This was the First Age. The Immortal Age.
The Immortal Age ended.
A quick slash with a short knife breaks the last presence of life within the beast as its holy aether leaves its body. He sighed at the task ahead. Wrapping the body in a tattered sackcloth he let out a grunt, as he heaved the broken body over his shoulder. He turned his eyes, a dull brown color, towards the dim lanterns of his village, Zith. With a final collection of determination he shouldered on.
The lanterns of Zith swayed slightly as the winds echoed there melancholic song across the deserted village. It was a “White Night” a day in which the storms of the Northern Waste completely covered out the light of the Divines. Almost everyone stayed indoors at these times. Hunters were one exception. It was this house, with its sole lantern which was the home of the lone hunter, a man of the name of Marus Italus, son of Julii and Prisithia Italus the third-generation descendants of Imperial outcast. A common way to punish dissenters and those of differing political viewpoints within the mainland’s Empire. Political asylum was a rare offer in Telia and Marus’ grandfather was quick to accept. He had placed himself into the community with his “exotic” wiles and charm. His father had pressed down the merchant venture of his, and for the isolated town of Zith a merchant was the unofficial town leader, a position of prestige given to an integral member of these isolated villages.
Disturbing the monotone sound of screeching wind, came through the snow covered landscape a hunched and seemingly crippled figure, if it’s shuffling walk was any clue. The figure straightened up, surveyed the village ahead of it, and headed towards the relatively large and luxurious house of his father. He sighed at the doorstep and rapped his knuckles against the door of Mrvrean wood. A shuffling sound could be heard and then the click of latches. The door creaked open, a lantern’s sickly light being cast out through the space between door and frame. The shadowed figure within smiled as the flame illuminated his face and beckoned him within the house’s interior. He slipped in and the door slammed shut, creating a barrier between the warm rooms within and the screeching winds of the frozen waste outside.
The insides of the house began to appear before his eyes as the gilded lantern in his mother’s hands spread across the room. Made of the same Mrvrean wood as the door, the walls were decorated with several small paintings and charms. He casts his eyes towards a family portrait taken while on a vacation, having them pass over the small amulets of the Divines affixed in particular position around the painting an arrangement which invoked there blessing on his family. The walls were a warm brown, distinctive of the tree the wood had once been. The furniture around was simple, yet attractive. The sloping styles of the Destherian bay carpenters, world famous, cast elongated and stretched shadows upon the walls of the house.
He turned his eyes to see his father, hunched over the chair near the fire. His father was a small and thin man and had always stood out amid the men of the village. Their hair was more often than not black, there build strong and muscular. His father had more of a dull brown hair color with a slight and even fragile build, reminiscent of himself. His father stood up, letting his cloak fall to his feet and rushed forward to embrace me. His arms wrapped around me I was only further reminded of our families’ small frame and build, at least in comparison to the more burly and built bodies of the Rzevorians.
“So how is our master hunter, eh?” I shrugged off his remark. I was no horrible outdoorsman, I could survive in the wilds, yet I was far more comfortable talking to my father’s associates and dealing with trading issues. I was a true Imperial, my father said a bureaucrat at heart one who would be at home in one of the many offices of the Empires large and to an extent burdensome bureaucracy and cabinet. My father certainly was. He had always been a quiet man, something of a wisp as a child. Slight and always wearing clothes which draped over him like an oversized dress or cloak, a ghost especially with his pale complexion. He was always thinking and analyzing things however as a teenager making comment about the legends of the local bard and the latest political events and dealings of the mainland. Marus’ grandfather a man of the name of Selthi had even had ambitions of sending his son to one of the Empire’s many prestigious and ancient colleges, but had decided that his place was home here in Rzevor. So his father grew up here, like he did.
I had never been one to complain, but when my father and mother continued to pass glances at each other before looking at me, I did have a slight feeling of discomfort or at least puzzlement. As my mother prepared the deer my father and I sat at the table. We talked, our favorite past time. In a small village like ours, it was often of local dealings and life. The town had its own small aristocracy and with my father as the informal head of it, he often was keen to hear the latest gossip of whose wife was cheating with the young errand boy or exactly how much Mr.Yilker owed the gambling hall down the way. Perhaps not the most glamorous of news, but something to discuss, to whittle away the long hours of the night. When mother joined us, dinner commenced and for a while only the clink of glasses and silverware served to create the noise within the house.
