Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Lords of the Twin Empires

I was but a boy when Malvek became emperor of all Caruel. He was crowned in glittering glory and attended by fifteen of the great Shadow Wizards that made up his council. His crown was cut from jet and onyx and they say when it was placed upon his brow, the stones set therein glittered in homage to his might. All this I learned later, for I was too young to understand the significance of the procession, the parade. I'm certain my father told me what was happening, for he was a staunch supporter of Malvek. His entire fortune had been pledged to the new emperor; he hated the men of Soloth with such a burning despite that he was willing to gamble all that he had made in his long lifetime as a merchant to see the men of Kallatha humbled and the Wyrm King made to grovel in the earth.

Those days were before the accession of King Deshen, who would accompany Malvek to the brink of the abyss and beyond, bringing all his people down in ruin with him. The Solothans were weak then, and the Shadow Wizards led armies that ran rampant across their borders. I believe this was the six hundred and second year of the Sixth Age as the scholars in the south count it. I do not know for sure, but I seem to recall those numbers.

We lived in Tharaloss in those days, the capitol of the empire. Caruel was an old and storied empire even then, centuries stretching out behind her. My father liked to speak of the great civil war that had sundered us from our Solothan kindred a thousand years hence when Nashketh and Tashbet had their falling out. We were the stronger, borne from the nobility that supported Tashbet, the younger son, who had followed in the footsteps of his father's reign. We were the true sons of Tarkus the Indomitable and it was the Solothans who followed in the footsteps of the Witch-Queen that Tarkus had married.

Her name was anathema for us to speak, for we hated her so. She had corrupted Nashketh, turned him against Tashbet, and sundered these two kingdoms for-ever. No matter that Malvek was no relation to that ancient line: neither was Deshen of Kallatha the trueborn scion of Nashketh. The old house of Haxrea had died out, first in Soloth and then in Caruel. Eunuchs and dragontamers had ruled the north and here in the south wizards and merchants had taken the imperial throne.

I had heard merchants from the Trade Sea call out empires paltry. Nothing, they said, compared to the empire-that-was of Miles. But now the Mileans are gone and the Solothans are gone and every last man of Caruel is gone save for me. So what does it matter whose empire was greater? They have all been swept away.

I grew up fearing the Solothans and hating them. My mother weaned me on the stories of Szorn the Blue and his rider, Stathos Traven the Dragontamer. I would look to the skies in horror to see if Szorn was coming to punish us nightly, but he had been dead for five centuries. The might of both our kingdoms had sunk low. The wizards that had once strode the world with their magery were creeping shadowmasters, forced to rely on the paltry magics of bound demons that they summoned up from the blackest nethers, of shadow-familiars they called forth from the Wall of Night. How could anyone in Caruel have foreseen the end that we came to when our magicians seemed so weak? How could we have known that they still harnessed the power to wipe away all our pasts and futures?

I was fifteen, the year of my blooding, when the war that they called the War of Shadows began. I am an old man now, and my life has been lived in the shadow of that war. I have been born and raised at its pap, and now that I am nearing my last days I have spent most of my years fearing its coming. You see, I did not care for Malvek or his ostentatious palace. I did not care for the way he tore down the marble guardians of my house or redirected the water-channels so they did not water our gardens. I despised the way he grasped after the income of my slave-trading business and the way he "bought" slaves by the thousands with debased and worthless coin.

Malvek was my father's king, but he was not mine. All those years, I gave money in secret to the Shadow Wizards, praying to Tarkus that they would end this war and perhaps kill Malvek as well. They would send shadows by night, murderous shadows to stalk the streets of great Kallatha and teach the Solothans to fear. But never could they assault the king, Deshen the Far-sighted, Deshen the Sorcerer.

I was fifty years - or no, was it sixty? - when the shadows came home. Deshen and the Shadow Wizards had been waging a secret war alongside the battles of clashing armies. They had no need for Malvek Askor the Cruel, he was a toy to them. When I woke on the morning after the great spell, I found myself alone in a city of the dead. There were howlings that belonged not to man or woman, nor wild beast; that no gnomish slave or elven scholar could make and they echoed along the stone alleyways and between the slate rooftops. There were shadows racing through the streets, liquid-fast, stripping bark from trees and the flesh of the dead from their bones.

The city was a mausoleum, a graveyard. Alone I had survived, and alone I must wander Arunia with no homeland to return to. Malvek Askor is dead, and the Shadow Wizards are dead, and now Caruel is a curse and not a name, for it is a land haunted by ghosts and demons. Do any still dwell there? I think they do not. In the same night, Deshen the Sorcerer and the Shadow Mages worked their most powerful magics against one another... and so has ended the rivalry of the twin empires. So has ended the pride of Caruel and the hubris of Soloth.

Maybe it is best for such empires to breath their last. As for me, I stay up of nights, wondering when the shadows will find me. They have eaten my countrymen, they have eaten my family... they will someday come and close around me and I will have no way to ward them off. I have spent twenty years buying amulets and scrolls, twenty years burning incense and making offerings to your southron gods but even your Hammerer cannot protect me. For each night I hear their howls grow closer, and I smell the moist earth that must claim me. I am the last of Caruel, and as Caruel's last I shall die.

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