A Labyrinth of Light and Shadows
The king was really old. He had been king for a very long time. He took the throne when he was thirteen, and now he was 85. He had been wise during his time, even led the country to victory in the past, participating in battle himself. But those glory days were long past by, and all that was left of this king was a weak figure and a mind slowly descending into madness. He was King Cunradus Marquart.
King Marquart had no son that could inherit the throne. Next in line would have been his younger brother Hermannus Marquart with already 72 years old. He was even madder than his older brother though, and for that reason the people of the kingdom did not see him as a proper heir to the crown. It was thought that he did not even know that he was next in line.
The king was going to die pretty soon, that was no secret, and for that very reason there was the need for an heir to be declared. People did not see Hermannus as a good option, so for that reason there were several other pretenders for the crown going around. However, the law stated that the next king should be the actual’s younger brother. That did not deter many of their ambitions nonetheless.
The old king was resting one evening when his wife, the much younger than him Apollonia, encountered by chance the successor to the throne.
“Lord Hermannus! I didn’t see you standing there, you surprised me.” Said Apollonia after being startled. She was abandoning her husband’s quarters.
“Excuse me, queen Apollonia, that wasn’t my intention.” Said Hermannus in a tired voice. “I was just heading to my lab down at the chambers. I am conducting several researches and experiments. I think I might have a clue on uncovering the secrets of the wonderful craft of Alchemy!”
Apollonia tried to disguise her annoyance by smiling, though it came out as fake. Hermannus however did not notice, he was too concentrated in yelling out his theories as if no one could be able to hear his voice.
“Sorry to interrupt you, Lord Hermannus, but I need to go and see my son. He is expecting me. I will see you around. Good luck with your research.”
“Sure, sure, go ahead, go ahead. I am running late as well. The secrets of Alchemy will not be unveiled by themselves!”
They both parted in different directions. Every time she spoke with Hermannus she felt uneasy, even upset. There was something about that old man that bothered her. And to think that by law he was going to be king when her own son –son of the queen- could not become one. The unjust laws of this country.
Caleb was sitting in his small room when his mother arrived. He was not allowed to have a room in the upper areas of the castle as a normal prince would, and he was not allowed to have a bigger room either.
“My son…” grasped Apollonia upon seeing him.
“Mother… it’s good to see you.”
They embraced for a few seconds before letting go. They loved each other. There was nothing Apollonia would not do for her child and the same went the other way around. That is why she had ambitions for him to become king someday.
“I saw your uncle on the way here.” She said seriously.
“How is he?”
“I think the old bastard is going crazier by the day. He is sure he will discover the secrets of alchemy.”
“That old idiot… he is still practicing that black magic bullshit? I cannot believe that the Elder’s Council will allow someone who engages himself in such taboo matters become king one day.”
“Alchemy is not illegal in our country, Caleb. It is frowned upon, yes, but there is no laws broken by doing it.”
“Still I can’t believe that they will let that bag of nuts become the king when father dies. I should be the king! Me, not him!”
“Calm down a little, Caleb. Mommy’s working on that.”
The law stated that if the king had no rightful heir to the throne, that is a naturally born male child, the throne would be handed to the next male in the line of his family. Caleb was Apollonia’s son, that is true, but he wasn’t Cunradus’. He was a bastard who was adopted by the king when he married Apollonia, but there was no blood relation amongst them. Therefore Caleb could not sit on the throne. Nevertheless, Apollonia and her son had other plans.
“…And with that I declare this new generation officially graduated!” the voice of the old Guido Lancellus, the head of the academy and the Azmar village, exclaimed as the excited and somewhat nervous young graduates listened attentively.
Azmar was a village in the north eastern part of Royaume, almost at the border. It was small, but it was specialized in the training of warriors who were keen on the use of powers of Seidr, or magic as known to the populace. These abilities usually manifested at a young age, around five or six, then at age seven are taken to Azmar to receive their training. Only a small part of the population developed Seidr. Many wars in the past benefitted from this power, that was until a king long ago decided to restrict the use of it to a certain amount of villages at the borders with the purpose of fighting invasions, rather than using the Seidr users as weapons. Kids who are raised in these villages are instructed in the arts of sword fighting, archery, hunting and, of course, Seidr dominance, and they are set to become the protectors of the realm.
Amongst the newly graduated was the young Evrardus Maminot, who had barely made it through the academy but had finally graduated. It is not as if he was a bad student or had no motivation, he probably had more motivation than anyone else, the problem was his control of the abilities. He had great potential, even Guido recognized that in front of him, but he was never capable of dominating his powers. However, through his determination he was able to finish his course. His mentor, Petronius Odo, was proud. Since his childhood he had looked after Evrardus, he had saved his life when he was just a kid. He had taught him the use of his abilities –or magic, as common folk and ignorant people called it- the best he could, even if his control over it was not that strong.
