The empire is on the road to ruin, the Church has abandoned its people, the gods have broken their pact with the mortal races, and an ancient evil has returned to the land. The only hope the mortals have to survive the coming war is the heir of a long-dead hero. Each person has their part to play as the Golden Seer returns, and there is nothing they can do for the dance of souls has begun.
The Chronicles of Maethus
Of Ash and Blood
Book One: A Dance of Souls
By: W. T. Anderton
The Golden Plain had been named through the observations of simple tribesmen in simpler times. They saw that from afar the wheat had a golden color to it and thus gave it a name to match. It was the Empire of Alinor's most abundant source of wheat and other crops. The only people who lived here outside of the Walled Cities were farmers and hermits. Dran Grimverse was familiar with the beauty and simplicity of the Golden Plains. He had even written a song about it when he was nothing more than a bard. Now he was a soldier, and the Golden Plains were stained with red and black.
From a hill overlooking a flat field Dran could see men and women fighting. He wasn't entirely sure why these people were fighting. All he knew was he had been forced to take part in it, and had somehow wound up here. He remembered the speech given by Captain Jorin Euldrich, the seven days of march before that, and all of it leading to the bloody and hellish charge. Steel and flesh had crashed together, a feeling he would never forget.
Somewhere within the chaos came a flash of blue light. A mage had survived. Dran couldn't tell if the mage was with his side or with the enemies. At this point it didn't much matter. There was no winning army in this battle. He looked over what remained of the battlefield and estimated perhaps one-hundred soldiers alive for both sides. Most of those survivors were retreating. Still, some knights continued to duel until the moment their bodies gave up. Other mages also fought on, using up what little energy they had left to hopefully ensure their side victory. Only Dran, from his hill, knew all of their efforts were in vain.
“No one ever said death was a beautiful thing,” a voice said. Dran turned around to see a man dressed in a heavy robe. The hood of the robe was pulled up, casting a shadow on the man's face, though his eyes shined with a blue glow that marked him as a powerful Mist-mage.
“There have been a few bards and fools throughout history who have tried,” Dran argued. The man laughed and stepped closer, standing beside Dran and looking out across the field.
“Do you think the gods are cruel for giving mortals the means to kill one another?” That was an odd question for one stranger to ask another. He thought for a moment, letting his eyes go back to watching the field, and remained silent. No sort of answer came to him. The man laughed again. “I suppose silence is the best answer anyone could give to a question like that.”
The stranger did have a point. Even if among familiar company Dran would not have been able to answer that question. He had remained faithful to the gods, following the Church as his parents had raised him to, but he had never thought of the gods as things that could make mistakes or be blamed for anything. Even today he had prayed to the gods to give him and his companions guidance and strength. Some men would have had their faith shattered by a thing such as this. Dran personally did not give the matter any thought. If they were meant to die then the way of the Church says it was the plan of the gods. He could not and would not question it.
Dran turned to the stranger. “I do not remember seeing you in the battle, on either side. Who are you?”
“I am the one some would say is responsible for this tragedy. Death is my responsibility. It is my hands that turn the pages of the Book of Names.” The stranger looked to him, his blue eyes intense. They were brighter than Dran had ever seen them in a mortal mage. It supported what this man was saying. “I am the Mist-born Thade. Mortals commonly refer to me as the god of death, and for that I am both loved and hated.”
Dran was silent for a moment. His teeth ground together, and his eyes searched the shadows of the man's hood. No matter how hard Dran looked he saw only those blue eyes. “You cannot expect me to believe you are a god without proof.”
“I would be disappointed if I could convince you so easily, Dran Grimverse.” The stranger held his hands out in front of him. Magical energy gathered in his palms, molded together, and took physical shape. In seconds the magic had become a book bound in blue leather, the pages colored yellow with age. The man opened the book and flipped through the pages. He stopped on a page and turned it while pointing out Dran's name in a list of men who he knew had died that very day.
“Are you trying to tell me I was meant to die today? I was raised following the laws of the Church. I know what it means when a man avoids the Mist when his time has come. Take me away if that is what you have come for.” The man made no response. He simply pointed at the page again.
Dran looked again and watched as his name faded off of the pages completely. If what the man held truly was the Book of Names, there was no longer an account of him being alive or dead. In the eyes of immortals and mortals alike he was, for lack of a better word, immortal. He still had his doubts however. “Any experienced mage could conjure up a book and make a name disappear. You'll have to try harder.”
