Chapter One: Ephemeral Dawn
Billowing stormheads swelled to the west, swallowing the sun beneath the bruised tones of grey mist that burgeoned across the piercingly azure sky. Athos gazed into the relentless sun, blinding shades of yellowish light seeming to bathe the entire valley in a buttery sheen of radiance. He raised a hand to his brow, feeling the beads of perspiration that clung to his features as his eyes traced the outlines of the great Cerirth peaks that sketched themselves at the edge of his vision. The mountains stood impassive and stalwart on the horizon, with Vaern summit, home to the omnipresent Skybleed, towering far above it’s companions. The singular size of such a monument was dizzying, even at such a great many leagues. Stricken with an inexplicable melancholy, Athos wavered in his rhythm, feeling himself sway with each step closer to the crest of the next mound. The earth rose before him, seeming to slant ever so slightly forward only to grow more treacherous with each passing step. His feet, clad in threadbare woolen socks and worn leather boots stained an oily, flaky black were pressing onward, resolute in surmounting the endless waves of packed dirt that seemed to stretch onward forever, yet only carried forward several hundred meters before falling into the lush foliage residential to the soaring Vasfir valley, the next stepping stone on the cobble road Athos had walked so studiously.
His eyes fell to his hands, his left hand rough and primitive next to his mechanized prosthetic right. He flexed his fingers, watching as the wires inside his wrist spooled and contracted smoothly and flawlessly. The minute gears and inner workings of the prosthesis were barely visible beneath the scarcely translucent outer skin, but his enhanced sight pierced the soft exterior easily. His gaze wandered, taking in the dusty, velvet black cloak which hung casually around his body, draped over his shoulders. Beneath the sleeved cape lie his stygian cuirass, colored as the fabric of a neutron star, impossibly black even amongst the prowess of sunlight. His arms were clad in form fitting charcoal fabric, sliding down his arms and tapering at the wrist. His pants were faded black jeans, the cloth woven in a crosshatches pattern than weaved downward. At his waist lie his blade, a slender dagger with a blade the color of rich, creamed milk. He boots fell again and again, no sound blossoming from his footfalls.
He looked forward again, to see that he was approaching the crest of the last mound. Wiping dust from his mouth, he quickened his pace, a dull eagerness urging him to leave this forsaken desert of dust. Crossing the Nil plains, or, as they were more commonly known, the dust flats, had taken the better part of the last four days and nights. A part of his felt a strange nostalgia about the place, almost as if he had missed something hidden within the leagues of parched, packed dirt. Casting aside the foolish thoughts that pervaded his consciousness, he strode onward. He reached the lip that like at the edge of the mound, gazing down at the valley that stretched boundlessly out before him. The lip of the mound stretched diagonally in both directions away from him, fading into the far reaches of his vision. The edge dropped off, the forested floor lying at least one hundred feet below him, and sinking gradually deeper as the valley continued. He noted that the tops of the trees all fit flush with the edge of the lip, all perfectly proportioned so the tips of the trunks were flat, almost casting the illusion of a deep green sea, the dark emerald leaves forming a perfectly flat surface. Athos looked skyward, determining that several hours of sunlight were left to him, before again facing the storm. The broiling thunderheads were close now, stirring up the lazy breeze into a gusty, zealous wind that shimmered through the great forest before him. Athos combed his fingers through his steel flecked hair, and eyed the jump. Steadying himself, he bent his knees and leapt.
Athos fell for several seconds, the thick boughs and branches of the towering trunks whirling by in a have of blurry motion. He stared earthbound, readying himself for the impact. The earth hurtled upwards to meet him, and he hit the ground without a whisper. Pulling his legs inward as the impact jolted through his body, his work boots instantly absorbed all sound of the impact. Crouching in the forest floor, he rose, pulling his feet from the three inch deep depressions his feet had made in the packed soil. Stepping forward, his eyes picked apart the forest, dancing from branch to branch and spying the curious rodents sheltered in the security of their shadowed hovels. Smiling grimly despite himself, Athos noted that the leaves were swaying in earnest now. Branches creaked and the trees bent, groaning with the strain of the wind. Even here, and the foot of the valley, the wind caressed his features, lifting his cloak gently and tussling his hair. His beard prickling, Athos mentally calculated how long he had before the storm struck the valley. If the gods smiled upon him, he may have half an hour before the first rains fell, and another two hours of sunlight. Already the temperature was dipping, and Athos chided himself for burning time standing static among the trees. He strode forward, weaving between trees only to step around another a few moments later. He steadily continued his descent, sinking deeper into the subsurface valley. The sun had fled behind the clouds now, muted tones of grey slipping between the broad leaves that spackled the air above him.
