For more than one year, the faithful had been making the pilgrimage to the coastal city of Sterling Port. Leaving their homes and villages as the incredible stories reached them; they walked for days or often weeks, traveling from the furthest corners of the Realm. Flocking in their thousands, they filled the Inns and taverns to bursting and helped to line the pockets of every merchant in the city. They had travelled far and endured hardship just so that they could pay homage and see the truth of the miracle that had taken place in the Source Temple on the hill that overlooked the city of Sterling Port.
When at last they reached the end of their journey, climbed the hill and entered the temple’s cool environs, these pilgrims stood and stared in awe at the three glowing skulls that one year ago had quite miraculously appeared upon the altar.
‘Brought as a gift from the Source itself,’ or so the priest assured the listening crowds. ‘Delivered by a group of warrior angels who had fought with the demon lord of Chaos himself as the skulls had been set in place’ - the priest, delighted at the temple’s growing prominence, claimed to have witnessed the whole thing.
The warm summer months passed, followed by the most glorious of autumns and an abundant harvest for all regions of the Realm. Now, however, the weather was changing once again. The steady lines of patiently waiting pilgrims dwindled daily as the cold of winter placed its first frosty grip on the Kingdom for many years. At least, reasoned the priest, some degree of normality was able to return to the temple and services could be held without the constant interruption from bands of faithful travellers arriving, each one eager for a glimpse of the miracle.
Those pilgrims that did still make it to the altar in Sterling Temple prayed to the Source for their friends and families as all had done before, but now they could also be heard praying for their Kingdom as it once again made ready for war.
Far to the North, the Realm’s traditional enemy were massing once again; the Barbarian hordes led by the Warrior Queen, Morgasta. And if the Barbarians were not enough, the winter winds were bringing rumours of a new enemy threatening the Realm from across ‘The Great Expanse,’ the sea of sand to the West of the Kingdom. The future was an uncertain one and pilgrims would often remark that only time and true faith would tell. However, it was a time and faith that would be tested far sooner than most were want to believe, for when the first act of that testing did arrive, it came late on the eve of the winter solstice, on a particularly unwelcoming night.
The priest was tired after another busy day of serving the Source, and as he left that evening, turning the key in the temple door, his hands were stiff and numb from the cold. Replacing the key in his robes, he shuffled out, his mind already on other much warmer distractions. After a quick blessing to the two guards stationed outside the main door, he pulled his cloak about him and hurried off into the rainy night to find his fire, a late supper, and possibly a glass or two of warm spiced wine.
The guards stamped their feet and watched the skinny cleric leave. It was too cold and wet to stand outside, so with a quick glance around to check if they were being observed they headed into the small wooden guardroom in order to play a game of old jack bones and drink something warming around their own small fire.
Unbeknownst to the careless guards or tired priest, it just so happened that on this particular inhospitable night, two thieves were approaching the temple, heads bowed and backs hunched against the wind and rain. They held little fear for the guards, in fact, the taller of the two appeared somewhat disappointed to find the doorway abandoned. He cast a craving look towards the guardroom, and then at his companion, who simply shook his head.
‘Just open the door and let’s get this done,’ grumbled the shorter figure. ‘I’m freezing me damn bits off standing out here while yeh look fer trouble.’ He pushed his companion towards the door but then hastily held his hands up in apology as the taller man swung violently towards him. ‘Please… let’s just get this done. Then you can play with them… after. Me word on it… all right?’
The tall man regarded him, the red glow from his eyes casting their own dim light within the hood of his cloak. ‘Just be careful I don’t start playing with you… or freezing your bits off will sound like a gift from the Source itself.’ The small black demon perching upon his shoulder bared its teeth and hissed its own warning. Turning back to the door, the tall thief held a claw-like hand over the lock mechanism and it glowed blood red before the bolt slid back with a loud clunk that echoed back throughout the temple. Hinges creaking, the door swung open releasing a waft of incense and devotion out into the cold, wet night.
Watching his stout accomplice waddle past, his heavy footfalls echoing in the darkness, he vowed for the umpteenth time that he would kill him soon and go on with their plans alone. He stepped forward, heedless of the temple carvings and pious majesty that was normally the first thing to capture the attention of the devout, and felt his irritation melt away as his gaze was drawn towards the far end of the temple and the three miraculous skulls with their soft blue glow bathing the altar.
The sound of lumbering footfalls stopped and the tall thief watched as, without any thought to the consequences, the pudgy hands of Bartholomew Bask reached up onto the altar and lifted the closest of the skulls from its place, pulling it closely to his chest. The skull briefly illuminated the merchant’s grinning face before its blue light slowly ebbed, the magic broken as it became separated from its fellows. Quickly placing two of the skulls in a sack, Bartholomew held out the third towards Matheus Hawk, his smile of triumph slowly fading.
The hunter, feeling strangely cautious, took it tentatively. It felt cold and foreign, and he fought the urge to turn away and vomit. He quickly passed the skull back.
‘Hey! What do you think you’re doing there? Hold still…’ the guards, finally deciding to look out of their cosy guardroom had found the temple doors open. Hastily buckled armour clashed and banged as they loped down the aisle, clumsily drawing their swords as they came. The tall hunter slowly turned towards them, an awful grin on his face as he raised his arms to either side, palms up and fingers curling. Red lightning crackled from his fingertips as his hands turned towards the guards and then struck out to hit each in mid stride with a sickly punch that knocked them from their feet and drove the air from their bodies. Yet they did not fall to the floor. Backs arching, they writhed in agony and rose into the air, screaming out in pain as their swords fell to the tiles with a clatter, the crackling energy lifting them up towards the painted ceiling high above.
