Chapters:

Prologue

He arrived to find his tower unguarded, though it came as no surprise.

Lothar stood before the gated entrance to his private sanctum. It was a modest dwelling, undecorated and insignificant when compared to other private-holdings amongst the other members of his peers…but he had always favored practicality, over showmanship, and the tower he called home was perfectly suited for his needs. It was removed from the more densely populated parts of the city, providing him with the rarest and greatest of all treasures – privacy. The tower was a gift, granted to him long ago by the Lady Isabella Von Kartstain - for services rendered during the Time of the Pox. Standing against the twin moons, the Silver Tower cast a far-reaching shadow across the desolate plaza where it stood, alone. The night was cold, and the streets of Illistrad were empty. The City-Watch would occasionally send a patrol – almost entirely on his account – as Lothar was the only one of any importance who lived this far from the splendor of the noble’s district that lay at the heart of the city-center. However it was late, and it was cold. More than likely, the men meant to be marching the plaza were elsewhere, busy drinking and keeping warm by their fires, rather than freezing out in the cold like fools. Lothar muttered something under his breath, then hugged himself tightly for whatever little warmth he could find, shaking beneath his heavy-wool robes.   

“Where is that damned fool?” he growled to himself. His breath was a white mist, rising into the night in front of his face. He shivered, then began awkwardly fumbling through the inner-pockets of his robes for the tower’s key. “Probably off somewhere drinking again…the twice-damned fool!”

This wasn’t the first time, nor was it even the tenth. Times uncounted now, he’d come to find the same. It was a tired story, played out again and again ad nausea. Arnulf, his nephew and supposed guard, would wait until his master was gone and then the damned boy would sneak off to visit one of the local taverns, or else to grope at women he couldn’t afford at the Alley Cat Brothel. Lothar wondered which one it was tonight. The brothel, he suspected. It had been some time since he’d last caught his nephew there.

If that boy wasn’t family, I swear by all the Gods, I would have had him strung up by his neck to hang until dead.

Too much. He’d promised his sister too much when he’d agreed to take on her worthless son as a possible prodigy. Foolishly, arrogantly, he’d believed himself capable of whipping the pathetic youth into shape. Instead, Arnulf had proven himself woefully incapable of completing even the most basic of tasks. His nephew was lazy, he was stupid, and he was a lecherous drunk to top it all off. There was nothing redeeming about him, save solely perhaps for the silver lining that the boy’s rampant alcoholism would in all likelihood lead him to a very early grave, finally freeing Lothar of his insolence.

And I will be blamed – for failing him!

“Ah, there you are,” Lothar exclaimed excitedly, as he withdrew the silver key from a small pocket in one sleeve. He took one last glance around, considering perhaps that Arnulf had just drank himself into a stupor somewhere nearby. There was no sign of him. “Bah,” he then snapped. “I am done with that fool. Let him rot wherever he is.” He would pay his nephew no further mind. Not tonight, nor ever. There were far more important things to consider than the fate of a fool too ignorant to better himself.

Midland was on the march. Its vast armies were pressing across the torn apart wastelands that covered much of the world now. Their intent was clear. The newly christened Emperor of Midland was a man set on committing his people down a bloody path. The tyrant, as he was known, sought to bring about the second rise of Alethia – in deeds if not in name. Emperor Augustine meant to unite the whole world beneath one solitary power as it had been during the old days. The Emperor claimed that it was the beginning of a new age, one of peace, but Lothar knew the truth. Any rational mind could see it all plainly for what it really was.

War was coming. A dark age of violence and ruin to all the world that stood in defiance of Midland and its mad Emperor.

That, more than the cold, froze him to his core. Illistrad had not fought a true war in some time. His home was a relatively small city-state, neither tactically vital in location or resources to warrant conflict with any of their closest-surrounding neighbors. Their army was small, undisciplined and poorly-trained. In a direct confrontation with Midland there was no room for doubt as to whom would emerge victorious. Midland’s armies would sweep over Illistrad like a plague of locusts, devouring everything in their path. Already, Illistrad’s King sued for talks with the Emperor, and Lothar could not judge him. The man might be a fool, but he was merely desperate to save his city, by any means. There were rumors, of course, of abdication, of total surrender. It seemed even Illistrad’s own King had forsaken their cause for lost.

