Prologue – Vulnero

by Jordan

After he had stripped his left arm of its expensive steel gauntlet and pauldron, the pain there had reduced to a dull throb. Vulnero would have made a truly morbid sight, had anyone been in the valley with him, but as it was, the lordling stumbled alone over rock and hill, past streams and trees. Somewhere beneath the mind-numbing ache of every muscle in his body crying out for respite, as it had for days now, a voice in his mind told him not to stop. I’ll live if I just make it as far south as The Dragons’ Teeth. Even now he could feel the sword in his hand, though it hung sheathed from his hip, slicing viciously through rocky exoskeleton and meaty muscle beneath. Still hear the shrill scream of those creatures as if he cut through them even now.
Faintly he could remember stories, tall tales from his childhood at Dawn’s Home Castle, told to him by Brother Garret or Brother Farley, he couldn’t remember. How Zalkriel, monsters of Vaxis, stony armor encasing their sinewy muscular figures and taller than any Westfolk on horseback, invaded Satarya not a century ago, destroying everything in their path. Even now they sounded like children’s stories to him.
Without warning, he felt something catch on his boot, and lurched to the ground, too weak to cushion his fall. The earth of the valley met his face, cold with dew, but infertile, and for a moment he swore he could see the Great Hall of Dawn’s Home Castle. No matter where you stood in the hall, there was a marble pillar at your back and the central table, decorated with a vast map of Aladria inlaid in veined marble, curved away from you on both sides. His mother, Lady Enestria, sat on the edge of her intricately carved marble throne on the side of the table opposite him, a mixture of hope and pride on her face. She wore a black and white gown and a white gold crown befitting a Queen of Vulnyr, from the time of the Three Kingdoms. Her striking figure was framed by black tapestries outlined in white, with white rising suns embroidered in the center of each. Ever a widow since the death of her Lord Husband Karthen, who froze in a blizzard in The Dragons’ Teeth north of Vulnyr, Lady Enestria had received offers from many suitors, but would accept none of them. Her grief for Lord Karthen’s death was something she would never truly recover from. Vulnero knew this better than anyone.
Iolanthe, his sister, had seen only three Season Cycles, and in truth, she couldn’t remember seeing her father’s face, she only knew it from the statue in the Hall of High Lords. Carved of white stone, it portrayed him as a tall, broad-shouldered, decently muscled, and handsome-faced man with a small beard and long sideburns, but she knew she had not been born then. The man who conceived her had been some five years older, and those were five hard years. Lord Karthen lost two brothers and his sister, leaving only his estranged half-brother, Lord Martrus Krisnal, born of Lord Milastorus’s second wife.
Vulnero had knelt facing Lady Elyz, her black Oracle’s robes flowing loosely about her as she addressed him. “Vulnero Krisnal, heir to Dawn’s Home Castle and Vulnyr with it, as your ancestors were before you and your descendants shall one day be, rise now as a man and knight of Aladria.”
Feeling his mothers eyes, and the eyes of each of his House’s Bannermen, Vulnero rose to his feet, keeping his eyes locked with Lady Elyz’s catlike green ones that shone like jewels in the sunlight coming through the crystal dome that topped the hall.

“Thank you, Nethat.” he spoke softly, bowing his head in respect. It had never felt a comfortable word in his mouth, though he knew it would please her to hear him say it.

