Authors: Jonathan Lazar
To the Heart of my Truest Believer, Sean
The smallest spark
often ignites the largest flames.
The Crimson Fairy Book
Let me tell you a tale I remember my Father once told long ago as the sweet embrace of night enclosed around us. He spoke by light of the campfire, under the pale gibbon moon.
Once upon a time…
There was a realm very much like ours, but different. In this realm, Animals spoke with a fluent Human tongue. Magic was ancestral, ancient. Wolves shape-shifted under influence of the full moon, and the once mighty House of Red, was falling.
The delicate amber light of the full moon, in all its fullness shone bright. Once a generation the amber Hunters Moon appeared. It signaled to those that still believed in the old tales, a time of change, and uncertainty. As it has for centuries unending, since it’s naming by a tribe of hunters so old, none remember them in this Age. So bright did the Hunters Moon shine in the cloudless night sky, the stars that held court were blinded away by its brilliance, and might. Though a few dared shine bright enough to see what change the moon would bring. The amber glow descended upon the crumbling red-stoned city of Zhan’ding. The city seemed to lament a sad tale to the listening moon.
Not a single breeze blew far out from the crumbling city. The air grew stale in the late hour. The forest darkened as time passed onward. Even the amber moon could break not through its most guarded secrets, and cast spells. A silvery mist hung upon the forest floor.
Nothing moved. Nothing but the contingent of soldiers that manned the Outer Wall in heavy anticipation moved. Every available station posted. Every available man, young, old, and in-between armed with aged, broken, and rusted weapons. A soldier’s body shook violently, while eyes were locked upon the dark landscape. He attempted to flee. The Captain, who forcefully shoved him back where he belonged without a word, stopped the young man. His rough, golem sized hand released the scared boys collar before he continued on his rounds. Hands clasped tight behind his back. Fear shot through his own spine. Fear to run. Fear to hide. It was loyalty to his dying city that over-powered him to press on. Press on to ensure no others ran.
The buildings, bricks, and mortar groaned. The very foundation Zhan’ding was built upon moaned a sad melody. It was a song even the Winds refused to carry. The Outer Wall creaked, homes creaked, and the great palace creaked. They all creaked upon the stale wind that swirled around. The soldiers listened to their fair city sing its requiem for death. To be released from its suffering. The soldiers wished not to speak of it, but it seemed the city would do it for them. The city knew that it would not see another golden sunrise crest the horizon.
The great city of Zhan’ding was dying. Having seen its height of glory years ago, when the immortalized Lord Red, killed the demon Queen of the Wolves. The House of Red scattered the Vucari into nothing more than handfuls of bickering Clan that have continued to fight amongst themselves in an internal power struggle. But even that was not without its costs to the Realm. For the Wolves had an ally now. And they were organizing, growing, and preparing. They were coming.
Zhan’ding, nothing more now than broken individuals, crumbled houses, and decayed dreams. The city showed its immense age to all who looked upon it. The Outer City, nearly inhabitable. Homes near the Wall abandoned for safety of any beast or creature that may enter unannounced, their stones repurposed elsewhere, while the Inner City reached that point. Even the great palace began to crumble. The central tower that once shot straight to the sky leaned lazily left. All available supplies allocated to the integrity of the Wall to keep the Wolves that encroached at bay. Though that becomes a daily task in itself, which grew more challenging with each sunrise. Supplies from crumbling homes became more rotted, and unusable. The Wall itself seemed to no longer maintain the will to remain standing. It produced new holes when another was fixed. Great support beams were crafted from the surrounding Hessen Forest, but none dare enter too far into those woods.
Woods that were beautiful and safe now teemed with Wolves. Wolves overtook the silver mines, and slowly encroached upon the farmland. The Wolves grew in number, and expanded their territory. Wolves were patient. Wolves always have been. They slowly wore down the Wall. Patiently they waited to destroy those that scattered their Empire. Patiently waited to claim all that which was lost to them by the House of the Red Rose. Patiently waited to paint the realm crimson with their hei
This night, like nights previous, all in the city waited with heavy anticipation. They knew the Wolves were coming. The Wolves came every night to tear down their defenses, and to spread terror. In recent days they grew more persistent, and always more in number. They were patient.
Saledii Pastalia Red, last blood heir to the House of Red, spends this night like all others previous. She stands with the same heavy anticipation as her soldiers, who seem a world away on the Wall. She stands with the same heavy anticipation as her citizens. Uneasiness, sadness, and remorse hung within her bright pumpkin eyes. Rusty hair curled like a burning bush around her head, and full lips deep red. A simple pink rose slip danced softly in the stale wind. Saledii stood watch over her dying city. Her heart did not beat hard.
Saledii waited with heavy anticipation.
Citizens waited with heavy anticipation.
Soldiers waited with heavy anticipation.
Zhan’ding waited with heavy anticipation.
Below her balcony, a bronze statue of a four-armed Bear headed deity, which easily towered over two grown men stood erected. Erected for centuries untold to Saledii. He was Gozran, the Protector, and Over-comer of Obstacles. He stood upon one leg, bare footed within an open rose flower. His second leg locked at the knee outwards, almost a dance to those who looked upon it. Two muscular arms locked above his head, fingers pointing forever skyward, his other two hands extended out before him, ready to catch the fallen, and lift them to the High Heavens. Gozran wore only harem pants that were almost folded from waves of iron. The folds were smooth waves. Each crest glinted in the amber moonlight. Primal tattoos marked his body. Markings that Saledii did not know existed, even though she has stared at this statue her entire life. The markings glowed otherworldly in the amber moonlight. She knew the Hunters Moon was to blame. Her stomach twirled as she stared at the markings, knowing why they appeared to her now.
