The King of Aestriana, Ahmaal zel Reethkilt, awoke from his sleep in a frigid sweat.
So. You’re awake.
The voice caused him to jump abruptly. The king frantically raised up and retreated to the headboard.
“Who’s there?!” he yelled in ghastly terror.
It is only me.
King Reethkilt shifted his eyes around the room. In the vague moonbeams that dared peer in through the window, he saw the silhouette of a man sitting in the far corner of the room.
“How did you get in here?!” he yelled once more.
There is no need for yelling, Your Majesty. The guards cannot hear you.
The figure extended a hand to the open window.
The wind brought me here. He paused. You know all about it, don’t you, Your Majesty? You hear the Voice of the Winds, after all.
The man dropped his hand to his lap, or so it seemed in the pervasive veil of blackness.
Do you hear that distant breeze? That faint elegy?
The king’s bed was soaked in his sweat; his old heart beat in his ears.
“Who—? Who are you?”
The figure remained still, its posture reclined and comfortable.
Your Majesty, I am, the voice paused, the End of the World.
Rain gently caressed the gray stones of the Zerlina monastery. Brother Claus strode frantically down the halls, holding his long robe away from his feet as if it were a dress.
"Nox! Where are you, you devil of a girl!" he raged so loudly he could be heard through the thick, wooden walls.
"He's at it again." One nun smiled at another.
"That orphan girl is going to be the death of him," the other sighed in reply.
"Brother Claus,” said the withered Bishop as he held out a hand to stop the outburst, “what is all of this shouting about? You're making everyone worry about you."
"Where," he gasped as he doubled over, "is Nox?"
The Bishop scratched his chin with his long, bony fingers.
"I believe I saw her with Lukas this morning.” He snapped his fingers. “Yes, that’s right! Why? What is the yelling about?"
Brother Claus contorted his face into a sour frown.
“I have specifically told her not to associate with him!” he said through gritted teeth as he stormed off.
He could feel the jeering glances of the other clergy as they pierced his skin.
That girl is always getting into trouble, he thought, why couldn’t she just do as she was told. She’s always with that boy—that...that fool! They were probably playing knights again. He’s a bad influence, that Lukas! And she’s probably wearing her new dress, too!
The rain pattered against the stained-glass windows; Claus whispered curses as he opened his umbrella to step outside.
“Those words don’t suit a holy man, Brother Claus,” a soft voice caught him as he passed by.
“Hello, Sister Helga...” he groaned.
“Nox again?” she said.
Claus rolled his eyes. “What do you think?”
“She’s off playing with Lukas, but I’m sure you already knew that.”
“I can’t believe she’s off playing with that ruffian!” Claus fumed.
“Oh, he’s a good young man.” The nun smiled. “And who knows, maybe one day they’ll even fall in love.”
Claus’ eyes grew wide.
“Nox!?” he called frantically as he rushed out the door and away from the soft laughter of the nun.
Lukas watched as an airship flew overhead. He marveled at its sleek, metallic hull. It was a majestic sight, even in the rain.
“Yo!” Nox said as she waved her hands in front of his face. “Are we gonna fight or are you gonna spend all day in Lukas-Land?”
“Lukas-Land, probably,” he smiled as he looked into her mismatched stare.
Her left eye was a bright crimson color—a stark contrast from her right eye, which was an icy blue. The other orphans certainly kept their distance, blinded by whatever superstitions they had about it—but, to Lukas, the vividness of the red was rather...pretty.
“You’re such a ditz, Lukas!” Nox laughed as she pointed her stick at him.
“Ready?” he said.
Without another word, Nox rushed forward. Lukas prepared his stance as she suddenly closed in, swinging wildly. Quickly, he blocked her attack, keeping his eyes on her feet.
Any second now...
With one giant swoop, she jumped as high as she could in the air, bringing her wooden blade down like a great hammer.
Lukas quickly sidestepped without blocking, causing her sword to drop lower than she had expected.
“No—!” she exclaimed vehemently.
Lukas pushed her lightly on the back with his free hand. Nox swung her arms frantically to regain balance. Mud splashed on the tips of Lukas’ shoes as Nox hit the soggy ground.
“How do you do that so easily?” she griped as she shook the mud off of her hands.
“It’s all in the footwork.” Lukas held out his hand to help her up. “Balance, Nox. If you’re unbalanced, even if it’s slight, you can lose your footing. Like a tree. If your roots aren’t sturdy, you can be pushed over.”
“LiKe A TrEe,” Nox said derisively, a grin across her face. “Know-it-all.”