A sigh passed from the man's mouth. He closed the book and lifted a hand with his palm facing Dran's chest. A single moment of clarity passed where all Dran could feel was magical energy swirling around him in an unbelievable amount. If this man was mortal than he could be even more powerful than a Seer. All of that magical energy made him feel dizzy, and then it was all sent blasting through his chest. Dran's nerves flared up throughout his body. He tried to scream while he still could, but the blast had destroyed his lungs. This was no trick. His vision was growing dark and the ground was getting closer.
Dran caught himself with his hands, falling to his knees. He coughed up a large amount of blood. It did not look good, but at least the pain was fading. People tended to say that the pain went away just before you died. He waited, but death did not come to him. “Stand up, Dran Grimverse. You are fine.”
A quick check with his hands showed that he was fine after all. The wound was closed. Organs, bones, muscle, and flesh had all formed back together. He laughed and stood, but fell silent again when looking into those blue eyes again. “Either you are a very powerful mage, or you aren't lying. I suppose I'll humor you for now. If you are Thade, then why would you come? The gods promised to never interfere with the affairs of mortals.”
“We did promise that, but we also put an exception into place. Should the Ancients break free from their prison and return, the gods are then allowed to take steps to fight back.” It took awhile for Dran to realize just what Thade meant. He shuddered at the thought of the Ancients returning. Though he was several hundred years too young to remember the Ancients personally, the stories told to children and adults alike were enough to make anyone rightfully fear them. Thade noticed his shiver. “Do not fear, Dran Grimverse. The Ancients have not returned yet. We are merely here to ensure they do not return by making use of certain people such as yourself.”
“Such as myself? What do I have to do with this?” Thade turned around and began to walk away without answering him. Dran felt his hands clench into fists, his teeth grinding together. “Why tell me this and make me immortal if you won't tell me what to do?”
Thade stopped then. He lowered his head, remaining silent for a few moments longer. “Follow Jorin Euldrich wherever he goes and your part in this will become clear. A dance of souls is about to begin, and I hope for this world's sake that you can keep up with the music.”
Gromn stood outside of the Red Seer's study, taking deep breaths. The news he was meant to deliver to the Red Seer was good, though it was also a cause for concern. Jirran Euldrich, father of Jorin and Thorin, was known to be a gentle and kind man on most days. On other days he was one of the empire's most frightening mages. Gromn was comfortable claiming Jirran as one of the world's strongest mages, but he had never seen much outside of the Six Great Nations.
“You can't stand out here all day, Dwarf.” Gromn turned to see Bedoler Motte, a member of the elite Red Guard, standing beside him. He couldn't say how long he had been standing there with him, or even how long he himself had been waiting in front of those oak doors. Bedoler leaned in close and spoke in a hushed voice. “The trick is to pull on the handle. It might also help if you knock first.”
“I know how to work a door, Manling!” Bedoler backed away with a smug grin on his face.
“As you say,” he said as he checked his sword and dagger hanging from his belt. Gromn watched for a few moments. He knew that the Red Guards were in charge of the Red Seer's safety, but that was only half of their duty. The other half included protecting the people from the Red Seer should he become corrupt and break from the Circle. Gromn understood that Bedoler was preparing himself not only to defend the Red Seer, but to kill him too should the need arise.
The dwarf offered a prayer to the Sleeper as he entered the study beyond the doors. Bedoler went in with him, shutting the doors while Gromn approached the Red Seer. Jirran Euldrich was a handsome human, even in his age, with a sharp face and a head full of black hair. Those he shared with his two sons. The only difference Gromn could see between the Red Seer and his children was due to their mother. While Jirran was a native of the Empire of Alinor, the boys' mother had been an Erisite. Her deep blue eyes had passed down to them, marking them among a population with mostly brown or green eyes.
“What is it this time, Gromn? If I don't hear something good I'll have your skin flayed off and made into a map so you can find your way back home.” Jirran Euldrich stood from his desk, turning to acknowledge the dwarf and his guardsman. His expression seemed dark for a moment. Then a smile broke out and his eyes focused on Bedoler. “How was it?”
“Better, Sir. I doubt the Black Seer will be so tempted to make threats against you should he hear you say things such as that.” Jirran laughed and slapped Gromn on the shoulder.
