Time has passed since the Horde invasion, the collapse of the Empire, and the disbanding of the Ministry. As time is prone to do, our wounds have healed. The kingdoms of the east continue to rebuild but may be strong again one day. The kingdoms of the west – untouched by the ravages of war – thrive under their new regimes. All things considered, the rulers of Issalia could not ask for more.
However, a darkness lingers, hiding amidst our shadows, slipping between them unseen. It has claimed the life of one king and has attempted to take others with it. We know of it, but it appears to know us far better. At such a disadvantage, I fear the plans this shadow will conceive and what bold move might come next.
Accordingly, we cannot sit back and wait for it to strike like the viper it is. We must turn the tide and play the same game or risk losing everything. Thus, I have set in motion something dangerous, and, in that danger, I place my hope – a viper of my own creation. After years of preparation and planning, this viper has been set free in Fallbrandt. It will bring an end to our enemies, or it will take us all down with it. I pray that Issal watches over us.
-King Brock of Kantaria
* * *
A noise woke Everson. He blinked at the dark wall beside his bed, holding his breath as he listened. The rustle of cloth scraping across cloth left the hair on his arms standing on end. When he rolled over, he found a shadow hovering above him. He gasped as a hand clamped over his mouth – the palm smelled of metal and was damp with sweat. The thump of Everson’s heart was a drum in his ears. Unable to breathe, his eyes grew wide with fear.
“Don’t make a sound,” a female voice whispered as the tip of a blade burrowed into his neck…a prick of pain that carried a dark promise.
The blade held still for a moment before the pressure eased. A trickle of blood tracked down his neck as a reminder. Another shadow loomed behind the first. Rough hands gripped him and sat him upright. Starlight through the open curtain revealed Jonah’s empty bed, the covers thrown back against the wall. Where is Jonah?
Before he could contemplate the whereabouts of his roommate, his attackers forced a long strip of cloth into his mouth and tied it around his head. Panic took hold. His gaze darted about the room in desperation but he found no escape. One assailant produced a black sack, drew it over Everson’s head, and the surrounding shadows slipped into oblivion.
The intruders flipped Everson over and held him face down as they bound his wrists together, the ropes digging into his flesh as they secured them tightly. They then wrapped a blanket about him, lifted him off the bed and hauled him from his room. His imagination began to conjure frightening thoughts – images that included instruments of torture and the use of terrible magic.
With each step, he bounced violently as his captors ran down the corridor. They slowed and he heard a door opening before they carried him through. Wearing nothing but his smallclothes, the brisk night air seeped through the blanket and gave him a chill, but even his involuntary shiver was interrupted as they shoved him into a carriage. Air blasted from his lungs as he landed on his side and an aching pain shot into his shoulder. Two thumps of a fist pounding against the wall followed, and the vehicle lurched forward, the momentum rolling Everson from his side and onto his back.
He sensed the warmth of another human beside him. At the same time, he noticed a familiar sweet scent – one he knew well. Oddly, his anxiety eased, and a sense of faith filled the vacuum. She made no sound, but he felt her breathing. They were together, and she was alive.
Minutes trickled on or maybe passed by quickly. He was unable to tell. When the carriage slowed to a stop, Everson wondered where they might be. His mind began working the calculations, but the door opened and someone grabbed his ankles before his thoughts could reach a conclusion. They pulled him from the carriage and hoisted him up again, carrying him by his armpits and ankles as they headed up a short flight of stairs.
Determined to keep his wits intact, he listened carefully for clues, counting steps and making mental notes of the path taken. A door creaked slightly, clicking as it closed behind them. Fifty paces down a corridor, they turned. Another door opened, this one creaking louder, and he felt himself going downward, his body twisting as they descended a stairwell.
Stone scraping against stone made Everson frown, trying to place the origin of the sound. They carried him forward, stopped, and unwrapped the blanket, the warmth it provided replaced by cool, damp air. A grunt slipped past the gag in his mouth when his rear thumped onto a wooden seat. Rope slid across his bare chest, chafing his skin as it wrapped about him three times before tightening until the pressure made it impossible to take more than a shallow breath.
Boots scuffling and chairs sliding on stone tiles reignited Everson’s fear. He tried to move his wrists, to free his hands, but found the bonds tightly secured.
Sounds of movement and shifting briefly surrounded him before settling to silence. The distinctive tap of boots on stone made its way across the room and circled behind him. A hand pressed against the top of his head. The sack lifted away, taking the veil of darkness with it.
Blinding white light invaded and forced him to squint at the intensity. Fingers danced at the back of his head, working the knot until his gag fell away. The dryness in his throat forced him to cough, drawing pain from the pressure of the bonds across his chest. He worked his jaw and glanced about, seeking Jacquinn. Dark gray block walls stood five paces to either side of him. Backed by a shroud behind it, a bright light, white and intense, glared before him. Beyond the bright light were shadowy forms – three people, perhaps more. He sensed that one or two captors hovered behind him.
“Where is my sister? I know you have her,” he croaked.
“Silence!” A deep voice echoed off the chamber walls.
Although the intense light made it impossible for Everson to see beyond it, he knew the chamber was not very big. The sound pattern dictated that the room couldn’t be much deeper than its width. His focus shifted up to the dark wooden beams that supported the low stone ceiling. Under the ground. I’m somewhere underground.
