The summer sun shone brightly on the clearing in the woods. The four huts of the Nar-Enthruen, Qord’s, Ne’on’s, Jordan’s, and the horses’ stable, radiated the green of summer grass. Qord smiled. He always enjoyed the sight of new-weaved roofs in the summer. “Jordan’s been keeping up with the chores,” he said.
“So I see,” said Ne’on, frowning while he shaded his eyes from the sun. “I suppose it’s time we returned to ours.”
Much happened in the following months. Ne’on’s power and skill grew as the voice held more and more sway over him. It grew to the point where Ne’on almost could not distinguish his own thoughts from those of, he believed, his darker side.
In Yuli, “Ne’on” decided poison was the best way to kill Kald. He chose oberum for its quick, yet painful, results. Also, he found it amusing to employ a drug of the same name as the month he intended to use it.
Come Sy, Ne’on was tested for his “Branch”. This time, it was an illusory battle between Qord and himself. The battle raged for an hour and Ne’on glimpsed several moments when he could have triumphed. However, these opportunities lacked a certain something Ne’on was looking for, a certain . . . malice. Finally, Ne’on found his victory. Qord conjured a halberd and flew it toward Ne’on to put him off guard for Qord’s next attack. Instead , Ne’on increased the halberd’s speed until it was just upon him. At the last instant, Ne’on teleported the polearm from directly in front of himself to directly behind Qord, striking him brutally in the spine. Qord collapsed into unconsciousness.
By mid-Seber, the south-western winds began to blow, and the forest floor was covered with leaves, acorns, and twigs. Ne’on had collected the oberum, but he was unsure of its exact effects, or the time required for it to work. He decided to test it. Not on Qord, he rationalized, for Qord still had much to teach him. It would have to be Jordan, and it would have to look natural.
It was, and it did. Late one night, Ne’on snuck into Jordan’s room and “fed” him the root. For a few moments, Jordan experienced great pain, then shuddered and died. Ne’on thanked the gods Jordan was mute from his Draining, for no normal human could help but scream from the pain Jordan had evidently experienced, then “cleaned up” Jordan’s quarters for Qord to discover the next morning. It is truly a crime, the way people can die of natural causes in the prime of their life…
At sunrise, on the twentieth day of Ober, in the one thousand thirteenth Year of Baranur, two men awoke at exactly the same time. One was an ambitious young student of the arts arcane with visions of power and conquest; the other was a master of those same arts, having studied under the single most powerful mage since the Fretheod Empire. One of them was deeply troubled.
He had just had a dream; a very disturbing dream. An old friend had been ferociously murdered by a being of pure evil. If this dream was another vision . . . His countenance changed from one of distress to one of strict concentration. He must remember the dream.
Hurling the heavy blankets aside, he stepped out of the bed and onto the warm, carpeted floor. Sitting with his legs folded under him, he tried, once more, to recall the dream. Images flickered and flashed across his mind’s eye: scenes of grass huts, fire, and death.
“Qord,” he murmured. “My crystal ball.”
Ne’on awoke quickly, feeling none of the morning drowsiness which usually accompanied the cold winter’s dawn. Of course, the first snow had yet to fall, but it wouldn’t be long before Lady Winter solved that problem. He looked about his meager hut and re-checked, mentally, everything which was packed. Today he would leave for Gateway.
Gnawing on a slab of day-old bread, he pulled his robes about him and stepped out to the well for some water. After quenching his thirst, he filled the nearest bucket with the ice cold water and entered Qord’s hut. ‘Nothing like a cold wash to wake you up in the morning,’ he thought, and dumped the contents of the bucket all over his slumbering instructor.
“AAAHHHHH!!” Qord’s scream echoed through the trees as the old mage leapt to his feet, eyes bulging, soaked to the gills. “Hppht! Wha- What in Rise’er’s Feast was that for, boy? Do you realize it’s winter? Hellfire! I could catch my death of cold! Fetch me a dry blanket before I freeze!”