She took his hand, then tried to rake the mud from her long, pitch-black hair.
“Again!” she said as she pointed her pretend sword at his face.
“Only if you wanna lose again!” Lukas pointed his sword at her in return. “This time, think about your footwork!”
“I’ll make you eat all of that advice,” she smiled darkly.
“Sure you will!” Lukas said sarcastically.
“I will!” Nox said as she charged forward.
“Nox!” a voice thundered. Nox stamped her foot into the ground in a vain attempt to stop and slammed into Lukas.
“You get over here this instant!” Brother Claus demanded, as he stormed toward her. “What in the world are you doing?!”
Nox smiled nervously.
“M-me and Lukas were sword fighting.”
“S-sword fighting?!” A ghastly expression cast over the monk’s face.
“Y-yeah, and I almost got him, too!”
“Ladies do not sword fight!” Brother Claus said as he shook his finger. “And just look at what you've done to your white dress! It’s covered in mud!”
Nox hung her head.
“I’m sorry, Brother Claus.”
The monk took firm hold of her arm.
“Come with me right now, young lady!” the monk glared at Lukas. “And what of you, boy? Are your chores done?”
Lukas suddenly turned pale under the monk’s frigid glare.
“I thought as much,” he snapped, “get to it!”
“I’ll get you tomorrow!” Nox called back to Lukas as she was dragged away to the cathedral.
Brother Claus pulled her arm tighter.
“When I’m through with you, you'll be lucky if you even have a tomorrow!”
Lukas sighed, watching the two bicker back and forth as they disappeared into the monastery.
He picked up Nox’s stick and decided to walk back as well.
The sanctuary was spacious and ornate. Lukas lazily swept the stone floor, his eyes drifting towards the altar. There, in the center of the shrine, was the fabled blade—the Sword Durandal—lodged in a giant stone.
There’s no telling how old the thing is, he thought as he stared at the tarnished, chipped blade. Looks like it would turn to dust if anyone even touched it.
Sweeping the sanctuary had been his chore ever since he was a child, and now a teen, he had grown accustomed to doing so. The space wasn’t as vast as it seemed when he was a child—but it might have been that he was smaller then.
He stretched his arms and looked upward to the ceiling of the cathedral. The glossy wooden buttresses arched to uphold the artwork that depicted the Legend of the Sword in the Stone. He had always been told that the cathedral was built around the rusted relic in ancient times, but he knew vaguely of the myth behind the artifact.
It was something about a philosopher king, who was some big-time churchy-Inquisitor-guy..
...or something like that.
Lukas only knew of the Inquisition from the conversations between the monks and nuns, most of which he had vaguely overheard.
They’re like, wizards, right...?
Or, are they more like priests...?
And they live on a mountain or something...?
He really didn’t know for sure.
Maybe one day I’ll meet one. At least then I could ask.
The sounds of the rain created a white noise as it hit the grass outside—a siren’s song that beckoned the orphan to shirk his duties and step outside.
The overcast sky accentuated the flora into a vivid green. Lukas looked out into the forest that surrounded the monastery. It was like an encompassing wall save the small road that supposedly led to the city below. He’d never seen anything outside of this little area. Surely, he thought, he would be able to leave one day. He must leave! He and Nox. She always said she wanted to become a knight, and the thought of her small frame in an overgrown suit of armor always gave him a laugh.
But. What if not? What if I’m stuck here forever? Then what? Would I just be a monk or something?
Lukas shivered at the thought.
“Daydreaming again?” A soft voice startled him. “Is that what she means by ‘Lukas-Land?’”
The orphan turned to see Sister Helga, her lively smile betraying her worn features.
“I guess so,” Lukas said, scratching his head. “I’ll get back to work.”
“Who won today?”
“Yes. In the sword fight?” the nun laughed, “Who won?”
“No one, really.” Lukas scratched his head bashfully. “We were just playing.”
The nun chortled.
“You two like being with each other, don’t you?”
Lukas turned his face to the rain; he felt the chill of the small droplets on his skin.
“Yeah,” he said softly. “She’s my best friend.”
The nun smiled.
Lukas stepped back through the doorway and ran his hands through his long, wet hair to keep the water from his face.
“But Brother Claus isn’t really a fan...”
The nun put her hand on his shoulder.
“It is not that he dislikes you, young man,” she began, “he’s just austere. Ever since he found Nox in the woods, he’s been a bit...overprotective of her.”
Lukas nodded at the nun’s attempt to console him, but he knew that what she said wasn’t true. Claus did dislike him. He could feel it.
