Sleep did not come easy for Marko lately; his nightmares would not let it. Every time his eyes closed, he saw nothing but red and moving black blurs. There was also a voice; a low, rusty, and hoarse voice.
“You are of the dawn and the dusk; of creation and dust” it said. No matter what he did to run from it, the voice just seemed to follow him; echoing through the air manifold.
“You will be our voice; you will be our sword” it continued. He could never find out where the voice came from, but it never remained in the same place. It simply stalked him no matter where he ran.
“Burn with a flame brighter than any other; fight with a fire more desperate than any death; usher forth a change even the dark will tremble at in awe” the voice finished, but only for a moment. Soon enough, the chant would start over again in that sea of red and black. Each time, the voice sounded closer and closer to him. And as it got closer; so did he become colder, weaker; almost as if he was becoming closer to death.
“ ... - ko? Marko! MARKO!” the voice pierced the red and black and he woke. Above him, pinkish-red eyes looked down to him worried.
“Are you well, my blood? Your bad dreams come often now” Mikhai said in the nomad’s tongue. His friend’s eyes stared down at him filled with concern but his own looked back with caution.
Three days and two nights had passed since that incident aboard the Wind Seer. He had hoped it was all some terrible dream; but if it was, he felt as if he relived it every time he closed his eyes. Everyone was dead aboard the ship save for those two when it finally reached Woln’s docks. With his friend slung over his shoulders, he had fled the ship the very moment it came to a stop in the port; looking for help of any kind. But the moment he got off the ship and turned his back on it to look for help, he noticed that there was not a single person to be found. The entire docks were deserted, strange, cold, and filled with a light fog. When he next turned to face the ship, it was gone without even making a sound or leaving a trace; almost as if it was never there to begin with.
After that, he believed it was just a dream or at least, he wanted to. But the voices in his head whenever he closed his eyes made sure otherwise. The red finger marks around Mikhai’s throat also served the same purpose.
“I’m fine” he told his friend as he pushed them away. With some reluctance, Mikhai gave him some space, sitting down on the snow-covered grass beneath them.
“You say that, but you sleep little and are troubled deeply by thoughts”, Mikhai continued. Marko watched him as he subconsciously began scratching at the marks on his neck. Oddly enough, he had no memory of the entire incident on the ship. As a matter of fact, he believed the voyage ended two days ago with no incident whatsoever and that, as he expected, it was easily earned money. Everyone else who travelled with them, including Arnslo, they all went their separate ways after docking; that’s how he believes the story went. The whole thing made Marko uneasy for him; for what must’ve happened to him for his memory to have changed so much. He even believed that the marks around his neck were caused by some fight he got into at a bar after drinking too much. It’s not unlikely, given his character but how fitting it was only made it all the more unsettling.
“There is nothing wrong, my blood. Just a bad dream, nothing more” he told his friend as he sat up. He even went as far as placing a reassuring hand on Mikhai’s shoulder. After he was told what Mikhai had remembered, he had decided not to tell them anything that really happened on the ship. It would be for the best he figured, less his friend shared in nightmares. Still, that meant refusing to share many things, along with the dreams that plagued him so much since that night.
He got up to his feet and looked to the sky above him; questioning many things from that night. The Falling Sun, a star which looked more like a falling star painted into the southwestern sky, was burning brightly today he noticed. It was a queer star which always remained in the sky and was always visible no matter what the weather was like but today, it was very bright; something which did not bode well with him. To the nomads, the Falling Sun was related to a prophecy of how the world will finally come to an end; in a whirl of fire, once that star finally reached Astaros. And it was believed, that on days where it burned brighter than usual; days like this one, it was getting ever closer. Maybe that’s why these things were happening to him; maybe the world was slowly going to hell.
“A “change that even the dark will tremble at”, huh... “ he told himself in the common tongue. Mikhai looked at him with a curious look but said nothing; instead choosing to take a sip of ale and huddled closer to the fire. Soon enough, a chill crept through him and he brought himself closer to it as well.
