Authors: Mike Simmons
Brandon's thoughts raced to the other unexplainable events that occurred while in the caves, like when the two Bauth’Dok fell over dead inexplicably. Brandon decided to keep those to himself. "If Aurora is not stopped, she will destroy everyone. Reinhold will be beheaded in his own courtyard, and the world will ignite from the fires in her eyes. We must stop her, no matter the cost."
Donald leaned closer. "What would you suggest? Her defenses are on high, and she is constantly surrounded by Gifted."
"I don't know, but if you believe in the prophecies, and you believe I am the one under the Red Star, then somehow I am connected to her defeat. I don't think that we can barge into her castle and ask her politely to stop killing everyone. I think we must act unlike her current and previous enemies. We must surprise her by thinking outside of the box, the same way I defeated the Bauth'Dok King."
Edward listened to Brandon and could see the wisdom shining in his young eyes. He had grown up so fast, turning from a small town farm boy, to the man who wished to defeat the worst tyrant and murderer the world has ever seen, in a few months. His body had grown, his powers had grown, and now his mind had grown. Edward did not know if they could do it, but he believed deep down that if anyone could stop Aurora, Brandon could.
A time in another age, the Age of Creation nearly five centuries ago, rolling hills of green grass covered this area. Sparse trees grew more dense as they approached the distant mountain range. A small stream filled with brook trout wound from the tree line out through the valley. The center of the valley, beautiful and full of life, spread green grasses and plants outward towards the hills. Plains grazers, with their long twisted horns, bound playfully across the meadow, kicking up a flock of red-winged pheasants as they neared. Plump sugarberry bushes dotted the water line, offering their white and red flowers to all the hummingbirds. Birds chirped, animals roamed and frolicked in the sun, and everything seemed in order in a time of peace.
As the alliances of man spread abroad, so did their desire to travel. They discovered previously unreachable places. It started like a fallen raindrop in a pond, centered on the cities, spreading outward in an ever-growing ring. New camps seemed to pop up overnight, those camps became villages, and some of those villages grew into towns. Man grew in the prime of discovery and growth, where magic fueled innovation, creativity, and travel. They made stronger and more pure metals, with less energy. Construction of buildings became more efficient. Roadways became easier to travel and the distance between cities grew shorter.
Magic flowed unrestricted in the world and all people used it freely in some way or another. Even the common folk had access to it, whether through training, books, magical potions or scrolls, or items which had magic properties or aspects attached to them. With such unbound use of magic, people learned to refine and harness what magic could do, perfecting the use of it and always improving on it. With that improvement and perfection came greed and the desire to exploit it.
Magic concentrations reached an all-time high, and those who could control that magic wanted more than simple spells. They created weapons, and armor, and siege tanks, all perfectly assembled and imbued with other worldly powers. One of the swords created during this time could cut through the rock walls of any castle, leaving not a trace of dust, only a precise and clean space between the solid stones where the blade passed through. Wizards created a mirror that would turn the gazer into solid stone if they looked at it. Another, a shield, could withstand the force of the boulders flipped across the plains from a distant trebuchet, as if it were merely a piece of gravel. This was the time of weapons and armor. This was the time of magic. This was the Age of Creation.
Battles raged, cities fortified their walls, and people fled the populated areas looking for safer shelter. One of those men, a Prince, name Oric Reinhold, led a group of his men in search of a safer place for his tenants. At the time, they had not a kingdom, but a vast manor and many grain and cotton fields. The area they lived in became dangerous, a cross road to the warring sides of man and magic. Oric headed into the mountains.
Two winters came and passed as he searched. The lands were beautiful and he had seen much in his travels. Long valleys reached across golden plains and mountains stretched up towards the sky, giving shelter to the groups of deer and elk that hid within its gulches. Lakes and rivers spread throughout, providing fish and clean water. He got closer to finding the spot he looked for.
He rode his men into a lavish meadow, deep in the hills. The small creek that ran through it split the area in two, but both sides were flat and covered in green foliage. As he dropped to one knee, fingertips wiggling in the passing stream, he looked about, smiling. This would be the place; this is where he would build his new home.