“You have been brought here to answer questions, not to pose threats nor make requests.” The male voice sounded rough, commanding – yet old. “Answer our questions, and Jacquinn will remain unharmed. When we have the information required, you will be released…assuming we find your story satisfactory.”
“What if…what if it doesn’t meet your satisfaction?”
Deep laughter reverberated throughout the room, a laughter that sounded demented. Evil.
“You don’t want to know.”
Everson’s imagination invented a maniacal face for the villain who was speaking, the image hovering within his mind’s eye.
“What we require from you is the truth.”
Red eyes flared from the shadows, crackling with energy. A rune drawn on the floor began to glow, a rune that Everson recognized. The crimson power of Chaos caused the rune to flare brightly, pulse briefly, and fade to darkness. Lies were no longer an option.
“We have been watching you…monitoring your training…tracking your interactions with others. There are things that have come to our attention, things we must validate before we decide what to do with you.”
Dark thoughts – twisted, hopeless, and terror-filled – threatened to dominate Everson’s will. He fought to contain them, to keep himself from withdrawing. In an odd reversal, Jacquinn’s life depended on him. He desperately wished she was with him, wished he could look into her steely eyes. This time, he had to find strength elsewhere. He could not let her down.
“You will tell us about yourself – your story, your life growing up. Everything. Start at the beginning and leave nothing out, nothing that might be of note or interest.
“First, state your name.”
“When you and Jacquinn arrived in Fallbrandt, you claimed to be brother and sister. That isn’t true, is it?”
A heavy silence hung over the room, weighing Everson down. His mind raced at the thought, attempting to divine their intent.
The voice spoke again. “Her hair is a ray of sunlight, yours murky shadows. Her eyes are bright like the sky, yours as dark as the soil below. Who are you, really? Where were you born? Remember that her life depends on your response, and we will have the truth.”
Everson bit his lip as uncomfortable feelings surfaced, rising above the tension of the moment. His eyes lowered to his lap and saw pale thighs – scrawny, twisted, useless. He hated his legs and wished he could cover them, hide them away. Closing his eyes, he shifted his focus to the question posed. For Quinn, he dug himself from his shell of fear and insecurity. For Quinn, he forced himself to speak.
“I…hail from Cinti Mor. I was born shortly before The Horde destroyed the city. My…Quinn’s mother and father were among a small group of citizens who fled the city prior to the attack. If they had not, they surely would have died along with everyone else.
“This group of refugees took shelter in the ruins of Old Kardis. Two days after the attack, Evers Gulagas, along with a handful of other survivors, left the ruins in search of food. It was mid-winter, so the snow was a hindrance, the cold a threat.
“During their journey southward, Evers came across a woman in the snow, lying facedown. When he turned her over, he discovered that she was dead – her skin pallid, her lips blue. She had escaped the horrors of the monstrous army only to fall victim to the frigid weather. Beneath the woman, he found a bundle of rags, and within the rags, he found an infant – cold and hungry but still alive.
“Evers picked me up and wrapped his fur coat around me, holding me tight to his chest to keep me warm. He told the others to continue south in search of food while he returned to Old Kardis. He knew I was close to death, badly in need of warmth, shelter, and nourishment. Since his wife had recently given birth to Jacquinn and was still nursing her, he hoped I might survive if he could get me to her in time.
“Traveling alone, he made his way back to the chamber where they had taken shelter in the ruins. His wife, Polly, fed me and kept me warm. However, they realized that my legs were… malformed. They didn’t know if I was born that way or if it was a result of my ordeal.
“Through some miracle, I survived, and they chose to raise me as their son. They named me Everson to honor the man who saved me.”
Everson looked down in silence. Being the center of attention made him feel more self-conscious about his legs.
“Very well. That answers one question,” the voice from beyond the light responded. “Continue on. We would hear the rest of your story. Tell us of your life, of the path taken that led you to Fallbrandt.”
Everson imagined how Quinn would respond. You don’t need to do this, Ev. You owe them nothing. He smiled at her stubbornness, her spirit. The thought gave him strength. She is right, but I have nothing to hide.
Besides, she needs me this time.
He closed his eyes and cast his mind back, seeking the beginning.
“My first real memories come after my new family moved back to Cinti Mor, during the rebuilding of the city. King Ulric and his men guided the reconstruction, while ordinary citizens helped wherever they were best suited. Being a blacksmith, my father often found himself forging and constructing metal works for the city, often without commission. My mother was a cook for a local inn, working every day from mid-morning through dinner.
“During those early years, I hardly ventured outdoors. My… disability made moving about difficult. As a result, I focused on things like reading and numbers while other children spent their time playing games in the square. There were days when I would stare out the second-story window of my room and watch them run past. Hearing their laughter made me feel lonely…an outcast.
“If not for Quinn, I would truly be alone. She split her time between remaining indoors with me and playing with her friends, often a result of my insistence that she leave me to my own devices. While I cherished her company, I could not bear the guilt I felt when I would catch her glancing toward the window with longing in her eyes.
“And so, my sheltered existence continued until a non-descript autumn evening during my seventh year. My father returned home from his smithy with a gift for me, a gift that changed my life.”