Assassins - The Fourth Age Shadow Wars
LAST DAY OF THE THIRD AGE
Bran’s diminutive figure lay under a magic cloak given to all the Walkers by Aradia, Elf Queen of Phoenicia. Months of planning, hardship and pain would be rewarded, or he along with his friends would die here in Plaga Erebus, the dark kingdom of Magnar. Ash spewed up from the Brunna Hatan, the fountain of hate, where Dark Lightning crackled and hummed, at the top of its metallic peak, just a mile from their position. The ash spread outwards from the terrible fountain creating a gloomy pall that covered the sky, blending day into night.
Dark lightning crackled behind them, flickering all along the borders of Magnar’s realm of nightmares, forming an impenetrable barrier obviating the need for border guards. Nearly all of the Dark Elves and Men comprising Magnar’s army of conquest lay dead upon hate filled battlegrounds across the great lands known as Nostraterra. Most of the remnants gathered at the Sanguine Templar, the enormous temple complex only miles from the fountain, sacrificing captives from all the races, fueling the Dark Lightning. Others roamed the confines of the land patrolling between the temple and the fountain, guarding against any interference while Magnar brooded and festered in malice, plotting his resurgence.
Aradia, Elf queen of Phoenicia, driven from her realm into exile in the human realm of Eldora used her magic to find a small rent in Magnar’s lethal defenses, allowing the Watchers to penetrate step by step avoiding all contact with the guardians of this dark kingdom. Horses could not fit through the small stone archway that was the only ingress to this land and the Elven cavalry waited upon the hills just outside the shimmering fence of death, waiting for their chance to rescue the Walkers upon their success.
Now, with a slight increase in light, day was beginning, they must strike soon, or risk detection this close to the fountain. One of Bran’s fellow Walkers, the Dwarven King Gneiss approached leaned down to whisper,
‘It’s time Bran; stay behind me while I see if I can breach this infernal pipe.’
Gneiss and Bran moved to the edge of a freshly dug hole only three feet down, where the top of a subterranean pipe lay, flowing with the raw magic supplying the Fountain. Bran’s three closest friends from their homeland of Platonia were gathered close to Bran, chosen from amongst their fellow Gracies to bear the water of life from their Spring of Hope to this terrible place. The four men from Eldora lurked nearby, their bows at the ready as they covered the rest of the party. The three Dwarven engineers, accompanying Gneiss had located this section of pipe, which was close enough to the surface to be breached, digging the hole. Now, the magic of the Dwarves must sever the hard metal of the pipe for Bran to complete his mission.
Gneiss took an ornate ancient war-hammer from his pack, its’ head made of solid Platina a priceless metal mined by Dwarves, and Gneiss muttered an ancient Dwarven spell. Withdrawing a gleaming crystal cylinder, capped in Platina which shone with hundreds of changing colors and tiny shapes, Gneiss inserted it into a socket in the top of the hammer.
Muttering for everyone to stay back but his fellow Dwarves, Gneiss struck down through the hole in the ground hitting the pipe with a tremendous metallic crash. Small bits of black metal spewed up into the air from the hole, and Gneiss lurched backwards, pulled by the Dwarves.
‘Now Bran!’ said Gneiss.
Bran and his three fellow Gracies approached the hole and peering down Bran saw a large rent made in the dark pipe, where a thick dark red liquid swirled its’ way to the Fountain, the smell of rotting flesh emanating from the fissure was nearly overwhelming. ‘Death, in liquid form.’ thought Bran, ‘so Aradia was right.’ Gracie lore held only Life can defeat Death, and now Bran uncapped the jar of blue liquid—the waters of life carried from Platonia. His fellow three Gracies held him around the waist as he poured in the waters, and for a moment nothing happened; Bran feared that he had failed.