By the next summer, Oric had five wagons in the meadow loaded with saws and axes, rock picks and hammers, wheelbarrows, buckets, and a handful of his hardest workers. They cleared the brush, digging out the odd shaped rocks poking out of the earth and cutting down timber. The base of the mountains provided plenty of rock, and their wood supply grew more robust each day. Day in and day out they cleared, dug, leveled, chiseled, and cut the earth away to give Oric the land he needed to build on. By summer’s end, the ground had been flattened and readied.
Oric and his wife spent the winter in their manor, designing the layout of their new home. As winter set in, Oric’s wife became pregnant, and the plans of their new manor changed. It grew and expanded, changing to accommodate more people. Two guest rooms turned into many, and the original small horse shed evolved into a stable yard. As the building plans broadened and developed, the need for more things increased. They added a blacksmith’s shop in the plans to make repairs and to negate the need to head into town for things like door hinges, locks, and horseshoes. With the availability of door hinges and horseshoes came the need for doors and carriages, all made possible by adding a wood smith shop. Since they needed more people, their single kitchen grew into a large kitchen area, with multiple fire pits and tables. A place with these shops and buildings would cost much, and there would be many valuable things here for people to want. Oric drew in a large guard wall around the whole place. Oric and his wife designed a fresh water import system, using the existing stream, running channels of fresh water underneath the walls and into fresh water wells throughout their home. It took the whole of the winter, but by the end, their ideas were set. No longer would this be a manor for Oric and his wife, but a castle for them and their baby.
Summer’s breath drew near, and Oric immediately started work even though frost still covered the ground. Earth and stone, that is all it was, just earth and stone. Oric and his men dug the water trenches, they cleared out the area for holding law breakers, and they set the foundations in stone. Summer neared its end, when Oric became a proud father of a healthy young boy. He had a full head of curly auburn hair and brown eyes that glazed with rust. They named him Belkin Reinhold.
As the years passed by, first one, then two, ten and then hundreds, the castle became a beacon for prosperity and peace. It had survived through many wars, including the Beholder Wars that destroyed many other buildings like it, and although time bore its age on it, Castle Belkin became an immovable stronghold for the King and his people. The walls, once clear and clean, now had flowering growvine on them. The slight elevations and dips in the stone hallways had long since worn smooth from the countless steps of service people and guests. The dirt walkways that once led the people from building to building were now topped with cobblestone, lined with flowers, and wound through the gardens decorated with water fountains and bronze statues. Heavy iron arrow guards reinforced the guard walls and a thick steel portcullis hung from the gateway. Things had changed, many improved, but one thing that changed caused the lone man in the master bedroom to bury his head in his arms as he wept; where people once walked, silence now filled that space. The wood smith’s shop, the blacksmith’s shop, and the kitchens were all as empty. No one walked in the garden, and no one laughed. Even the entry gate stood empty and unguarded. Outside the gate though, something festered its presence for the first time: a heaping pile of burning bodies, smoldering and stinking, taller than a pine tree and three times wider than the road. Black oily smoke rose upward, filling the air with vomitus fumes and aromas and turning the sky a deep, ominous grey.
Tears streamed down his face, soaking his fine silk sleeve. A golden crown lay on the table, tossed there with no apparent care. Cedric Reinhold’s soul felt empty, ripped away by his nemesis and filled with the loss of all his people. He could still see their faces; Margery, the bread-maker, Colton, the blacksmith’s apprentice, and Logan, the young man who he hired to pick the fresh oranges off the trees in the mornings. He knew all of the people that lived here, each face and each life. He talked to everyone, daily. The bodies burning outside were not his employees, they were his family. This blow weighed on him heavily and he broke under the pressure of it.
Reinhold could not think of how to recover from this. His army had been reduced to half capacity after the losses at Orlimay, leaving him only eight thousand troops to fight Aurora, which would not win him any wars. His castle had been attacked, somehow, and everyone within was dead; everyone that is, except Bram. To top it all off, the message he received on a carrier pigeon a few hours earlier stated that Empress Aurora retaliated against the attack on her home city and completely razed six villages and two major cities, Greylin and Jellindor, on his side of the border. Reinhold had turned into a shell of the man he had been before, weeping in his room, alone. He felt helpless, with no control, and in way over his head.