“So how goest thy trading father?” I began in an attempt to strike up conversation. Juli sighed and swished the burgundy-colored wine within his cup for a moment before responding. “Thou knows as well as I do son. The trading companies just keep asking for more and more money to do their jobs. The dangers to their fleets are too high for any less. Even the Imperial Trading Company is asking for more return by risk. If the Imperial navy could just secure the trade routes from pirates things would be fine. But the Empire is always somewhere new, always fighting some other battle.”
“What about the Northern Trading Guild?” I asked slyly. I grinned, because I knew all too well how my father would respond. The Northern Trading Guild was a free association between several trading companies and traders in Rzevor. It was founded to facilitate trading with the Empire and as a way to give these companies voice in Rzevorian politics. More often than not, the Guild simply bickered over “special zones of influence” and the correct measurements of dry goods in cargo ships. My father a prominent member of the Northern Guild knew all too well its inefficiency and bureaucracy. It became a common sight to see him trudging home in the snow, cursing out the other members as he made his way.
“That Guild is simply more trouble than it’s worth. I’m sure that it just makes us traders look like bickering idiots to the government.” I smiled at the familiar disgust and annoyance of which he spoke of the Guild. Just like my father. He sighed and turned his eyes towards my mother’s again, and after sharing a quiet nod between them he coughed and began to speak.
“Son I’ve been wondering have thou ever wanted to travel?” Travel? I was startled at the abrupt change to the conversation at first, but answered quickly. “Well sometimes. I’ve always wanted to see the island a bit more. Zith can be a bit dull at times thou knows. It would be nice to see the other towns.” My father laughed, shortly, at this. “I was thinking of something a bit more exotic then just out of Zith. There are other lands beyond ours son. The Divines made Telia a large and diverse land. One I would want thou to see.” At this he stood up and walked away from the table, heading upstairs. We heard him opening my parents’ door, and then shuffling sounds. He returned holding a packet of papers wrapped in brown twine. Handing it to me, I carefully turned them over in my hand before seeing the embossed symbol on the front. A golden diamond, elongated to fill the entire front page. Intertwined around the diamond was Imperial script, elongated and flowing, easily recognizable with its unneeded attention to detail and flourishes.
“The Empire prevails eternally. Hail to Emperor Celthorian IV. Glory to the Seven Divine.”
The Imperial motto and oath was instantly recognizable, growing up reading history books about the Empire and hearing the word of the Desther every holy day and festival. The rest of the paper simply explained the use and advantages granted towards holders of this Imperial passport. These papers were an important symbol and held to quite a high regard, where those rich enough to afford the 100 Imperial rethens which the passport cost. And they were mine. These papers gave me the right to enter any of the 15 Imperial provinces and if my knowledge of the diplomatic relations of the Empire were up to date, so too did it give me the right to enter the Seven and One along with N’rithia. But why?
“Father. Mother. What is this for?” “Opportunity”, my father began. “I know how thou are not a merchant like me. I know how you are still wondering what you want to do with your life. And I don’t think you’ll find it here trapped on Rzevor. But there’s a bigger world out there. One that I want you to have a place in. And this can give you it. Imperial’s have a chance in the world. The Empire has wealth, has power. It’s a promised land. And I want you to have something. And I think this can help you.”
I stared at the parchment now lying quietly in my hand. I knew my father’s words did have truth. Rzevorians simply sat and watched the world go by. There was no change here, no progress or growth. Merely ice and wind. Nothing more and nothing less. But the Empire? That was a world away. A land which was completely alien to him. Who was he? A simple country boy, the son of a Rzevorian minor noble in a small town on the empty shore of Rzevor. He would not be the first to say that he could survive in the wider world. He wasn’t the most…how his father would say “worldly” person would. He was often told that he was sharp, but as a hands-on, “out there in the world” lifestyle? No. He had never been. But, what other choices did he have? He had never taken to his father’s interest in the mercantile industry and he was not adept at hunting, the only other real job available to men in Rzevor. This passport, a chance to make something of himself on the “Mainland” as some affectionately called it. It was a chance to become something more. And leave all he had behind.
