Prologue:

From ashes, reborn. 

 

 

"I like storms. I like feeling like I’m not in control.”

The words could only have been a king’s.

And, indeed, the child king was running around the room, from one window to the other. Outside, a storm raged on such as had not been seen since the plague year.

The minister responsible during the king’s minority let the child run around the room without a single word. He felt pity for the eight-year-old, too young for such cares, burdens, woes. Three months had the child king ruled with the faithful minister by his side, while the realm was paralyzed with fear.

The omens were there, the prophecies all come true. And they said when the royal family died away completely the spirit worlds would merge with their own. There was scant a more terrorizing prospect. And after the plague, the red star, and that dreadful day when the earth had shaken and broken cities in its wake...

It had been less than a year since King Sired Sunhunter had passed away, though in the prime of his health. True, he had been a somewhat cruel king, but no one remembered such trifles anymore. Luckily, the plague had died down by then, at least in most places. The afflicted had run to the capital and tried to break the castle doors. The old scriptures said a king’s hands could heal, and the sick’s pleading echoed like thunder against a pale sky. King Sired Sunhunter headed his ministers, though, and not placed a foot beyond the castle doors. The plague never entered the palace, but within the city it spread like wildfire.

And then the king fell ill and died within a fortnight, though not from plague. He passed the crown to his eldest, Vadir of only fourteen years of age. But young Vadir scant sat a month on the throne before the spirits claimed him too. The crown then passed to his brother Cuthman, then his sister Larenna, then finally to Conleth, the eight-year-old running from window to window.

The realm waited with bated breath, but, despite their worst fears, the young king survived one month, two months, three, and yet the spirits had not claimed him. He had to live, had to rule, or darkness would follow.

The minister followed the Child King’s movements around the room, wishing with all his heart the other worlds would forgive Conleth his young life. He prayed he would never see this new king die, and his prayer was answered, for the minister himself was claimed within a week. Of what, the sages could never discover.

What the minister did not know was that King Conleth hasted to meet him in the grave. The eight-year-old ruled for one more month before same strange spirit disease that took his mother, father, brothers, and sister claimed him too. And so it was that the youngest boy, Alois, now the only surviving member of the royal family, a boy that had always been sickly, dispirited, weak, and bullied by his brothers, became king of the land of Ashkrom.

And since Alois was the last of the Sunhunters, the very final remnant of a whole dynasty, he had become, at the age of six, the only king in the history of the realm, of any realm, that never once feared an attempt on his life. 

The Land of Wasted Opportunities

Chapter 1:

Deceit was our only advantage. 

 

 

"Ormar Sarazin’s note

 

            I was born within the halls of the Black Palace in the Imperial City of Ashkrom. For all my life, I’ve served the realm. Or at least that’s what I initially intended.

            I am nearing ninety-four years of age. I am too old to lie to myself anymore. I’ve done more harm to the world than most people put together. I can see that. I’ve seen that for decades. It was me and my kind that did this to the realm. Not the plague, not the famine, not the droughts, floods, not even the landslide. Not the red star. Not the spirits from the other worlds. It was us. Sometimes I wonder how many lives we ruined. The thought does not keep me up at night.

            And we made a thrall, a prisoner, even. Yes, a prisoner out of the man that held the key, perhaps, to salvation. He is a prisoner still. We would have killed him if we hadn’t been afraid to. It would have been far more merciful.

            This confession is not meant to do anything. I do not intend it should provoke change. Perhaps it will be destroyed by the first hand that finds it, and that’s only if I don’t take it to the grave. It takes all my will not to cast it into the fire right now.

            If any of my kind find it, and yes, you know who you are, I can only hope it will make your chest clench and your mind reel. I do not think it will cause any change of heart. We’ve been at it for far too long. I can only wish the king would find it. And if you do, you coward, you weak monarch, I hope you can see that you too are to blame. Your cowardice was the key to everything. I can only tell you this: cowards never triumph. Never. For ourselves, I can at least say we had backbone.

            I should reveal everything, perhaps, but I would not even know where to begin. I don’t remember the first lie, only that it was the catalyst to everything. I do not even remember to whom the lie was addressed. Probably myself.

I should try to write down as much as possible, so that someone might piece the story together, but whatever strength I have left is to take my life. I am nearly ninety-four years old. It’s too much. Life was never meant to last this long.

            But the secret does not die with me. There are so many who share it. In fact, I’d wager that if we truly look closely, if we tear the secret down to its core, we’d find that all humanity shares it.

            We just love to lie, don’t we?

 

 

"Alright. Alright. Enough already. I get it. I’ll tell you my cursed story if it you want to hear so badly. But you know I’ll only tell you the relevant parts. At best. It’s too long to go into detail. And I don’t want to.

“I suppose I’ve got to start at the beginning. Not of my story, but the world. That’s the only way you’ll ever understand. Otherwise you’ll blame me for everything. Or worse still, you won’t blame me for anything. I had my part in it, same as so many others.