Suddenly the liquid in the pipe turned from red to a purple white, welling up from the pipe into the hole, as the ground beneath their feet shuddered. The Fountain’s muttering flicker visible above their heads stuttered and went out, an unearthly quiet descended upon the land. Then, the Tower exploded in flickering sheets of shimmering energy, blue-white bolts discharging up from the ground and into the sky in actinic courses, running along the ashes of the surrounding desert. The deafening roar was pierced again and again by the sharp cracks of fresh bolts emanating all around. Bran, dragged up from the hole was pushed to safety by his Gracie friends, when a great rush of gas and liquid vomited forth from the hole, claiming two of his friends. Their escort of men grabbed Bran and his friend Arwel, propelling the Gracies to run as fast as they could, following the Dwarves towards the borders of the land, hoping for rescue by the Elven cavalry.
Seconds turned to minutes as Bran ran as fast as his short legs could manage, the bolts of Dark Lightning flashing across the ground and the sky. Bran paused at the top of a small rise, gasping for breath turning to watch the Fountain discharge its energy upon the Sanguine Templar. The entire temple structure was covered in streams of the dark lightning, when suddenly it exploded upwards and outwards; dark red blocks of stone hurtled hundreds of feet skyward before crashing down again. The magic of the Sanguine Templar faded, its dark red glow failing at last. Now, the Fountain spewed its magic outwards, the bolts lashing further and further from its peak.
‘Run, Bran, run.’ Cried Gneiss and turning to look ahead, Bran saw that the Dwarves were in front, with the men bringing up the rear. The smell of ashes, of ancient dust and decay, filled Bran’s nose, as a bitter alkali taste choked his tongue, acrid vapors filling the air, making it difficult to breathe. Wheezing, he ran down the slope of the rise, seeing the dark hills where the cavalry surged down from the hills, the deadly fence vanquished. A leap of hope unlooked for soared in his chest,
‘We did it, we destroyed Magnar and Platonia is safe and soon I will return home.’ He thought but one last bolt of dark lightning caught him, its dark blue threads burning across his face and body. His left ear erupted in a cacophony of great sound and he writhed upon the ground in agony. Arwel had caught most of the blast and was ablaze, the men behind him vanishing forever. As Bran lay upon the sands of Plaga Erebus he saw dark ash filling the sky, his feeling of triumph over the destruction of the fountain replaced by hopelessness and despair as he realized price of victory. Bran thought he would die until the strong arms of Gneiss grabbed him and dragged him towards the distant hills, where he saw with his last sight a small column of horsemen racing towards them across the bitter desert.
When Bran woke, he felt the terrible pain shoot through his body, he screamed aloud, arching his back off the ground. He lay on his back, naked inside a silken tent, with a young Elf sitting on a nearby stool.
‘My lady, he is awake!’ cried the Elf.
‘Here, my young Gracie, drink this potion it will help with the pain.’ said the Elven healer Drindar.
Supported by Drindar, Bran gratefully gulped down the thick cloying liquid. The pain began to subside almost immediately, but the potion only took the edge away, and it was all that Bran could do to keep from screaming again.
A tall blonde Elf woman entered the tent, her high cheek bones and sapphire blue eyes, gave her face an unearthly beauty. Aradia was clad in light grey robes that clung to her slender figure, but she carried a small bundle with her under one arm. Now, she approached Bran and said,
‘Bran, you are mortally wounded, without Elven magical aid you will die by tomorrow. You have said that your people forbid the use of magic, but if you wish it, I can slow the poison within you.’ said Aradia.
Bran thought for just a moment, unable to speak through his teeth that he clenched against the pain, and then nodded.
‘Drindar, leave us, I will call for you when I am finished.’
The Elven healer left the tent and Aradia opened her bundle, removing a slender crystal rod that appeared to generate a small pink light. Kneeling at Bran’s side, Aradia placed the flute to her lips and she began blowing air through it like a normal flute, but now the pink light strengthened, tendrils moving from the flute towards Bran’s body, in tune with a warm rich melodic tone emanating from the flute. The pink lights expanded and entwined him within a magical net, where the light touched his flesh. He felt the pain subside, and he could finally relax his jaw to try and speak when Aradia shook her head slightly without losing contact with the magic flute.
