Chapter 1 – Ralius

by Jordan

The sunrise at Northwatch Keep was a particularly beautiful one that day. Fingers of green spread slowly across the deep blue sky, like a myriad of roads that all converged on one point, far on the eastern horizon. Two figures were silhouetted against Tyres’s first light, as they walked along the castle’s battlements. Though they were about equal in height, their likeness ended there. One was fully adorned in Ardrean steel, from head to toe. His helmet was uniquely fashioned with two large drake claws; black, visceral talons that curved some six inches toward the back of his head. This showed not only his rank, but also his position as Commander of the Guard of Northwatch Castle. The other wore a black drake scale vest over red silk, a traditional red skirt, striped with jet-black, and a golden circlet around each wrist and ankle. His long, black hair was pulled back into a braid and hung over the high collar of his vest, to end between his shoulder blades. He had the high, wide cheeks, broad jaw, almond shaped brown eyes, very tanned skin, and prominent nose of a highborn Eastfolk, all of which was complimented by his high arched eyebrows and short beard that came forward in a point.

“I’m glad to see you still do your morning rounds,” the armored man said.

“Have I grown so old?” Ralius turned to the Commander with a sardonic smile.

“No, my Thane, I only mean that you are the only thing about this place that does not change.”

“These walls are old, Karun” he replied wistfully, resting his hand on the low merlon beside him. “Far older than you or I. But alas, I agree, Northwatch seems a hollow place without my wife and daughter. So tell me, why is it I have the company of my Commander of the Guard this morning?”

“A messenger arrived from Peakspire, he awaits you in your meeting chambers, my Thane.”

“Thank you, Karun.” The Dragon’s Heart dismissed his Commander of the Guard, who left with a deep bow.

As he descended from the inner battlements, the Thane passed two of his guardsmen, who greeted him and bowed. He hailed them by name in return. Turning, he passed through a courtyard, walled on three sides by the battlements, and the other by the keep’s own walls. The ground was a network of sand-colored tile pathways that wove between thick stone columns and through an irrigated garden, blooming with awakening flowers of every variety native to Satarya. He stopped to smell the rich sweet sense of a deep crimson, star-shaped Dragonblood before he continued through an archway and into his meeting chamber.

It was an open stone room, circular in shape, with an archway in each of the compass directions, save the south, which had a heavy iron door, leading to the Thane’s own personal part of the castle. In the center was an ovular stone table with a map of Satarya carved into it. The air was thick with the scent of hundreds of flowers, and before the table sat the messenger, who promptly stood upon Ralius’s entrance.

“I am Lieutenant Sadara of Peakspire castle, if it please my Thane.” he was barely older than a boy in The Dragon Heart’s eyes, but he had a certain degree of charisma about him.

“Well met, Sadara. You are welcome in Northwatch as you are in Peakspire.” Ralius spoke, taking a seat on the southern side of the table. Sadara remained standing, however.

“Commander Darak sends word that outriders found an unconscious Aladrian in The Ghostlands. He looks to be a lordling, and carried a sword on him, like none I’d ever seen before. Black of handle and of blade, and kept in the finest sheath I’ve ever laid eyes on.” The Dragon Heart could hear awe plain in the boy’s voice. Though he’d seen his fair share of weapons worthy of legend, it worried him to know that it remained within reach of the captive.

“And his health?”

“He’s alive. Emaciated, gravely wounded, and comatose, but we can heal him.”

“Good, see that he is nursed back to health, bring me that sword, and inform Commander Darak that I am to be notified the day he awakens.”

“Yes, my Thane.” with that Sadara bowed and left, the crimson cape of the north flaring behind him. Ralius was left to walk the gardens, pondering. How could any man survive The Ghostlands? Could it be that he wields one of Aladria’s Dragonforged blades? If he is a lordling, what House does he belong to? I need answers.

Returning to the battlements, The Dragon’s Heart walked along the eastern wall, headed for the easternmost tower in the castle, as he often did when troubled. Never once in his forty-three years of life had Ralius ever heard of a man traveling through The Ghostlands. The very prospect seemed impossible to him. Since The Conqueror’s death at the hands of Karves, and the subsequent Zalkriel invasion from the north some nine decades ago, outriders had ever been sent into that accursed valley to watch for signs of Zalkriel. The longest a man has been known to survive out there was two days, nearly ninety-six hours. That man was Commander Yara himself, and he did not return unchanged. Where he was once a man of skepticism and logic, he had ever since been wary of Magic to the point of superstition. The sooner I get that sword away from Peakspire and hide it safely away in the family vaults, the better.

