It's just too much! I can't deal with dad anymore, and though it pains me to say this we all knew this day would come. Erik already knows that i am leaving, but not where i've gone, and i trust you to tell the others that my time to wander has finally arrived. I'm leaving Vaasa, heading into the world for adventures, for riches, and perhaps most importantly for freedom.
Do not forget me, or that i love you all.
Your son, Jeremiah Swann
Part One: Letters Home
Free! Free at last!
He wanted to sing it out, wanted to run down the dusty roads cheering for all the surrounding world to see. Jeremiah wasn't going to do it, of course, but he felt that some sign of his freedom should be visible to everyone around him. He felt as though the light weight of his pack, and the even lighter weight of his pocket!, were but blessings to grant him these new found wings and soar to the greatest of heights.
Right after breakfast, he thought a bit more realistically, feeling his stomach roll and growl its displeasure. Pulling a small biscuit from his pack, and nibbling on its carefully, Jeremiah moved with easy strides along the worn road. The wind, though still in the winter seasons, was not as cold as in the years before and it truly felt as if a long autumn had settled over the countryside as he made his slow journey towards….
Where was he going? the thought had troubled him a little, and his note had been as vague as his answer to his brother Erik. Jeremiah just wanted to get away, to find the boundaries of his life whatever they may be and test them a little. The world, he thought, was moving in a slow and very predictable pattern that he could easily take advantage of. This late in the season there was little farm work to be done, pushing him and his large family indoors and into each other's faces. All of it, combined with an already lean year and heavy taxes, was making it harder for everyone to find their peace…and eat their fill. The road sign ahead, he decided, was his answer. Jeremiah knew the region well enough to know his direction, and his way out of Vaasa, but the promise of a meal before beginning his road to freedom could not be denied. He had a few coins, and a few ideas as how to make some more. Actually he thought himself quite clever, foolishly, for the plan he was beginning to see unfold before him. The sign was the key, and the name his bright blue eyes fell upon first was one familiar to everyone in the region.
Ok, he thought quietly, finishing the last bite of his biscuit before wiping the crumbs from his rough hands. To Darmshall, to riches, and to glory!
His steps continued quite energetically, carrying him with all haste along his destined course. Any who passed him on that early winter's day, though none did, would have glimpsed a young man in his early twenties striding with confidence as the wind caught his shaggy brown hair and lifted it from his clean, fine face. The future was bright in his eyes, as he looked out over the winter coated landscape and sighed his contentment. He hoped, quiet deeply, that the simple beauty of the countryside touched by a light winter would linger in his mind for months, perhaps years to come.
He wanted to remember the beautiful parts of this place, the great kingdom that it had been, that it could still be. More then anything Jeremiah wanted to see the world without the monsters who had so callously destroyed their homes, their lives. He wanted to see the ones who held those monsters chains punished even further, taken from the lives of riches and pleasure and cast down amongst the low and the dirty to pay their penance. He also wanted a better pair of boots, Jeremiah decided after the length of his walk began to tear at his tired feet. In truth the distance between his home and Darmshall was not far, his families crops often added to the bounties collected by the city for the Iron Divide. The small town came into view after another hour, the outlying ranches and farms long past his wandering gaze. What little history Jeremiah knew of the town spoke of it as a haven for adventurers and warriors of all kinds seeking to tame the wild lands.
Now the place was a tightly held as every other community, a jewel in the pocket of of the land's Fellthanes clutched greedily and never allowed to shine. He had visited before, though rarely, on business for his father or a rare outing of pleasure with his brothers and sisters. It was a dangerous place, hours from home and filled with the kind of problems that drew in the young and naive. Perfect for him and his kin to feel a little wild before running back to the shadows of their doorways. His brother had lain with a woman here, his sister gotten sick in an alley off too much fine wine bought by handsome strangers.
He had lifted more then one coin purse to purchase treats and sundries as the lean years rolled on and kept his belt tight.
Now free of his families hold and setting foot on his first adventure Jeremiah pictured the lives he would lead as the people passed. A warrior perhaps, he thought grimly as his eyes settled on a small group of guards making their rounds through the holding. He could not quite picture himself in service to the dark lords of the land, but their blades would be fine indeed in his grip and Jeremiah could not deny a small sense of pleasure in the thought of cutting each of the men down. No matter their crimes, or their innocence. He shook away the thought, kept his eyes low as they passed and continued on his slow trek through the town. It wasn't long before another caught his eye, this one wearing robes of some order. Jeremiah couldn't tell what the man was, perhaps a priest or even a wizard!, he decided. It would have disappointed him to know the man but a well dressed scribe, still the robes sparked more dreams within Jeremiah's fertile mind and pushed his hopes to even greater heights.