Several minutes later, Aradia stopped, her serene features now set in lines of fatigue, as she placed the flute back in her bundle. She looked down at Bran and saw that the purple lines of dark lightning that had flickered and gleamed when she entered the tent were now barely visible. The open gaping wound across the Gracie’s chest was beginning to close, but Aradia knew that this was only a temporary respite.
‘Bran, can you hear me now clearly?’
‘Yes my lady,’ said Bran exhausted by his wounds.
‘The healing powers in this Breath Crystal are unique, and while they have stayed your death by reducing the poisons from the Dark Lighting, the crystal is not strong enough to save your life. There is an alternative; you can take ship with me to Elvalon, the immortal homeland of the Greater Elves. There you will be healed by the master healers, but the magic will fade if you try and leave Elvalon to return here to Nostraterra. Your death would come swiftly. However, by living in Elvalon, surrounded by our magic, your life will have no natural end.’
‘But I want to go home, to see that my people are safe; not go into exile even if I live forever!’
‘It will take four weeks at the fastest ride on horseback to get you to Platonia, and that is as long as I can keep you alive. You would have a day, maybe two to see your land before you die an excruciating death. You must choose now which journey you wish to make.
Bitterly, Bran said ‘So my choice is either to die in my home or go over sea forever. Can you guarantee me that I will survive the voyage to Elvalon?’
‘No, all I can do is take you there by the fastest ship remaining in Elven hands and hope that I can get you to the Master Healers before you die on board the ship.’
‘Hope, there is that dreaded word again, all I “hoped” to do was save Platonia from destruction.’
‘You accomplished this Bran; Magnar is no more and while you lay unconscious, word has reached me that Platonia was not attacked and remains inviolate as it always has. Truly your task is done.’
‘I will go with you my lady to your homeland; I can only hope that I find peace there.’
‘Rest then Bran, for we leave for my ruined city of Phoenicia within the hour. I will have Drindar come in to clothe you and prepare you for the journey. We must hurry.
As Aradia left the tent, Bran wept bitterly for his friends and his impending exile, before sliding into a fitful sleep.
Chapter One: Arrival
Aradia awoke to the smell of rain blending with the hiss of fragrant seas coming through a small open window in her cabin. The fact that the window was open for the first time in four days told her as much as the absence of both the howling shriek of wind and the chaotic lurching motion of the ship Silver Foam: the great tempest was over. She was safe from shipwreck.
The rhythmic rocking of her bed should have soothed her back to sleep, but instead she fretted over her dying friend Bran lying in a neighboring cabin. Bran was a Gracie, people who had once been Men, but they had been changed long ago by a mysterious plague. Persecuted for their diminutive stature—they were shorter than Men, though taller than Dwarves—they had found refuge in Platonia, an island surrounded by a fierce river whose powerful spirits had bestowed their protection upon the refugees. There they had lived in peace and harmony for time out of mind . . . until the shadow of Magnar had fallen upon them. Though Gracies were slender as reeds, their appearance belied a physical and mental fortitude not present in other races, as Magnar had learned to his sorrow. But even so, Bran had been taxed beyond these limits and Aradia had pushed the ship and its crew into the heart of the storm, racing against time to save Bran.
Now, dressing quickly, she drank a small cup of water when there was a knock on her door.
‘Enter,’ she said.
Jerus, the Elven healer, opened the door and stood before his queen; his portly build and short stature at odds with the tall slender build of other Greater Elves. The usual warm smile and caring eyes beneath light brown brows that usually filled Jerus’ face was missing replaced with an ashen color, and faint sweat on his forehead.
'My lady, may I speak with you?' asked Jerus with a slight bow. Aradia nodded her six foot frame towered over Jerus, long blond tresses flowing down to her waist her sapphire blue eyes fixed him with a penetrating stare. 'Bran is dying, isn't he, Jerus?'
'Yes, my lady. His wounds are beyond my ability to heal. I fear that he will not survive until we reach Elvalon.'
The queen's exquisite features, sculpted cheekbones above a perfectly symmetrical mouth, tensed into a grim mask as she turned to Jerus, ‘Let us go find Raghnall.’