Camping outside was the norm for the Blade and Soul Mercenaries, but the two had never travelled this far north before. Turrok existed in constant snow and cold. He didn’t notice it the night they arrived, but the air always carried a chill with it, regardless of night or day; although, at night it was cold enough for water to freeze. So, they both dressed appropriately, being buried under two layers of leather clothing, fur boots, and leather gloves. Mikhai even sported a red long thick cotton scarf he traded for from a trader in Woln and they kept a fire going both day and night despite the possibly alerting nearby beasts or bandits. They found themselves a small clearing surrounded by trees in the nearby Fyrdwood; a small cluster of trees just southwest of Woln. Still, even with all of these precautions, the cold wind still got through the trees as it wasn’t a dense forest and the fire could only do so much.
“A soft warm bed would be nice”, Mikhai grumbled as he tried rubbing his hands together by the open flame for more warmth to enter his body. Marko couldn’t agree more, but all of the rooms within the city were occupied. Apparently, just after they had arrived, there was some raid of sorts within one of the towns of the kingdom. As a result, everyone immediately started flocking towards the capital, Verford castle, an immense grey and black castle of nine towers where the royal family resided. The castle functioned much more like a city all by itself, surrounded by as many or even more houses and buildings than most towns. Despite its massive size, however, the castle closed its gates to any more who sought refuge within those walls. In response, most civilians tried to stay as close as they could to the capital instead; Woln. Had they known, they would’ve booked their room for several days instead of just the one; thinking they would set off for work soon enough. But now, everyone in the nation was scared and desperate to find room for shelter and while the Blade and Soul Mercenaries were indeed adept at combat, it would be suicide to travel now. If what they heard were true, there’s no way two men could hope to fight against a band of men big enough to clear an entire town within hours should they cross paths; no matter how skilled those two men may be. And so, they decided to find shelter within the nearby forest with some supplies until they can figure out some plan of action.
Despite the nation was in a state of alarm, the forest didn’t seem to know it. It snowed heavily and the wildlife within it still carried on without a care. The elk and deer within the area constantly went around, hoofing away some patch of snow to uncover the light undergrowth beneath for a bite. The wildlife also didn’t seem to mind the two either. Once, a deer had even come within feet of them looking for grass to eat. Marko had contemplated loosing an arrow at its head for a clean kill and a hearty meal but decided against it. He knew full well he wouldn’t be able to stomach something as rich and heavy as deer meat right now since the mere thought of flesh and meat unsettles him now. Eventually, the creature ran off on its own accord back through the pine trees. Instead, they had been mainly eaten the fruits that grew wild within the forest. Mikhai didn’t complain either since they had bought ale, along with various other supplies, before leaving Woln at the cost of spending the very little tyles they had remaining.
“Well? What now?” asked Mikhai after a long moment of silence passed between the two. Marko thought on that for a second; or at least, he tried to.
“Yours is a blood of old; of power. So you shall bear the torch. Blood never lies” a voice inside his head told him.
“We stay... for now, at least” he told his friend. He didn’t hear a response to that, but he was sure Mikhai wasn’t pleased about the decision. Like always though, there was never a complaint. They didn’t consider either one to be above the other in their small guild but it was usually him who made the decisions of the group; if his companion did instead, they’d probably never leave Maegyr the moment they reached it. Still, displeasure was plain to see on his friend’s face; and how could he blame them? They were camping out in the cold in a forest which most likely had wolves, with limited supplies and ale, and no brothels or gambling dens in sight. This was possibly the closest thing to hell Mikhai had ever experienced in his life since discovering his love for women, booze, and money; not to mention, he seemed to be gaining suspicious of Marko and the dreams.
“Do not worry, my blood” Marko told him in a quiet voice. “It will not be for long, I promise you” he finished. His friend remained silent and took another sip of his ale with some notable effort not to drink too much at once. It would usually bring a smile to his face to see Mikhai struggle to make his drink last longer but such things were out of reach for him at the moment.
“When the torch is lit, is when the debt is paid; not before” the voice inside his head said. He thought long and hard on those words; on all of the words said that night. They were all in riddles and vague. It made it troubling for him to figure out what was meant; what torch? What light? The only thing that was clear was that the lives of him and his blood were spared only if he did this task; that was the trade. If he failed to do it, however...