Then he saw the man handing out the coins, and couldn't help but grin.
Getting close was easy, everyone was doing it. Most were listening quite intently to the dark bearded man as he pressed gold pieces into palms and laid out the instructions. After the first minute, Jeremiah stopped listening and stared focusing on his goal. The coin purse was quite substantial, and seemed to never run out of those fat gold pieces. People moved past in an orderly, if not rough, line. By the time Jeremiah got through and passed he had the man memorized, had every part of his attire cleanly pictured in his thoughts. Lingering around long enough to watch the man finish his work, and tie the still heavy pouch to his left side, Jeremiah knew that the only thing left was to wait.
When the people began to cheer, he made his move.
The main road through Darmshall was lined with people, most familiar faces from the line, each eagerly cheering and shouting out their joy. It was all stage act of course, and a seemingly common one for the noble walking past nodded to many he seemed to know. Kissed a few babies, shook some hands, even stopped and pulled out his blade to go through some mock training drills with a young lad weaving a long stick.
"A future Warlock Knight!" the noble proclaimed boldly, and the people cheered.
So caught up in his grandizing and boasting was the noble that he did not notice many of his cheering fans leaving as soon as he passed, fingering the gold in their pocket as they headed to an inn for an ale or off to some other dark purpose. Nor was the street terribly long, and within minutes the mock parade had ended with the noble and his small group being pressed by the peasants who laughed and celebrated.
Jeremiah knew every face around the man from the line he had stood in.
With that clearly in mind, and the image of the pouch held foremost in his thoughts, Jeremiah swiftly moved into the pressing crowd and around to the dark bearded man's side. A small blade, good for little more then waddling and cutting purse strings, slid into Jeremiah's hand easily then across the thick ties with a motion so fast the strings had no choice but to sever cleanly.
The pouch fell right in his hand as expected.
When he lifted those bright blue eyes, however, he found the Noble staring at him seriously. He never saw the first punch, but he felt the dozen or so after that pummeled him into the ground. A knife, a real knife and one glimmering in the strange way that the blades of Warlock Knights did, hovered over his face as the dark bearded man appeared and gave him the coldest smile Jeremiah had ever seen. It was the Noble's hand, and his calculating grin, that stopped the blade from making its final descent. He didn't catch anything after that, mostly because the dark bearded man settled his score with a swift kick to Jeremiah's jaw. As he passed into the darkness however he did catch one word, a word he also knew and one he instantly feared.
"…Delhalls" the Noble known as Mansard said finally, a small cheer rising up before he turned away and Jeremiah was dragged off to his bright future.
He woke with a bruised and aching jaw hours later, the rough wood of the prison cart grating against his face and making him hurt even more as he pushed himself up and back against his enclosure. He was alone, and that was enough to make Jeremiah lose all his manly self discipline and begin to weep silently. Things had gone really, really wrong. He didn't know what to do now! Frightened, and not wanting any of the guards he knew to be traveling with his cart to know he had broken down, Jeremiah tried to pull himself together and at least figure out how long he had before arriving at Delhalls. The distant call of a rider, and that call being returned moments later, told Jeremiah he was already too late. They had reached the mines. The cart pulled to a stop, jostling Jeremiah but not throwing him about too greatly. The ache in his jaw still made the entire process seem longer then it was, but it didn't take long before the door was opened and he found himself staring into the cold eyes of the dark bearded man.
"Come out" he said, his eyes showing to be a sickly green as soon as Jeremiah got close and stepped free of the wagon. "Put out your arms" the man then said.
Jeremiah looked at him curiously, not understanding, and was quickly punched for the lack of effort on his part. Driven to the ground, his lips cracked and his mouth leaking blood, Jeremiah stared up into the dark bearded man's cold green eyes and silently promised he would return the pain.
"Mad eh? Good, maybe it will wake you up. Now stand up and give me your arms or i shall cut them off boy." the man said harshly.
Jeremiah stood, slowly, and offered his arms to the man. His cold green eyes staring into Jeremiah's the entire time, he tightly locked the shackles on the boys wrists before punching him again. This time, Jeremiah stood his ground and slowly looked back at his tormentor.
"What is your name boy?" the man asked, his cold green eyes promising more pain if Jeremiah did not answer.
Feeling his heart hammering Jeremiah mumbled the first thing that came to mind "Ee…Erik sir."
"Erik what" the man growled.
"Erik.." Jeremiah caught himself then, pushed past the immediate fear to see the man's aim. It wouldn't take much to find his family, and there was no doubt in Jeremiah's mind that every one of them would be tortured to death in his stead by the man standing before him. Tortured, with a smile.