True he did not exactly love his life here. He remembered the hundreds of times, when he would sneak out of the house to hunt or simply explore the woods to the North. He was always caught and promptly punished, yet this did not stop him. When the other children were gossiping and talking of their friends, he would be eagerly interviewing every foreigner and trader who came to town. As a merchant’s son he was of the privileged few who were allowed to attend the local college and not have to simply take on an apprenticeship when he became a teenager. He would sit for hours reading every book of history and poring over the few maps which the teacher had acquired through bartering with the luxury ships which came every year.
Through this he came to have a love for the “exotic” as the neighbors would say. The people, place’s, languages’ and history of Telia and the world around him were fascinating. The ancient legends and myths which so many considered old stories were so much more to me. This had fostered a love of travel or at least a wish or desire to travel. And this was a chance to have that. I would take it. Rzevor was simply an empty island, one of snow and ice cold and unchanging. I would never fit in here, for…many reasons. The Mainland promised a future and as the old saying went “Seize the future and thou need no else.”
Chapter 2: The Thousand Shards
The sky’s bright sun slid slowly out from the low lying white haze, which blanketed the city of Zith. Quietly it crawled, chipping away at the shadows and shades of the night, as they retreated further into the cracks and nooks of the cities’ buildings. Assaulting the white-washed walls of a large inn by the seas shore the light traversed the walls and climbed slowing up there surface, before spilling out in radiance into the open windows of the inns rooms.
I woke slowly, at first simply staring at the wall in front of me. As the time passed I began to hear the shuffle of feet and the moving of carts. The city was coming alive. Zith was in a formality the capital of our nation Rzevor. Rzevor was an 800 year old principality, founded when Alfres the Great united the 27 tribes of the Northern Wastes as one nation and brought the isolated Shards into communion with the world. It was his legacy which had been inherited by Rzevor and this city was its primmest example. Zith had been founded as the capital of the island 3 years after the islands unification by Prince Alfres Yalur I, the Great. Built with the hardy oak of the island and made to be a harbor and the island’s gem. I had grown up here and knew every hidden spot and secret place in the city. Growing up I thought it was the center of the world and for Rzevorians it was. The city was modest when compared with the decadent cities of the Empire I had read about, but to Rzevor it was the gem of our island.
After a quick breakfast and handing over the 20 rethens owed to the inn’s owners I stood in the Norster district of Zith. The district was a seedy one, but it was also the port of the town and the economic lifeblood of the city. The larger ships of trading companies stood off to the northern section, flying the symbols of various trading houses and guilds. I recognized my father’s, Italus Trading Company. I smiled at the familiar flag, the symbol of our family an inverted I within a scarlet compass. It flew on one of the larger ships, as cargo ships go with their large holds. Our ship had already been pointed out to me earlier. The “Resplendent Dawn” a sleek cruising vessel which flew the Imperial colors. It stood docked at the end of the pier, largely imposing compared to those smaller fishing and trading sloops which made up the fishing fleets and commercial vessels of Zith.
Our ship stood at the end of the dock, made to hold large amounts of people. As my class demanded it was one of the higher end types of these ships. The Resplendent Dawn had been made with class and luxury in line, made to ferry the richer lords and minor nobles of Rzevor and the Empire between the two nations. Our countries had a long history, sparked by the ever growing need of Rzevorian fishing fleets for new catches. 10 years after our nations discovered each other’s existence the treaty solidifying our relations was signed. The Concordat of Zith, signed within Rzevor’s gem, between the current Prince Wilth Yalur gave the Principality the position of “Friend Eternal” and the dissolution of any and all restrictions upon free trade between the states. It was with the protection and assurance that this treaty provided, that we would now sail through Imperial waters under the watchful eye of the Lanthian Imperial navy.
Around our ship itself the bustle of dock work was replaced with a vibe more of tourism. These were Imperial citizens, hoping to have a relaxing vacation in the peaceful north of Rzevor. My father had arranged for an amount of goods to accompany me, and they were already stowed aboard. I waited near the ship waiting for the last thing needed before boarding. My companion.