“No.” Qord’s eyes bulged even farther out of his head, if that was possible. With a thought and a gesture, Ne’on silenced the disbelief of the old mage. Surprized by the audacity of his pupil, Qord attempted to dispell the bond of silence only to find himself further bound by rings of force emanating from Ne’on’s hands.
“Master,” Ne’on sneered, “I come seeking the answer to a question. If one wizard defeats another in mystical battle, the first is obviously more powerful than the second, yes?” Ne’on’s face was a mask of bitterness and contempt. He had learned all Qord could teach him and more, and now it was time to be rid of the eccentric fool.
At the moment, Qord could not speak, but he was not sure if it was from Ne’on’s spell or his own fright. Before him stood Ne’on, more powerful, more evil, than Qord had ever dreamed, hell-bent on causing some nastiness to Qord’s being. In answer to Ne’on’s question, he nodded: yes.
“So I supposed. Which means,” continued Ne’on, his chest beginning to swell with power lust, “after I slaughter you, I’ll have passed my Leaf!” Ne’on grinned. Red flames licked the edges of Ne’on’s hands as he reached for Qord. “You’re going to be much more fun than Jordan. Much more.”
The image faded with his disbelief. He slouched; his lips grew taught and his eyes closed tight. A lone tear wet the cheek of Marcellon Equiville.
The hard ground crunched under Koros’ hooves as he bore Ne’on home. The farmlands about the keep were stark and barren, pale grey with frosted flora. The first snow had yet to fall, but the cool, crisp air bit harshly with the wind at the river’s edge.
Where the Laraka turned west from its northward flow, joined by its tributary from the mountains to the east, stood Gateway, the stone manor of the Winstons. For the second time in only half a year, Ne’on entered the house of his father. This time, he would not be leaving so soon.
“Welcome home, Lord Winston,” one of the guards greeted Ne’on as he entered the first gate. “I’ll take your horse from here, if you like.”
“No, I do not like!” Ne’on’s reply caught the sentry off guard, and now he stood there, unsure of what to do next. “No one touches this horse besides me. Do you understand? No one.”
“I- I-I-I-I’m sorry, milord,” stammered the shaking guard. “I- I didn’t mean-”
“Enough! Stop your quibbling, you over grown river weasel.” The guard fell silent and lowered his head, fearful of his lord’s anger; he had spent the last several months working hard trying to get off the night shift, and he wasn’t looking forward to returning to it. A thought danced across Ne’on’s mind. This time, he spoke gentler, more aloof. “Actually, there is one thing you could do for me.”
The guard raised his head, eyes wide and mouth hanging open. “Yes, milord. Anything! I-”
“Do you know where Luke McLeod is stationed, at the moment?”
“Sergeant McLeod? Yes, milord! He-”
Again he was cut off by Ne’on. “Tell him to gather his men and join me in my study. I’ll expect him before dinner.” Ne’on spurred Koros on to the inner keep as the guard raced off with his assignment.
His grey stone room was almost as large as his father’s; but, with much less trappings, it looked more expansive. A desk, bed, closet, and a large bookcase on the west wall was all he needed. The rest of the room was bare, and easily accommodated the twelve men when they arrived. Luke stood in front, the other eleven behind him.
Ne’on walked about the men, inspecting them while he thought. It was time to be rid of Luke. Bartholemew was ready to take his place, and he served only Ne’on. He had his guard; soon, he would have his title.
Ne’on stood face to face with Luke, the men at Luke’s back. “Turn about and look at the men, Luke.” As he did so, Ne’on quietly drew his knife from its sheath. Speaking to the group, “take a good look at Luke, men. Do you desire his position?” Ne’on’s hand raised the blade behind Luke’s back, ready to strike. “Now, watch.”
Ne’on’s hand fell, the setting sun glinting red off steel. Luke fell in a pool of red, struck just above the neckline of his chain armor. Ne’on shut his eyes and summoned the power within him. A black cloud emitted from his mouth and nostrils and settled over the corpse. As it absorbed the blood and flesh and bone of what used to be Luke, it turned from black, to maroon, to a deep red. Ne’on raised his arms and the cloud came to him, settling on him, and seeping into his skin. Then, it was gone.