A good thing, then, that there are those within this city who are not so easily cowed into submission.

His work still offered a hope of salvation. It was a lifeline for his people, a chance for an existence untainted by the evil of Midland. If his research was proven to be true, and Lothar had no reason at this point to doubt otherwise, it would be instrumental in saving what he loved. The King thought him a fool, of course, and most others in the city thought the same. Old age had rattled his brains, they claimed. Too much success had gone to his head, others still accused him. None of it mattered. There were enough sensible men left in Illistrad that Lothar had received the funding he’d needed, despite the idiocy of the masses.

 Just a little bit longer now, and I shall would have the proof I require. Then, everything will change. A far more important matter to dwell upon than Arnful the Fool… 

There were was some still, before Midland’s forces would arrive at Illistrad’s walls. Travel through the Blasted Lands was slow and difficult, dangerous as well. It might be months before the first of Midland’s vanguard arrived. With any luck, Lothar would have time enough to finish what he’d started long ago.

No, he had no more time to waste with his nephew. On the morrow, he would sack the boy and send him home to his mother. He could be her problem once more. The thought of such freedom filled Lothar with a special happiness he’d not felt in quite some time.

A fresh gust of wind brought the biting cold to strike at his face with renewed vigor, and he cursed. He’d lingered outside for long enough, trapped in place by the crushing weight of the world. He pushed his nephew and Midland from mind and headed for the door, but just as he took a step forward, something caught his gaze. There was a pool of liquid beside the gate, frozen almost completely by the cold. Somehow he’d missed it until now. It was too dim for him to make out what it is was. Wine or ale, Lothar assumed, until he peered closer. It became clear it was blood.  

The door to his tower swung open with a heavy crack a moment later, and a dark figure emerged into the small courtyard. Lothar nearly leapt from his own skin at the sudden intrusion of sound. He cried out, and staggered backwards a step, meaning to flee before the figure could reach the gate.

“Uncle?”

 It was Arnulf, a fact that became all the clearer when the boy stepped forward into the light of the moons.

Lothar was unable to contain his fury. “You nearly gave me a damned attack, boy!” he fumed. His heart was bouncing against his ribs, feeling as if it might burst through his chest at any moment. He glanced at the pool of frozen blood again. “What happened there?” he questioned, pointing with one gloved finger.

 His nephew looked down at the sight. “I cut my hand,” he stated. He raised his wounded hand, bandaged and stained with red, to prove it. “My lantern, you see…I dropped it and it shattered. While I was picking up the pieces of glass - it was dark - and I couldn’t tell what I was doing. Not properly, anyways. So I cut my hand on a piece.”

“No doubt drink played a role,” Lothar spat. He sniffed at the air, though the wind made it impossible to tell if his nephew was wrapped in the stench of wine or ale or anything else vile, for that matter.

“I haven’t had a single drink tonight, I swear it. I do!” the boy protested. “It was just an accident. I tripped, that’s all.”

Lothar eyed his nephew with suspicion. It wasn’t like him to be this apologetic. He might have carried on his interrogation, but the night was as cold as ever, and he did not wish to waste any more time out here – especially not with Arnulf. “Oh never mind. Just make sure this,” Lothar pointed at the blood, “is cleaned up by the morrow. I won’t have the doorway to my office stained with one of your mistakes when my guests arrive.”

“Can it not wait until daybreak?” his nephew asked. “I don’t have another lamp, and the cold-”

“It’s always cold this time of year, you idiot. Pull your cloak tight and make do. And open this damned gate!”

Arnulf obeyed, and the gate swung open with a heavy creak.

Exasperated to no end, Lothar pushed past his nephew to escape both his stupidity and the cold. “To think I ever believed I could make something of you!” He almost sacked him then and there. He wanted nothing more than to slam the gate in the boy’s ugly face, but the mess remained, and he would be damned if he cleaned up after his nephew yet again. He was done with such wastes of time and effort.

