Even after four centuries had past, the signs of the great battle were still visible upon the earth.
Though the heart of the fight had been elsewhere back then, everything in the high north had changed. Where first woodlands had housed all kind of creatures, now only abandoned valleys, covered in rocks from numerous rockslides, remained.
It was now seen as a small battle that had been fought here. Children were only aware of the carnage near the capital, but never were they taught about the Corcoran War. The fight was only known by its name, though none of the people from Zeleny knew why it was called that.
A memory caused the man to stop. He had been climbing these mountains for a long time. For months he had risen at dusk, when the sun rose in the east, and stopped only when the burning globe set in the west.
Before him however, he didn’t see the gentle slope that would lead him to a cave in which he could rest for the night. He saw nothing but what his mind wanted him to see. A long road covered with the bodies of the soldiers and other men. Some ripped open by something with large claws, others simply butchered with swords or axes. But that had not been the worst part. He remembered that after walking, slowly so that he would not touch the bodies of the dead, several hundred feet later there were even more corpses. Or at least there should have been. Some who had been touched by the inferno when only a few feet away from the source were now nothing but a pile of ash. The people further away still had their bodies, or so it seemed. The things on the ground before him were blackened by the fire. When he looked at a man’s face, maybe it had been a woman, he saw empty eye sockets… the mouth was still open… still screaming in pain even after death.
The Corcoran War was named after those who survived. Those who had returned with skins gleaming red from the blood on their arms, legs and faces. The returned whose eyes had even turned red from the bloodshed.
From those men, most had gone mad in only days after their return. From the millions who had gone to war against the destructive power of the neighbour land of Kasch, only four thousand had survived. Nearly three thousand had met their ends in the first weeks after the madness took charge. Now only a handful lived, because even after four centuries of rebuilding Zeleny the few still alive felt uneasy, knowing that it had never been the end, only the beginning.
Chapter 1: The festival of Kagiso
Zeleny, most people referred to the country as the green land, was in a festive mood. Across the land, men and women lay down their tools, put on their brightest clothes and went to the nearest city. Every city was colourfully decorated, houses were cleaned inside and out, stalls were put outside the doors of these houses to show the goods that were for sale.
Leyna, capitol of the green land, was shining brightest of all. All gathered in that city to honour the festival of Kilgaso, a festival brought to life after the Great War, to celebrate the peace that now existed between the former rivals. Lords, merchants, farmers and common labourers feasted together, drunk, ate and celebrated as if this was the last day of peace they would share.
And everything was possible during that day. The king had declared long ago that on the day where peace and freedom were celebrated, no rules should exist and so, the festival of Kilgaso was rejoiced with full freedom… there were some however who were not so fortunate; the guards. For they had to keep order, or at least they had to try their best. For the festival brought up the best and the worst in the inhabitants. With rules declared null and void, even for a day, came allot of trouble.
An old man walked through the city’s gate. He had travelled for a long time in order to arrive here in time. Though the man had other reasons for entering Leyna on this very day was no one’s concern. He moved swift, different than one would expect from an old man. He wore a cloak of light blue wool, an aspect that marked him as an outsider, a small pack on his bag to contain the small positions he carried, today nobody cared for outsiders in their city.
How long was it since he had seen this city? The man wondered, looking up the hill, eyes following the brick road in front of him that would lead to the king’s palace.
Some men were walking down that road, probably sons and friends of the lords who had their residents up near the palace; their voices betrayed the fact that they had already had enough alcohol to forget most of the events that would occur this day. He shook his head, though a thin smile adorned his face. Before he was potted, the man walked into an alley. From complete light and colour, the man walked into a dark blackness. Slowly he moved, his hand touching the wooden wall of a house he knew would guide him to another wide street near the centre of the second circle. Once or twice he felt how cloth touched his face, just laundry hanging out to dry he guessed.
Vardan stepped into light as he left the small alley, into the open street.As Vardan turned right to walk towards the marketplace, he saw a small boy running. The kid was wearing rags for clothes and the old man squinted his eyes. Even beggars didn’t wear such clothes, at least not in Leyna. The boy was panting but he had a broad smile on his face, which could only mean one thing; he was pestering the guards. Vardan’s thoughts were proven to be right because only a few seconds after the boy raced around one of the corners, three guards appeared on the other side of the road. All were wearing the same uniform of black with a light blue prancing horse stitched on the right shoulder, even the helmets they wore looked the same. It was an amusing sight, since one or two of them didn’t look quite right in the outfit. One of them, Vardan guessed him to be Fremont, had forgotten his sword so that the scabbard now looked silly instead of impressive. The one called Garan was wearing a slightly too big a uniform, it didn’t look right.