“Your lives never were your own, not since the moment you were brought into this world. Should you forget that, I will gladly come to remind you”
The disfigured smile it gave when it said those words came back to his mind, and a shudder crept through him. After that, the creature said nothing more and vanished the moment he blinked and in the next minute, the ship had reached the dock and he quickly got off with Mikhai on his shoulders. His main thought at first was to flee as quickly as he could; to take his friend and flee Turrok through Terindale. And they wouldn’t stop there; they would travel even further south, to Psyren, if they could. He had heard once how they had a special city which was considered neutral to all other kingdoms and a safe haven. There was also that other town that was like by the nomads’ culture, but Mikhai would surely hate it there. He himself wasn’t too keen on seeing the place either.
“This is not a threat, but a promise. After all, I would only be collecting a debt”, came the voice again inside his head. Those words had quickly put a stop to the idea of running. When he thought about it, the idea would’ve been pointless anyway. Whatever that monstrosity was, it had appeared that night on a ship at sea without notice and just as easily disappeared with said ship. Surely, it could do the same thing again no matter where he went; it was not a mortal or worldly thing, that creature. At any rate, he definitely needed more information to find out whatever it was it wanted him to do.
“I will head to town” he suddenly announced to Mikhai. “There is something I must find out. Once I do, then we can leave this place; not before”
“Then let me help you, my blood. Surely, four eyes and ears are better than only two each.” Mikhai replied, standing to his feet.
“No! You will not!” spat Marko with more force than intended. “It is fine. You stay here and watch for bandits”, he said in a calmer voice. A long pause stood between the two for a while, but Mikhai eventually nodded his head as he sat back down on the snow-covered grass. Taking a silent sigh, Marko returned the nod as he began to stand. The entire situation had him greatly unsettled. If I am to keep this secret a secret, I must appear more normal, he told himself as he turned his back on his friend and began rummaging through their supplies.
After a moment, he was equipped with his bow, quiver, and a few strips of frozen bacon to chew on as he travelled back to Woln. It would be a short trip; less than an hour, but he had hardly eaten all day and needed some type of meat for energy should he come across any trouble. Thankfully, frozen bacon didn’t exactly remind him of that scene and so it was the only meat which didn’t threaten to upset his stomach.
“Marko” Mikhai called out to him as he was leaving. He came to a halt and turned to look towards his friend; his every breath frosting in front of him. “Be safe”, he finished. It was unlike Mikhai to say such things and then, that moment on the ship returned to him; that moment when he thought he had lost his friend.
“Always am” he said with a smile on his face. “It’s you who should heed his own words” he finished with a chuckle. Although the laughter never reached his eyes, it at least managed to get a smile from his friend’s lips. For him, that was enough. With a nod of his head, he turned around and set off through the forest of Fyrdwood.
Before even half an hour had passed since he left the campsite, Marko was already within the town. The snow-white city had wide and long streets that were lined with countless lanterns hanging from poles. When he had first arrived in the city, he was not sure what the purpose of the strange lanterns were but once he felt the cold wind and their warmth, he understood quickly enough. Civilians could be seen everywhere as well, going from one stone building to another, carrying out some business but there was a plainly obvious tension in the air. The streets of Woln which once looked welcoming and friendly with its grey stone floor and brick walls now seemed dangerous; like a predator stalking its prey, readying itself to pounce on its victim at any moment.
Many eyes instantly fell on him as he walked the alleys. A nomad was a rare sight in the northern kingdoms no doubt, but he believed it was more than that. And as expected, the whispers started as people hurried to get out of his way and clear the streets and stalls. Since I’m strange to them, they probably think I’m one of the raiders in the rumours, he guessed at once. Still, he did his best to look as friendly and docile as possible although it only earned him cold hard stares.
“Now why would a nomad be this far north, eh?”, a random voice called out. Marko scanned his immediate area, looking for the person who spoke, but everyone only shied away more when he threatened to make eye contact with any of them.
