Authors: David Wells
Tags: #Epic, #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction
He dreaded going out to face his patrons, the Lord and Lady Valentine. It was all the worse that he was an old and dear friend of the family and had been Darius’s principal teacher for his entire education. He loved the boy and could hardly swallow the lump in his throat as he rose from his dying patient’s side.
When Lucky came out of the house infirmary, Bella sobbed at the look of anguish on his face. Duncan, Lord of the House, stood straight-backed at his wife’s side, his face ashen and set.
Lucky took a deep breath and composed himself before speaking, “I’ve done all I know how to do and he’s still getting worse.”
Alexander suddenly had a thought. He shot to his feet and abruptly left the room.
“Alexander,” called his mother through her crying.
“Let him go,” his father said quietly.
Alexander ran to the stables and found his saddle. He still had the arrow that had impaled his brother. He ran back to the infirmary, burst through the door, and walked straight up to Lucky, arrow in hand.
“What if it was poisoned?” Alexander held up the arrowhead to Lucky, who looked Alexander in the eye for a moment, nodded once, then snatched the arrow and headed for his workshop in haste.
Alexander felt suddenly deflated once again. For a moment he could take action to help his brother, but now he could only wait. He went to his brother’s side and took his hand. “Hold on, Darius. Lucky will figure this out and make it right.”
From somewhere behind him, Abigail whispered, “He has to.”
Late in the evening, it became clear that Darius was dying. In his last hours, the small room filled to overflowing with family and friends. He was loved by everyone who knew him. Even the toughest ranch hands cried without shame.
Lucky determined from the arrowhead that it had indeed been coated with baked-on poison. The effect had been slowed because the arrowhead hadn’t lodged inside Darius but instead went straight through him. Unfortunately, even a small dose of the poison was deadly and there was no antidote.
Darius was dying.
Amidst the mourning, Anatoly strode in, caked in road grime. “Found him,” he growled with angry satisfaction. He stopped short when he took in the scene of the people in the room.
“Is he gone?” the big man-at-arms asked softly.
Duncan shook his head and motioned toward his dying son. Anatoly went to Darius’s side to say his goodbyes. As Anatoly took his hand, Darius gasped his last breath and died. Bella and Abigail wailed in anguish almost in chorus. Duncan sat heavily and stared blankly while tears streamed down his face.
Abigail buried her face in Alexander’s shirt and wept. He held his sister and felt a kind of anguish wash over him that seemed boundless and all-encompassing. Before this moment he didn’t even know this kind of pain existed.
His big brother was dead. His best friend. His protector. His hero. Gone.
The whole of the world would never be the same again. The finality of it was terrible. The sudden void was utterly without mercy.
Alexander succumbed to the pain of it. He gave himself over to it. Let it fill him. He held nothing back, allowing the hurt to find its way into every crevasse of his psyche. He stood there for a long time, holding his sister and feeling immeasurable sorrow while tears streamed down his face.
Her presence brought him back from the hopelessness. She was still alive. His family still needed him, now more than ever. He had to put his emotions in perspective, mourn his brother’s death, and live his life.
Then it hit him and his eyes snapped open. The pain of his sorrow shifted into cold anger. “Anatoly … who did you find?”
Anatoly stood, anger on his face in spite of the tear streaks running through crusted dirt from his eyes to his chin.
“We found the man who shot Darius. He’s shackled and locked in the holding cell. Four of my best men are guarding him.” Anatoly grinned tightly with absolutely no humor. “You got his horse, by the way. Nice shot.”
Everyone stood and faced Anatoly.
Duncan asked, “What has he said?”
“Quite a bit, actually. After some persuading, mind you.” Anatoly gestured for everyone to step out of the room where the lifeless body of Darius lay.
“He’s a member of the Reishi Protectorate. About a month ago he was sent to locate and kill Darius. He doesn’t know why, only that he has orders from the General Commander of the Protectorate. He made his way from Tyr, found Darius, and shot him with a poisoned arrow.” Anatoly gave his report in the detached manner of a soldier but it was clear to everyone in the room that he was hurting as much as anyone.
“Why would someone from the Reishi Protectorate want to kill my brother?” Abigail asked. “The Reishi are dead. They’ve been dead for two thousand years.”
Anatoly looked down, shaking his head. “The prisoner doesn’t know why,” he said softly. “He claims he was just following orders.”
“If he was following orders, then a better question is why was he ordered kill Darius?” Duncan said. “Anatoly, did he speak my son’s name?”
“Yes. His orders were to kill Darius Valentine.”
Bella touched her husband’s arm, “It can’t be … can it?”
Duncan took his wife’s hand and squeezed reassuringly as he shook his head, as much for his own comfort as hers. “The Reishi Protectorate is more rumor and legend than anything these days.” Duncan frowned in thought. “Lucky, what do you know of the history of the Reishi Protectorate?” He doubted the old alchemist knew any more than he did, but Duncan Valentine was thorough and knew events often turned on the smallest details.
Lucky leaned forward. “Little that will shed light on the motives behind your son’s murder, I fear.” Lucky closed his eyes and dredged his memory. “The Reishi Protectorate served as the royal guard for the Reishi family during the two thousand years that the Reishi Sovereigns ruled the Seven Isles. For much of those many years the people lived in peace until the last Reishi Sovereign took up necromancy. He quickly descended into madness and tyranny. It was a very dark time. The First Reishi Sovereign discovered the secret of making Wizard’s Dust, so they had many true wizards and more than a few mages and arch mages. Their power was unrivaled for millennia.