“Obey me,” spoke Ne’on, his green eyes glinting with malice, “and you’ll not share his fate.”
“My lord!” The page’s cry rang through the empty stone corridor, easily reaching Goren as he stepped out of his room. Sprinting forward, Thomas reached his lord before Goren finished turning the key in the lock. “Lord Goren, Lord Keeper says to hurry or you’ll be hunting for your dinner.” Goren answered the boy’s statement with a look of surprise. “My apologies, my lord. Such was I instructed to tell you.”
Goren smiled and looked down at the boy. Thomas was Marcus Ridgewater’s son in every respect. Only thirteen, he knew enough to treat his elders with respect without fearing to speak on his own accord. Nor did he count on his father’s influence to lighten his duties; he worked as hard, if not harder, than the rest of the young servants in the keep. Soon, he would begin training as a guardsman in hopes of one day assuming the responsibilities of Castellan, like his father before him.
“Hunt for my own dinner? I hunted for thIS one. Inform my father my arrival shall be swift. I have only just discovered where the flask he gave me for my fourteenth birthday was hiding all these months, and I intend to drink from it this evening.”
With a quick “Yes, milord.”, Thomas was off and running. Down the hall and to the right, through the iron reinforced doors, into the main hall, and narrowly missing Sylvia, the serving woman. He informed Kald of Goren’s reply, but was not himself dismissed. Tonight, Lord Keeper Winston had a surprise for him.
“Thomas, my boy,” Kald began, his huge grin forcing its way out from behind his thick black beard, “I want you to sit down and eat with us, tonight. Your father and I have been talking, and we’re not entirely satisfied with the quality of the work you’ve been doing. We think you might be slacking off, a bit – maybe relying on your father’s position to help you through the ranks?”
Thomas looked up at the Keeper of Gateway in utter disbelief. “Oh, no, my lord! I would never- I didn’t- what do you mean?”
This time it was Marcus, Thomas’ father, who spoke to Thomas from his seat at the hall table. “We mean, Thomas, you haven’t been accepting enough responsibility around here. Personally, I thought you should be sent to one of the farms in the area to work for a few months. That would teach you discipline and build a few muscles on those arms of yours, as well! However, my Lord Winston has other ideas.”
“Aye! I’ve always believed fighting was the best way to build strength, and there’s nothing like a few years in the town guard to build discipline! Seeing as you’re fourteen, now, I can recommend you for a position in the guard. Starting tomorrow, you’ll be eating, sleeping, and training with your sword.”
Thomas had been very excited when he heard he would begin his training. Then it occurred to him he wasn’t fourteen, and his tone changed from one of excitement to one of disappointment. He lowered his eyes. “But my lord, – father – I’m only thirteen!” A heavy sigh escaped his chest as he lowered his head. “I can’t believe…”
“Only thirteen!” Kald’s voice raged through the hall. “Marcus! You said he was fourteen! No one – absolutely no one! – begins training as a guard before their fourteenth birthday! Now what are we going to do?!” Kald’s smile began to show through his mock anger; he quickly pulled his flask to his mouth to hide his amusement. After he regained his composure, he looked squarely at the boy. “Ah, the trouble you put me in. Gateway is going to need more officers in its town guard, and I can’t wait another year. Unfortunately, there’s no other boys good enough to begin training, now. What do you think, Marcus? Shall we make an exception?”
Thomas’ eyes pleaded with his father, but Marcus played his part better than Kald. “I don’t know, Kald… I couldn’t be responsible for the boy, at his age… on the other hand, Gateway does need him… well, alright! Just don’t come yelling to me when he arrests his own captain!”
Thomas let out a shriek of joy as the two men laughed. Calling Sylvia to them, they had a place set for Thomas at Marcus’ side. Marcus sat two seats to the right of Kald, and Goren arrived to sit between the two. Ne’on sat at Kald’s left, lost in his own thoughts.