“This way! He cannot be far away now. Garan you follow this street, Eamon you’ll try and see if the kid took one of the passages to the left and Fremont you come with me. We need to find this little prick and take back what he stole.” The commander said. He didn’t sound that pleased, Vardan noticed, not that it was a mystery why of course. The man was probably angry about everything and everyone on this day. Wasn’t this supposed to be a joyful day?
“But Sir, what did the boy steal?” he heard one of the three guards ask with a slight tremor in his voice.
The commander turned around slowly so that he could face the guard who had spoken to him. Anger was coming from him in waves. Even though the man tried to hide it well, Vardan could always see, always feel, he simply always knew what people were feeling when he looked at them. This anger, however not really meant for the guard who had spoken, was now directed at the poor man.
“You stop thinking, Eamon. Leave the thinking to me, you’re busy enough trying NOT to mess this up for us. Do you hear me?!” in the end the commander nearly shouted his rage.
“Yes, commander Kellan.” Eamon answered softly.
“I can’t believe that I took that stupid idiot of a nephew as a novice.” The man muttered to himself as he turned away. “Now what are you all waiting for? Move it, damn you!” he added. The man called Eamon was probably not even seventeen years old, Vardan noted.
He shook his head but when he tried to walk away he was stopped by the sound of a low voice.
“You, old man. Have you seen a boy? Small, pesky, dark haired?” the guard asked him. He had come his way so this probably was the man called Garan.
“No.” Vardan answered, his voice strained, his sharp eyes on the man in front of him. He didn’t like it to be called ‘old’. Maybe he looked that way now, but still… it hurt.
The guard mumbled something about elderly people, then started to walk down the street. The boy was probably long gone by now, Vardan thought, already turning into the direction he had wanted to leave in some minutes ago. However he was stopped when he heard a soft noise behind him. Looking over his shoulder, the small boy standing there. A small package was kept close to his chest, like he was protecting it somehow, a haunted look crossed the boys face when he heard the voice of the commander of the guards.
“Thank you, for not speaking of me.” The boy whispered and he bowed, as was custom, a sign of respect to the elders in the city. There was a glimmer in the eyes of the boy when he looked up at Vardan however. As if… he knew… no, that couldn’t be so, Vardan thought, dismissing the thought right after it came to mind.
“If you’d come with me, dear sir, I could do you a favour in return.”
“What are you talking about? Aren’t you a little young for thief training my small friend?” Vardan spoke so soft only the boy could hear his words. He was well aware of the thief guild stationed in the darkest part of the bright city, even there the light never touched the blackened, fire eaten stones, or so commoners had assured him long ago.
“I seem young, you seem old. Both tricks learned by time. Come Vardan, there is no time to lose.” Suddenly the boy’s voice didn’t sound that young anymore and the shape in front of his eyes started to blur. Vardan took a sharp breath, and then grumbled something about youngsters.
“Fine then. But on one condition.”
“What condition?” the man in front of Vardan now asked. His voice had a hint of humour in it, his green eyes were smiling. The man in front of him had no resemblance to the boy. This man was tall, well muscled, his hair was red and when he smiled small lines appeared around his eyes. Though his eyes laughed, a scar crossed his cheek from eye to mouth.
“You will not do anything else to mess up this day of celebration for the people, Ottokar.”
The expression of Ottokar darkened. “It will not be up to me.”
“What are you talking about?” Vardan asked, anger slowly rising inside him, though he could keep Ottokar from sensing the shift of emotion inside him.
“Words reached me that the Kasch are ready to march again.”
“Word is spreading fast.” Someone out of the hundreds of men and women gathered finally spoke. His voice carried through the long hallway of the castle they had assembled in. There was a surety in his voice that could make everyone believe every word he spoke. Vardan knew him well. He had fought beside that man time and again, never had he wavered, neither would he know.
“The Kasch are retreating? Are you positive?” a woman asked, barely concealed hope surrounded her; he knew that was the question on every mind. Thought he was thinking a different question altogether.
