Blood of the Realm: Prologue

Weldon bit back a scream as the house collapsed around him. Fire lashed out from the wall to his left, and the flesh of his arm seared as he flung himself forward.

The thick wooden rafters that held the roof gave way behind him, puncturing the stone floor at wild angles. Everywhere thatch met flame, sparks and ash flew afresh.

“Papa!—” Weldon squealed, choking the word back into his throat scarcely after he had begun.

Fool. You saw what happened to Papa. You saw.

Crying out now would only draw the attention of the crazy man. The man who had staggered into their home not two minutes ago and wreaked this destruction.

It was not merely a man, though, and Weldon knew it. He was nearly grown now, ten years past his naming day, and Weldon knew magic when he saw it. The crazy man had been a mage, once.

Now he was a monster.

If Weldon could make it outside, past the door, he reckoned he could hide in the dusky shadows. He could use the greasy black smoke as cover, slipping from the hedge to the line of tall ironwood trees that lined the Road East. From there, he could make it to the banks of the Mirin and swim away. He was a strong swimmer.

Weldon forced his legs to move faster, thrusting himself through the cindered hole that had been their front door. He rolled, hard, and the blistering skin on his left arm ripped away. He ignored the pain and sheltered behind a stack of heavy barrels.

Weldon peeked through the space between the barrels. The entire yard looked hazy, indistinct. The air was acrid, and he fought the urge to take deep, panicked breaths.

Easy, lad. A few quick, quiet steps and you’re to the hedge. A few more and you’re to the road… and then the river.

He crept from behind his cover, low and steady as he could manage. He reached the hedge, glancing over his shoulder to make sure the mage had not seen him. He had not.

The mage was staring at Weldon’s sister.

Daneen. Cowering by the hog pen, caked in mud, and still holding on to her stupid cat, tears streamed down her face as the mage approached. She had been playing outside when he arrived, Weldon knew. He had hoped she would have had the good sense to run away.

Already the mage was flailing his arms, menacing Daneen. The mage’s hands… glowed, white-hot, like the branding irons Papa used on the Earl’s horses. It looked as if the mage were trying to extinguish them. Yet still the hands burned, and still they were not consumed.

There was no time to think on it. Weldon bolted toward his sister, yelling at the top of his voice.

The mage turned to meet him, and Weldon saw why Daneen could not flee. If not for his own momentum, the sight of the mage’s ruined countenance would have stilled him as well.

The mage would be shrieking in agony now, had he not scorched out his own tongue and most of his mouth with it. The mage had clawed his face into a smoldering ruin. The black ribbons of flesh that hung around his eye sockets still glowed and sputtered.

Weldon collided with the mage. He felt the air around him crackle, and smelled his own roasting flesh, and nothing more.

 

***

 

Today was the day. Thael’s father, Uriah, had given his grudging consent for Thael to leave the household months ago. Since then Thael had prepared everything, just so, as tradition demanded. His own steading was ready, and today Thael would pledge his troth.

By custom Nithians regarded the Nayoran witches—the hazas, as they called them—with contempt. For their mind magic, for the fire and thunder they could wield, for the destruction that could not be controlled by threat of spear and arrow.

But Thael was in love.

Uriah and Thael rode side by side, in the old manner, to the east bridge. Their armor fairly gleamed in the morning sun, and the horsehair plume of their helms was combed and knotted in the ceremonial braid of their family. Uriah held his posture more rigid than ever in the saddle, chafing at the thought of what was to come. Of welcoming a haza to the family table.

Thael’s gaze turned forward, searching the land beyond for a first glimpse of his beloved. Villagers crowded the far end of the bridge, motioning to them to hurry forward.

Uriah frowned. Doubtless they are eager for the celebration… and they expect the witch to be generous on the day of her betrothal.

The gifts of magic the haza could bestow upon such a small village, so far from the larger Nithian outposts, had won the adulation of the lowborn. But her manner with Uriah and his wife had always been courteous, and she was comely.

More than comely, Uriah admitted to himself. No wonder the boy loves her. She is a beauty, and rare, despite her allegiance with the other hazas. With their Order.

As they crossed the bridge they glimpsed her, resplendent in gossamer weaves of white and gold. She bore a strange expression upon her face, a serious, almost somber look. But it suited her, and she was no less beautiful for it.

Thael turned in his saddle, meeting his father’s eyes. Uriah felt a moment of shame then: a moment of pain at his own doubt, and fear, and undeserved malice for one so sweet, so undeserving of his hatred.

But it was only for a moment.

As Thael rode forward, the countenance of the haza turned grim. Her eyes narrowed, and without warning she lashed out.

A thin black arc of lightning tore Thael from his saddle. The boy’s body fell, limp and unmoving, upon the dirt.