“If you’re truly set at it, then so be it. The knowledge of what happened will make you none the wiser. It might not even make you angry. Sad is the most likely. Confused, not about the tale itself but about...  About what? I’ll admit I’m not sure I can tell right from wrong anymore.

“Well, then, the beginning. The beginning… In the beginning, the spirits wandered. And wondered. They possessed bodies, only to desert them. The abandoned bodies were granted visions, and men fell down and prostrated to those visions. This reverence tamed the spirits’ wild nature, and they approached humans, without the purpose of possessing their bodies.

“What? No, I don’t know why the spirits posses bodies. If you want the tale, then keep silent. I’ve indulged you too much as it is. I don’t even know why I’m telling you all this. There seems to be no point in anything. It’s not as if this tale will change anything.

“Don’t call me that. If I’m a pessimist, it’s because I see things as they are. If we had the power to change anything, we would have done so long ago.

“The only humans to have changed the order of things were the first ones that worshipped the spirits. Spirit of fire. Spirit of light. And so the sun came into being. The sun, which was once the symbol of our crumbling empire. Ashkrom: land of the sun. Or did you think the doors at the palace were marked with the image of the sun for no reason? Yes, before the phoenix, we had the sun. The phoenix doesn’t come into the story just yet.

“By Ikvarah, you’re impatient! Just wait; you’ll see why all of this is relevant to the story. You can’t understand our situation right now if you do not see what led to it. Everything that led to it.

“It’s my story, I should tell it as I want. But I’ll tell you a bit about our current king, if you’re so eager. King Alois Sunhunter, cursed by the spirits. No, I’ve got to go back. You need to understand why he’s cursed. What his ancestors did. Our ancestors. Us. Why there’s not way out of this. The spirits do not forgive.

“Men do forgive, or at least think they do. We forgive because we need to. Because we are not powerful enough to be unmovable. Tell me this: if you had power, true power, would you ever forgive?

“You lie. Everybody lies. Put some more wood in the fire, will you?

“Thank you. Yes, of course I lie. I was taught to. The king? Yes, the king lies too. All of them lie. But you trouble yourself too much with the present king. It was the ones before that truly mattered. Alois is important only in his idleness.

“Spirits matter more than kings, but since you’re so intent on the former… I suppose I can skip ahead. What was that? My first thought when I saw the king? How could I even remember now? Mind you, it was not this king, or the one before, but many, many before. I can’t even remember all the kings I’ve outlived.

“Yes, I was a courtier to the Dark King. And it was many years ago… So many…

“Am I telling the whole truth? Pay attention. I just told you. Everyone lies.” 

 

"Back then, there were a few families considered to be sacred. The spirits had blessed them through the ages. Mine was one of such. People traveled miles and miles to speak with my grandfather, who’d had been granted visions of the other worlds even as a child.

           

The court was always short of retainers. It had been a long while since my family had sent anyone away to serve. And so they sent the summons. I remember my grandfather meditated long about the issue. He did not leave the village shrine for two full days, going without drink or food.

           

He chose me because of my auspicious birth. I had been born in the year of the plentiful harvest, on a many-starred night. None of the evil wandering planets had been in the sky, so no evil contaminated my new body. From a young age, I had shown many talents. I had a powerful voice, even as a child. I could walk for long hours without rest. And there was something else, but I’ve forgotten now.

           

It was a warm, glorious spring, but there was still snow in the mountains over by the northern border. My father dragged me up and down every icy peak, through monastery and monastery, praying and pleading with the spirits, until my legs seemed ready to drop.

           

‘Bless my son,’ he would tell the monks, ‘he’s going to the palace.’

           

We would give them food or clothes, or even coin, and they would chant for my good fortune and the continuing pride of my family. 

           

My father would kick me in the ankles. ‘Chin up!’ he’d say. ‘Is that how you’ll stand in the palace?’ He had a face like a mask, unreadable, with cold, glinting eyes and wrinkles that never moved. ‘Bless my son,’ he’d say. ‘Bless him.’

           

To the monasteries lower down the mountain we took fruit and water. To the more remote ones we brought vegetables that we had to carry in our back the whole climb up.

           

‘I hate leeks,’ said one of the monks as he rubbed two fingers together. My father produced a few coins from his pouch. The monk nodded. ‘He has an evil presence. Something sinister is trying to enter his mind.’

           

My father bumped his fist against the monastery wall to scare away any present spirits. I knew what he was thinking. I must have done something wrong, otherwise it would have been very hard for a dark spirit to get so close to a descendant of one of the great masters of antiquity, known as Arowald of Stone. The spirits seldom went for the children of holy men. Too much trouble.

           

‘He must fast for three days,’ was the monk’s verdict.

           

I was locked in a dark room, with nothing but a few glasses of water and two slices of bread that stuck to my teeth. In the courtyard below, the monks were drinking and dancing naked, so that their baseness might attract the spirit trying to posses me. They were older and far more disciplined than me; they could subdue the spirit if it ever entered their mind.

