117, 649 Years Ago...
Everything began and ended on a world they called Charon. In the Third Era, Year 1162, the ancient war reached a deadlock. This was the day and age of the last Couriers, the day and age in which the tenacity of life strained to its breaking point. It was an era of sweeping changes, for only a few years remained before the Second Genesis.
She ran down the thick woodlands, labored breath hitching in her lungs, sweat pounding down her face. Though the moons Malheim and Jericho hung high and proud above the Therran timberlands, she saw neither Kali Yuga nor Norath.
Her friends, her comrades.
She heard the autumn leaves crack beneath heavy boots. Acoda knew there were at least a dozen of them. They were close now—so close that she could feel their aura of bloodlust permeate her very soul.
These Acolytes were unusually tenacious. The vampires towered not a head higher than a grown man, with lean limbs that were no more powerful than those of a seasoned hunter.
And they did—hunt, that is.
The vile beasts chased Acoda from the massacre at the Temples of Knossos, past the rapids of an overflowing brook, and through a small village into the thicket of the Therran timberlands.
Acoda leapt past the tree stump ahead and bolted through the woodlands. As she ran she heard a sharp whistle pierce the night, then a moment after that, the thunder of eight cloven hooves crashing against the autumn leaves. A heartbeat later, the vampires’ feral snarls rose to an impenetrable din.
She had to move faster. She ran past mighty pines and redwoods until she saw the end of the tree line, beyond which she saw a steep incline. Acoda sped past the confines of the woodlands and emerged in the valley beyond.
Cold moonlight shone through a veil of thin, smoky clouds and wrought icy fluorescence upon the valley below. She saw the ground before her descend into a steep incline, and a vast expanse of trees and shrubbery lay beyond. The thin, sinuous ribbon of silver that was the Scithys River glistened dully in the wane moonlight as it snaked through the valley.
Acoda darted into the shrubbery cresting the river shore. Her legs burned and sharp pain needled her lungs, and her speed began to flag. She had to keep moving. If her luck held, maybe she could find a place to hide and survive the night.
As she ran she was alarmed by the loud creak of strained flexible steel wire, then she froze with terror as she recognized the sound. The sharp crack of a fired arrow sounded through the valley.
An enchanted arrow.
Acoda jumped, rolling to the side as red fire tore through the ground she’d been on—but the power of the blast slammed through her body and flung her into the frigid river.
She gurgled and began to drown. She saw radiant crimson flash and shimmer on the surface of the water overhead, heat that she knew would’ve melted through her flesh and bones like molten lava to plastic. Acoda swam across the rapids. Blackness ebbing in the edge of her vision, she crawled up the river bank and ran as fast as she could.
She couldn’t stop now. She spent two years, two years gathering knowledge of the enemy for the Alliance, and she knew well the Irn’ Therk religious hegemony didn’t take prisoners...especially spies.
She heard the sound of metal wire strain and twang taut. They’d fired another arrow, and she knew this time they wouldn’t miss. Acoda pushed her legs as hard as she could, but they gave only a sluggish response as the enchanted arrow cleaved through the night; she could feel its fierce crimson heat burn at her back with the fury of the sun.
She closed her eyes and mumbled under her breath a healing charm, but before she could complete the chant—crimson lightning and thunder tore through the ground beneath her.
The blast pitched Acoda into the face of the hill. She screamed loudly as she twisted and writhed. Red fire engulfed her, and she felt the force of life bleed dry from her veins, from her flesh, from her bones...until all she saw was gripping blackness.
Acoda awoke at an unknown time in a prison cell. She lay on the cold metal ground, stripped bare, wounds agape, blood streaming down her supine, lithe body upon the fetid, piss-stained floor. Shock and trauma had settled from the spell, and a vicious cold racked her lungs with increasing violence at every breath. As she was, she had less than an hour to live.