I had asked my father that I be allowed to travel to the Empire alone. I was an adult, yet he insisted on treating me as a young teenager with too much time and money on their hands. As a “precaution” my father had asked Kresor Hilr an elderly bachelor who had made some lucky money through gambling and, with investing, turned it into a fortune which was more than enough to be the richest man in Zith, besides my father. “Sir Hilr” as he liked to be addressed though I knew of no noble blood in him, was an old, balding and unapologetically fat man. He was a glutton and a drinker. He cared too much about his appearance to be a slob, but I’m sure he would have been one had self-image and pride allowed so.
His father was a “true blood” a family who could trace lineage from the very beginning of a united Rzevor. The Hilr family had apparently been the children of a minor lieutenant of Prince Alfres I and the original Sir Hilr made sure his descendants would be well off for the rest of their lives. The first few generations had continued to serve within the armies of the Yalur royal house, but sometime before Kresor’s grandfather’s time they had come under hard times. Sir Kresor had restored the family to its “glory” though the brothers who made up the rest of the house were constantly chided for holding position through a drunkard’s gambling money. This was little concern to Sir Hilr, who saw money as money. He was known to be a joker, a better yet he had an uncanny bid for it and most always one. No one though he cheated, not because they thought he was above it, but was simply too lazy to go through the preparations needed to cheat. He was a talker, even more so when he drunk and a gossip who unlike my father had no ideal of decency. Each and every person’s personal life and every detail of it was fair game and more likely than not, if you didn’t want to hear it, by the end of the conversation you would.
This was the man who now accompanied me as we journeyed towards the ship. He had been convinced to come, if we promised to stop at each and every gambling house and beer hall we came along the way. He had spent our entire time in Zith at the inn, the Gold Star, drinking and talking of his many adventures which ranged from sexual exploits to grand drinking games (Which he would always “easily dominate” or “narrowly triumph.”), and the glory days of his hunting youth, when he could take a brown bear head on with a knife of wood alone. This last one may have had some truth in it. My father had once had a passing fancy with hunting and had gone on several excursions with Kresor. He recalled how Kresor would simply go walking through the woods looking for anything to take down, and doing so with but a small knife. This did not do wonders for his bodily appearance, if my father’s description was true to life.
He had been a decent companion however. He would tell me of what he knew about the places we had traveled though (Several small villages along the coast.) and what he did know of the mainland and its Empire (Rich people, large cities, and a government which turned a blind eye to the moral excesses of those who strayed from the Divine’s path of salvation.) He had traveled to an extent in his life; having told of a yearlong “vacation” in a ruff land north of ours called Nastus a minor state on the periphery of the world’s eyes. As always there was a hint of embellishment. Several stories, such of his claim of the Imperial army numbering as many as 10 million soldiers or the tales of a race of “shape shifting spirit vampires” living in a place named N’rithia were certainly the tall tales of an old man trying to impress a young kid. Ha! How gullible does he thinks me? I knew the Empire was large but an army of more than a million men? Where would the space to keep them all be! They would have to be living in square boxes stacked one on the other. And vampires? Does he think me a child, scared by every shadow and strange shape at night?
Other stories of his were more easily taken. His tales of a vast forest named Vefrey painted a picture of a vast continent of unending land though apparently even land ended in Telium. Riches too were abundant as well, and he told of the Immortal Emperor, a position currently held by Celthorian IV, one in a long list of emperors, Celthorian being the 476th if his tales of the Empires history was true. He went on about the “Immortal Empire” whose name I had heard for years as the glorious protector and friend of the nations around it, but Hilr painted a picture of a far more authoritarian one which knew peace and prosperity within the heartland of Castli or Accrinia yet had war, plagues, and famine on its borders extensive as they were. He told me of the famous Ever-Lasting Imperial Army as its lofty title was which brought prosperity to its trade routes, peace to its borders, and power to the intricate system of aristocracy and nobility of the 72 Lithins and the Grand Council of the Empire.