The haza turned, directing her magic at the next bystander, and then the next. The black whorls of force danced about the crowd, and their touch was death.

Thael’s father saw no malice in her eyes, nothing about Thael that had driven her to such a murderous rage. No. It came from within.

These hazas are mad!

Thael’s father turned and fled amidst crackles of fire and lightning. A spray of frothy blood from mangled bodies—Thael’s body—flew over his head as he spurred his steed.

The sour sweat of fear was upon his skin, and the wails of the lowborn rang in his ears, but Uriah did not look back as his mount carried him across the bridge and back to the steppes of Nithia. There hazas were forbidden, and in the years that passed Uriah would not speak of that day, or of his son, again.

 

***

 

King Rotswald’s harangue continued unabated, despite the arrow that had pierced his ether-wrought breastplate, his shirt of Ceresian chainmail, and his heart.

Blood seeped from the wound and congealed almost immediately, layer upon layer, like mud from a mineral spring. The clots formed with unnatural speed, aided by the protective magic bound into the breastplate. Even so, it was too little to stanch the flow from the artery. It would only prolong the inevitable.

The wound is mortal, then.

The king paid it little mind. The magic that girded him had failed his body, but it was still effective upon his mind. To him death seemed like a small, distant trouble.

The king’s thoughts now bent upon what remained to him: discharging the final moments of his office in such a way that history might look more favorably upon him. A proper valediction.

“Is this how victory looks to you, my duke?” Blood sputtered from the king’s mouth as he addressed the man across the courtyard. “You think you have won?” He gestured weakly over the balustrade, toward the city below.

“Is this the scene with which you would p-paint your entrance unto the… unto the grand stage of Nayoran history?” The king slumped, bending slowly to the ground. Each limb fought to stay erect; each lost. “History written in… in chaos and b-blood?”

At last the king’s voice failed; his mouth still struggled to form words, but no sound emerged.

The Duke of Mettingen strode closer, past the corpses of a dozen Stonesmen. He allowed the jay-feathered arrow in his fingers to slip back into its quiver. He tucked his bow over his shoulder. The duke’s companion followed him, her gaze curious rather than frightened, but his Wayl Guard held back, weapons at the ready. Their eyes fixed upon the duke, and their hands were still. Despite their clear advantage, they would not relax their vigilance.

Their training serves me well.

“Of course it is… Your Majesty.” The Duke halted his advance. “Chaos begs order… and someone with the strength to deliver it. My victory lacks only one final brushstroke.” The Duke watched King Rotswald’s last few strained breaths, his lips speckled in crimson, until the king moved no more.

The duke spun about, his eyes rolling. “Honestly. ‘Is this what victory looks like…?’” he whined, imitating Rotswald’s voice. “Simpering, prattling fool.”

He offered the woman his arm, and together they approached the edge of the high courtyard. Her gaze lingered upon him but a moment before she turned to peer over the ramparts. Together they surveyed the scene below.

Nayor’s Stone had descended into a profound tumult. Much of the city was ablaze; whole sections lay smoldering. Thick smoke rose from the ruins, dimming the late-afternoon sun to shades of twilight.

Lunatic mages roved the shadowed city. They stumbled through alleyways, expelling jets of fire, of lightning, of pain and death, and the lowborn and highborn alike ran screaming. Two mages flung raw magic at each other in an open square; the bizarre, unpatterned waves collided and expanded outward in crackling tendrils, and everything they touched crumbled to vapor.

To the east, the Merchant’s Gate was no more. In its place for perhaps a hundred paces in every direction was a ragged sinkhole, an irregular seam where the ground had simply distended and ruptured. By the Riverman’s Gate, something like a crystalline explosion had frozen solid an entire section of the water, several rows of storehouses, and any souls within. A plague of rats and other small, swarming vermin—perhaps conjured, perhaps merely trying to escape the general pandemonium—blanketed an entire section of twisting alleyways by the Queensbridge itself, effectively blocking escape to the south.

A gurgling cry rose above the general din, drawing the duke’s eyes to a rooftop far below. There, a person—it was just barely possible to tell it had once been a man—squirmed along the wooden shingles, his body slowly transmogrifying into an undulating, slimy mass of tentacles.

A thin smile crossed the duke’s countenance, and he spoke, as if to no one.

“Generations hence, our posterity will wonder at how this moment must have felt. The realm, poised on the precipice of oblivion. The Order, destroyed. House Rotswald, brought to its inevitable, ignominious end. And then… restoration. Redemption.”

The woman on his arm murmured, “You must commission a chapter, my lord… for the Book of Years. For those generations to come.” Her hand grazed his cheek, and he turned to her, his complexion ruddy, his hands groping, pulling her close.

“Indeed… We must think to our future.” The duke smiled once more, and nodded toward his Wayl Guard.

One final brushstroke, then, and all would be complete.