Chapter 1 - Predestination
Julien Akendrick shivered as he approached the altar. He stole a glance back at Lys, his silent bodyguard. She nodded and stayed in the bushes at the edge of the clearing – the duty at the spirit altar was his alone. Julien turned back to the shrine before him in the middle of the clearing.
Julien thought back to a lecture by his father by the fireplace in his study. This slab of stone, hefted into the middle of a gnarled oak forest, and given ground cleared of roots and weeds, was owed his respect. In Edrin Akendrick’s words, Warriors, farmers, beggars, and lords owe fealty to other powers. His father went on, talking about the powers and protections that spirits granted when properly appeased. Julien listened to that and many other talks about spirits, but he was far more interested in the merits of mortal people. People built cities, learned sciences and mathematics, and their hands and minds shaped the world. Where were the spirits in all that accomplishment? From what he had studied, they caused mischief and granted power to petty warlords. His father and mother worshipped the spirits, however, and he would honor his promise to do the same, despite his doubts about their usefulness.
Julien examined the altar. This was a simple shrine – nothing as elaborate as the great temples of Twilight City or Constana. It was a stone slab, propped up by boulders in the middle of a small forest. Some simple designs and glyphs were carved into the surface, but no one living now could tell their meaning. It had been in this forest long before Julien’s ancestors had founded the manor, and received hundreds of visitors from Torann and the surrounding provinces every year.
Julien didn’t know how so many could stand the place. The shrine marked an opening to the Void, a tear in the boundary between mortal and eternal. No one could see the opening, but its presence tingled at the back of his neck as if someone was watching him. Even the animals and plants of the forest kept their distance – why couldn’t humans be so wise?
He held out the silken bag he carried in his left hand, his offering. He placed it in the center of the altar, his fingers shaking as he opened it. Despite the calm that Julien worked to hold in his mind, his body reacted to unseen dangers, watchers from the Void. He worked as fast as he could so he could leave them to their gift. He drew the items from the bag. Several honey cakes the size of his fist, baked by his mother Sena without help from servants. A dagger of steel and silver, forged and engraved with flowing runic script – the result of Edrin’s forays into blacksmithing over the decades he had ruled Torann. Julien’s offering was next – a winged woman, carved with his pocket knife from driftwood he had gathered from the Southern Coast. He had worked from accounts of seraph in his family library – rare tales of spirits who helped people in need. He turned the carving over in his hands before placing it on the stone. Lacking the skill to carve her hair, he had left the woman bald. The wings were simple as well, looking more like bat wings than the feathered swan wings he pictured in his mind. I will keep my best work, Julien thought. Spirits can take my unrefined drafts.
At the bottom of the bag were coins of silver, minted by servants of the Akendrick household under the authority of the Imperial Minting Guild. Each coin bore the stag and hawk crest of the Akendricks, but was the same weight and size as the standard coins of the Empire. Anyone could use them in trade throughout all the provinces, but their source would always be clear. But these shall not see trade, Julien mused as he laid them out on the stone surface. Unless spirits barter with merchants.
Julien let out a nervous chuckle. The spirits would take the items, but would not use them in any way a mortal might. If Julien stayed at the altar long enough, he could watch the sacrifices fade into nothingness. One book by a Bound Adept spoke of energy from matter, claiming that sacrifices were the source of magical power. Both the items offered and the effort put into creating them were part of that trade, a pact made by the Bound that benefitted the Bound. It was people without magic, of course, who made the actual sacrifices.
Just as he was about to turn away from the altar, an engraving in its stone surface caught his eye. It was a depiction of Ethon the Blessed Spiritlord, the leader of the Companions. As always, the man was rendered as a bearded sage, his sullen eyes barely visible under a thick hood. If the stories were true, the man had summoned seraph and other benign spirits in his quest to defeat the Shade Prince and establish a peaceful empire. If the stories are true, where you now, Ethon? Are you among the spirits, accepting this gift?
“You’re welcome” he muttered to the engraving as he folded up his empty bag and stuffed it in the pocket of his tanned pants.
Julien looked up slowly at the altar, not sure he had actually heard the whispered words. A shadowy outline of a man appeared on top the altar. With the sun now directly above the circular clearing, the shadow made no sense, and Julien found himself blinking several times. It was if the midday light passed around a man-shaped void in reality itself.
He couldn’t say why he didn’t shout in alarm. He was calm as he looked back to Lys and saw that she was still scanning the trees around Julien, as if there were nothing out of the ordinary. He tried to yell out, warn her of the strange being, but instead found his eyes drawn back to the dark form. He wanted to accost the spirit, demand that it explain itself, but his voice left his lips as a barely audible whisper.