“I have something for you as well,” the Oracle spoke fluidly, motioning to one of her personal guard. A handsome golden-haired knight about Vulnero’s age by the name of Quentin Talworth stepped forward, sharing a private wink with Vulnero, his armor shifting loudly in the quiet hall as he produced a sheathed sword.
Vulnero accepted the sword, bowing to the knight and to Lady Elyz before he drew it in inspection. His hand gripped the black handle firmly as he looked down the edge of the sword’s inky black blade. “This is no Ardrean steel this is truly of Aladrian make.” he looked to Elyz questioningly.
“Not Aladrian make, but the hand of a Dragon,” she proclaimed, her voice rising in crescendo “forged by the fire of The Golden Dragon, Yrana Godsgem, you now wield The Twilight Sun.” A synchronized sigh of astonishment was uttered by the crowd in hushed tones, as Vulnero knelt before her, The Twilight Sun in hand.
His eyes fluttering, Vulnero forced himself awake, no longer capable of feeling the pain of his dying body. Sitting up, his throat burned, and though he dared not drink from the streams, some madness drove him to the edge of one. Watching the water flow he fancied it was the blood of those who died here, flowing in great rivulets from the battlefield. Some seventy years ago, two Bannermen, Lords Calid and Vertyn Hallor, of Castle Rimewind, rode east from Dawn’s Home and into the Dragons’ Teeth. When three days passed and no word was sent, Lord Karthen sent word to Satos’kyr, and the Dragon flew to Vulnyr. The Whitescale refused to allow his father’s Bannermen to go out in search of the Hallors and instead proclaimed she herself would go.
When she returned the same day, the news was ill. In the valley between Aladria and Vaxis, the corpses of Calid and Vertyn Hallor, as well as each of their knights, soldiers, and horses, lay strewn about, torn and half eaten. Satos’kyr spoke of an eerie sense about the place, like it was the site of some unholy act. Since then the valley has been known as The Ghostlands, and it was there that Vulnero now found himself.
After a moment of blind staring and confused blinks, it all came back to him. First the fear. He remembered sleepless nights in his suite in Dawn’s Home. Suspicion and doubt riddled his mind as he became short of temper and defensive. Then the anger. A fury had come upon him then so great that he cringed to think on it. Some force more evil than man had taken him body and mind and drove him to wrath. His last day, Vulnero had finally left the seclusion of his suite, Twilight Sun in his hand, stalking down the hall that led to Lady Elyz’s room, when he had run into Sir Edward Rayland, one of the knights sent from Emerald’s Pass to guard the Oracle. As a boy, Vulnero knew Sir Rayland as a kind and gentle young knight, chivalrous and honorable, and as he had grown to become a man, so too had he grown to know Sir Rayland as a true and honest friend.
“You look sick, come for a tincture have you?” Sir Rayland’s bright blue eyes smiled from below dull blonde hair, always braided and draping over a shoulder. This time it was his right pauldron, shaped to resemble a large shellfish, and forged of Ardrean steel.
The shame had come then, a wave so powerful that he was knocked from his feet. He remembered falling, and darkness. When he’d awoken, he found himself in his bed, a bitter taste in his mouth, and a wet cloth upon his brow. Sitting up, he became aware that it was night, and of an empty bottle on the table beside his bed, explaining the taste. There’s no use, he’d thought. I can’t let it win. After donning his armor, Vulnero had hovered before The Twilight Sun, hesitant to touch it. There’s no use in cowardice either. He took the blade, strapped it about his waist, and strode out the ornate door that’d been his for as long as he could remember.
He knew the secret passages of the castle, hidden doorways and subterranean tunnels made for times of war. From the castle library, Vulnero slipped into a tunnel that delivered him to the stables, and his horse. Quick to saddle up, and smarter than to use the front gate, Vulnero led his black and white horse, Cloud, through a postern door. On the other side of the castle wall, he already felt as though a weight had been lifted from his chest, and the sword did not seem so queerly heavy around his waist. He blessed the cool breeze and Zures’s help in concealing him. He much preferred the shadow cast by the great Black Moon than the light of the Blue Moon.
Returning to reality, Vulnero lifted his gaze and did his best to sit upright. He had been three days coming this way, and each day had been worse. He remembered nothing of his trek through The Dragons’ Teeth east of Dawn’s Home, only that he somehow knew which way to go. When he finally did reach the valley, he allowed Cloud to drink from a stream first, only to watch her die but moments later. The ensuing days had been non-stop walking across barren valley, tempted always by the promise of water, but not mad enough yet to drink it.
Standing, the lordling faced the direction he had been heading. Only now did he notice them, as though they’d never been there before. Small rocky shapes in the distance jutted from the bare stone around them to form pillars as if to hold the sky in place. The Dragons’ Teeth! Revived by hope, Vulnero felt some of the feeling return in his limbs, and he began to walk faster. If I can get there before nightfall, their riders may find me.
As he walked, Vulnero worked to clear his mind. I’m an enemy to them, but I have not trespassed on their land, unless Sasemos has grown so bold as to claim The Ghostlands for himself. Feeling a sneer touch his lips, he wondered how long it had been since he’d smiled. If they find me here, they’ll take me to Northwatch no doubt. Ralius Khalterian is not known to be a cruel man. If he gives me audience with him, I may yet be able to return to Aladria and seek help from the Whitescale.
When nightfall did come, and Aethes the Blue Moon drenched the world around him in sapphire light, Vulnero lit his last torch and walked on until he could no longer stand, and then just sat beside a fire he made from the torch and his torn cape until sleep overtook him, his last waking sight being The Dragons’ Teeth mountains, looming like blue obelisks in the distance.