“So you finally graduated Evrardus…” said jokingly Petronius after the ceremony, “I honestly thought that it was never going to happen…”
“Laugh all you want,” he answered back in a good mood, “but almost everybody from my class was my age. Only a couple were younger, and perhaps some older, but fifteen seems like the average graduation age. Even that prodigy Johannes Dacre is fifteen, so you could say I am on his level.”
“Haha, don’t get too cocky, Johannes was top of the class, the best in years or so I’ve heard.”
“He comes from the Dacre family, so what?”
“You really don’t like him, do you?”
“It’s not that I have anything personal against the guy, it’s only that he is very arrogant like if he was better than everyone. That doesn’t play well with me.”
“Ah, don’t worry about that, he will pretty soon learn what is real life on this village. And so will you, in a couple of days’ time you will most likely be in your first mission. And I will tell you a secret but you have to keep quiet about it…”
“Yeah, of course I will, tell me.”
“I think that I will be assigned as your superior, that is you’ll be on my team.”
“Really? That is great Petronius! I have learned so much from you, and I hope to keep learning!”
“Yeah, well, don’t get too excited. It is just a possibility, it is not confirmed yet.”
“Yeah, yeah, don’t worry, I’ll keep quiet. That’s great! Hey I have to go now, so I’ll see you around soon team leader!”
“What did I tell you to not get worked up about that?!” But Evrardus could not listen to him, he was already far enough.
On his way home Evrardus stumbled upon another student from his class, a girl named Avelina Daunger. He was not paying attention when he crashed unto her.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I didn’t see you! Huh? Avelina? Haha, I didn’t know it was you.”
“Hi, Evrardus,” she said coldly while she bent over to gather her books that had been dropped because of the crash. Her eyes showed no expression.
“So, would you think that we have finally graduated? Pretty soon we’ll be going into missions and stuff! Aren’t you excited?”
“Right… so, I’ll see you around. Good luck on the future!”
Throughout his education he had seldom interacted with Avelina, most likely he had never held a real conversation with her. She always looked so… so… he didn’t know a word that fitted her. It was something like emotionless but not exactly, distraught but not quite so, cold and yet not really. She was a very gifted warrior and Seidr user actually, one of the best he had seen. But there was something a little unsettling about her. He didn’t give much thought about that and went home.
The heat in Naporia was considerable and Domenico Zilio could hardly bear it. He could not believe he was obliged to come to such a city far in the south, and much less the assignment he had been given by the king himself: investigate the movements of a man named Aloysius Donato, the leader of a new religion that was rising in these territories. It seemed ludicrous to him to see this man as a threat, but the king believed so, and he had the obligation to do as the king said. It was not that he was happy to do everything the king asked for, but he had to… he had to. Otherwise things might get unpleasant.
“You must be Mister Zilio,” he turned around to see an older man with a kind face smiling at him, “please come with me.”
He did as he was told without speaking a word. The man was dressed in a light brown robe which fell to his feet. Around his wrists he had two funny looking bracelets with a piece of black jewellery hanging, and around his neck there was a necklace with the same strange jewel. This man was a priest of the so called new religion, but he wasn’t Aloysius Donato.
“My name is Girardus,” he said with his friendly tone, “master Aloysius told me to pick you up. He said you were very interested in joining our small movement. What sparked that motivation if you don’t mind I ask?”
“Let’s just say it’s a heart-burning curiosity.”
“Ah, I see, well come with me please, we have arrived.”
They had walked to the back of a tent, probably twenty meters wide and five of height. Domenico could hear a man speaking. Girardus created an opening in the fabric of the tent through which he waved Domenico to enter. He did and he encountered a view not so common from where he came: a big crowd of people –probably two hundred- gathered, sitting silently as a tall man who appeared of around forty spoke with great oratory skills.
“Brothers and sisters,” he was saying, “the world we live in is no more than a mere illusion. We have to realize this and walk into the light. We are in this place because a battle for our souls is taking place without us knowing it. The lord of light Ubros is fighting bravely for them, but it is our job to decide where our loyalty is with. If we are loyal to him then in the afterlife we have guaranteed divinity. Otherwise we will condemn ourselves to eternal shadows.”
Domenico was not particularly religious, but the words of this man worked hard on his brain, and if he wasn’t that much of a sceptic in all these matters he would probably had been convinced by this man with an excellent speech. This man was Aloysius Donato.