“What are you?”
“A partner.” The thing spoke in a monotone that came from all directions at once. “You see me because we are attuned. We are Bound.”
Julien looked back to Lys. Her eyes scanned the area around the altar, and she raised an eyebrow in question. She really doesn’t see it, Julien thought. He shuddered as he turned back to the dark form.
“What do you want?”
“We will be together. I appear as an effect before the cause, a warning of things to come. You will understand soon enough. I grant you another warning too – watch out for the thieves surrounding this clearing!”
Julien snapped his head around. He wanted to ask the being more, try to understand its bizarre words, but its last phrase took hold in his mind. He snapped his gaze to Lys and yelled, “Get the other guards, quickly.”
“Too late!” The black form promptly vanished just as Julien turned back to it.
Julien looked to where it had been, but instead saw four men clad in dark green stepping from between the trees around the altar.
“Julien!” Lys yelled out as she turned to face a fifth cloaked figure looming over her. She drew her short sword from the belt around her chain shirt, and the figure produced a dagger in response. He didn’t strike, but instead watched her blade intently, anticipating her attack. She obliged, launching into a fury of swipes, but the man dodged and blocked with surprising grace for his size. His final parry cut a gash in Lys right arm, and she yelled out as she clutched at it. Julien reached for the blade on his belt, but one of the men had run around the altar to stand between him and Lys.
“Enough!” The hoarse whisper rang through the clearing. The man attacking Lys took a defensive posture while Lys looked between him and the one who had whispered. Blood trickled down her arm as she held her blade ready. She was frantically scanning the three other men as they formed a circle around her and Julien. Julien knew she was thinking the same thing – we are surrounded.
“We slipped past your other guards in the forest,” the cloaked man said, “We saw you put out the sacrifice. We will take it, your bodyguard’s armor, and any valuables you carry.”
The surrounding men drew daggers from their belts as they tightened their circle. Julien steeled himself, determined to get his neck out of this in one piece.
“You are Blackleaves, are you not?” Julien said as calmly as he could manage. “You steal, yes, but murder? I understand you do very little of that.”
The man let out a scoff. “Aye, but only because our marks prefer their lives to their possessions. Which will you favor this day?”
“I favor life, but so should you. You may have evaded my sentries, but they will report to this clearing any moment.”
“All the more reason to hurry up,” the man said.
“All right,” he said, “I’ll make you an offer.”
“An offer!” The scoff became a hearty laugh this time, “Just give us any jewels or coin you carry. You get to keep your life. That is the only offer you’ll get.”
Lys moved closer to Julien, watching the men around carefully, looking for a chance to strike. Julien knew she was simply biding her time, waiting for the rest of the guard to return.
“What if I did not report your presence in this area?” Julien said, “What if you did not have to run from my father’s sentries, his militia, or the Imperial Army? You could stay in this forest for a few days, so long as you do not harm any locals.”
Julien heard quiet murmuring from the trees behind him. He was barely surprised – of course there were more men, and he could imagine them sighting him down drawn rifles or crossbows.
“You could have waited and taken the offering. You must be desperate, hoping that we have more coin or valuables with us. But if you take my bodyguard’s armor, you will never leave this forest alive. More guards will be here before you can have it. However, I do carry some silver – worth far more than her armor, I promise. I’ll give it to you, and you take the offerings from the altar. Leave us unscathed, and you will not be pursued.”
The leader of the men slowly lowered his blade. “We might like that offer, if we could trust you.”
“There is no time left for that,” Julien stated, “I will remove my blade – do not be alarmed.” He reached for a scabbard on his belt. He drew another silver dagger, allowing everyone around him to see as he held its hilt outward. The dagger was much like the one he had placed on the altar, but with even more intricate runic writing lining the blade.
“I may not know much about the value of silver,” Julien said as he held the dagger for all to see, “But this, along with the other on the altar, should bring enough coin to feed your men for quite a while. It’s not much use in combat – more of a good luck charm and a last resort. You will have to melt it, of course – any merchant in these parts would know it as my father’s work.”
“And you will just pretend you didn’t see us?”
“See who?” Julien said feigning a shrug, “You have my word as the heir to Akendrick Manor.”
“The sentries are near!” came a harsh voice from the trees.
The leader sheathed his knife in his belt, and quickly grabbed the offered blade. He then turned to Lys. “It seems I must trust you to keep the same word, guardswoman. My apologies for your injury.”