           

‘Unless it comes from Ikvarah,’ my father muttered. Only the holiest of men could subdue such a spirit. But those went for kings and great, powerful men, using them as vessels for their greed. They paid no mind to boys from impoverished villages.

           

The spirit possessed the master of the monastery, who fought with it for ten days and ten nights, while we all patiently – and anxiously – waited. He tried to drown it in a frozen mountain stream, to choke it with the thinner air of higher altitudes, to hurt it with fire. He went about the land, battling the dark spirit. And we waited. We fetched food and built fires when he asked for them. We kept watch from a distance when he buried himself in the snow on cold nights. We followed him to frozen waters. We chanted around him with holy relics. And we cried. And we feasted and drank, so that the spirit might be tempted, and thus, weakened.

           

On the tenth day, we spied the master walking gently up the sloping side of the mountain. He was covered in bruises and burn marks, his waist-long hair torn in places, and he limped. But we welcomed him with cheers and celebration. No more feasts. No other spirits should be tempted. The monastery had to be cleansed, minds kept pure, all good things worshipped.

           

We ate only old bread, had small sips of water, woke at dawn and slept at dusk. The days were spent sweeping the floors and honoring the good spirits. The great master read the sacred texts to me, which I tried to commit to memory. Those days in the monastery were harsh, but I did not know it. That was how it had always been. I was not prepared for palace life, for the Dark King and his court. Until then, I hadn’t even heard the word splendor. I almost wish I never had.

           

Forgive me, that was another lie.”

 

"The Dark King? Hmmm… there have been so many kings that I’ve lost track. I’ve outlived so many. They have shorter lives than us normal people, kings do. But I can say this: we never could speak the Dark King’s name. They said he had been cursed as a child, and the name itself could unleash the spirits’ fury.

           

“Why? The name was like a birthmark; he had to bear it, but tried to forget about it as often as possible. We were told to simply refer to him as Majesty…” He paused for a second. “Someone’s at the door,” the old man motioned for the girl to hurry and answer.

           

Light permeated the room through dusky windows, and only a few candles were lit. It had become a strange habit of the old man, as age settled upon him, to avoid light. Within his cave, he whiled the days away, counting the moments until he could finally rest.

           

Despite his age, he had a long head of hair, white as snow, that fell down to his shoulders. He had lost the ability to walk, and his hands shook so much that he required help for the most menial of tasks. This meant he could not live alone, much as he desired solitude. But the years had left his memory intact. He could revisit any moment of his long life, and it seemed the very colors and smells were more alive within his mind that they had ever been.

           

“Ainela, who is it?” cried the old man after his granddaughter had been gone for a minute or so.

           

The girl’s shoes were filthy and they left a little trail of mud all the way to the door. Outside the dark abode, the sun was shinning on yellow grass. The last, dry days of summer were rolling past, and the old man hid in the shadows, waiting for them to be over.

“From the palace,” she said, reappearing. Behind her walked a middle-aged man, tall and dark, clad in riding clothes.

           

“Lord Grelaney,” offered the stranger, bowing his head.

           

“No,” replied the old man. “I’ve never been a lord in my life. Come a little closer so I can see you.”

           

“Yes, my lo…” the man cleared his throat, “Grelaney,” the way he said the word seemed almost a question.

           

“Shino,” the old man offered his first name.

           

“Shino,” repeated the stranger.

           

Shino Grelaney stared at the face before him, certain he’d seen it before. “You’re a messenger. Asato’s messenger.” 

           

“Indeed, my…”

           

“Ah, so that old rascal is still alive. And what news does he bring?”

           

The messenger cleared his throat. “A letter.” He produced a rolled piece of parchment and offered it to the old man.

           

Shino Grelaney reached out with a shaky hand, “Ainela,” his voice seemed to be pleading.

           

The eighteen-year-old girl took the parchment from her grandfather’s trembling hand. She carefully unrolled it and stepped next to the old man.

           

“Huh,” Shino finally said. “And did Ormar truly kill himself?” he asked.

           

“Yes,” replied the messenger. “Hanged himself. Tied the rope to the rafters. Must have been difficult at his age.”

           

Must’ve had help. The old man nodded. “Has Asato shown this to the king?” he pointed at the letter in the girl’s hands.

           

“No. He has a matter to discuss with you before he does.”

           

“Ah, so this is a summons.”

           

“An invitation.”

           

“To the palace?” Shino’s gaze was stone cold.

           

“No,” replied the messenger. “My lord knows how you feel about returning. He wishes to see you at his daughter’s house, in the outskirts of town, not far from here.”

           

“Tomorrow. Tell him I will go tomorrow.”

           

“Tomorrow, then,” the messenger said as he bid farewell.

           

“Grandfather,” said Ainela.

           

“What? Oh, the story? It’ll have to be another day.”