As Goren performed the ritual to Osiniana, Thomas looked from his father, to Goren, to Kald, and settled his gaze on Ne’on. There was something different about Ne’on; but, whether it was his longer white hair or his wisened green eyes, Thomas could not tell. His father called for a toast, then, and everyone reached for their flasks.
Goren sat at the dinner table and stared at the food on his plate. It was good meat, taken off an eight point buck he had spent half of yesterday tracking. He hated to kill the aelofin, but his father had decreed there would be fresh meat tonight, so Goren found himself trudging through yesterday morning’s grass with his bow and quiver. It wasn’t easy. This late in the winter, it was difficult even to stumble across old tracks, let alone fresh ones. But Goren knew how and where to look, and it was no accident he spotted the small pack of wolves following the trail of a large dinner. The difficult part came when he had to convince the wolves to search for other prey. He was not unkind, however, and had brought along the carcasses of several small animals he had picked up along the way. Unfortunately, he soon discovered the wolves thought him an easier target than the deer, and he was forced to kill the three of them. He hoped their fresh meat would serve the purpose of some other hungry hunters.
Looking up from his plate, he watched Sylvia pour red wine into his old flask. Nine years he had drunk from that flask, excluding the past few months where it lay hidden beneath… what? He couldn’t remember. He had just found it today, after all these months, and now he couldn’t remember. Well, no matter. Tonight was a night for celebration, for his father and for Thomas, if not for his mischievous brother who sat opposite Goren, lost in his own world.
Ne’on seemed to sense Goren’s eyes on him and slowly raised his own. There was something different about them, now; something fascinating. Goren lost his awareness of the people around him, something inside him screamed but he couldn’t hear. He heard someone call for a toast – was that Marcus? – but he didn’t move; he just looked deeper and deeper into Ne’on’s eyes…
“Welcome, Goren Winston,” spoke a deep voice, “I have waited some small time for this moment.”
Goren blinked and looked about himself. He was stunned; not by the blank, frozen faces of his father and friends, nor the ghastly red shade which flushed his brother’s cheeks, giving him color for the first time in his life, but by his new environment. The table was standing – how? – on a monstrous slab of black rock, darker than the deepest woods, which floated impossibly on a sea of flames, the heat licking at the edges, crumbling the stone away piece by piece, the stone somehow reconstructing itself where the flames retreated.
“What the- where?”
“Home, my lord,” the voice sneered, and Goren saw that it came from Ne’on. “This is Cintralu. Or rather, it was, until I was born. I have brought you here to show you the fate of your world because it please me to do so. It pleases me also to inform you of your father’s impending death.”
A smile broke out on Ne’on’s face – it was unlike any human smile Goren had ever seen, more as the smiles of the hungry wolves he had slain while tracking the deer. Goren looked at Kald’s frozen form and studied him, noting his father’s extended arm, hand reaching toward its destiny.
“Yes, young fool. You have seen the way. I once vowed to slay Kald Winston while you stood helplessly by- aargh!” Ne’on twitched violently, his head bowing to the table. Gasps of breath escaped his lungs; he looked up at Goren, pitifully.
“Goren,” spoke Ne’on, his voice no longer deep and thunderous, but painful, faint. “Goren, you must stop him… stop me, befo- no.” Again, a violent jerk racked Ne’on’s body. His jaws clenched tight, his teeth ground. A dribble of blood touched the corner of Ne’on’s mouth; and when he spoke again, it was the first voice which addressed him.
“No, Goren Winston. I do not believe I shall give you the opportunity.”
The world swirled around him again, his disorientation lasting only long enough to find him back at the dining hall, his father reaching for the flask. Goren knew what he must do.
“Wait!” Everyone stopped reaching and stared at Goren, looking slightly confused and unsure of himself. He was breathing very quickly and his usually dark skin had turned pale beneath his two day beard. He glanced around for a moment to make sure of his surroundings and then he spoke, “Father, I have a proposition to make – one only for our family. I mean you no discourtesy, Castellan, but I would like this toast to apply strictly to my family. May I, father?”