Reaching the top of the tower, Ralius leaned up against a merlon, looking out across the vastness of prairie his family had owned for generations. Turning his gaze more southerly, The Dragon’s Heart wished he could see the Capitol on the horizon, the vast tower of Dal’aman rising over the city that had been erected at its base after the Zalkriel invasion. It would have set him at ease to know that he need only look to see the home of his wife and eldest daughter, where they now served as Priestesses of the Shadowbane. Perhaps I shall see you both sooner than I thought. Should this lordling be the heir to one of the High Lords of Aladria, I will have no choice but to beseech Sasemos to call a meeting of the Thanes.

Lieutenant Sadara found him in the royal bathhouse, soaking his deeply tanned flesh in steaming water that smelled of roses and spice. “My Thane,” he hailed him, lowering to one knee. Ralius motioned for him to stand. As he stood, he brought forth a cloak that had been wrapped around what was presumably the sword.

“Leave it on the table.” When the messenger had done so, he called for a servant to bring him a towel and his robe, dismissing Sadara once more.

After drying himself and donning his silken robe, The Dragon’s Heart crossed the room to where the sword had been laid, still wrapped in the black cloak in which it had been brought. Unraveling it, he examined the gilded sheath beneath. Seemingly forged of silver, it shone in the sunlight that bathed the room. Diamonds, sapphires, and amethysts were inlaid to form a mosaic that depicted the symbol of House Krisnal, the rising sun. The crossgauard was ebon steel, shaped to resemble the unfolding wings of a Dragon. The handle was also ebon in color, a leathery substance Ralius did not recognize coiled to form the grip, and the pommel was a black ring of steel, holding a diamond the size of his eye within it. As he drew the blade from its sheath, a sound smoother and clearer than any other steel he’d known was emitted from it, and he saw that Sadara had spoken the truth. Even the blade was ebon. So dark was it that he could have sworn it swallowed the sunlight. Immediately he knew it was not Ardrean steel, nor Aladrian either, in fact there were few blades he’d seen that he could compare to the level of mastery with which this one had been forged. As he made a practice swing, it sliced through the air with a swish that foretold of sharpness beyond that of any mortal-forged blade. Ralius knew of only one sword that matched the description of the one he held, but he was hesitant to consider it possible.

If this is truly the Twilight Sun, then its wielder could only be the heir of House Krisnal. I must contact Sasemos immediately; only he has the authority to decide what must be done now. Sheathing the sword, Ralius wrapped it in the black cloak once more and took it through the gardens, into his meeting chamber, and another courtyard that led to the central tower of Northwatch Castle. Protected always by House Guards in Ardrean plate, swords at their hips and spears in their hands, the central tower belonged solely to the Thane and his family. Though it was not the tallest tower in Northwatch, it stood higher than all the others, as it had been built partway up the Dragon’s Tooth against which the castle sat.

Delving deep beneath the tower, down seemingly endless spiral staircases carved into the stone of the mountain, The Dragon’s Heart carried the bundle down into the vaults of House Khalterian, where the treasures of his ancestors sat safely behind locked doors. The moment he entered, Ralius could feel them; the artifacts he’d known since childhood. Where his brother had always been frightened to venture into the shadows of the vault, Ralius had always taken solace in the silent wisdom of the relics of their family. Holding the torch before him now, he was glad to feel that remembered comfort as he gazed out upon the black and crimson helm shaped like the head of a Sataryan lion that Velthyas Bloodscale had forged for Rashka Lion’s Head, the blades forged for Malazar the Sunlion and his sons; Azarys and Araziel. Some were Dragonforged and magical, some were historic blades of masterwork Ardrean steel, while others were forever corrupted by the Shadows, deemed unlawful to wield for the madness they were said to instill upon any man unlucky or foolish enough to unsheathe one. Ralius himself had seen his father execute a man who had wielded a Shadow touched blade, when he was very young, but he had no memory of it now.

Unwrapping the sword once more, The Dragon’s Heart studied it in the light of the torch one final time. As he stared into the darkness of the blade, a dread came over him so strong that it forced him to his knees. An image came before him then, dimly at first, as though he saw it through thick smoke. As it cleared, Ralius was first shocked, then horrified to see a man in black Dragonforged plate standing atop Sasemos Shadowbane’s massive corpse. By force of willpower alone, the Dragon’s Heart hastily stood, sheathed the sword, placed it beside Rashka’s heir, Malazar Khalterian’s own sword, and left without a backward glance.