A light knock on the door interrupted his thoughts. Cedric sniffed but did not move. The knock came again.
“My King, may I enter?” Janga asked.
Janga let out a small sigh. “Cedric, I’m coming in.”
Janga lifted the latch to the door and slowly moved in. He walked cautiously, eyeing the room. Janga grabbed a chair and swung it around by the King. Cedric wept softly. Janga raised a hand and placed it on Reinhold’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry, sir, truly. I am sorry this happened. I am sorry Charlotte was killed. I’m sorry we lost troops at Orlimay.”
Cedric sniffed again.
“We have been hit, and hit hard. I don’t know how she did it, but she struck home with this one.” It seemed as if he waited for a response but got nothing. Cedric simply listened.
“Look, Ced, I don’t know what has happened, but it happened. We have to gather our thoughts and our strengths and pick up the pieces. We have to rebuild. We have to…”
Cedric raised his head and looked straight into Janga’s eyes. “I can’t do this anymore, Janga. I cannot keep this up. Too many people have lost their lives. For what? They were
, Janga! They had
to do with the war!” His voice elevated in anger. “She had
right! What she did breaks the rules of war! You are not supposed to kill or imprison the innocent! It’s not moral!”
Passion flared in Janga’s eyes. “Cedric! She doesn’t
if the people she kills are innocent! She doesn’t
what they do! She does not
about the rules of war! The only thing she cares about is getting to you! And wow, I’ll be damned if I say she didn’t do just that!”
Cedric looked at him in bewilderment. “Damn you, Janga!” He slammed his fist down so hard that an ink well fell off the back of the table and crashed to the floor, throwing fresh ink all over the lion skin rug underneath their feet.
“What do you want me say, Cedric? I do not know how these things happened, but they did happen, and we are the only ones who are here to pick up the pieces! We have an empty castle that I imagine will be filling up shortly with the refugees of the two towns and six villages she destroyed! We have half of an army that is in need of armor repairs, food and water, and some serious medical attention! You are King, Cedric!” He eased up his tone to soften the aggression.
“You cannot disregard your responsibilities as ruler of this land because you got your ass kicked. Stand strong, learn from the defeat, and fire back. We need to rebuild. We need to restock and resupply, increase the numbers of our army, and get ready for another wave; because you know, there
another wave. She will not stop now because we are tired or down the in gutter. Now is when she will hit the hardest. Now is the time we have to be on our highest alert. I do not mean to be blunt, but grieving time is over. We need to act, and we need to act fast.”
Cedric looked hard at Janga, the anger from his eyes faded away and replaced with understanding.
Janga spoke a little softer now. “We need help, Sire. We need your guidance.” He chuckled. “
need your help. I am lost without my friend, my King. I know battle, and know it well, but this situation is a little over my head. I am struggling here. You know how to reach the people. They understand this is not your fault. None of this is your fault. You are standing up for what is right and that honor may only be paid in blood. Aurora is the one to blame here. She is the one bringing the shadow to the world. No one else has the capacity to stand against her.”
Cedric dropped his glare to the floor. “I’m not sure we have the capacity anymore, either. The carrier note speculated her standing army at over two-hundred thousand.” He laughed, shaking his head. Hearing the words aloud sounded even more ridiculous then seeing them on paper. “Two-hundred thousand, Janga.” He looked at his First General. “We have eight thousand. That is twenty-five soldiers for every single one of ours.”
Janga looked right back at him. “So? Does that mean we are supposed to surrender because we do not have as big an army? Should we give up and hand her everything on a platter? That is absurd. Imagine what she would do to all of the men within the kingdom. They would be murdered, imprisoned, or made slaves. The women would be turned over to her witches for training. All of the children… Damn Ced! Imagine what she’ll do to the children. I would fight her entire army by myself if I thought it would help, or if it would save the life of a single innocent. I know you feel the same. I know your heart is burdened, but pull out of it. We’ve never cowered from insurmountable odds before, especially when there is so much at risk.”