“Don’t suppose you’d be with that lot that’s running ‘bout the place causing trouble would you?”, the voice continued. This time, Marko chose to continue walking down the street and ignore the person. When heat is born from the cold...
“In a hurry, are we?” the voice called out again, closer this time. Soon enough, an outstretched arm covered in a fur sleeve and leather gloves appeared from behind a wall before Marko, barring his path. A moment later, a man of equal height to Marko stepped out from behind the wall; staring him coldly in his eyes.
“That, I am not”, Marko told the man in the common tongue. “Now, if you would mind? I have business” he finished as he tried to step around the stranger’s arm.
“Yeah? ‘n’ we’re just supposed to believe you, are we?” the man said, stepping in front of Marko and blocking his path again. With a quick glance around him, he now noticed that all of the civilians on the street were looking at him with stern eyes now; angry eyes. Even more worrying, was that some had taken it upon themselves to block the path behind him and many were armed with makeshift cudgels, walking staffs, and carving knives. They’re terrified, he realized. Terrified and scared that everyone and anyone is a foe who means them harm. He also noted that there were no guards within the town either which was odd. Now that he thought on it, he had entered through the town’s gates without even being searched or questioned by a guard; something that would be the norm for a city of this size. Surely, the king would know that many of his subjects have used this town as a shelter – So why would he not station troops here to help protect them? As a matter of fact, every town and village within a nation usually had an outpost for guards to use. How else would they keep the peace within their lands? And yet, not a guard was in sight. A troubling thought.
“The same way I’m supposed to believe you’re not with them either. Trust.” was his only response. Although his tone was calm and he meant well, the surrounding civilians still seemed tense and ready for a fight.
“So now you’re calling us the rebels, are you!” shouted out one man in the crowd.
“You’re the only rebel here, with your bow ‘n’ arrows!” went up another cry. Soon enough, all of them were shouting and jeering at him from everywhere. The horde began to enclose around him as threats and insults were thrown around. Marko reached for the shaft of an arrow in the quiver at his waist. He wasn’t exactly sure what he would do with it yet but he would have to break through them somehow or be mauled by the mob. A quick glance around and he noticed an alleyway to his right behind a stall and four people; that’ll have to do, he told himself as two of his fingers held an arrow. Killing anyone would only make matters worse; so instead, if I throw it between those four, they should part so they don’t get hit. With a resigned nod, he held the arrow shaft tight between his fingers and began to draw it from the quiver.
“What is this? Break this up, this instant!” shouted a voice. Marko spun his head around behind him and noticed a man; younger than himself, towering above the civilians on a brown and black spotted mare. The crowd followed his eyes and instantly began backing away slowly, some even bowing as they did. With a slow and steady gait of the horse, the man came forward. On either side of him was a man fully clothed in thick boiled leather and furs from head to toe. Each was also armed with a longsword to their waist where they now laid a hand as they parted the crowd. The young man atop the horse was dressed in finer leather, sporting white and grey everywhere on his cloak which was so long, it spanned over his fur and leather boots. On his back, he carried a bastard sword and on his waist, a longsword could be spotted beneath his cloak. He must be quite the fighter, Marko wagered.
“My apologies, sir” the young man said as he brought the horse to a stop beside Marko. “It seems my people are beside themselves with fear in these troubled times” he continued. It was only then that he was able to notice the crest on the young man’s cloak; the crossed silver katanas of the Trevalyns; the royal family of Turrok. Quickly, Marko got to his knees as well.
“It is of small concern, your highness. Thankfully, nothing became of it” he said as courteously as he could. He knew very little of what type of people the royals of Turrok were, but he knew they had to be tough people to endure the northlands.
“Stand, stranger. I am not king and hopefully would not have to worry about taking my father’s place for many years yet” the young man said. As bidden, Marko stood to his feet as the man remained seated upon his mare. “And thankfully indeed you did not get the chance to use that arrow” he finished with a cold stare on his face.
Marko felt an uneasy as the words seeped through him. Despite this man was clearly younger than him, his words felt as if they carried some weight; some presence of dominance. The young man truly had an air of royalty about him; his well kept black hair which fell to just above his shoulders and his almond eyes which seemed to never flinch all showed it.
