Prologue – Memories
“This world is old and full of mysteries and secrets.”
As a young girl, I would wait eagerly for my father to speak those words. Sat upon his knee, my eyes were filled with expectation as I gazed longingly at his weathered face. I would giggle as I watched his furrowing brow, and smile as he ruffled my hair and looked upwards, almost wistfully at the night sky.
No matter the story, he would start with those same ten words. Night after night, we would walk hand in hand around the same garden paths, sit on the same benches and stare at the never-changing stars, but never were the stories repeated.
Thinking back, his words, full of warmth and wisdom, calmed my restless, youthful heart. I remember the excitement as he regaled me with tales of his youth, where as a young officer, he sailed and fought with our nation’s armies across the expanse of the known and unknown world, braving the highest mountains and seas yet unmapped.
He would share with me the memories of those he had met on his many voyages, both friends and foes, as well as the mysteries of the world he had sought to explain. But only when he told me the legends of our people, do I remember his eyes truly glimmering.
Stories of our nation’s founding and the uncountable aeons before, when we were nothing more than scattered tribes. A time when Gods, Titans and mythical heroes trod the same soil as mortal men.
Only now years later, having been betrayed and forced to flee as I am pursued across the continent, do I truly understand the lessons my father was trying to teach me. Lessons I was once too young and naïve to understand.
Arc 1 – A World of Myths and Legends
My breathing is haggard due to fear and anticipation as I grip the reins of my horse. The leather straps bound to my hands are wrapped tightly as I ride almost blind through the night, the path ahead illuminated by nothing more than star and moonlight.
Only when the road straightens do I relax my grip, allowing my horse’s strides to shorten as I stare open-eyed at the looming mountain. Mount Tempesta, an aptly chosen name, its peak is cloaked in a thin veil of white mist, the scattered winding paths that follow its contours are barely visible. As the clouds encircling its summit darken, a feeling of dread forms in the pit of my stomach. Swallowing the saliva that begins to form in my mouth, I guide my mount forward.
Despite the fear, or due to it, I begin to remember the various legends that surround its origins. Though there were as many as there were stars in the night sky, my favourite is the one chronicled in the diaries of my father.
It was said that long ago, before the Age of Fire, when Man was young, crude and barbaric and had yet to receive the blessings of the supreme Gods, they had sinned. In punishment, the Gods abandoned them and plunged the world into an endless winter.
For a decade, the world knew nothing but freezing darkness. As the land grew increasingly barren, the few starving survivors huddled themselves around dying fires whilst praying to their indifferent Gods for salvation.
Those long unheeded prayers were finally answered by a falling star crashing into the horizon. The light that came after a day of tremors was so bright and pure that it pushed back the darkness whilst thawing the oceans of snow and ice. For days the light continued to remain, acting as a beacon for the curious and luring any who were brave or foolish enough to make the journey to find its source.
Individuals, groups and whole tribes of Man made the journey, a pilgrimage to the source of celestial light. When seven of the great tribes of Man and a hundred lesser reached the source, after braving the treacherous, monster-infested waters that surrounded this island, the light dispersed, as if it had served its purpose.
From the once hidden shadows was revealed a pit, one too dark for mortal torches to light and too deep for a bottom to be seen or heard. But in that darkness, those bravest of Man’s warriors heard a sound that chilled them to their very cores.
This joint primal fear forced the gathered elders and chiefs of each tribe to devise a solution, the forging of the Great Seal. Formed from nearby rock, reinforced by ancient magic, handed down from generation to generation, what lingered in the darkness was sealed and hidden away.
With winter banished, Man flourished, but prosperity caused them to forget the events which had once united them. Wars were waged and slowly the events of the past were forgotten and lost to legends as those who knew them, took the secrets to their graves.
Three generations would pass before events forced Man to once again remember what was once forgotten, the descent of a God. Haephaestus, Master of the Forge and Smith, came and sought the tribes of Man. His celestial essence overpowered the minds of mortal men, bringing a temporary peace as he asked a single question.
“Where is the hammer that fell eighteen days ago?”
Despite the promises of gifts beyond mortal compare and comprehension, no tribe could answer the God’s question. As the God prepared to unleash his wrath, believing those present sought to hide his treasure, an elder on the verge of death awakened. Their name lost due to the passage of time, remembered only as the “Ancient”, they spoke to the God of a youthful memory, of a fallen star and the Great Seal. Easing the man’s pain whilst taking their fading memories, the God left after leaving a blessing on his bloodline.
Though no mortal truly knows what occurred, all know that when the God, whose weapons and strength were without peer, attempted to break the Seal, the once fertile plains and forests surrounded it were burned to ash and replaced by a mountain with the Seal buried in the centre of its valley.
I once disregarded it as nothing more than a child’s story, but as my eyes catch the glint of uncut gems and ores on the mountain path, ones normally hidden underground, a tear rolls down my cheek. Smiling, I make a silent promise to continue my father’s legacy, to discover the truth hidden within the ancient lore.
Faster, we need to move faster.
As the mountain trail comes into view, I silently will my steed forward, listening with anticipation as the ground underneath hardens, rock replacing the soft soil of the plains. Now galloping with longer strides, my eyes flicker to the nearby cliff edge, the sight causes my hands to quiver and the skin to become pale and clammy as I try not to think of the consequences of falling.
Narrow and exposed to the elements, few knew of these treacherous paths. Utilised by smugglers, adventurers and goat herders, they were unsuited for riders on horseback, let alone those galloping at speed, but our need for secrecy required such recklessness.