All of it seemed very extravagant and needless and as I watched the darkened night of the sea outside I wondered what type of people could be so decadent and self-indulgent. His other tales did no better for my impression of the Mainland. I wondered exactly what was it that made my father think that my going to find my “fortunes” on the mainland would be like. Was our home in Rzevor that desolate a place? I let my mind drift to my home and what I had left behind, if it was really worth anything. I had never been a social person. I never knew why. I kept to myself and interacted when pressured, yet never for its pleasure. As a boy while all the others were playing hunter and fighter, I was running errands with my parents or reading the old fables. When I did interact with children my age it was always with a sense of…being different. Somehow I was not the same as them. They could tell and so could I. Despite all this I did have friends.
I and three other boys made up our little group. Ryock, Elsker, and Havald were the boys I remembered from my childhood. Ryock of the Grasstenburg family was a square set and simple man. He was quiet to and pondered over problems for far longer than we thought right, or at least timely. He was clever in a way, not quick, but clever. He was always finding ways to distract the fruit and treat merchants so we could come in snatch several pieces of merchandise and leave without them knowing any better. This would get us in trouble yes, but only if we were dumb enough to stay near the merchant’s stand after we had stolen the goods. Of course if we were stupid enough to do that, then maybe we deserved to get caught and punished. Ryock would usually not let that happen and to this day I think the local fruit merchant, a thin and nervous man by the name of Yurgil, still believed giant rats of a vicious and antagonistic nature were living in subterranean tunnels that spread the entire island over.
Ryock was often the voice of reason in fact and would be the one to tell us when we were doing something “too stupid” if you could believe that. An idea several of us entertained every year was to bath in the small creek near the town during the middle of Hasus and see just how long all of us could survive in there. Of course Ryock would often point out the simple fact that if we did, we would certainly catch frostbite and lose several appendages we would like to keep was enough to discourage us. Elsker was Ryock’s exact opposite. He was quick, fast, and always moving. He had been born with an illness called Pilh, which caused him to be “selective” in his hearing and the attention he paid to our elders to put it lightly. It was Elsker’s opinion that if something could be done and it didn’t necessarily hurt anyone, then why not? This defined him as a prankster and a trickster who was always quick to hide away and evidence of his misdeeds and tricks. He was a liar as well who would thread stories and tall tales as well as Hilr, but often to quicker benefit. He would always buy trinkets with the promise that the next person in was a friend who would be “all too happy” to pay for his purchase. Needless to say he did not get away with this long before he was banned from purchasing a thing in nearly every inn, tavern, and shop of Zith. He was the village’s local heartthrob as he grew up a regular Adonia, the name of a famous romancer in old fables of Rzevor and our neighboring island Nastis. Every daughter of Zith was open prey and though some of the more respectable ladies liked to think themselves above the charms and wiles of Elsker they would soon find that belief wrong.
Elsker was more built than me, yet less than Ryock. Ryock embodied the typical Rzevorian man short to an extent, stocky, with bushy black hair as dark as night. Elsker had hair of a fairer brownish black and though not as muscular as Ryock, his were more concentrated around his chest. I and Havald were the thinner and weaker of our group of four. We shared the same medium brown eyes, yet differed in all else. Havald was the outdoorsman of all of us. He was a hunter as young as 9 and would spend the most time of all of us outside. He was quiet, even more so than me yet when he got on a subject he enjoyed or knew much about he would go on for hours about it, much to our chagrin. He was a talker and a gossip like my father, which was one of the few times he engaged in social activities outside of friends and families. Yet at feasts and celebrations he was its center and he enjoyed the energy of activities of the like far more than the rest of us. His father was a banker and instilled in him a love of study and beside me was the best at the local tutors’ classes of the upper and middle class boys, with some girl of the other noble families mixed in. He was also outspoken, when he wanted to be and often voiced his opinion irrespective of the commonly accepted opinion of our community. In a small town, this traveled fast and he was seen as an agitator or troublemaker of a different, though considered by some, far more insidious sort than Elsker. He was also not as smooth a talker and would often anger people to the point of beatings, especially from elders who felt his question were a personal disrespect to their honor and place as our betters. I would often have to get him out of these situations as in truth my family had the most influence of our small group or “gang” as certain shopkeepers who had caught onto our tricks found out. We did not have, in any way any sort of leader though. I could have been considered ours if we actually cared enough about it.