After the preaching Domenico was approached by the mysterious leader.
“This is Domenico, master,” said Girardus when Aloysius approached.
“Ah yes, I’ve heard a lot about you. My name is Aloysius Donato, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
He wasn’t particularly good at this sort of situations, but he forced out a smile and shook his hand.
“The pleasure is all mine, Mister Donato. I have been hearing a lot about the furore caused by your new religion that I wanted to see by myself. That was a great speech.”
“Ha! Thank you, that is very kind of you. So curiosity brought you here?”
“Well, I have always wanted to find answers to my questions,” he lied, in reality he couldn’t give a damn about this sort of things, “and when I heard about this I felt something like… I don’t know, but I felt identified with it. I had to see what is was all about.”
“Well, you’ve come to the right place. I am sure you’d like to hear about the greatness of Ubros and the power that lies within every one of us.”
“Oh yes, especially that part about the spiritual battle for our souls. That got me intrigued.”
“Yes, I will tell you everything about these things. Please come with me for a cup of tea.”
“Do you have any wine?”
“Well I seldom drink alcohol, only when it’s absolutely necessary, but I am sure there are a couple of bottles somewhere here. I’ll have them picked up.”
Ditmarus Marquart had just returned from his archery practice and headed to his room. He was Hermannus son and inside his head the notion that his father would become king soon was becoming a reality. King Cunradus’ illness was no secret, and the next in line was his father. However, he knew that his father’s mental state was not the best to lead the country, so basically he would soon take over for his father when it became clear the situation. He fancied the throne for himself.
On his way up to his room he met with his sister Libeste. They were a little estranged, perhaps even more than a little. They did not hate each other though, it’s only that their differences and their pride didn’t let them get along. For all Ditmarus knew, basing himself on some comments and allusions made by his sister, Libeste fancied the crown as well.
“Ditmarus! It’s been a while since I last saw you.” She opened with a touch of false friendship.
“Libeste, hello,” he continued with the same tone, “how have you been?”
“Good, pretty good, I suppose.”
“How are things with your husband?”
“Oh, well, you know Wilhelmus. He is a little dim-witted but he has a good heart, and is a great swordsman.”
“Well I don’t know about that, the last time we sparred I beat him.”
“That’s because you don’t play fair, Ditmarus, and you know it.”
“It’s not me who doesn’t play fairly…”
“Haha, I won’t get into discussions with you, brother. Anyway, have you seen uncle lately? I’ve heard his health is worsening.”
“No I have not been able to see him recently, unfortunately, but I hear that as well.”
“You know what that means, papa will become king in the terrible chance that King Cunradus dies.”
“I am well aware of that.”
“And you might also be aware that papa doesn’t have the mental stability for being king, don’t you?”
Ditmarus remained silent.
“I don’t think it is the best option, as terrible as that may sound. Don’t you think we must consider another possible heir?”
“Don’t give me that bullshit, Libeste. I know you well enough to recognize when you have something in mind. And as I know you I am pretty sure that the person who you would consider fit for the throne is not me, the natural heir next in line.”
Libeste’s smile grew even bigger. “I am just speculating, dear brother. And why wouldn’t I want my brother to assume the leadership of this kingdom? For all I know the only person capable of doing so is you.”
“Don’t think I’m stupid enough to buy those words, little sister. I just hope your plans don’t spoil the kingdom as I know they can.”
“Do you really think I am planning something?”
“I know you are. You probably will use your charm to sit yourself in the throne.”
“Haha, brother, you know nothing about me at all. The last thing I’d like is to find myself at the head of this land. Trust me, being king is not a job for a woman.”
They spent the next thirty seconds in silence but without breaking eye contact. They knew each other too well, they could smell the other had a plan soon to take action. Libeste kept smiling and Ditmarus maintained his serious expression.
“Oh! Look at the time!” exclaimed Libeste suddenly, “I need to be somewhere else. It was nice talking to you, brother!” She took off.
“Yeah, the same to you,” Ditmarus said in an unconvincing tone, but his sister smiled and walked away. Something was not right, he thought. If Libeste was not planning something then surely she had one in mind at least. She had the same thoughts as him about the throne, and surely she was, just as him, trying to figure out a way to sit on the head of Royaume.
“It’s official, Evrardus!” said Petronius happily, “I will be your team leader!”
“Great! Ha! I knew this would happen!” said Evrardus eagerly.
Three days had passed and the teams had been organized. In Azmar for small missions such as recognition and patrolling teams of four were usually formed. The newly graduated students were usually gathered in groups of three and then paired with a warrior with more experience who would be their team leader and master as he helped them develop their abilities. When a team is formed that means that their first mission is already assigned, and if they work well they probably become regular teamers, but it wasn’t a fixed affair.