“But…there’s way for me to see what I’m even doing…besides, the water will freeze before I even-”

"There’s a spare in my solar. You may take that one and then get to work.” Lothar’s tone was biting, and he would hear not a single excuse more. “Come.”

They ascended the tower in silence. Once they reached the top, Lothar set Arnulf to lighting the many candles scattered throughout his cluttered office. He then ordered his nephew to prepare a fire. The chamber was frozen, and Lothar could hear the echo of his own teeth chattering. As Arnulf did as he’d been tasked, Lothar retrieved the fresh lantern, prepared it for his nephew, and set it on the table beside the doorway. Soon enough the chamber was filled with the warmth.

“There’s the lantern, and you’ll find the bucket and well where they’ve always been. I expect you’ll need to heat the water. Fetch the bucket and you may heat it here. You’d best hurry, or else it will freeze before you’ve reached the ground-floor.”

“Might I be able to stay a moment longer?” Arnulf asked him. “Just to warm my hands?”

Lothar almost said no. “Fine,” he instead replied. “Just keep quiet, and stay over there by the fireplace. I need to think, and I won’t have you fluttering about while I’m doing so.”

Mercifully, Arnulf kept his mouth shut as he nestled into a place in front of the fire. Lothar walked to his desk, close enough still to the crackling flames that he could feel their heat, and seated himself. A thousand different thoughts were swirling in his head all at once. He just needed to focus. From under his robes, he pulled out a small, cloth-wrapped, journal. He dropped it on the table in front of him and opened it.   

As he stared at the book that would decide his people’s future, Lothar could feel his nephew’s eyes watching him.

“Uncle?” He started to say more, but Lothar talked over him.

“I asked you to be quiet, and that is what you are going to do, if you are going to insist on remaining here,” Lothar said. “You may, however, chat with yourself all you like in the cold down below, if you’d prefer.”

“No…” Arnulf whimpered. A moment after that, “it’s just…I had a thought.”

“Shocking,” Lothar said. He looked at Arnulf, then waved him on to continue. “Elaborate.”

“I was just curious, if your work is so important, why do you not keep your notes better hidden?”

“You mean besides the vault it stays in, day and night, when it is not being read by me – and me alone?”

His nephew shrugged his shoulders sheepishly. “I know that, but one the Guild’s might provide a safer location? The commons are…”

“Less than ideal,” Lothar finished for him. “I agree, but seeing as the Guild’s charge nearly four times what I currently pay, I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. You know how expensive my work has been, and maintaining this premises and your employment have also been costly.” Though at least one of those things shall change after tonight…I hadn’t considered the money I might save, as well…

“But you found financers? Surely even that proves there are those who believe in your work? That there might be others who seek it for their own ends?” His nephew’s face became deeply concerned. He leaned forward, towards Lothar, and whispered, as if someone might be listening, “Midland has spies everywhere, Uncle.”  

“Those who supported my work were repaying favors owed to me, nothing more. Almost no one believes in my work, or in me, for that matter. I am an old man, and it would seem most consider my time past. They think old age has rotted my brain, and now I chase after something long-gone. Something that shall never return.”

Lothar tapped the journal with one finger. “And so here we are, working in the dead of night, but tell me, nephew, why the sudden interest in these things?”

Arnulf smiled, a warmer thing than Lothar could remember seeing pass across his nephew’s face ever before. “Perhaps I’ve just finally come around to taking an interest,” he offered. “You must admit, it is fascinating. Magic. The Forest Gods. All of it, it’s incredible.”

“How many times must I tell you – they are not Gods.” Lothar flipped through the journal until he came to one of the first etchings within. He raised the book to show the boy. The picture was of a dissected creature in all its gruesome glory. A monster larger than a two-story home, sheared in half and its insides pulled out. It had the body of a wolf, but the head of something closer to a snake. A pair of stunted wings rose from its back, while coarse needles, hundreds of them, grew out of its hide.