“I never meant to harm anyone, prince of Turrok. Only scare them” he replied to the young man while meeting his blank stare. He released the arrow between his fingers and let it fall back into his quiver to help support his words, but he could not tell if he had believed him.
“Well, regardless of whatever your intentions were, such an incident like this should not have happened. Especially this close to the capital. From the looks of it, there aren’t even any guards within the place – I’ll have to see to my mother about that” he said as he looked past Marko and towards the nearby people. “Armen” he called out.
“Aye, my prince?” replied the guard to Marko’s left. Although he spoke to the young royal, his eyes never left Marko; nor did his hand ever left his sword’s hilt.
“See to it that these people disperse immediately. I will also carry on ahead to speak with my mother and send men here with immediate haste. You will be in charge of them and help them make sure these people keep my father’s peace. Is that clear?” he said. Even though he finished with a question, his voice carried a tone of finality with it, as if the man had no choice or say in the matter.
“Yes, my prince” said the man with a swift bow of his head. Reluctantly, he finally moved his eyes off of Marko and began shouting commands at the nearby civilians; almost as if he were herding them like sheep.
“Roderick. You will procure yourself a horse. We leave now for Verford. The sooner we arrive, the sooner I can see about correcting my mother’s negligence. You will find me at the northern exit” he said while looking towards the other guard at his side.
“Understood, my prince” he said with a similar bow before running off between two buildings. Marko was somewhat impressed by the level of loyalty the men showed for the young royal despite they were both clearly older. That only confirmed his beliefs of just how dominant and powerful this young prince must be to earn the loyalty of those men; to earn the fear and respect of these civilians. I’m glad I never got the chance to throw that arrow, he told himself, looking at the hilt of the bastard sword behind the prince’s head.
“If you would excuse me, prince of – “
“No, I will not”, the young prince cut him off. “Who exactly are you? There’s never been a nomad this far north before and with bandits marching about as they please, I’m sure you can understand the suspicion. So why are you here, exactly?” he demanded with a cold stare fixed on Marko.
“Only when the white-one sleeps and the dragon awakens will your debt be cleared. Only then will our trade be completed, nomad”
“Just Merely a travelling mercenary who arrived here at an ill time, nothing more, sir prince” he replied.
The prince stared at the nomad; regarding him closely. “Surely, in such ill times, you must understand that that is not enough. For all I know, you could be purposely twisting the truth. So tell me why I should not arrest you for suspicion of being one of the raiders?” he finished. Right to the point, Marko told himself. His situation which had seemed to be salvaged from the prince’s appearance was quickly turning out to be even worse than just moments earlier. He couldn’t exactly say the truth about his situation; anyone would think he was crazy if they heard his story. And it wasn’t like that monster made anything simple or easy to understand either, so how would he explain that he was trying to send some “white-one” to sleep and wake a dragon?
“I am looking for someone to help me with a personal problem” he finally decided on as an excuse.
“Matters of my homeland are more important to me now than the personal matters of a stranger” the young prince said as he drew the longsword from his waist and pointed it to Marko’s face. “Last chance nomad. Name your business or you’ll be accompanying me to the capital as my prisoner” he demanded.
“A friend of mine is severely injured in the woods just south of here. Fyrdwood”, he began. “I’m hoping to find a healer to bring with me back to the woods to treat him since I fear that if he moves too much, his injury will only worsen” he finished. The lie came to him quickly; something Mikhai would’ve jokingly commended him for.
“And what proof of this do you have, pray tell?” the young prince demanded.
“If you look closely, you can see faint traces of smoke from the forest, sir prince. That is currently where he’s staying. Risky as it is, it helps fend off the cold winds that we are not used to this far north” he replied. He found the best lies contained little hints of truth to it.
The young prince looked to the south and squinted. After a pause, he sheathed his longsword. Did that mean he believed in Marko’s story?
“Your reasons still seem questionable. And while I could go and search the forest for myself, if it is a trap, I am sure to be taken. So for now, I will believe your tale. However, if I am to find out this was a lie, I will behead you myself for it, nomad” he said as he urged his horse into a steady gait past him.