He’d been walking for twenty and four minutes when the rain began, the first droplets tumbling through the forest and landing with a soft tap on his cloak. The rain steadily grew thicker, tiny jeweled droplets pattering on the now-malleable forest floor. His boots smeared and shifted with each step, sliding a fraction of an inch in the mushy earth. Athos slowed to a halt, drawing his left hand from the depths of his robe and extending his index and middle fingers in a forked gesture. He raised his hand above his head, sweeping downward while muttering a scattered assortment of words in an ancient tongue. The beads of water on his shoulders and hair gathered, rolling off of his body and filtering onto the earth. Sighing deeply, Athos strategically picked a large stump, greened by the newfound moisture, to sit upon.
Settling on the flat, dampened wood, he leaned forward and gazed into the puddle between his faded boots. He saw his face staring back at him, his silver eyes boring into his own mind in an unnervingly powerful demonstration of his own exhaustion. His right pupil was occupied by the symbol of Syros, the wizened god of perception, secrecy, and deceit. As a result, the brand given at birth by the god allowed him to see what other could not; allowed him to detect lies and dissect evidence in a way that only one gifted, or cursed, by the gods were capable of. Athos scratched his face, his beard having grown to a full, sizeable fan of hair around his face. Coupled with his mane of dark curls, he had the appearance of a woodland hermit, strongly resembling a man he had once encountered in the great Vaern forest, a cabin tucked away in the corners of the vast forest. He had stumbled upon the estranged man living there many years ago, before the calamity had scourged the continent of all it’s inhabitants. Except for him.
He drew his cloak tighter, again reminded that he was a marauder in a desolate land, devoid of all higher life but himself. Still he stared at himself, raindrops scattering careless ripples across his rough edged reflection. He reached back tugged his hood over his head, his face taking refuge in the shadows of his cowl. Water welled at the brim of his hood, dripping slowly into his face, streaming down the column of his throat and to his chest. Athos glanced skyward, the light fading noticeably. He pulled his cloak around himself, wrapping his body in a warm cocoon. He curled into the fetal position, lying on the stump and watching dully as a single dewy drop of rain slowly slid down a leaf, sprouted only inches from his face.
He closed his eyes, seeing as clearly as if he hadn’t shut them. Athos allowed his vision to slowly fade away, manually siphoning away his enhanced vision. He felt the symbol branded inside his iris itch for a moment, before fading entirely. Sighing gratefully, he loosed a deep exhale and allowed himself to drift into a sleep he hadn’t had the luxury of taking for nearly half a moon. A vignette filled his mind and his consciousness slipped away, his last thought of that solitary leaf hanging ever so close to his grizzled face.
Athos was sparring alone again, the persistent clashing thud of his ruddy wooden blade drowning out all else; panting and sweat fading into the ambient background, his vision tunneling and honing itself on that padded post, absorbing every inch. His speed had yet to slow, and his strength had not begun to flag. Every stroke left a sizable divot in the pockmarked wooden blade, the “sword” beginning to resemble a gnarled branch. Swinging again, Athos feinted forwards before diving to the left and brought the blade against the post with malevolent force, the blade shattering like glass. Breathing steadily, he tossed the ruined hilt to the ground beside him and hefted his heavy cloak before setting it down and snatching up a towel, wiping the beads of sweat that had accumulated on his broad shoulders. He wore his obsidian cuirass, the matte surface darker than a pool of ink, seeming almost like it was a perfectly flat image. Frowning slightly, he toweled himself off and studied his hands, splinters failing to pierce his skin. He picked up his cloak and drew it across his shoulders, the soft velvety fabric sliding on and snapping into the clasps that lie atop his collarbones. Athos cast a quick glance towards the training room before striding through the door and into the hallway.