The guards that stood beyond her cage observed her abject reality with the eyes of distant spectators. The two Lycans were stout and sturdy beings, not a head shorter than seven feet in their human forms, with fierce blue eyes that flowed with contempt for their task of standing guard.
Lycans were a proud and war-like race, and such menial tasks as guard duty were usually relegated to Acolyte vampires and the lesser beings that staffed the Irn’ Therk religious hegemony’s caste system.
Acoda warily glanced around, in vain looking for any kink or flaw in the cell she could soon exploit. The angle at which pale moonlight broke through the mangled bars of the small window wrought twisted shadows and cold fluorescence upon the gritty steel floor. The room was dank, and water dripped from the leaky ceiling. At the center of the room she noticed a dirty small bed.
She crawled to the cot and clambered up. It was rough, and the cold draft that seeped into her cell from the prison hallway bit deeply into her sore wounds and made her nestle deeper into the thin beddings.
Acoda worried why she was alive. Spies were never prisoners; they were summarily executed on the field and left for jackals and vile beasts of the night. She worried when she would be interrogated, and when the torture would begin. She worried until her mind gave way into a deep sleep that—if she had the strength—would’ve perpetuated into a coma.
A loud metal clank sounded through her skull.
The sound jarred Acoda into consciousness. Buzzing numbness flared across her body, and the stale taste of a hastily prepared elixir permeated her mouth. In the moments that she tried to move, the world was a dizzying blur of motion.
The metal clank sounded again, and she felt the sharp ringing sound sting her swollen eardrums. Acoda glanced out of her prison cell. There was an elderly man standing beyond the bars.
He wore black robes, and her blurry vision made him appear as though he were a shadow looming before her. Beneath the partly open robes she could see the man wore ornate ebony armor with glyphs worked in golden serpentine trails upon the chest piece. Judging from his attire, Acoda guessed he was a leader of some sort.
“My deepest condolences,” he said, “my Acolytes do lose their patience with prisoners of war.” He paused, gazing at her nakedness, then kneeled down and slid a tray beneath the bars of her cage. “Eat, then we’ll treat your wounds.”
Acoda was still waking up when the tray came to a halt before her. Was it poison of some sort? A potion designed to make her talk? She mulled over these things while glancing over the gruel, a savagely hewn amalgam of leftovers and soggy stews that made her gut violently clench with revulsion.
She ate and vomited twice.
The man watched her, never quite smiling the entire time. He reached for the metal bars, and responding to his touch, a mechanism unlocked and the bars retracted. He wrapped her in his black robes and brought her out the prison cell.
As she followed him up the stairs of this place, Acoda tried to remain calm. She knew it was a castle of some sort, for guards lined every corridor they passed. What she didn’t know was how long she’d slept or what day it was. All she knew is that it was terribly colder than before. She guessed it was either night or early morning. But was it the day after her capture? Weeks?
The man brought her to his private quarters in the castle and locked the door behind him. Acoda turned around and felt his pale blue eyes stare past her own to the very pit of her soul itself. There were other words, but for Acoda, none were so direct as, “who are you and what do you want with me?”
“Later,” the old man dismissed as he approached a wardrobe. He brought out a bathing robe. “We have to treat your wounds first. Please,” he gestured for the shower. “Afterwards, I’ll talk to you about a few things, and your new mission.”
Acoda felt that something was wrong. Exactly who was this elderly man? Why was he interested in her? Why had he, an enemy official, assumed that she would cooperate so easily? She left such musings to the back of her mind. If she wanted to find out this man’s true intentions, she had to play along for now and treat carefully.
She showered and toweled. He gave her fresh clinical gowns and brought her to the infirmary. The Mages there gestured for her to lie on the hospital bed and tended to her wounds with complex healing magicka. They dressed her in plain grey clothes, then the old man brought her to the courtyard of the stronghold.
It was a vile, cold night. A vicious breeze battered the castle grounds, stirring the pioneer leaves of autumn. Shuddering grass and flora lined the path toward the armory across the clearing.