“Gods can’t die,” Lothar stated, mild disappointment in his voice. His nephew’s ignorance was a sobering reminder that this was still Arnulf he was speaking to. It had been so long since Lothar had had anyone of any actual interest to speak with. He was shunned by former colleagues and friends for his radical beliefs. He was an outcast, isolated and alone, with only fools to keep him company. “These creatures might be unnatural, but they are not divine. They are of the Old World, the same as manna was. In fact, if what I’ve studied all my life is true, the two are connected.”

Somehow. That part still eluded him. All his research made it clear the God-Beasts (as some lesser minds referred to them as, his nephew, for instance…) were not natural creatures. They couldn’t be. They did not suffer from disease, and they did not age, and die. Unless killed through force, they appeared capable of living forever. Mysteries wrapped in even greater mysteries, Lothar had once said of the strange creatures, and that still proved true, all these years later. They were capable of feats thought to be impossible by the rules of logic and science, and yet they did so anyways.

It had to be because of manna.

Manna was nothing more than a fairytale now, but once it had been real. It had shaped the world, and made Alethia an unconquerable juggernaut for centuries untold. Through its use, the Alethians had risen to heights thought to be previously unachievable. It was also how they had broken the world, and doomed their race to extinction. With Alethia’s fall, so too had manna and the secret of its creation been lost. Again, his mind turned back to the God-Beasts. There was no other logical explanation for their strange powers or even their very existence. The Alethians must have had a hand in their creation, and manna as well. Lothar believed it possible that manna’s return to the world was linked to the mystery of the God-Beasts. Unfortunately, dissections of those specimens previously captured had yielded nothing. No abnormalities or traces of manna were ever found. Something was still missing, a piece to the puzzle that when discovered would allow everything to fall into place.

And so came the last part of his mad plan. The culmination of all his study and sacrifice. An expedition into the heart of the unknown. It was foolish, and it was dangerous, two things he had always sworn to avoid in his life, but there was no alternative. Midland and the Emperor behind it had left him with little time. The world teetered on the brink, and only he could stop what was to come. In the jungles of Nin, there was a chance he could still save the world from itself.

“Is that why you are going into the jungle?”Arnulf asked. “To find one of the…one of the creatures?”

“Yes,” Lothar replied. “That is precisely what I mean to do, and I shall not return without one. If I could capture a living specimen…then I know I can put the pieces together properly. All previous times one of them was captured and killed, it was not done so by men of science. They were hunted down by poachers and simple-minded fools, hedge-knights and princes, all of them seeking glory and a name for themselves, through the murder of a thing they couldn’t hope to truly understand. I am different. I know I can find that which has eluded all others.”  

 “No pressure at all,” Arnulf joked. He never did such things, sober or otherwise.

“Are you truly alright, nephew?” Lothar asked, his skepticism in the boy’s state-of-mind renewed. It was almost like speaking to an entirely different person. He’d been so caught up in releasing a thousand pent-up ruminations, Lothar hadn’t taken true stock of just how peculiar it was to be sharing such any sort of intellectual discussion with damned Arnulf, of all people.

“I’m fine, uncle,” his nephew reassured him. “Might I look at the journal?”

He was about to say yes, but something mysterious gave Lothar pause. He narrowed his eyes, looking at the journal and then back to Arnulf. “You’ve looked at it before. Nonsense, was what you called it the last time.”

His nephew chuckled. “It’s as I said before, uncle, your finally rubbing off on me. I can’t quite say why, but I suddenly find this all quite fascinating. I think I’m beginning to understand your work at last!”

I highly doubt that, Lothar thought. Still, there wasn’t any harm in letting the boy another look, he supposed. Maybe this was the first step to better things for the boy. It’s true, that maybe I’ve been more than a bit crueler to him than was needed. Sacking Arnulf had felt so appropriate only a short while earlier, but now it seemed too cruel an act.

“Come, look all you like,” Lothar said as he offered the journal with one hand. “Just be careful with it. It is a delicate thing, and my copies of the notes are scattered all over. Even a page damaged would take some time to replace”

“Of course, Uncle.” Arnulf approached and took the book from Lothar as if he were receiving a divine gift. The boy smiled while he carefully flipped through it, page-by-page. “Wonderful,” he said. “But…”

“What is it?” Lothar asked.

