great destructive power, but for now, alchemy and manufacturing its discoveries was as rare as magic, maybe even rarer.
Still, Cael considered, here was a man who the most prestigious Houses turned to for their toys of war. If he was being truthful, he had to be talented. And very connected.
“One must often choose between the ends and the means”, Cael murmured, partly to himself, and saw Galicus nod almost imperceptibly.
“You are correct, Master Greymarsh, absolutely correct.”
He bade them goodnight and marched back to his carriage’s fireplace, where tents for the travelers had already been set up. Belon watched him go.
“He’s not all that bad, for a Chelaxian”, he noted.
Cael stoked the fire anew and saw how the sparks and flames danced, reaching up like they had arms. Like they were calling him to join them. But they were also whispering ideas to him.
“Not at all”, the stubble-headed muttered.
“And you heard who he says he works for?” Belon asked carefully so only his brother could hear.
Cael nodded slowly and kept listening to the fire. They whispered dreams of an estate engulfed by massive detonations, of shattered houses and burning men earning their painful ends.
They hinted of justice served.