He gestured to the others around the clearing, and they lowered their weapons. One cloaked figure dashed to the altar, scooping up the other dagger, the coins, and the cakes. Then all of the figures vanished into the forest, making no more noise than the gentle autumn breeze.
Julien went to Lys, taking his arm in his hands. He inspected the cut, blood coating his fingertips as he pulled up the sleeve of her armor and the cloth underneath. The sound of galloping hooves grew in the back of Julien’s awareness as he inspected the depth of the cut.
The Captain of the Akendrick House Guard appeared before Julien and bowed quickly. He rushed to Lys, quickly checking the cut on her arm. He nodded solemnly as he inspected the wound.
“You’ll be fine, Lys,” Captain Tristain said, “Just the outer skin, no deeper. I’ve got a tourniquet for the blood, but report to the infirmary when we get back. Clean it well.”
“Of course,” Lys said with a quick nod.
“Captain Tristain,” Julien said, “We were accosted by brigands. They took the offerings and tried to get our belongings, but they ran off when they heard you coming.”
“How many were there? Which way did they go?”
Julien shook his head. “I can’t say. There were a half score, maybe, but they ran right after attacking Lys. I was busy making sure she was okay.”
Tristain nodded. Julien knew Tristain would also have helped Lys or any of his charges rather than give chase to an enemy, especially if the enemy were merely frightened brigands.
“I will scour the forests within a half-day’s ride of the castle. We will find these thieves and ensure they don’t harass others.”
“Captain, I don’t think that’s necessary,” Julien said. Inspiration hit, and he quickly devised a reason not to pursue the Blackleaves. “We want to be ready for the Emperor’s arrival. Keep the guards and scouts close to the castle and the roads, especially the route from Twilight City. Make sure the Emperor is safe, and that nothing happens near the castle while he’s here – we can’t afford to divide our attention over some worthless brigands.”
Tristain raised an eyebrow, and nodded a slow approval as he considered the plan. Julien could simply order the Captain, but Julien preferred to have Tristain understand the logic. Soldiers were more loyal and easier to manage when they understood their orders. That is true of anyone under your command, his father’s voice said in his mind.
Finally, the Captain nodded. He went to the altar and picked up the seraph sculpture – the only offering left. He placed it down again as he said, “I do not carry any coins now, but I can bring some this evening and make another offering.”
“I suppose that will be well,” Julien said, “Perhaps the favor of the spirits will prove useful.”
“Can’t hurt.” Tristain’s shrug brought a small smile to Julien’s face. Tristain rarely mentioned the spirits except in curses, and Julien suspected the captain shared his doubts about spirits and their helpfulness.
Tristain walked away from the altar, and Julien followed him to the road out of the forest. Lys stepped in place beside Julien, a white tourniquet now tied around her forearm. Men on horses rode ahead as Akendrick Manor came into view on the horizon. Tristain stayed ahead of Julien and Lys, while three other guards followed several paces behind. Lys came close to his side and whispered as they walked.
“Why did you make that pact with the thieves?”
“The Blackleaves aren’t enemies. Mostly petty thieves or former slaves, doing what they must to survive. I doubt they are the demons the Imperial Guard makes them out to be.”
“Sounds a bit like treason.” Lys said. Julien looked at her, but her glare betrayed no feelings.
“Would you have them imprisoned? Executed?”
“No. But I will not suffer a similar punishment in their place, either. If Captain Tristain questions me, I will not lie.”
“Of course not; I will not ask you to. But I doubt he will ask – there are far more important matters at hand.”
“Indeed,” Lys said, “Look there, on the road to the north of the manor.”
Julien looked to where she was pointing. The trees beside the wide path had dwindled away as the path sloped down into a vast grassland that surrounded the stone wall around Akendrick Manor. The intersection of the path through the forest and the great cobblestone roadway leading north of Akendrick Manor was clearly visible a quarter-mile ahead of them, and Julien could make out a caravan surrounded by a score of men on horseback moving quickly down the cobblestone toward his home.
“Can’t be,” Julien muttered, “It’s a fortnight too early.”
“Who else could it be?”
Julien nodded, but his mind was distracted from the obvious conclusion. He could not forget the empty thing, the dark form on the altar under the bright sun. Even with Emperor Kraval’s personal caravan and Imperial Guard closing the space to Julien’s front gate, he couldn’t shake the encounter from his head. Julien, Lord and Lady Akendrick, and all of the Manor guards and servants would be forced to focus on attending to the old Emperor now. The spirit, however, remained in in Julien’s mind, a splinter that had worked its way too deeply in to be removed, demanding attention away from pressing matters. Spirits be damned, Julien thought.