“You’d best get back to cleaning again.” She said as she walked away. “I don’t want you to get scolded on my account.”
Lukas watched the frail nun slowly approach the doorway.
Her soft grin illuminated her face.
“No problem, Lukas.”
Brother Claus rubbed a soapy rag on the white dress to no avail as Nox sat on her bed in a fresh change of clothes.
“What have I told you about associating yourself with that boy?” Claus said, his anger now subsided.
Nox looked at the floor solemnly. “I like playing with Lukas. He’s my best friend.”
Brother Claus let out an exasperated sigh.
“You’re already fifteen years old. I am supposed to raise you to become a proper lady, and I can’t do that if you’re always running around doing such—” he paused for a moment and shook his head, “not-ladylike things.”
“I don’t like ladylike things,” Nox retorted. “They're boring.”
Brother Claus inhaled sharply and then exhaled slowly, calming himself.
“You are an orphan of this monastery,” he started, “and under my guardianship, you will be a lady.”
Nox thought of living the rest of her life acting all proper in dresses and gagged.
A silence hung between them.
“Brother Claus?” she asked softly.
“Is it true?” she paused. “Is it true that I fell from the sky? Is that why the others won’t talk to me?”
”It is true,” the monk nodded, “you did fall from the sky; I found you in the woods and brought you here to raise you as my own. You’re my miracle child, Nox—you’re my gift from the Aeons above.”
“It’s because one of my eyes is red, isn't it? It scares the other orphans, doesn't it?”
“I’m sure some might find it curious, but there’s nothing wrong with you.”
“Lukas doesn’t mind my eye. He’s never seemed to be scared of it. All the others say mean things. They’ve always said that I'm a witch, or that I came from witches.” Claus could see a faint despair in her eyes, the slight glimpse of a hopeless girl. “But Lukas, he’s never said anything mean.”
“Now, now,” Brother Claus said as he stood, “don’t think too hard on it, and make sure you get your chores done.”
“Brother Claus?” she said. “Why don’t you like me playing with Lukas?”
“Because—” he stopped to find the words, “because he plays rough. I want you to grow to be gentle and elegant, not some knight or sword-wielder. I want you to be proper and refined.”
Nox imagined her life as a knight or sword-wielder and smiled. She could only imagine the excitement—much more than being all fragile and proper all the time.
She sighed, realizing that the monk’s opinions were absolute.
“Yes, Brother Claus...”
“It’s almost supper time. I want you to clean this dress until it is spotless.” He opened the door, then paused. “Now, I need to return to my duties. Be good, Nox.”
Claus closed the door behind him.
Nox fell backward onto her bed. She watched outside of her window as airships zipped through the air, going and coming from the city of Zerlina, the city beyond the walls of the monastery—the city she’d never seen.
The one she felt she’d never see.
She could hear their faint hums vibrate through the window pane.
A bird in a cage...
...and she knew it was true.
The dull stones of the monastery floor were cold to Nox’s bare feet. Several of the other monks and nuns passed her in the hallway, some of them leading other orphans to their classrooms. She could always hear their whispers as they turned their eyes away.
Nox knew she was different; she had always known.
The washing room was more a courtyard with a roof and a large water fountain in the middle. Nox wet a towel and began to scrub the white dress. The mud stains that were splotched all over the white laces were stalwart, and, eventually, she got the hint.
The white dress was ruined.
“Returning from mischief again?” a soft voice spoke from the doorway.
Nox turned around to see Sister Helga.
“I guess I am.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Brother Claus sure seemed to think so.”
“Off sword fighting with Lukas again?” the old nun chuckled.
“Yeah. Brother Claus says he’s a bad influence.”
“Claus is just a bit high-strung. He overreacts too often.”
Sister Helga sat beside her and soaked her own towel in the water.
“He just wants to raise you to be a good person. That’s why he’s so hard on you. You’re like a daughter to him. You’re his miracle child, he says. He simply wants what he thinks is best.”
Nox gritted her teeth as she began to dig the cloth into the soiled dress. The room was quiet all but the sounds of swishing water and faint birdsong.
“You and Lukas are close, aren't you?”
“Yeah. Lukas is my best friend. He’s the only one that will talk to me. Because...” she trailed off.
The nun smiled.
“Because of your eye?”
Nox turned her eyes to the old nun. Sister Helga’s face was soft despite her old age.
“Well,” the nun said and began cleaning her own clothes, “sometimes the world is cruel to those who are different. In those times, we must stick to the ones who accept us. I understand why Claus is so hard on you. He merely wants you to end up well in the long run.”