“How are you so certain you will find one of the creatures? They are known to be nearly impossible to track and hunt. Only by luck have they ever been cornered and killed.”

Lothar grinned. “That, is my great secret.” He leaned towards his nephew. “Would you like me to reveal it?”

 Arnulf nodded eagerly.

“I know how to lure them into a trap,” Lothar exclaimed. “I may be the only man in all the world who does. You see, the creatures are mysterious, and yet, there is some little that we know. They act as protectors of their forests, and it would seem they are specifically focused on maintaining a balance within those lands. They kill the old and weak animals in their woods, and give strength to the healthy ones. They make the trees and plants grow tall and strong, and likewise, they bring fire to remove corruption, such as disease, when it spreads. It is has been documented by numerous scholars, two of whom I know personally.”

“That is my secret. I shall draw out one of the creatures by tainting its home. That, my dear nephew, is how I will do what no others have done before. I will capture what is to many a living God, and then I shall break it open. Its secrets will be mine, and our city will be saved. Midland will be stopped, and this world will be made better. Perhaps, in time, with manna’s aide, we might even cleanse the corrupted lands of their poison.”

“Absolutely wonderful,” Arnulf told him. “To think I was so foolish as to ever call this all nonsense…”

“You were,” Lothar agreed as he watched him. A sense of…was that pride, stirred somewhere inside of him. “Perhaps now you know better.”

“I do,” Arnful told him. “I understand very clearly.”

That was strange. His nephew had spoken – Lothar had watched him do so - but the voice had not been his own. It had belonged to someone else. A stranger’s voice…he winced. A sharp pain suddenly filled his stomach. He looked down, and saw a metal bolt protruding from his side. He let out a tiny gasp, and fell from his chair. The seat clattered away from him, and he landed on his back. A pool of red began to form around the bolt’s shaft.

Lothar looked to where his nephew had been standing, expecting to see someone else with him. Much to his surprise, it was still just Arnulf, alone, only his nephew’s eyes were changed. They were alien eyes, red like blood, burning with hate – with evil. Arnulf raised a hand to his face, and as it passed over his features, they changed. A stranger replaced him, a taller thing, lithe-bodied, with elongated, curved, ears. There was a timeless quality to his pale-white face, belying neither age nor sex. Lothar only knew he was a man by the sound of his voice. His features were beautiful, but marred. A ghastly scar covered one half of his skull, wrapping down to the left side of his chin.

It was one of the Pictish people, Lothar recognized. On one wrist, the stranger wore a miniature crossbow, a small device that had been hidden beneath the sleeve of his shirt. In his other hand. Lothar’s journal.

“H-how…” Lothar managed to ask. He felt blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. Speaking even just that brought new and immeasurable pain. Magic. The Pict had performed magic, before his very eyes. His appearance had changed, his voice as well.

Manna, Lothar’s mind screamed at him. He is using manna! That can’t be possible!

The pale-faced man began to reload another bolt. Once that was done, he raised the journal he held, turning it over in his hand. His cat-like eyes studied it intently, before they drifted back onto Lothar. The stranger smiled, a crueler thing Lothar had never seen before, and then he tossed the journal into the fire where it was consumed. Flakes of ash drifted into the air, raining down like ruinous rain.

“You know how,” the Pict told him.

He approached where Lothar lay, defenseless and unable to move. There was nothing Lothar could do but beg. “Please,” Lothar moaned. “Please, no…” I have so much still to do

The stranger knelt beside him, and then reached out and took Lothar’s trembling hands in one of his own. His grip was powerful, crushing. As he looked up into the Pict’s face, Lothar watched as it began to transform yet again. In mere moments, the stranger wore a new face, though this time, it was not Arnulf’s. This time it was a different one. It was Lothar’s own. 

“Think of it as this,” the Pict who wore his face spoke. His voice was Lothar’s voice; a perfect copy. He raised the crossbow, aiming it directly at Lothar’s temple.

Lothar could not escape his grip. The Pict was too strong, and he was too weak. He tried to shriek, but choked on the blood filling his lungs.

“Your life shall not go unlived.”

He fired.