“It doesn’t matter if they are pulling back now or in a few weeks. Another question needs answering before that.” Vardan spoke. Again the image of the burned bodies appeared before his eyes. This was the meeting he had been asked to join. It was held only a few days after the battle on in the high mountains.
“What?! You’re out of your mind.” An angry voice replied. It was one of the survivors from the city, Vardan didn’t even try to remember his name. The man was already showing signs of the madness eating at his mind. His clothes were torn, his face bruised from where fists had met skin. It was clear to all of them that this man would not make the week.
“They need to retreat, only then will we all be safe again. Maybe we should hunt them down, kill them, rip their bodies open, desecrate them in the way they did our comrades.” Before that man could finish his words, two of the more powerful men amongst them grabbed him and started to drag him away. To where? No one knew. That was a secret known only to the ones called higher lords.
The higher lords were not to be treated without caution. They had been the ones powerful enough to contain the wraith of all Returned right after the war. Only they had been able to restore, in some cases just a tiny bit, of humanity in all of them. These high lords were the most cunning and respected of magicians.
“This will not end if we don’t butcher all of them!” his final words echoed through the grand hall where all had gathered. After it, silence ruled for a time.
“That is my question exactly. Will this be the definite end to the conflict?”
“Who gave you this information? You have spies among them? If so, you’re even more a fool than I thought.” Vardan growled. Now anger was slipping through, his control lessened a little and Ottokar saw the change immediately. He stepped closer, grabbing the old man by the shoulders, looking him in the eyes. Green eyes met dark ones as their presences clashed against each other. One ruled by anger, one soothing.
“Not here, Vardan. Trust me, please. Come with me.” The man begged. “This is important. What I’ve gathered today… it might get some odds in our favour.”
A presence pushed against his mind, trying to will him back into control. It succeeded, but barely.
“Fine. Lead the way.”
Ottokar took the man’s arm and took him into a side passage. Again, darkness enveloped them. When Vardan wanted to ask him why, guards passed through the streets. It was the same set as before. Though the commander Kellan didn’t seem too pleased about his failure, his guards looked a little gladder with the situation.
“I am glad we didn’t find the boy.” Fremont whispered to his companion, who chuckled softly.
“As am I. Who knows how much time we would have needed to spent on the little pest if we would have found him.” Garan answered.
“Shut up! All of you. We’ve lost a price today to some insignificant little thief. Keep this feeling in mind, you’ve failed me and your king. No matter how small the damage might seem, it is definitely not. You have all fucked up! If you think you’re going to have a nice free night, FORGET IT! You’re going to have night duty, all of you!” Kellan shouted at them. Protest came up short after.
When the sound of voices dimmed to a faint whisper and the steps of the men were only felt by both men, Ottokar looked at his old friend. Though the old man disguise worked for him, he knew that his friend couldn’t make the journey in this form.
Both eyed each other, trying to figure out what the other was thinking. Though Vardan could guess what his friend wanted of him, he waited till the request was made.
Nothing but an unnatural silence hung in the alley as Ottokar spoke to him directly, “You cannot make the trip looking like that, my friend.” The inner voice spoke in his mind. A mental picture was shown to him, Vardan hissed in response.
“You promised me I would never have to go to that place again.” He spoke out loud, pain clearly noticeable in his voice. The old man closed his eyes and shook his head as the Inner spoke directly to him. “I do have a choice in this.” He protested, but without any result, they needed him as they needed any of the Returned who still lived this day.
“I am too old for this.” He commented, a faint smile now showing around his lips. While one always said he was too old, the other always expressed that he would be young forever. That was why one looked like an elderly man at times while the other ran around looking like a boy running away from his parents. It was a little private joke, made up ages ago.
With a sigh, the figure of the old man started to blur and in seconds there was another man visible. The man was Ottokar’s match in height and muscle both had gained during the same experiences in their lives. But while Ottokar had red hair and a friendly expression, Vardan was dark haired, his eyes cold and nearly black, long hair into a braid on his back and a beard that had some silver rings in it. Nothing was left from the old man disguise, no brown robe covered by a light blue cloak, and no little pack on his back. In front of Ottokar stood a warrior who had been proclaimed dead long ago.
For a moment there was a silence as both assessed the situation. The two men were reluctant to go to the place they had left behind so long ago. Both were haunted by nightmares still, but they also knew that they could not escape this path the three spinsters had created for them. Then hands clasped and words were said. A disturbance in the air was the only thing that gave way to the magic that was used in that small dark alley. Then, with a flash of bright light surrounding them, the men disappeared from view.