The elderly man’s subtle wave of the hand opened the reinforced door ahead and the two stepped through. Beyond the doors was a titanic mausoleum and armory, so massive that when either spoke, it sounded as though a God had spoken.
“I am aware,” said he, his resonant voice devoid of emotion, “that sick as you are, you could still slay me in cold blood faster than I can draw my saber. I am also aware of your anxiety because of your situation. Rest assured, what I will ask you is nothing new.”
“And may I ask what?” She sternly voiced.
“I have seen the strife of eight scores and fifty-one days of the Hundred Thousand Years’ War, Acoda, a war that is now as natural to every living being as the trees and the stars.”
“The Hundred Thousand Year’s War is not a literal war,” she countered. Acoda wasn’t going to let this old man tell her lies, “but an ancient feud of our ancestors that brought us into a conflict so prolonged that no one truly knows when it all began.”
“Which is why I implore you, Acoda, to make a difference,” he pleaded. “Ages of reconciliations have come and gone to no avail. Make your existence count and become my Courier, so one day we may all be free of this ancient feud. I intend to end this bitter war, and I need your help.”
Acoda felt that there had to be something terribly wrong when an officer was groveling before an enemy spy’s feet. He didn’t look like a fool, so surely there must been something else going on, something much more to this war than everyone already thought. She decided that for now, until she understood his true intentions—how he intended to end the war—she had to live by his rules.
“What would you have your Courier do?”
“Excellent,” he replied, “most excellent. Your first task will be to silence a lord in the Kairut region in the Eastern Domain of Exur. His name is Jarrafa Yamidoro, a Legate of the eastern domain’s Prefect. When you seize him, you may dispatch him anyway—”
“And,” Acoda cut in, “for the time being, what shall I call you?”
The man distantly gazed, “for now you shall call me the Viceroy.”
Acoda nodded. She wondered about why he had such a curious alias. A Viceroy was a person appointed to rule as the deputy of a sovereign power, yet the man seemed to hold considerable authority himself. She worried who, or worse—what—a man with such power could be subordinate to.
“You will be provided with a horse and rations for your journey to the Eastern Domain of Exur. Now, I want you to understand that trains and such ancient technology will make you too easy to track, so under any ordinary circumstances you are to avoid them. Understood?”
Acoda nodded. She knew electricity, cars and technology were relics of the past, long-since replaced by the advent of magicka and other forms of bending the energy of the cosmos.
“You may pick any arms in here, but take heed: silence and alacrity will be your shield and sword. Once you arrive in Kairut, you will find one of my contacts who will become your Handler.”
“Handler? I don’t need to be handled.”
“You misunderstand. Think of him as...your personal concierge service. You will receive the recent where-abouts of the Legate and silence this politician, then return to your Handler for farther instructions.”
With that, the Viceroy left Acoda in the armory. He was her enemy, but she sensed that he exuded an aura of goodwill for the greater good. No, she convinced herself, this old man is manipulative and nothing but trouble.
Acoda glanced across the armory. There were rows upon rows of weapon stacks that seemed to stretch for miles beyond her vision. As she browsed through the weapons, she thought about the Viceroy. The truth was that people lived long, and she wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that he was an aged man at a hundred-and-sixty years old.
She browsed through the armory and stopped before the Lancets. Archers usually carried these rather curious bow-swords. The limbs of the bow-swords were two equal halves connected by a hinge at the center. The hinge could collapse the limbs into a single-handed sword, and the improvised blade could hold well on its own against all but the toughest of mineral swords.
Acoda picked out a dozen impact arrows, five enchanted arrows and a shield unit. Acoda knew she couldn’t win a serious fight with a single Lancet and a shield unit, but it would have to be enough.
She returned to the castle central building and got assigned to her temporary lodging. The small room had just one bed and one window, and Acoda found that she preferred the rather frugal décor.
As she lay in bed, she thought about Kali Yuga and Norath, her best friends and comrades. Acoda still didn’t know how much time had passed since her capture. She hoped they were all right; she missed them both and hoped to see them again some day.