Saledii closed her eyes tight. Mouth moved, but no physical words were released. She silently prayed to Gozran. Prayed that he would watch over the city. Prayed that he would usher the spirits of the dead safely to another world. She prayed for her own protection. A bank of clouds, which glided unnoticed, covered the bright moon.
Unable to finish, Saledii forced her eyes open, but she saw only the glint of torches and lampposts that flickered throughout the city.
High-pitched howl after high-pitched howl pierced the night air. With the amber light gone, the cloud cast the city into unending darkness. The howls continued. They were unbearable. They echoed endlessly through the dark, twisted, and broken streets. They reached every home. Every ear. They wake the sleeping. They terrify the awake. Children are shoved into a pantry, a closest, with furniture placed before them. To protect them from whatever fate fell their loved ones.
A death knell begun.
Saledii gripped the banister of the balcony tightly in her fragile hands, her breath taken away. Once silent heart now drummed in her ears. Blood rushed into them, drowning out the bells that sounded not too long after the howls died away in the dark. Each gong, deep, and resounding shook the city to its core. Each gong, justified the choices Saledii made.
Soldiers all cried out what she already knew. What she feared.
Wolves have breached the city
, they cried.
Hide, hide for your lives
, others screamed.
To arms! To arms! All men to arms,
Protect the children,
“Secure the Eastern Wall!” Saledii bellowed to soldiers that rushed around the immense statue. Her voice rang grand, and powerful over the warning bells of the city. It echoed with an ethereal charm that sent shivers down even her spine. She was a tiny individual, posing as a Goddess. The soldiers changed direction with no question. Swords and lances glinted like sparks in the evening torches.
Saledii stared upwards and thanked the Winds for their saving grace. For the cloud that covered the amber moon seemed to be still. Without the light of the Full Moon, the Wolves could not change. They could not use Human tools. It was easy to hunt that which one knows how to kill, and the House of Red was efficient at killing Wolves. The howls continued on. Saledii’s eyes burned like the fires that erupted across the city. Giving light to the darkness that would not end. Her mind wandered to what she would do with all the pelts.
Chamber door swung open with such a violent force that it vibrated upon its hinges.
A voice brought her out of her daydream. A soldier, white as snow, and blood ridden stumbled in. He shook uncontrollably, and coughed deep. Warm, crimson blood spattered the virgin white marble floor. Decades old armor broken, bite marks riddled his neck. So deep did they run, his hand tried to contain the blood that poured, but he could not. Blood became indistinguishable from his red armor. The Soldier leaned heavily upon the door, breaths erratic, eyes fluttered, “Wolves! Are in the city!”
Saledii rushed to help, but he fell to the floor before she could reach him. Blood sprayed, and splattered everywhere. Saledii took his head into her lap, slip soaked instantly. His blood was warm against the fabric. The Soldier coughed blood in between each phrase,
“We-we were taken by surprise—”
“How many?” Saledii asked petting his face, moving hair that clung to his sweat and bloodied forehead.
“There are too many—” One last deep cough. Blood poured out like a fountain. Chest plate splattered and glistened in the light of the chamber. The light of life left him. Grip upon his sword gone. It fell to the floor where it bounced before finding rest.
“Rest brave soldier. You have done your job well,” Saledii closed the Soldier’s eyes before resting his head on the cold marble floor,
“May Pharast guide you to the peace.” Saledii scooped up the soldier’s sword from the floor and rose. The sword was both cold and warm in her hand, and heavy. She stared at the shining blade. Saledii could not recall the last time she actually possessed a sword. She squeezed the hilt, never wanting to let the security of the weapon go.
It was not long before her personal guards rushed the chambers. Saledii’s nostril’s flared her own breaths heavy. Saledii looked upon her contingent, bloody sword gripped tight. It dripped with blood of the dead soldier. She merely stared at the guards, “You are late.”
“The Minister’s delayed us,” one Soldier said in a bow.
“Your duty is
protection, not theirs!” Saledii pointed the glistening crimson silver sword at them.
“Lady Red, we must get you to safety,” the first Soldier, closest to the door stated.
“Where are the Ministers?” Saledii queried walking to the stairs.
“They are awaiting you, down in the throne room,” a second Soldier, flanked Saledii. The Soldiers kept as close as they could to her. Each hoped to protect her, but she was determined to remain ahead of them. Anger over the Ministers delaying them still coursed through her blood. She wanted to run the Ministers through for their arrogance that they are more important than she, the last of the House of Red.
Down the crumbling towers broken, and cracked steps, Saledii looked out each of the tiny arched windows. Fires raged now uncontrolled. Citizens lit whatever they could for protection against the Wolves. Whether it was a successful defense, Saledii did not know for certain. The once night sky turned into a bonfire of early morning light. The stars obscured by thick black clouds of ash that billowed wildly. Screams reached the tower stairs. They saddened her heart. Howls echoed into the burning night. Howls that sent chills down the spine of even Saledii. A tear for her burning city ran down her cheek.
Saledii turned to the Soldier closest to her before the tower door; hand gripped his armored shoulder, “Go through the city. Street-by-street. Destroy
Wolf you find. End this. Now!”