"Erik De`althea" he finished lamely, staring down at the earth and trying to force images of his families tortured bodies from his mind.
"De`althea?" the man asked, his grin thin and hard. Jeremiah could tell he hadn't believed the lie, but after a moment he nodded and his smile returned, that cold light burning in the man's green eyes.
"I am Lokys, and i will tear my pleasures from each of your kin's flesh while you rot in this place little boy. Enjoy your future." he finished with a laugh, and another punch that drove Jeremiah down low once more.
Held by the hair, he was dragged past the snickering guards and deposited at the feet of the mine's warden and head slave master. The half orc smiled down at him grimly before whispering "Too thin for the mines, not even fat enough for a good soup!" His hard laugh ignited more laughter, each voice in the darkness promising to be of similar kin. Lokys said nothing, staring hard at the Half Orc until he quieted and returned the gaze "Me not wants him. Just kill him."
Lokys shook his head resolutely, slipping a pouch from his pocket and offering it to the Half Orc. Jeremiah, trying to keep his gaze low, couldn't help but notice that it was the same pouch he had tried to steal. Nor did he miss the strange look on the Half Orc's face, apparently he had expected a bribe for the unwanted slave.
"Put him deep, make sure he stays there. I don't want that one to see the light for many years." Lokys whispered, sealing Jeremiah's fate.
"Fine. To the crystal with him!" the Half Orc roared moments before a pair of guards hauled Jeremiah up by his shoulders and dragged him into the mines.
Jeremiah could not help but look back over his shoulder, just once, at the life he had thought he would have. Instead he found only a pair of cold green eyes and a smile that promised pain. Looking away, facing his future, he watched a bright light before him dim and then pass as a dwarf guided cart made its way along a track leading out of the mine. Then, he saw only darkness.
Rika studied the human for a moment, counted him dead, and moved on with her work. Humans didn't last long in the mines, and in her estimation were rather useless compared to the dozen dwarves currently slaving inside with her. Cursing the guards for bearing down their work load with another useless slave the young dwarf woman continued to grumble in a smooth, dark voice until the moment she saw the sunlight, after that Rika forgot all about the pale and trembling human.
The sun! Oh gods how she loved the sun, each day that she brought carts up from the mine granted her a rare chance to glimpse that most holy light. How she dreamed of it, how she loved the feel of its warm glow, the sense of its power!
In moments, with the ore unloaded and the cart turned around, her glimpse of the sun had passed and Rika's mood once more soured. She passed another dwarf, giving a barely perceptible nod to the Master Rune Priest, then moved on slowly into the mine's depths. Unburdened by heavy ore and rock, the cart rolled along easily and even did most of the work for her once she reached a long descending tunnel. Another of the rare joys of her life, if only a temporary one, Rika could never resist leaping on the back of the cart with her boots planted firmly and riding the cart down to the end of its line. She slowed near the end though, leaping off and dragging her booted feet in the dirt as the two guards carrying the human came into view at the end of the tracks. Not wanting to garner their attention Rika kept her head low, the tight braid spilling over her left shoulder as she tried to keep an eye on the two orc guards manhandling the human.
They threw him into the dirt, one laughing as he turned back to leave the mine while the other orc gave him the rules.
"We kill you when we want, we beat you when we's want. And if you's try to escape, we kills you slowly, reals slowly. Gots it?" The orc said quickly, firmly. Rika knew he wasn't lying.
The human just nodded, obviously scared.
"Oh! One more things, yous not allowed above the top level, you no go into the lights, not even looks for the sun. Its just shadows and darkness for you now boy!" the orc finished with a laugh, kicking dirt in the man's face before storming back up towards the other guard and leaving the mines to the slaves.
Rika looked at the human, just once, to make sure he was still lucid. Catching his eye, though, made her instantly feel foolish for the human seemed on the verge of tears and Rika had little desire to play the mother. With a gruff nod she turned, leaving the cart and taking herself further into the mines. It was only minutes before she heard the soft tramp of feet behind her, and a minute more before she turned to face the human and growl "What!"
Jeremiah jumped back, still frightened and even more wild eyed as he stared at her.
It took Rika a moment to realize the beard had probably thrown him. She really did need a shave, wanted one badly, but slavery had its cost. Besides, for reasons Rika had yet to fathom, the beard was apparently a requirement of her training.
"Your a girl" the human finally said, his fear flown to be replaced by humor.
"If you laugh i will knock your teeth out" Rika said roughly before she started to turn, already tired of the human and his dopey face.