“That means we already have our first mission, doesn’t it? What is it?”
“Relax, Evrardus, you’ll find out soon enough. Don’t you wanna know who will be in your team as well?”
“That’s right, who else is on our team?”
“That girl Avelina Daunger. She is very skilled and very disciplined. I’m sure she will be an important part in our mission.”
“Avelina?” Evrardus muttered the name as his mind quickly swept through all the times he had interacted with her. They were few, but every time he had had a very strange feeling of uneasiness. It’s not as if she was evil or anything, but rather that her expressionless face kind of made him uncomfortable.
“Yes, as I said she is very skilled.”
“She is a bit strange and I have never spoken much with her, but I guess it’s alright. I think I heard she is a very skilled water sensible, and that will be useful in the future I suppose.”
“That’s right! I heard she can control an aquatic environment greatly for a girl her age, not to mention that she has great control over earth environments as well.”
“Yes, I suppose she will be a good partner. Who is the other one?”
A grin appeared on Petronius’ face, a grin of a man who knew what was coming would be a little awkward.
“Come on, tell me!” insisted Evrardus.
“The other member of our team will be… your best friend, Johannes Dacre.”
“Haha, I know you don’t really like him, but he is a very skilled warrior, and his control over thunderbolt is one unmatched by any of the graduates this year.”
“But he is so arrogant and annoying!”
“I know it will be difficult to work with him, but you have to keep in mind that we are a team and will have to work together.”
“I guess so…”
“By the way, how is your fire domination going?”
“Well, not much for domination. Sometimes it goes overboard and others nothing happens at all.”
“Control of the environment was the most difficult part for you at the academy.”
“Yeah, but that is the most important part in Seidr.”
“Well that is true, so you need to keep training. Plus, you are very skilled with a sword.”
“Yeah, well, I suppose so. Now will you tell me what’s our mission?”
“Okay then, I will tell you. Have you heard about all those assassinations going on at the village?”
“Yes, something about it. I’ve heard that some scientists have been killed in the past couple of weeks. What about it?”
“Well, there is a possibility that the person committing all the murders might be lurking in the forest of doves near the village. We are tasked to making a reconnaissance of the forest and then report back.”
“Really? I thought you were going to say to hunt the killer down.”
“We actually might encounter him. If that’s the case I will face him alone. But let’s not discuss the details of the mission right now. Your team partners will soon be here, we’ll talk about it then.”
“Oh great, my team. The weird girl and the cocky guy.”
Domenico was lying on the bed of the room he had been assigned at the local hostel. Aloysius had taken care of it so he hadn’t spent a single cent. He had three meals a day, a place to sleep and to go to the bathroom. He really didn’t need much more. He still didn’t like the idea of doing this job.
He was smoking his pipe when he heard a strange noise coming from outside. He stood up from his bed and looked outside the window. In a nearby alley he saw –to his disbelief- a strange blue light coming from within it, followed by a muffled scream.
“What the hell?”
He went out of the room, not before grabbing his dagger, and headed outside. He probably shouldn’t follow the strange noise nor the suspicious light, but his curiosity got the best of him, and besides he had been a trained soldier in the past, no thug could beat him. He went to the same alley he had just seen. There was no light but he could still hear something, like some mumblings in a strange language. His heart started beating very fast as he got near. The air was dense and the presence of something malign –if you could call it like that- was heavy. As he reached the final wall of the alley he saw some men further inside a circle of stone. There were six of them: one was tied up, bloodied and screaming insanely stuff Domenico didn’t recognize, the other five were surrounding him. In front of the bloodied guy there was standing mightily Aloysius Donato. He was the one speaking in a different language, holding his hand up. He finished his sentence and a bright red light came out of his hand. At the same time the bloodied guy started compulsively moving. His head jerked upwards and a red light came out of his eyes and mouth as he yelled something in the same language Aloysius previously spoke on. When the light had extinguished his head dropped down to his chest and he coughed up blood. Domenico didn’t know if he was dead or not. He saw Aloysius and the other five men untie the bloodied man, who dropped immediately into the floor.
“Well done, gentlemen.” Aloysius said to his men.
Domenico didn’t know what he had just seen, but he knew something out of the ordinary had happened before his eyes.
Just when Aloysius and his men were preparing to leave –one of them was carrying the bloodied man on his shoulder-, facing the other way from which Domenico had come, the religious leader spoke calmly, unsurprised, but with a firm voice:
“Mister Domenico, how nice of you to join us.”