On the day of her departure, she awoke to a loud rapping at her door. She groggily rolled out of bed and opened the door, and standing before her was the Viceroy himself. He brought her to the feasting hall where she received breakfast and her rations, then they strode out to the open-air courtyard.
Before her stood a mare. Acoda could tell the horse was bred for war, for just by looking she could tell her body was no less than half a ton of stone-rigid muscle and iron-dense bone.
Acoda usually preferred her own feet to horseback for transportation, but if she was to reach Kairut in the Eastern Domain of Exur, she would have to travel for many nights through the countryside.
“Be careful with her,” the Viceroy warned, “she was rather difficult to enhance.”
Acoda mounted the horse and the Viceroy bid her his farewell and goodwill. She rode out the castle gates and into the surrounding rice paddies and villages. She rode all morning, and before long, the afternoon sun burned at full bloom in the clear blue sky.
They stopped and rested, then rode for the remainder of the day. Soon the sun was setting behind them, illuminating the countryside in a blend of amber-golds and deep yellows.
Acoda rode into a village and lodged that night, then left at dawn and rode all morning. They stopped and rested through many villages and townships along the way. She brought food and fed the horse, and they rode for seven days and nights before the Eastern Domain of Exur was visible on the horizon at day break.
Exur was the eldest settled and the largest of the planet’s three Domains. Sitting along the equator, the continent had a desert-like climate, hot-dry summers, and the winter and fall seasons were bleak yet beautiful with desolate and grey insipid skies.
Acoda rode into the city by high noon. She found that Kairut was a bustling center of commerce; there were myriads of locals and peddlers in the streets, and their raucous chatter was an impenetrable din. For miles, she jostled and muscled her way through the crowd with her war horse to where she was to meet her Handler upon arriving at the city.
Acoda rode into a dark alley and guided her steed to the rear of the tavern. She went past a parking lot filled with rusty trucks and old derelict machines—all antiquated by the advent of magicka hundreds of millennia ago. Acoda brought the horse to a dilapidated shack and horse stable past the parking lot.
She dismounted and fished in her rucksack for the last batch of hay. Acoda whispered to the horse in a hushed voice, “if you behave yourself, you can have more. If you help me through, you can have as many as you want.”
The horse neighed with excitement and hungrily tucked its mouth into her hands. Acoda smiled and petted her. She thought for a moment, and realized she had yet to name the horse.
“I’ll call you Ecclesiastes,” she said as she laughed with no one in particular, “the fearless! The brave!”
She tied Ecclesiastes to the stable and quickly inspected her Lancet, the bandoleer and her shield unit. Acoda then concealed herself beneath a grey hooded cloak, approached the backdoor to the tavern, and gently knocked. She peered in through the tiny square window, as there was no response. She then rather roughly rapped at the door.
A heartbeat later, Acoda heard the floorboards cry beneath stomping footsteps. A stone-faced man filled the tiny square window. He grumbled a cuss and threw the door open, “what do you want, you piece of meat?”
Acoda coiled away in revulsion as the man’s stale breath and the smell of heavy liquors rolled through her. She breathed out and said, “I shall do no harm.”
“Get in. You’re late.” He led the way down the long corridor and brought Acoda before Room 09. The man hesitated, as there was the sound of a creaking bed and passionate moans on the other side. He then hammered a thick, meaty fist against the door and waited if his peer would respond. A disrupted voice yelled from the other side, “Gods be damned, what do you want, Crassius?”
Crassius hissed with fury and loudly cursed. “Your third harlot is here.”
“What’s her name?”
“I shall do no harm,” Crassius grumbled as he angrily stomped away, struggling to guide another swig of brandy to his mouth. “Finish with your business and be gone from my property. God forsaken heathen son of a...”