"I'm sorry." Erik said more quietly, taking a step forward and opening his mouth before shaking his head gently "I've never seen a dwarf, let alone a girl dwarf. I was just..surprised is all."
As bad as it sounded, Rika could not ignore his apology.
"Yea, well. I still be prettier then you" Rika said, her own way of making things even between them.
"I'm Jere." Jeremiah stopped and sighed "My name is Erik De`althea"
Rika thought the human lied terribly, but accepted it having no reason to expect the truth from a slave. Even if she was one.
"Well Jereik De`althea, welcome to Delhalls. Now get your ass to work before we be getting a beaten" Rika finished, barking at the human for his lies.
"I…" his timid voice made Rika want to punch him, but he managed to finish despite the promise of it plainly glimpsed in her black eyes "I don't know what i'm to do."
"Dig?" Rika offered.
"Dig what?" Jeremiah responded, growing tired of the girls attitude. He was trying to be nice, after all.
"Oh just follow me" Rika said, hoping she could get the human on his way before being on her own.
They moved in silence for awhile, Jeremiah stepping easily alongside Rika until they came to the edge of the torches light. Beyond, only darkness waited and Rika did not hesitate to venture into it, leaving Jeremiah standing beyond staring at it fearfully.
RIka stepped back from the shadows when she realized he was no longer beside her. "Whats the problem?"
"It's dark" Jeremiah said, trying to sound like a man and not a frightened boy.
"You aint gonna be much use down here if ya cant be seeing now is ya?" Rika said with a huff.
"Well what do you want me to do about it!" Jeremiah yelled back at her, finally losing his patience.
Grumbling, Rika pulled a small stick of black chalk from her pocket and grabbed his arm roughly.
"Hold still" she mumbled
It took her but a moment of concentration, and when the dwarf girl was finished she took a step back and twitsed his hand to catch the torch light. A small rune glimmered strangely in the fire's radiance before Rika gave a nod. "Lets go."
"Wait, what?" Jeremiah said. His only answer was her hand, small and strong, grabbing his and pulling him into the darkness. It took him a few steps to realize that he could still see as clearly as he could in the light of day.
"How?" he answered his question by looking at the rune, still clearly defined, drawn on the palm of his hand.
"Ain't nothing" Rika said, then stopped and turned to face Jeremiah squarely. "And don't you be blabbing about it either!
Jeremiah had a moment to wonder why she would care who knew about her rune before Rika was further down the tunnel then he felt comfortable with. Luckily, being able to see, made it easy for his longer legs to catch up. Rika kept silent, but her eyes kept wandering back to Jeremiah as he studied the rune on his hand.
"It won't rub off, if thats what your thinking. And i be needing to do it once every few days, just to be sure you don't go wandering off in the dark without me." Rika muttered, wondering to herself why she was being helpful.
"So where are we going?" he asked a moment later.
"Dig the crystal" was all Rika said.
"Watch your head." she added, too late, a moment after Jeremiah slammed his forehead against a low stone. Rika, a dwarf to her soul, figured her rune casting was good enough reason not to have mentioned the low hanging rock before the human hit, and at least now the human could see her smile.
Lord Caro Xerinas was, among other things, a fine warrior and powerful warlock. As a vindicator, one of those Warlock Knights often charged with leading others into combat, he had seen many battles and mourned over the loss of many good men. When filled with grief he had fought on out of a hope, however misguided, that one day Vaasa might know the glories it had attained under the old ruling line. It had not been much; certainly tales of Vaasa's cold open lands had not reached the legendary status of places like Neverwinter Wood or Icewind Dale!
He had no aspirations but to serve his people, and perhaps to be told of in legends. Caro felt at one point in his life that he would make quite the epic hero. He had the tall, lean body of his mother’s elvish people mingled with the strong form and quick mind of his father’s. He was a half-elf, and though many found that standing between those two worlds was a burden, Caro believed that it helped to define, and not determine, his character. Diplomacy, and magic, came easily to one of his noble blood. So too did women, who were often drawn to his exotic mixed heritage or simply found themselves lost in the long dark hair framing his emerald eyes and handsome features.
Now, running through the snow-dusted pines of a small Vaasan wood, Caro realized that his nobility was but a distant chain to long dead kings, a weight that further damned a man fast drowning. He could rely only on his training, and that had already left its mark. The blood on his hands, blood of his own soldiers, was still hot enough to make the lingering scent of their deaths mingle with the fresh memories of the kill. He wanted to throw up, couldn't stop, and fought back the urge as long as he could. His conscience was clean, the soldiers had turned the minute that bastard Cael had given the order for his death. In Vaasa, the word of a Luminary carried more weight then a mere Warlock Knight. Though he clung to his honor it pained Caro, as much as the deep wound in his side, to know that each of those boy's had died by his hand because of another man's games.