Nox hung her head as she slowly stopped scrubbing. She placed the dress in her lap.
“But,” the nun said, “a true friend is a most valuable thing.”
She reached over and took the dress.
“I’ll clean this for you. You run along.”
Nox looked up at the nun. She could see a grace in her worn brown eyes.
“Of course!” she winked. “But it has to be our secret!”
Nox smiled stupidly.
“Thank you, Sister Helga!”
Morning light filtered through the tall windows of the Church of Mhyrmr, the headquarters of the Inquisition. Stained-glass colored the rays, which blossomed onto the stone tile.
Underneath the high buttresses, a crimson-robed Inquisitor with a cane casually limped across the mosaic. He made his way to the door beside the altar and began to ascend the spiral stairs, holding his arm against the cold walls to help balance himself.
The corridor at the top of the stairs was lit with etherlamps of blue flame. The Inquisitor hobbled down the hall until he had reached the ornate door at the end.
“Master Inquisitor, requesting entry,” he laughed as he knocked.
There was a moment of silence.
“Oh, Eldric,” someone replied. “Come in! Come in!”
Eldric smiled and opened the door, which he always considered much lighter than it appeared.
“I do wish you would take your position more seriously,” said the Archbishop as he sat at his desk amid a forest of papers.
“Don’t be so austere, Marven.” The Inquisitor smirked as he hobbled over to the chair and sat down carefully.
Marven scratched his head of graying hair.
“I assume you know why I summoned you?”
“No clue, as always.”
“Well.” Marven took a sip of his drink. “It’s because of a special request.”
Eldric reached into the pocket of his crimson robe and pulled out an ivory tobacco pipe with a bear engraved upon it.
“It’s a bit of a long story,” Marven said, “but I’ll keep it quick.”
Eldric lit the pipe, puffed, then blew out a perfect ring of smoke.
“Eizen Zilheim, Mirea’s current Prime Minister, has asked us to seek out a certain fugitive that he believes has escaped to Aestriana—heading to the town of Zerlina, we believe.”
Eldric coughed as he ran his fingers through the smoke.
“And what does King Reethkilt think of the venture?”
“Well,” Marven said, handing Eldric a folder thick with papers, “I think he wants the criminal to disappear just as much Zilheim does.”
Eldric opened the file and perused through the reports.
“’Iago of the Thousand Swords...’” he mumbled to himself. “He looks awfully young. What would you guess?” He scratched the side of his face. “Twenty years old?”
“He is rather young,” Marven concurred. “However, I wouldn’t underestimate him. He’s an adept mage—a prodigy even. Probably why Zilheim came to us.”
“So young to be an international threat,” Eldric mumbled as he puffed his pipe.
“Well,” Marven began, “from what I gather, he’s a revolutionary in the civil war taking place between the Elves of Mirea and the Beastfolk of the Folke Lands.”
“But, he’s not of the Beast Tribe?” Eldric raised his brow, smoke spilling from his mouth.
“No,” Marven yawned. “He’s definitely an Elf, which is even more the reason to be extra careful.”
“What exactly,” Eldric yawned as well, “did he do? This is the first I’ve ever even heard of him.”
“Well,” Marven sipped his drink, “according to Elven authorities, he murdered the Prince of Mirea in cold blood.”
“Mirea...” Eldric paused, “had a prince...?”
“It’s the first I’d heard of it as well. The Elven King of Mirea is a rather...” Marven tapped his fingers on his desk. “Anti-social and...eccentric man. Not only that, but the Elves of Mirea have long dissociated from the Church. That said, I wouldn’t put it past King Mirea to have an heir and not tell us about it.”
“The mystery intensifies...” Eldric said with a chuckle.
“Indeed.” Marven shrugged. “How he even escaped his captivity is also an enigma. According to witnesses of several guards, the door to his underground cell was still locked even after his escape. It was as if he simply...” the Archbishop said as he waved his hands in the air, “disappeared.”
“What an interesting place to go, too.” Eldric concurred.
“I sense that there is more to this than we can perceive.”
Eldric stroked his white beard as if distracted. “Isn’t that the location of the Sword Durandal?”
Archbishop Marven swished his hand dismissively.
“So, you wish me to inquire about the situation?” Eldric asked as he blew another ring of smoke.
“I would send another, but the whole thing seems shady. That is why I am sending you, the Master Inquisitor himself. I will be sending your knight along with you,” he added. “The half-Elf, Snow.”