Crassius’ voice trailed away as he paced farther down the corridor. Acoda waited for twelve minutes when the door swung open. Before her stood an Acolyte vampire: male, bare chest, neither too muscular nor very handsome to her tastes, but nonetheless a striking man. She could sense the auras of many females upon him.
“Finally,” he said, “I’ve waited two days for you.”
“I can tell you were bored,” she snidely remarked as she stepped inside.
Smirking, with a glint of sinful lust in his eye, he said, “So this nubile is the next Courier, eh?”
“About this Legate,” Acoda interrupted through gritted teeth. She didn’t like being called a nubile, and she wouldn’t let this vampire take advantage of her.
“Come now, relax. You and I are going to work together for a while,” the vampire grinned, flashing a ghastly glimpse of his feral canines.
“Is that so?”
“Yes,” he paced toward her, slow and deliberate. “Let’s make the experience as painless as possible.” A wave of cold malice twined with deep lust washed over her. It deeply revolted Acoda as she reached across her hip for the Lancet.
“Hmm,” it glanced at her weapon. “You would never touch me with that thing.”
“I wouldn’t know,” she smiled, sarcastic, “with the small room and all that.” Acoda intentionally remained in his line of sight. She wasn’t afraid of him.
“Girl, why is it you do this in the prime of your youth?”
Acoda sighed. Certainly she wasn’t a girl, but she was still young. He wasn’t the first to question why she was running around with no children, no husband—something that made her bitter to the core.
Acoda resented traditional roles, but the truth was that she was illegitimate. She had no bloodline to carry on, for she had no lineage with her name in it. “And what of yourself, sir?” She shot back. “Should your progenies not number in the hundreds?”
“Non-sequitor,” the vampire smiled, again baring his fangs. “Just because I am of the First Messenger of the Gods does not mean every instance I copulate, I beget children. It is out of ill will alone that I banter with those who enslaved my kind. In the end, my kind only exists to kill every last one of your kind, as the Gods intended.”
He was correct. Humanity’s destruction was the will of the Gods after their Great Sin, and the Acolyte vampire race was their First Messenger. They were beings that were essentially human and harbored no ill will, but their lives were dependent upon the divine essence only found in actual human beings. In order to stay alive, they had to find nourishment one way or another. It was a cruel existence of forced violence and murder.
“On pressing matters,” Acoda continued, disregarding his hostility. She had no choice but to work with him until she found the Viceroy’s true intentions. “I was sent by the Viceroy to deliver his regards to the Legate.”
“Yamidoro?” The vampire scoffed, “he isn’t too particularly impressive of a fighter himself, but the human has quite a number of personal guards, I hear. Elites, monsters, hellhounds. Whatever you wish to call them, they’re tough.”
The Acolyte brought out a piece of paper that was under his mattress and presented it to her. “Here is what the Viceroy informed me, in verbatim, that you should do. Be where he wishes you to be, do as he wishes, and everything will be fine. Meet me back here when you are done.”
Acoda took the note and left the Acolyte’s room. As she walked down the long corridor, she quickly glanced over the parchment. It instructed that she was to arrive early at an old train station on the city outskirts and lay in wait for the critical moment. She was to strike when the Legate arrived at the location to flee the city.
She rode out into the evening. At the brink of sunset, she arrived at the station. The old rusty derelict was no more than a corrugated roof suspended above the tracks, with a loose collection of wooden planks scantily patching the rusty holes. Nearby was a spruce covered hill, the trees’ leaves a pale yellow tint as they had always been since the beginning of time.
Crows cawed and soared in the late evening sky, and the setting pale yellow sun lit the day’s lingering clouds in a soft amber radiance. Acoda lingered there motionless before the hill, locked in a deep gaze. For some strange reason, the setting seemed familiar. Was she seeing the future? There was no way for her to know.
She walked uphill and hid in a tree well into the night. She remained close enough to see the station in the distance, but far enough to maintain her obscurity. Tonight, the moons Malheim and Jericho hung low, crashing a sickly pale luminescence upon the derelict station below.