They reached the northern mountains in a flash. Bright light surrounded them again as they came into view. Mountains tall as giants surrounded them, for they had teleported into a valley. All across the valley, small dots of stone rested that had once housed, long ago, farmer families. Now with the valley deserted it was free for magicians to use as a resting place.
Both men looked pale from the amount of magic they had used to transport themselves to this place. Neither were used to letting so much of their magic slip away in one go, it had not happened to them for years now. There had never been a reason to use this enormous amount of magic in one go, no meetings, no fights, no conflicts between the returned soldiers that needed to be dealt with after the last meeting now 326 years ago.
“Never thought I’d say this but I am getting old.” Ottokar groaned, even now a smile could be seen in his eyes.
“This is really getting to you isn’t it? I thought I was the one getting old here and that you were supposed to be the one that would stay young forever.” Vardan replied, taking a deep breath to fight the fog in his mind. How long had he not used his magic like this? The last meeting had been so long ago, after that the only time he had used this much of his powers had been to transport him to that quiet place…
“Hello, I was talking to you, you know.” Said a voice pulling him back from that peaceful memory.
“What?” Vardan said, straightening his back so that he now stood in his full height. Even though he didn’t wear armour he still was impressive to see. On both arms he wore several arm rings, from gold to silver to bronze.
“Well now that you’ve got your colour back we should be moving. From here it’s still quite a climb up that smallish hill.” Ottokar said, the last part a little sarcastically because the smallish hill was in fact a mountain that seemed to reach the sky and pierce through the clouds above, ignoring the black look his friend gave him. He was used to that by now. “We need to around it, then through the underground passage remember.” Ottokar grinned. “That’s what happens when one is young of mind, you remember things.”
“Wipe that grin of your face.” Vardan grumbled as he already walked towards the mountain top to the west of their current location. From now on no magic could be used by any who entered this sacred place. That was rule set up long before, and even if that rule wasn’t applied the magicians weren’t able to enter because in the parts around the castle they headed for, was spelled so that those with magic would lose it right there.
“No.” Ottokar said joyfully as he started to follow his friend west. Once side by side the man looked at Vardan. “Don’t think about that now, we’ll see what They want when we get there.”
Once again the magicians had been called from every corner of Zeleny. Murmurs now filled the great hall. There was dissatisfaction in every voice, hostility in every manner, all Returned were waiting for the high lords to appear from their quarters.
“Why call another meet?”
“I don’t know but I don’t like this one bit. We were supposed to be free of this war by now. What if the king…”
“The man had nothing to do with that. This is all their doing!”
In one of the darker corners in the grand hall, a man rested in the shadows. He had travelled across the country to get here on time. Only after he had been contacted by the Inner voice of his friend he had decided to come to this meet. It appeared that he was not the only one wondering why those high lords had called them together yet again.
“Maybe it was that man who died some weeks ago. It was said he had the madness in him. I was told the high lords locked him up.”
That might be a reason, Vardan thought, though highly unlikely. He knew the high ones had no longer the favour of the people they had had about twenty years ago but he also knew that there had to be another reason to call everyone together again.
The two doors at the end of the hall opened again and at once there was a silence in the grand hall. Candles flickered, men and woman moved aside so that the high ones could pass and take their seats at the front of the hall. The high lords, two women and three men, moved silently through the hall. Not any of them looked all that impressive but the power that came from them did. Vardan shivered and he came forth from the shadows he had been hiding in.
When all were seated one of the men raised his arms and a ringing sound echoed through the hall, telling everyone in the building the meet had started. After the sound ebbed away he sat down and a woman rose, taking his place.
“It has been a tough time for all of us. Some who were with us at the beginning have now passed to a better place. Those troubled by the madness are now released into the beyond. Many of you are wondering why we called you at this time.” Her voice was soft, though powerful and all in the hall kept their thoughts to themselves out of respect. She of all had suffered most.
“We have decided it was best to bind your powers.”
After those words, chaos ruled the grand hall.
“Happy Kilgaso.” Ottokar said with a chuckle. Immediately he ducked away, avoiding a blow aimed at his face. A laugh reverberated through the valley they were walking in
“Fool.” Vardan growled.