“Their cruelty was their downfall. One of their own house stole the secret of Wizard’s Dust, their most jealously guarded secret, and distributed seven copies of the process, one to each of the Seven Isles. The Sixth Reishi Sovereign responded by declaring open war on any non-Reishi magic. That was the beginning of the Reishi War. It raged across the Seven Isles for nearly two centuries. After untold destruction, the war ended with the death of the Sixth Reishi Sovereign and the loss of the secret of Wizard’s Dust.
“To this day, the Reishi Protectorate believes that the Reishi line will rise again to claim its rightful place as rulers of the Seven Isles. Over the centuries they have become more of a secret society or a cult than anything else.” Lucky sighed, “Most people don’t even believe they still exist.”
Alexander stood abruptly. “I want to talk to the prisoner,” he said and started for the door.
Anatoly looked to Duncan, who nodded slightly. The big man-at-arms fell in behind the new heir to the House of Valentine.
Alexander looked at his brother’s killer through the cell bars. The man was helpless and yet Alexander wanted to hurt him just the same. He wondered what that revealed about his own character.
He relaxed the focus of his vision, and the colors of the man’s living aura began to shine. He was evil, cowardly, and absolutely terrified. Alexander was coming to rely on his ability to see a person’s colors. It was so revealing.
“Do you know why you were sent to kill my brother?” Alexander’s voice was flat and detached. He couldn’t afford to let emotions get in the way of discovering the truth.
“No! I told your big ox back there the same thing,” he said pointing at Anatoly with his chin.
Alexander watched his colors. The man was telling the truth.
“What is the purpose of the Reishi Protectorate?”
“We protect the Reishi line,” he blurted out, happy to answer a question that was common knowledge.
“The Reishi are dead,” Alexander replied.
The killer shook his head vigorously. “No, they’re not,” he said firmly. “There’s one left.”
“What do you mean there’s another Reishi?” Alexander asked.
Alexander stood a few inches taller than six feet. He was well built and strong from working on the range. He had handsome features and light brown hair cut to medium length. His most striking feature was his eyes. He had his father’s eyes, only more so. They were soft brown with flecks of gold in the irises that glittered when he got angry.
They were glittering now.
The prisoner looked furtively at Anatoly standing behind Alexander before answering. “There’s an obelisk on one of the islands of Tyr. Prince Phane Reishi is inside … for now, anyway,” he said with a nervous titter.
“For now?” Alexander asked.
“The obelisk came alive a month ago, all swirls and lights floating around on its surface. The old scrolls say that means Prince Phane will come out of his long sleep very soon.” The prisoner believed what he was saying. Alexander was sure of it.
He frowned while he thought about his next question. Abigail and his parents were standing behind him, beside Anatoly.
The air grew strangely still. Alexander felt every hair on his body stand on end just before a magical shockwave passed through the room. Awareness of Phane flooded into everyone’s mind. They all stood mute, looking at each other for confirmation of what they had just experienced.
A moment later, Alexander felt a sudden burning on the right side of his neck. For all the world, it felt like he was being branded with a hot iron. He cried out and stumbled backward trying to escape the shocking pain. It lasted for only a moment, but it was blinding in its intensity.
Alexander found himself sitting on the floor gasping, his hand pressed tightly over the side of his neck, and his family standing over him looking worried.
“Let me see.” Bella’s voice was strong but forlorn. He looked up at his mother blankly, still shaken by the sudden pain and stunned with confusion about its source. She looked back as if to say “Well?”
Alexander removed his bloody hand. There, on the right side of his neck, was the ancient glyph of the House of Reishi branded by fire into his flesh. The wound was still fresh. Bright red blood was smeared around the burn where he’d pressed his hand. It hurt.
Alexander was marked.
The ancient story of the curse was true. Bella Valentine’s face went shock white. She stood straight and looked at her husband. Each was a mirror of the other’s feelings. Anguish, fear for their son, and iron resolve. The time was here. The curse had been invoked.
“Alexander, we need to talk about this. Let’s go upstairs,” Duncan said as he helped his son to his feet.
When Alexander came close to the bars of the cell, the prisoner lunged with a sharp piece of wood he’d splintered off the leg of the bed. Duncan and Alexander were unaware, but Anatoly was watching closely. He was prepared. He had a short sword in hand.
“Death to the Marked One!” the prisoner cried out as he lunged.
Anatoly shouldered Alexander aside and thrust with his sword. He caught the prisoner straight in the middle of the chest and stopped him cold. They stood looking each other in the eye.
“I’ve failed … oh, no.”
Anatoly saw a look of panic as the light faded from the assassin’s eyes. He fell off the end of Anatoly’s sword and was dead when he hit the ground.
“Anatoly, increase security and tell the stableman to have horses ready for everyone at dawn.” Duncan Valentine always knew this day was possible but he never actually believed it would come. It had been two thousand years since the end of the Reishi War. His father had told him the story of the curse as he lay on his deathbed. Now the curse had been invoked and his son knew nothing of his destiny. He looked hard at Alexander with love and hope.
Duncan put his hand on Alexander’s shoulder. “My son, I have much to tell you.”
Anatoly returned from issuing his orders, cleaning his blade off as he entered the room. “Duncan, let’s have this conversation in your hall. It’s more easily defended and I suspect Alexander will want a glass of wine or two by the time you’re done.”
They made their way to the great hall of Valentine Manor. It was a huge central gathering room capable of accommodating a hundred people or more. The ceilings were vaulted and soared thirty feet into the air. The windows were high on the walls and too narrow for a man to fit through easily. The long room was lighted by three enchanted chandeliers that magically glowed on command, prized possessions of the Valentine household.
In the center of the room was a polished oak table stretching the length of the hall, with cushioned chairs all around. Everyone who mattered most to Alexander was at the table … everyone except Darius. His head was swimming and the pain of the burn on his neck was still distracting. He sat with one hand on his neck and the other on his forehead. His eyes were closed and he was still a bit stunned by all that had happened.