Suddenly my horse lurches to the right, the ground shifting underneath her feet, causes a high pitched scream to escape my lips. Tugging harshly on the reins, I steer her away from the rapidly crumbling edge as the trail ahead collapses, rocks tumbling down the side of the mountain, clacking and echoing before splashing into the waters of the lakes below.
“Sssh girl, sssh.”
Thrashing as she rears upwards in fear, I relentlessly try to soothe her, my voice eventually reaching as she relaxes, allowing me to loosen my grip. Breathless, I curse my foolishness, my haste likely alerting the sentries stationed nearby. My eyes scan the shadows ahead, seeking the slightest movement, but finding none.
A faint whistle comes from behind as I let out a sigh of relief, turning, I raise my left hand, extending my fingers as I signal to those behind that I was safe and well. Wrapping my dark blue cloak tighter to my body, the sensation of the soft fabric on my skin calms my shattered nerves. Clicking my tongue, I steer my horse left, continuing as I follow the only path remaining.
Steeper and more treacherous than the original route, the need for concealment forces me to forgo the use of torches and lanterns. Riding slowly, I am guided by the light of the two shining moons and stars. Following the only trail, I soon spot the silhouettes of towers in the distance, their size alone indicating the number of guards stationed within.
Few paths existed into the northern realms, the stretch of mountains and the lakes surrounding it formed a natural border which separates it from the rest of the island. The sentries were whispered to possess the sharpest eyes and ears in all the land and only the blessed, foolish or desperate would attempt to enter without the approval of the client kings who rule there.
I hesitate as I question which category we fall under.
Only the caverns which travel beneath the mountains were unguarded, the realm of predators and other indescribable horrors, their presence alone a natural deterrent.
Resolving my conviction, I relax the hold on my reins, allowing my horse to continue at a slow trot. Travelling at her own pace, her once harsh and heavy breathing softens, despite the increasingly thinning air. I knew that she, like those behind her, were exhausted after three days of hard riding with little rest, but the missive I had received days before could not allow for any delay. A parchment containing few words, each however emphasised the importance of urgency.
Go north and seek the commander of the hammer-fall without delay. The Oracle has answered and states your destiny is waiting.
Though risky due to the ongoing war, I had made this desperate journey for this meeting with the Oracle of Artlars. Missing and thought dead after the chaos and bloodshed which had swept through the nation’s capital, a meeting no matter how brief could reveal the path to one’s destiny. Having long felt lost and uncertain, I needed their guidance if only to ease the fear that continued to dwell within my heart.
As the clouds above darken further, I feel my eyes and limbs grow heavy. Only now as the journey approaches its end do I realise how taxing it had been. The sudden understanding causes me to become sympathetic for my mount’s misery. When this journey was finally over, she and those of her kin would enjoy a well-deserved rest.
The wind grows increasingly bitter as we continue our ascent, the dark coloured rock and soil are soon replaced by fresh, crisp white snow and ice. Despite the thickness of my cloak, I could feel the heat slowly leave my body, causing my body to shiver. Breathing into my hands, I can only wrap the cloak tighter to my body as I struggle to stay warm.
Ahead, I see the daunting palisades which flank the stone tower, the timber thick and impenetrable. As the path widens, I feel a hand on my shoulder as a rider from our group takes the opportunity to ride ahead.
No longer leading, I ride cautiously forward, following their path as my eyes scan the walls for movement. Only the sound of singing and laughter is heard from within. Hopeful that the guards were sitting idle, we inch closer and closer, using the shadows to our advantage as we move towards the open gates.
Suddenly, I hear whistling overhead, my eyes follow the sound and I catch a glimpse of something thin and metallic as it travels through the night sky. Barely visible, it takes me too long to recognise what is approaching.
Reacting on instinct, I pull on the reins, ignoring the boisterous neighing of my horse as I force her to turn sharply back. The movement is barely complete before an arrow impacts and embeds itself into the ground, less than an arm’s length from where I was previously riding.
The force of the impact causes particles of snow to rise, coating me in a thin layer of fine powder, before the shaft of the arrow catches fire, burning with a bright light.
Blinding, it becomes a beacon in the darkness, dispersing the cover of the shadows. Soon, angry shouts are heard from the walls and towers, joined by running armoured footsteps on wood and stone. Two of my companions immediately rush forward, drawing their swords and hefting their shields as they linger close to my body, shielding me from any potential harm.
“Do we fight or fly?”
Urgent questions quickly escape their lips as they await my commands, but I do not know what to do. The decision is forced however when the bellow of a horn echoes around the mountain, now there was only one path available.
“Stay close and do not move.”
“My lady? Surely we must flee whilst we have the chance?”
My eyes linger on the remnants of the burning arrow as I consider his words, the shaft intact despite the flames, it was a blessed arrow used only by elite bowmen. A weapon which was almost unheard of outwith of the hallowed ranks of the Capital’s knightly orders, one that brought fear to foreign battlefields. The bowmen who used them would rarely miss, unless by choice, this was a warning, one that should be heeded.
“Stay where you are, do not move.”
A booming voice from behind confirms my instincts as a broad-shouldered man rides forward until his shoulders are alongside and touching mine. His tone and presence quell any lingering questions as he glares upwards at those atop the walls. He appears unfazed at the notched arrows aimed at us, making no effort to reach for either his sword or shield.
He only waits as the slow, rhythmic beat of drums grows nearer.