“I would take no other,” Eldric chuckled nonchalantly.
“Very well. I’ve already arranged your airship. Check in with the Bishop of the Zerlina Monastery—see what he knows. It is about a day’s journey to Zerlina.” The Archbishop sipped his wine. “That is all.”
“Well.” Eldric slowly lifted himself from his chair and limped to the door. “I’ll be off.”
Eldric made his way down the stairs and out of the sanctuary. He slowly limped down the breezeway. The mountain air blew the flowers that decorated the courtyard, carrying their aroma with it. He stopped and stared out into the sea of clouds. It was a sight he loved, a perk of being positioned on the highest mountain in all of the continent of Lythia. When he was a child, he might have thought it peculiar to see clouds below him rather than above. But now, as an old man, not much surprised him anymore. He breathed in a deep breath as he leaned upon his sturdy cane. He never worried about the dangers of his position. The Inquisitors were a sect of the Church charged with the protection of the common world from the terrors of the supernatural, but, honestly, the thrill of danger had grown old to him.
“Master Inquisitor.” A voice from behind pierced his thoughts.
Eldric exhaled and turned to see a tall, blue-haired, young woman in armor standing at salute.
“Snow!” he chuckled with a smile. “Just out of the training yard, I suppose?
“I was ordered by the Archbishop to accompany you to Zerlina,” she said, smiling, “as always.”
“Of course!” Eldric laughed. “There’s no finer knight in all of Lythia.”
She sighed at his praises, but she knew at least he believed them. She knew he respected her, and she knew that she respected him. She had been his knight for as long as she had worked in the field, and, the more she had thought about it, the more she realized that his unspoken bond with her was more paternal than professional.
The two walked at Eldric's limping pace down the breezeway and into the airship hangar. Many were coming and going in the aerodock, which filled the air with unintelligible noise. Eldric nodded to his fellow Inquisitors who responded by frantic salute. The two passed several docks until they reached one with a large airship. Eldric slowly approached the gargantuan vessel and breathed in the misty air.
“Ah! The Airship Orca!” he said as he beheld the metallic gears and steaming pipes, “I never get tired of looking at her.”
“Yes, sir,” Snow agreed. “She is a wonderful sight.”
“Master Inquisitor!” a voice called out from among the surrounding noise.
A man hurried over to them, his solid black uniform decorated with medals.
“Hello, captain,” the Master Inquisitor said casually.
The captain stood at salute. “It appears I will have the honor of piloting her once again. The travel to Zerlina will be a day and about a half in duration. Archbishop Marven has already prepared your things and all other arrangements. We are ready to disembark when you give the signal.”
“Well, let us begin.” Eldric shrugged.
The captain turned promptly and motioned to the crew standing behind him. Once inside, Eldric, trailed by Snow, followed the Captain to the cockpit.
“Zerlina is a large trading town in southern Aestriana. It has never in its history been graced with the presence of one of your status.”
Snow helped Eldric to his seat.
“Southern Aestriana, you say?” he smiled. “I hear it’s quite beautiful there this time of year.”
The city of Zerlina was loud with the sounds of commerce as a hooded man slithered within their midst. No one noticed as the figure slipped past the crowded market stalls and into a garden in the back alleys. Concealed by the hood of his cloak, the slim man stopped.
Now prowling the solitary garden, he removed his hood to reveal his youthful face and Elven features.
“You called?” he said into the air.
Suddenly, a black cloud formed in front of him. The cloud lingered for a few seconds, then, out of it walked a large, muscular man. The Elf took a moment and studied him. He was gargantuan, his skin a deep blue. It was obvious he was one of the desert people, a Darkling from the country of Abdiah.
“Iago of the Thousand Swords,” the large man said in a deep voice, “you have arrived.”
“The one and only,” Iago said with a theatrical bow. “What do you want, Agnon? Why did you bring me to this dump?”
Agnon turned his piercing green eyes to the sky and took a breath as if he perceived something no one else could.
Iago watched him impatiently.
“What—?” Iago began.
Agnon held up his large hand to silence the other. “She is here.”
“I see,” Iago concurred. “Then when must we go retrieve her?”
“Not yet,” Agnon paused, “but in short time.”
“What are we waiting on? Hasn't your ‘Master’ grown impatient?”
Agnon waved his hand to calm the young man. “The Master Inquisitor has not yet arrived. You are the bait. We must wait for the fish to bite.”
“Very well,” Iago shrugged dismissively, “I await your orders.”
Iago hooded himself, left the garden, and was soon nameless among the crowd of faces.