She heard the grass ruffle and the thump of boots approach in the distance. Acoda readied an impact arrow and watched closely. She picked out one enchanted arrow from her bandoleer and set it aside.
A man in gray fatigues carrying a Lancet ran toward the station. He stopped beneath the roofing structure, warily glancing about as he caught his breath. A pained look twisted his face as he found that who or whatever he was looking for wasn’t here.
He must be looking for his guards, she realized, or a train to flee the city. Acoda considered it may be someone else, but the man was obviously fleeing from something. He had to be the Legate. Acoda drew the impact arrow and fired.
The impact of the arrow crushed his hand as the weapon flew from his grip in a spray of blood. He sprawled to the ground—just as a hot crimson blaze arced from the trees on the hilltop and crashed into his chest.
The enchanted arrow became deeply embedded into his torso, and black smoke spewed from the wound as he screamed in pain and tried to remove it. A heartbeat later, crimson fire engulfed the Legate.
Acoda watched from her perch as the enchanted flames burned white hot, then cooled to yellow and dull red, dissipating in a scarlet evanescence along with what remained of the Legate’s ashes.
She collected some ashes into her pocket and ran to her horse. She quickly left the scene and made her way through the city to the tavern. Crassius allowed her through the backdoor and she raced to the Acolyte’s room.
“Open!” she hissed at the door. Acoda knew there were consequences for assassinating a Legate, and the Acolyte was the closest thing she had to an ally in the city. A moment later, the door swung open and the vampire was gazing down at her.
“You’ve returned alive, I see. How did the business go with the Legate?”
Acoda dug in her pocket and presented the ashes.
Pure shock descended upon the vampire’s face. Acoda didn’t need to call upon her skill with the arts of empathy to tell that what he felt was bone-deep terror. She could see it in his emerald eyes. This, he hid beneath a forced chuckle and a vicious grin, “yes, it seems I underestimated you, girl.”
Acoda didn’t return her customary quip. She thought about his reaction, his apprehension. Why is he surprised that I assassinated the Legate? Perhaps he designed ways to make me fail? A deep gut instinct told her something was wrong.
“You should get going then,” he gave her passes to several lodgings, then he turned and paced back into his quarters. “To remain difficult to track, you are to change your residence every week. You can meet me back here in a fortnight—”
“Wait,” she said, “why was the Legate alone without even one personal guard?” Acoda had a sinking feeling that in assassinating the Legate, she may have become part of a larger, dangerous game.
“Doesn’t matter. Allow the Viceroy to worry about the larger strategic picture,” he curtly replied. “You are his Courier, and I his hand. For now let’s focus on our part and win this war one battle at a time.”
Acoda stopped herself from asking another question. She remembered that her loyalty lay with the Alliance, not the Irn’ Therk. She had to keep herself from getting too involved with their plans. “Fine, but don’t assume my cooperation. You and this Viceroy of yours are still my enemies.”
“And of course,” he replied, “don’t assume our nescience.” The Acolyte slammed the door shut and loudly threw the lock. Acoda left the tavern and rode out into the night for the lodging. She left her horse in the stable outside and presented her pass to the clerk at the desk.
Later that night, Acoda entered the shower and opened the faucet. She closed her eyes and sharply exhaled as the ice-cold water cascaded down her delightful curves and richly tanned skin, reflecting the pale moonlight that streamed through the small window.
Acoda thought about the man she killed today. She wondered why the Viceroy willed this man’s death, and worried if there was more significance to the human other than the fact he was a Legate to the Eastern Domain’s Prefect.
She reached up and caressed a hand on her slender neck, tracing the red scars that ran down her left shoulder. The scars there were soft, still raw after five years...a stark reminder that sometimes, even allies become enemies.
She looked out through the window and watched the moons and the stars. Deep down a sense of dread descended through her. Acoda didn’t wonder whether she was in danger, for she knew that somewhere not far, peril waited for her.