Kald stared expressionlessly at Goren. Goren knew he need not make such a scene simply for a common dinner toast, and Kald could not fathom the reason Goren placed such importance on its immediate action. Indeed, the entire group viewed Goren with an air of uncertainty. However, this was Kald’s eldest son, and heir, and no matter how extraordinarily he behaved, Goren would get his wish. “If you wish it, Goren, then do so,” he replied.
Goren continued, a weight visibly lifted from his shoulders. “Thank you, my lord.” Raising his cup, he smiled pleasantly at his father, then nervously over his brother. “Father, brother, for the first time in many moons we are together, again.” The words came sluggishly from his mouth, stumbling out like a newborn pony attempting to stand for the first time. “Let us remain together always, no matter how far apart we may be.” He reached out and traded cups first with Kald, then with Ne’on, so that each might have given their cups to the the person on their left. “To make show of our unity, let us drink from one another’s cups; I from Ne’on’s, Ne’on from father’s, and father from mine.” He held aloft his brother’s flask and smiled a sad smile. “To Life!” he cried, and they drank.
Kald bolted upright out of his chair, his face red and bulging. He grasped desperately for his throat, seeking to confine some inner pain with the strength of his hands. He stared confusedly, pitifully, at Goren and gasped, “Why?” His breath gone, he collapsed face down upon the table; Goren’s flask dropped loosely from his hand.
Goren stood by, shocked with the others, watching the quick, yet obviously painful expiration of his father. For a moment no one moved, then everyone reacted at once. Sylvia screamed, dropping the tray she was serving, as Goren, Ne’on, Marcus, and Thomas pushed each other out of the way to reach Kald. Several guards burst into the room: ten men and their captain.
“Haven’t you done enough already?” Ne’on, who had reached Kald first, shoved Goren away. “Keep away from him. I may yet be able to save him.” As Ne’on began conjuring a spell, Goren stood behind him, stammering.
“No, don’t touch him,” Goren cried, lunging forward just as Ne’on finished. Marcus grabbed Goren, restraining him.
Ne’on looked down with eyes full of sadness. “Too late,” he murmured. Looking up at Goren, the true hatred in his eyes struck deep. “Your poisoned cup killed him. And your interference has just betrayed you, murderer.”
Marcus released Goren and stepped back. “Thomas, go to your room,” he said, his voice think and heavy. “None of your lip now, boy… go.” When Thomas had left, Marcus stared at Goren. “Goren… what reason…?” But there was no reply, only the cold, hard face of the man he had loved for so many years staring back at him.
Goren stared at Ne’on, still unable to believe his father’s death. His vision began to close in, to cloud with water, but he refused to cry. His mind went numb. He stared at Ne’on’s cold, pale face, his triumphant green eyes, and never resisted when he heard Ne’on’s command:
“Guards, take him away.” Goren didn’t even notice the long blonde hair of the captain as they removed him from the hall. Ne’on’s eyes stayed with him all the way to the cell, and when he finally spoke, several hours later, his words were unheard:
“My Lord Keeper Winston,” began Bartholemew, and Ne’on smiled again at the minor pleasure it gave him to hear the phrase. Only three days had he been ruling Gateway, and with protests from no one. His brother still stared at the four corners of his dungeon cell; and Marcus, having lost his oldest, best friend at the hands of one whom he considered his son, stood behind Ne’on simply because he knew not what else to do. It was bound to stop sometime, however, and Ne’on knew it.
“My Lord Keeper,” Bart repeated, fully aware of his lord’s ability to lose himself in thought. This time, Ne’on replied by raising his head and barely glancing in Bart’s direction. Bartholemew handed Ne’on a long dry parchment, rolled up and sealed with wax. “A message from Lord Equiville, of Magnus,” he informed Ne’on.