“Sorry if I scared you, Gromn. I've just been practicing some threats I've come up with to see if they'll have any effect.” Jirran took his seat again, turning the chair so he faced the two men. “Was there something you two needed me for? Perhaps the city is in need of saving? Or maybe the Circle's found another Red Seer and I could go on one last adventure before I die. Please tell me that's it!”
Gromn bowed his head. “Nothing to do with you, Sir. It's about your son Thorin. Results have come back from his mentors and my own tests.”
Jirran grew serious at the mention of his son. Gromn took comfort in knowing that when business was serious Jirran could act like it. He took another deep breath and began to speak. “Thorin has exceeded what we expected from him in the elemental magic of fire. It's common knowledge that your family specializes in fire magic so we thought nothing of it. We assume he was merely meant to be a gifted mage. Further tests showed he had skill in all magic. It was at that point that I dismissed the mentors and conducted further tests myself.” Gromn stopped, afraid of how Jirran would react to the final words he needed to say. Already he seemed amazed.
It was not uncommon for mages to show potential in several elements, or in other types of magic, but it was a rare thing indeed when that potential included every single type of magic. “I believe your son might be the heir of Isa.”
The room was silent for a moment. Jirran smiled, being the first to speak again. “I had a dream just before Thorin was born, and I saw him doing what I thought was impossible. It was only after I heard of a prophecy that I began to suspect that of him.” Jirran lifted his head and closed his eyes, seeming to meditate as he recited the prophecy. “He who is kissed by snow shall come down from the north, riding upon a beast to wage war. He shall be the heir of Isa, the one destined to defeat the heir of Dia. Through their actions the Ancients shall rise again, and the Dance of Souls shall begin.”
Though the dwarfs were never firm believers of the religion of humans, they knew too well the threat that the Ancients posed. It was said that the Sleeper would reawaken on the day the Ancients returned, breathing new life so that it may fight to defend its people. Gromn had always prayed he would not see that day himself. Now it seemed much more likely that he would.
Bedoler stepped up, hands folded behind his back. “If your son truly is the heir of Isa then I say his safety is the most important matter at the moment. Shall I place some of the Red Guard with him?” Jirran nodded his head, and Bedoler was out of the room faster than Gromn had thought was possible.
“The Yellow Seer and Green Seer are arriving tomorrow to meet with me. I'll speak to them about this, and have them deliver the news to the rest of the Circle. Hopefully the White Seer will understand why I choose to remain here.” Jirran stood from the chair and looked to a window. “One of my sons is off fighting some war while my other is destined to battle Ancients.” He laughed, though it was not a sincere sound. “I once asked myself if the gods were cruel when they took my wife away. Now I think I've finally got my answer.”
Jussin Eddonstern stood with his back facing the altar and his face to the small congregation between him and the doors of the church. A priest stood with three of his acolytes just behind him, offering prayers at the altar and lighting candles of various colors and scents to burn the prayer slips given to him by the people. The priest went about his duties as if he were in a trance. Jussin did not blame him. If he had to do the same thing everyday then he would grow bored with it as well. It wasn't like his current position was any better than the priest's however. His only duty as the knight-templar of this church was to protect the priest and his acolytes from any physical threat. In return they were to defend from all sorts of mental and spiritual threats such as demons, wailers, imps, and especially the dreadmen.
“These prayers I offer to you, Thade of the Mist. Watch over those who have recently departed from the realm of mortals and guide them so they may be welcome among their ancestors and friends.” Father Ezemon took the prayer slips written for those who had passed away in the past week and held them over a black candle scented with lavender and cinnamon. Jussin felt his eyes begin to sting from the smoke coming from the altar and a few of the people in the congregation allowed themselves a cough or two. The priest allowed the slips of paper to catch fire before dropping them into a bowl of bronze. Later the ashes would be mixed with cinnamon bark and pine needles before they were placed in a jar for the burial.
Father Ezemon stabbed a finger into the bowl and painted a circle on his brow with the ashes. This meant he had closed the portal of the Mist and thus the service was concluded. People began to file out of the church still coughing and whispering to one another. Jussin watched them go and knew that now they would be coughing from something much worse than a bit of smoke. Outside of these walls was a plague that had struck their town fiercer than anything the knight-templar had ever seen before. It wasn't hard for him to figure that all of the names offered to Thade today had perished because of the plague.