Marko gave a humble bow as the prince walked by atop his mare. Just beneath a whisper, he also released a soft sigh.
“Should you truly need a healer, you should be able to find one within the southeastern part of town; through Stone Prier Alley. Although, I’m not sure how many of them would be willing to leave the safety of their homes and travel into the woods with a stranger right now but good luck to you, nomad” he said as he urged his horse to a gallop up the street. Just like that, the prince had vanished leaving behind Marko and a few others on an otherwise now empty street.
Continuing down the street with no particular direction in mind, Marko found himself once again rethinking heavily on the words of that night on the ship. No matter what he thought of though, none of it had yet made sense to him. Before long, he found himself completely lost on a street that was filled with many beggars and cripples with bowls and cups in their hands. Despite he was a stranger and completely out of place, they all still held out their cups and bowls to him, begging for something; for anything really. To think just minutes earlier, they were moments away from mauling him and now begging for something from him. The thought almost made him smile.
Some of them just sat lifelessly against a wall or each other on the snow-covered floor, almost as if they were too tired to even raise their cans. Others looked so sick and diseased, they seemed likely to drop dead at any moment. The slums within this city were a hard thing to miss, but oddly, he noticed it did not carry any smell with it. The cold, he told himself as he looked up towards the falling snow from the sky. The cold and frost made sure that the smell of disease and death was all frozen; that these people were all so cold, it might’ve been the only thing keeping them alive. Quite an odd thought but not impossible. Simply because a city was close to its capital didn’t exactly mean great fortune for everyone in it after all.
Trying to quickly move through the street, Marko turned his eyes from the beggars. He had nothing himself to offer them and while he did not particularly feel sorry for them, he felt uneasy in a place surrounded by despair. A man in despair would believe he had nothing to lose and was like to do foolish things, he thought. At the very least, it would only be a matter of time before death finally came for them and that would be the best gift any of them could receive at this point.
“Excuse me, could you spare anything for an old lady?” came a voice from behind him. Turning around, Marko noticed a small frail old woman, one of the many beggars. Her eyes, however, were glossy white as if she had no pupils at all. She was blind, he realized.
“Mister? Please. Anything you have will be fine” she called out again. Even if he had wanted to, he had nothing to give her. So instead, he faced in front of him and continued his way onward when he came across a lady dressed elegantly in all white. Despite the weather, her clothing seemed to be made of silk and was very light and thin and she hardly seemed to mind. Her underclothes were noticeable as well when the sunlight shone on her at just the right angle, showing off her curves at just the right places. As a matter of fact, Marko soon became aware that her nipples were completely visible through her blouse and erect. Her hair appeared to be a river of silver water flowing down to and past her shoulders, only coming to a stop somewhere around her waist. Her eyes showed silver as well, although it was only a shade or so darker than that of her hair.
As she walked towards him, he heard the humming of a song coming from her; an unfamiliar and soft melody. Still, it didn’t matter if he could not recognize it; it only added to the beauty of the woman. He had never been like Mikhai; that is, to gawk at attractive women or to lie to them to sleep with them. But for the first time, Marko felt as if he would dare to do such things to get the chance with this one woman.
Without a word, she swept right by him as he stood there with his mouth slightly opened in awe. When he spun around looking to meet her though, the woman was gone. He stood there baffled for a moment, wondering just how anyone could disappear so quickly or be so beautiful. After a while, he decided he must’ve been seeing things, some trick played on him by the sunlight reflecting from the snow or a lack of food or something. There was no race of people in Arincar with silver hair and eyes, he told himself. With a shrug, he spun around and continued to walk the street.
“Ahh... Ahhh! AHHH! The white lady! I saw her!” called the blind old lady from behind him before he had taken so much as three steps. “I do not know how, but I saw her clearly! Thank you! Thank you for this great blessing, white one!” she cried out. And suddenly, it came to him.
“The white-one...” he said with slow realization and dread filling his voice. But ... something was wrong. If the answer is the moon goddess then.
“...When the one white-one sleeps...”
A terrible shudder crept through his body and he felt sick to his stomach.