I had seen the others only a week before leaving. Before that we had drifted apart to a great extent and the meeting was in way our “reunion.” We met in the local inn and tavern, the same that I and Hilr were now leaving. Ryock had become a hunter full time and was more of a gruff and harsh man. He was quiet as he had always been and his eyes had a new tired and “far-off” look then what they had once been. He still smiled when he first saw us and a twinkle was in his eye that reminded me of the energy we had once had, exploring and cavorting through the woods and back roads of Rzevor. It was one I had not seen ever since his father died when he had just reached the precipice of manhood, which cast him into a dark depression which he had but recently came out of. Havald was something of a “jasthulr” a gentleman who carried himself with a new air of respect and distinction that we immediately took to joking and mocking about. He took the jests with the respect and formality a jasthulr is known for which helped to only aid fuel to our fire. In truth I was proud of him. Of all of us he was the one who had dedicated himself to the work and toil of a man keen to improve on his lot in life. He had studied for a year abroad in the college of Zith and came back with a new edge on his already sharp mind. The jasthulr personality and air was undoubtedly gained from living with and socializing with the class of college students, most sons of rich nobles or trading merchants raised in the luxury of Rzevorian upper class society. This had given him as we called it, “airs” and an attitude bordering on the beginnings of snobbery. He had also become a gossip and socialite as great as my father and after his year of absence he spent his first few hours back catching up on the social relationships and world of our little town.
And as for Elsker? Elsker had become a womanizer, a drunkard, and a glutton. He had always been the one of us most attracted to the vices and wrongdoings of a corrupt lifestyle. He had been an eater since a child, put the effort which he could have easily given to honest work and chores, into his ability to stay hidden whenever work called, which gained him the nickname “ghost”. It was perhaps not a surprise that after years of being a petty liar and thief, he would turn into something worse. He spent his rithins on the local prostitutes and whores while opening his purse strings as liberal a man could be in the affairs of money and wealth. It was not our place to question how our, now adult friend, spent his life and more easily noticed, his money. Yet we did worry. I would find him drunk and penniless many a night, in the alleys and darkened pathways of Zith’s seedy Yalth district. The place was a den of iniquity and was certainly no place for anyone of a respectable position in a community. Elsker was rapidly losing this however.
When we met, he had surprisingly made a half-hearted attempt to clean up and look presentable to his old child friends during our meeting a week ago. His clothes were clean in fact and he did not reek of the cheap and watery alcohol, for which he had developed a passion, or more appropriately an obsession. He had an energy and spirit, which was quite easily seen to be shown through his own accord and personality and not the false fire given through alcohols’ rigorous consumption. This was the side of him which we had not seen for years and I had a sense of pride for my friend and his self-discipline. That night we reminisced of old times, our adventures in the wilderness as young children long before manhood, our school days at the local tutors house, which created more memories of practical jokes and long conversations’ of gossip and the beginnings of our infatuations with the fairer sex of the Rzevorian Principality. We naturally stacked our different “conquests” of the past. I had surprisingly grown up to have a way with women, something of being mysterious and silent one which incited the curiosity and wonder of women. With some remarks from Elsker about the “ways of courtship” I became more in tune to the workings of women and soon joined an informal club which we had. Elsker had started the club and was its most proficient and well versed member, if one is able to understand the connotations. Most people did.
This…”proficiency” of Elsker’s did little to help his social standing within Rzevor and our town of Zith. He became an embarrassment to his family an ancient noble clan known as the Urils. His father had threatened disownment several times and for our society this was the highest order of insult and shame. Elsker’s alcohol drowned all of this away however. It quickly became an answer for every problem he faced. His inheritance of several thousand rithins began to quickly slip away into the bags and purses of the local brothel, inn, and bar owners. This would cause us to inadvertently run up tabs with the local breweries, as we so very often began to cover for his mistakes and debts. Yet every conversation with him during his sober hours about the need for a break of his dependency was useless. He simply was something of a lost cause almost and every day he was more haggard, thin, and tired. He was slowly dying that was clear and we could do nothing.
This dark path of his were what made me surprised at his clean and ordered appearance at the inn a week ago.