Ne’on took the scroll, unsealed it, and read it. It read thus:
“My Lord Keeper Winston, of Gateway Keep, greetings from Lord Marcellon Equiville. It is with heavy heart I must inform you of your son Ne’on’s treachery – the murder of Qord, Leaf of the Nar-Enthruen – and request your immediate assistance in confining Ne’on Winston until a trial of his peers can be arranged. In light of recent circumstances at court, of which no doubt you have become aware, it may be some time before the royal duchy can send forth its tribunal. It is the will of His Royal Majesty that you respond promptly to this request, and fulfill His wishes with all your ability.
Lord Marcellon Equiville”
Below his name was the symbol of a cup, horizontally crossed with a single line. It was identical to the seal which had held the parchment together.
Ne’on stared blankly at the stiff, rolled sheet in his hands. “And who is this lord Equiville? What might he have to do with me?”
These were more personal thoughts than questions, but Marcus offered up an answer that would be sufficient for public curiosity. “Marcellon Equiville is the King’s High Magician, or Wizard, or whatever you call yourselves. If he’s askin’ ya ta come study under him, forget it. You’ve got responsibilities here.” Marcus folded his arms under his chest resolutely, adding, “Squirmin’ waste of time, if ya ask me.”
Ne’on stared at the wall with deep concentration. “I think you are right, Castellan. Captain Clay, summon the scribe.”
Bart repeated the command to a younger guard, who then left in a hurry.
“I don’t see why you just don’t write your own reply, Ne’on. Your mother taught you how to read and write, didn’t she?” Marcus’ expression was quizzical, but soon turned to embarrassment when Ne’on stared back at him, painfully remembering his mother’s death in a boating accident when he was just a few years old.
“Castellan,” Ne’on replied in his most haughty voice, “need I remind you to whom you are speaking? In this hall, I am Lord Keeper Winston; not your best friend’s son, but your superior. And it was Goren,” he added, “the treacherous dog who poisoned my father, your aforementioned best friend, whom my mother taught to read and write, not I.”
“Kald’s Scribe, my lord.” The guard’s voice rang out. The scribe stumbled forward, quills, inks, waxes, parchments, and scroll cases filling his arms, and bowed before Ne’on. When Ne’on nodded his head, the scribe stood and took a seat next to Ne’on.
Ne’on studied the scribe carefully, as he did all people. “‘Kald’s Scribe?’” The small, thin man nodded his agreement. “Why hasn’t your name been changed? Captain, why hasn’t his name been changed?” Bartholemew merely shrugged his shoulders, and Marcus answered Ne’on’s question.
“My lord,” Marcus struggled with the phrase. “his title shall always be ‘Kald’s Scribe.’ Your father decreed it so when he founded Gateway. All the best scribes who live in our domain shall be addressed so for years to come, as will Kald’s Healer, Kald’s Blacksmith, Kald’s-”
“Enough, Castellan.” I believe I understand.” Ne’on looked hard at the scribe. “Your first duty then, after I compose my reply to this Equiville person, shall be to formally rename each of the employees who’s title begins with ‘Kald’s-’. I wish them to be named ‘The Ruler’s… whatever.’” Ne’on looked through the scribe for a moment, then continued. “As far as that letter is concerned, take this down. ‘My Lord Equiville, of Magnus, Lord Keeper Winston sends greetings. Thank you for your message. We are already aware of the situation, and Kald’s son is now sitting in our deepest dungeon, preventing him from harming anyone further.’” At this, Marcus turned away. He still had great trouble believing Goren was guilty, but there was only proof against him. “‘Unfortunately, my father was murdered brutally before we could stop him. Please notify milord Cameron Winston, my uncle, of Kald’s death. His ashes have been scattered to the wind, as per his request. Sincerely, Lord Keeper Winston.’”
Marcus excused himself and left the room, leaving Ne’on and Bartholemew laughing to themselves. The scribe, once finished, excused himself to send out the message. Ne’on’s smile grew broader, his eyes a little greener.