“Fetch me a cup of wine, Illon. The smoke of the prayers have begun to give me a thirst these days.” One of the acolytes bobbed his head and ran off to obey his elder. The other two bowed to him and stepped back as he approached Jussin. He turned to face the priest and made sure to keep his hands away from his sword. “I saw that you offered a slip for your brother. You have my deepest sympathies.”
“Your sympathies will not bring my brother back from the Mist, Father. Keep them so that you may offer them to one of the mourning women.” Ezemon looked pained but he smiled softly with a nod of his head. Illon returned a moment later with a cup of warmed wine which the priest took before sitting in one of the pews meant for the congregation. Jussin remained standing and folded his hands behind his back. “I have noticed that less people are coming to these services by the day, Father. The plague has claimed many lives so far but even that does not account for all of those absent.”
Father Ezemon shrugged his shoulders. “They've lost their faith in the Church, Sir Jussin. If I hadn't already been witness to more suffering than this and to the miracles that always follow shortly, I would probably turn to a more mortal answer to my problems. Thus people have turned to gambling, whoring, brawling, or even joining the army just so they may leave this place. I can hardly blame them. This sickness is not like any we have faced before.”
Jussin turned to see that the acolytes were busy going about their own duties. It would be they who did the mixing of the ashes and the cleansing ceremony while Father Ezemon rested. “The empire has suffered from plagues before. I do not see how this sickness is any different than the one a century ago, or the one decades before that.”
“Because our city was clean, Sir Jussin. There were no complaints of rats or any sort of bug that could have caused this. The filth of this city is carried by a swift current to the ocean and no person native of this city has left its wall in the past five years. We hardly receive any sort of foreign visitors but the few that have come have been examined and searched. Each of them proved clean and without any illnesses.” Ezemon waited a moment for all of that to sink in. Jussin understood and felt his blood beginning to run cold. “You do understand, don't you?”
“Someone has built this plague with medicine or some sort of magic,” the knight-templar answered. Father Ezemon nodded.
“I am not yet certain what purpose a plague like this could serve someone who is a simple mage or doctor. Dreadmen are roaming the lands outside of our walls and I can think of only one logical explanation that links the two together. Somewhere in this city is a necromancer.”
The Stranger walked among the wheat and grass of the Golden Plains, the sun overhead adding a familiar warmth. He seemed to remember working under the sun. Perhaps he had been a farmer before he had lost his memory. It would explain his muscles and his resistance to heat, but it certainly didn't explain his skill with knives and swords. He had learned about those skills early on since he had been reborn mentally.
While wandering he had the bad luck to come across some bandits. They tried to rob him and they probably would have killed him too, but he had gotten to one of their daggers. Six men died that night by his hand. The only bad part of that was that the Stranger did not feel regret for taking another mortal's life. He tried convincing himself it was because he acted in defense of himself but he knew it went deeper than that. If he was some sort of murderer he would probably enjoy killing, and he definitely did not take any joy in it. He was simply indifferent to it.
The sounds of a horse-drawn cart made the Stranger lift his head. Up ahead on the road he saw an aged man driving a carriage towards him. The Stranger raised his hand and the man began to slow his cart, the Stranger petting the horse's head as it stopped in front of him. “Is there something I can help you with?” The man's voice was rough with age and labor. This was a man who was not familiar with luxury and soft things. His whole life was hard and sharp.
“I was wondering where you might be heading, and if I could ride with you for a bit.” The man chewed on his lip and looked at the sword hanging from the Stranger's hip. He moved his hands away from the sword to show he meant no harm.
“Well I'm taking some crops in to the next village this direction, though it looks like that's in the opposite direction you're going. Where exactly are you heading to?” It was strange. Though the man's voice was harsh there was a certain amount of sincerity to him. The Stranger decided he liked this man.
“To be honest I had no idea where I'm going. I guess you could call me a wanderer, a drifter that goes wherever the wind carries him.” The man studied him for a bit longer. The Stranger couldn't blame him. He himself had run into bandits, and so maybe this man was just as aware of the dangers the road had to offer. To his surprise the man laughed and stabbed his thumb at the seat beside him.
“Fair enough. I'll take you as far as where I'm going, but then I have business I need to tend to. You'll be on your own once we reach the village.” The Stranger bowed his head respectfully and climbed onto the cart beside the man. With a few clicks of his tongue and a snap of the reigns the horse began moving again. “So what should I call you, stranger?”
“Stranger. Stranger's fine.”