The sounds of nature enveloped him, soft swaying of the cavernous canopies of leafy green trees accompanying the gentle hissing wind, drawing up from the south. His footsteps were non-existent, no muted tapping accompanying each footfall, only the sound of rustling branches and the sweet smell of a brewing storm were detectable. Athos swept towards the side of the hallway, a massive open wall with a small marbled granite wall present, the stout structure a mere precaution. Athos rested his palms on the dense stone, the polished marble cool beneath his fingers. He gazed at the northern horizon, a great storm brewing. The cloud heads seemed to rise above the sky itself, no crest to the great force of nature readily visible.
The summer had been one of dark nature, warm and secretive. The black scent of magnolias hung in the air, and the neutron toned black gilded lilies had flourished beneath the caring hand of frequent thunderstorms, casting a scene of macabre beauty that Athos couldn’t entirely grasp yet enjoyed regardless. Much to the royalty’s chagrin, and to the crown princess’s delight, Athos had been trapped in a honeyed, sulky state, the philosophical mood seeming to stretch farther into the heart of summer with each passing night. Athos reflected, with feigned detachment, that perhaps a bit of sulky philosophy was due. He’d been stretched thin for months, trying to protect the entire family over the winter, which had been particularly treacherous.
Athos shook himself from his thoughts as footsteps pounded heavily behind him, nearing the opposite end of the open corridor. He turned and started, King Hoarus staggering towards him. The king was gravely injured, blood seeping from a deep wound smote upon his side. Athos rushed forward, crossing the entire corridor in a fraction of a second, but the king’s body crumbled to ash in his hands. Athos leapt to his feet, whirling around to see the storm had hit the fortress, great bolts of lightning shattering the air with their incredible force. The cavernous claps of thunder shook the ground, the marble floor instantly turned treacherously slick in seconds with a dark film of water. Athos searched the sky for the setting sun, the great celestial body nowhere in sight. The wind tore at his hair and face, whistling in his ears and whipping the expanse of trees below back and forth in an erratic and wild fashion.
He turned again to see the princess and her mother, both standing shock still before him. Their clothes were threadbare and torn, their faces and hands bloodied. But Athos eyes wandered upwards, his voice catching and dying in his throat. Both of their eyes had been gouged out, optical cords hanging out of the sockets and fluids spilling over the cusp, saturating the cheap and flimsy fabric. Athos felt a sob catch in his mouth, his feet pushing himself forward. He coasted forwards, standing before princess Lyra. Athos collapsed, his knees breaking as he wrapped his arms around her waist and choked out a sob.
“Why? Who did this to you?” Athos felt the words spill out, his voice a poison on his tongue, sounding like the draw of a blade across a stone, rasping akin to sandpaper against stone. Athos felt Lyra’s hand cup his face, gently turning his face upwards to her own. Athos stared into the bloodied pits, a smile stretching from ear to ear on her mutilated face. She bent even further down, her face only inches from his. She held the unnatural smile, whispering a single word;
Athos started awake, leaping to his feet and drawing his dagger before his boots hit the ground. Panting heavily, Athos whirled around and around, confusion and adrenaline pumping through his veins. His pulse slowed, and he released his grip on the milky dagger. Sheathing the knife, Athos drew in a shaky breath and say down on the marshy forest floor. He pulled back his heavy cowl, breathing deeply inwards through his sinuses and outwards through his mouth.
He took in his earthly surroundings, golden sun already streaming down upon the valley, it’s eager warmth kissing the earth. Athos sighed heavily, before pushing himself to his feet. He eyed a trunk several dozen feet in front of him, the towering behemoth nearly ten feet in diameter, before turning away. He drew back his fist, crossing the distance instantly and delivering a punch that would have floored a great Wyrm. The wood splintered and crumbled, the massive shaft teetering to and fro before swinging downwards and leaning on one of the many other trees in the great canopy. Satisfied, and having successfully vented, Athos turned his eye back to the winding, abstract trail he’d established. Athos glanced up at the sparklingly clear sky, a vast shape catching his eye before vanishing. Dismissing the thought, he again turned deeper into the forest and sighed, before once again beginning the relentless journey.