Finally he had to stop, his hand pressed against the trunk of a tree as the half-elf searched out his wound and touched it gingerly. It wasn't mortal, not yet, but an infection would strike him down just as easily as an arrow at the moment and he had not the time for either of those deaths. The baying of Shadow Hounds didn't surprise him, he had heard before that Cael had strange ties to the hunting beasts, but Caro had never thought he would be the prey! He ran harder now, hoping his wound wouldn't tear, hoping his heart wouldn't give as the pursuing dogs howled in pre-mature triumph. The dogs, he decided, had to go. Normally a lover of animals Caro just hoped that any elvish ancestors watching him from beyond would forgive what he thought a heinous act born of desperation.
He spun quickly, pulling his enchanted glaive from the strap on his back and smiling as he felt the haft of the weapon shortening to half it's full reach. The weapon, crafted from Ironfell, was powerful in its own right and many would argue that a master with it had little to fear. Yet seeing the Shadow Hound melt out of the darkness and fix its gaze on him left Caro assured that he made the right choice in requesting the unusual enchantment. The thick clusters of pine trees around him would help, he hoped, and the weapon's long reach could be called upon instantly if he needed more distance between him and his opponent.
Keeping his back to the cluster of trees, knowing his slender form could slip through the gaps between much faster then the bulkier Shadow Hound, Caro realized too late the only flaw in his plan.
He had heard two distinct howls.
The second appeared in a burst of shadow behind the tree cluster, its vicious howls sparking the first Shadow Hound to make its charge. As it's partner made its deadly rush, the teleporting hound reached through the thin spaces between the trees with quick, vicious swipes of his paw intent on keeping the half-elf off balance and guarding his rear as it's twin went for the kill from the front. Trapped between the two beasts, Caro fought to find a place of stillness inside him and fight off the growing fear that death had come.
Gripping the short haft of the glaive, wielding it much like an axe, Caro kept his eyes closed and his ears open as the rushing hound approached and the other made its leisurely threats. He spun, just once, his short-handled glaive bursting with radiant energy as it sank deep into the Shadow Hound's paw. Howling in pain, its blood spilled free as it tore away from the weapon and ran, yet Caro had no choice but to complete the spin and hope his keen senses tracked the second Shadow Hound truly.
Wasting little time, feeling the sudden motion of his body tearing at his wound, he found his balance and set his feet to meet the rushing hound. The haft of his glaive held tight in both hands as the Shadow Hound leaped in, its dark maw open wide and howls born in the darkness blasting forth. Caro, dropping to one knee, avoided most of the attack though the sheer intensity of the howl had left his ears ringing and his senses scrambled. Instinct more then will had the haft of his glaive elongating again, the thick wood shooting up to leave the razor sharp Ironfell directly in the Shadow Hounds path. Planting the butt of the weapon in the earth and clinging to it desperately as his head pounded from the baying of the Shadow Hound, he took little satisfaction in the burst of radiant energy nor the sudden tumble of dead flesh atop him.
The Shadow Hound, skewered at the throat and sliced deep, bled out over the prone half-elf as the dying creature kicked and clawed at the empty air. The hound, large by any standard, was not easily pushed off and it took more then a moment for Caro to get himself free.
A moment the second Shadow Hound took clear advantage of, teleporting to his side with its muscles tensed. As Caro stood to face the threat another howl burst forth, this one blasting him directly and sending him tumbling back as waves of fear set his heart racing. He fought the instinct, knowing it as much a primal sense as a weapon used by the dreaded shadow beasts, but he knew that in that moment the Shadow Hound had him at it's mercy. A word it had no concept of. It lunged for the kill, and instead found the thick wooden haft of Caro's glaive, as well as Caro's hand. Teeth sharpened in a place of forever twilight ground down and pierced his skin; forcing Caro to cry out as he felt the sheer pressure of the Shadow Hound's bite threatening to tear off his fingers. Screaming in rage as the beast pushed its teeth farther down, Caro reached out with his free hand to grab the dog by the top of his head, his palm pushing against the beast's eyes.
Then he let slip the magic he had been building up, the blast of radiant energy focused directly against the Shadow Hound's eyes proving more then the beast could take. Yelping in pain as the magic burned away its vision it tumbled backwards from the blast before coming to stop, its head smoking. Caro let a grim smile touch his lips as he rose and shifted his short glaive to his uninjured hand. Blinded by the light, and burned by the meteoric impact, the second Shadow Hound died out of mercy.
Moments later, Caro was gone.