By the time they reached the apex of their journey, they were dead, their spirits already departed as their lifeless bodies were finally released, falling with two dull thuds to the stone flagging of the temple floor.
A colossal clap of thunder broke the deathly silence that followed. It was accompanied by a brilliant flash of flickering lightning that revealed the broken bodies of the guards, their sightless eyes staring in accusation towards the two thieves.
Bartholomew hugged the skulls to him and looked aghast at the Hawk. ‘Do you still have the dreams?’ His voice was little more than a hushed whisper as the tall hunter held out his hands to reclaim the third skull.
‘The dreams? Yes, I still have the dreams… they never leave me, they are my constant companions... along with Nhasic here.’ He reached up and pulled spitefully on the little demon’s ear making it hiss. ‘The Griffin and its young crew will suffer Mr. Bask. I care little for their… talents. I have studied much and learnt well these past months. I am now truly Matheus Hawk, The Hunter. My powers have gone far beyond anything I had ever thought to be possible. Yes, I still have my nightmares Mr. Bask, but I also have my dreams, dreams of revenge, revenge and a chance to bring a little closer a time of suffering for the crew of The Griffin.’
The two thieves made their way out of the temple and down through the city towards the ship anchored in the harbour. The tall thief marched ahead as his shorter round companion tried to keep up, hampered by the large sack that swung from side to side over his somewhat ample shoulders. Behind them, the temple stood cold and alone - rain blew in through its open doors, while the interior, empty and bereft of its spirit once more, started to get even colder.
The door was left banging on its hinges as the storm intensified, becoming far worse than anything predicted by the locals in Sterling Port’s many taverns. For now was the start of a new storm, a chaos storm.
Chapter One - A Rose of Gold
‘That... has to be one of the nastiest things I’ve ever seen. Why do they leave them hanging up there?’ Pardigan swatted one of the many fat flies away that were buzzing around the three slowly swinging corpses, hanging by their necks outside the city gates. The three were in an advanced state of decay with tongues distended and their flesh already starting to break apart - the air was ripe with their stench.
‘Well the signs around their necks say they were thieves, Pardigan, so you’d better take note, it’s what most people would call a warning. You’d best keep your hands in your pockets while we’re here if that’s at all possible.’ Covering his nose and mouth with the edge of his cloak, Quint looked at Pardigan and sighed, hoping it wasn’t a mistake coming to the Royal city. If there was trouble going on here, then Pardigan was bound to find it.
‘Bit tough, hanging someone just for being a thief, isn’t it?’ Pardigan continued, somewhat appalled.
‘Maybe,’ Quint replied with a smile, ‘but then, it does make a pretty good warning, eh?’ They moved on past the hideously grinning figures as the large crowd that was attempting to enter the city shuffled slowly across the drawbridge and through the gates into the ancient city of Deniah.
There was no particular reason to be here, no special reason to be anywhere really. They had done all the fishing they could handle for a while, spent time back at the moorings, and then more time cleaning and provisioning The Griffin. They still had a good portion of the coin that Pardigan had stolen from Merchant Bask in Freya, and were planning to make a trading voyage out to Minster at some point soon, but it wasn’t really the time. Mahra had gone visiting friends in the south, and when the others were discussing what to do, they’d discovered that none of them had ever been to Deniah before, the capital city of the Realm, so a visit had seemed like a good idea.
Royal Deniah, to give it its full title, was a huge and ancient city. The oldest part was crowded within massive protective walls complete with battlements and tall towers that loomed above everything. The first sight to draw a traveller’s eye, cresting the surrounding hills were the massive city defences and the many coloured pennants flying proudly from its towers, it was a famous sight and one that all traveller’s eagerly anticipated.
There were actually two cities of Deniah. Within the walls was the ‘old’ city, with the Royal palace taking up nearly a quarter of the total area while the remainder was given over to a maze of winding streets and neighbourhoods where the so-called ‘better citizens’ lived and conducted their business, and then outside the walls was the new city, which had built up over the last few hundred years as the population expanded, and now housed almost twice as many people as lived within the walls. Dividing the two parts of the city was an ancient, foul smelling moat with four drawbridges where guards monitored who was entering and leaving.
The sight of the thieves hanging by the gate had only slightly dampened the crew’s excitement as they crossed the gloomy moat. When they entered the old city, it was with a sense of excitement and anticipation as the general hustle and bustle and dark narrow streets drew them in and swallowed them up.
‘It stinks,’ moaned Pardigan clamping his hand over his nose.
‘You’ll get used to it luv,’ said an old lady suppressing a toothless cackle. She was sitting on the ground just inside the city gate selling small bunches of flowers. She was peering up at Pardigan, hopefully. ‘Like to buy some posies to hold under yer nose dear? It’ll take the nasty smell away. Would yeh dear… would yeh?’ She held out a small bunch of tired looking yellow flowers and continued to offer Pardigan a toothless, but hopeful smile.
‘Eermm… no thank you,’ said Pardigan trying to move on, but to his frustration, the crowd had come to a momentary halt.
‘Yes, that’s what they’re all saying today, but you go on dear, don’t you mind me. Just you leave old Norah to die here without a copper to her name… might have to start eating the flowers soon,’ she muttered gloomily.
With a sigh of exasperation, Pardigan dropped a copper penny into her lap and snatched up the flowers.
‘The Source bless you young man,’ she cried, cackling dryly as she examined the coin. ‘May your visit to our Royal Deniah bring you luck and love.’
‘Well that’s a good start, Pardigan,’ said Loras with a grin. ‘You always need all the luck you can get. Nice flowers, by the way, are you going to put them in a vase until you find your love?’ Pardigan threw them at his laughing friend and they missed, hitting a large, well-dressed lady in the face. She squealed in shock, and the four boys pushed past through the crowd and ran laughing into the city.