I followed my new boss Nick into as we walked toward the royal palace that sat on the highest point in the city. It was grand but not in the way the other buildings were. While the other buildings towered into the sky, their designs modern and constantly being changed, the palace’s beauty was an ancient one.
Its strong walls were built before the current era and looked out of place. According to Nick, it was written in the constitution of the kingdom that the castle was to remain the same as it had stood for thousands of years.
I followed Nick as we headed under the ornate gate and into the palace courtyard where nobles were waltzing about. It was as if the Duke’s army warring with the King’s soldiers was no concern to them. There was clearly a disconnect between what was happening outside the city gates and the tranquil peace within the city gates.
Nick showed the guards a sigil and they moved aside, letting us into the palace. I wondered how many other people had such access in the entire kingdom. I guessed very few had his level of access and that was a frightening thought.
Nick stopped in front of me as he stood in front of a pair of very large doors.
“I need to warn you before we enter that anything heard within this room should never be talked about outside this room. I need you to make an oath to the realms that what I show you is not said elsewhere.”
“I agree.” I said. It’s not like I had any other choice.
I repeated the words Nick told me to say. Bright light illuminated my vision and a message lingered near the corner of my eye:
“The promise had been sealed. (Any tampering with the seal or breaking the oath will result in permanent death.)”
The doors slowed creaked open. I followed Nick into the large room.
A limp body sat behind the throne. It was like a puppet whose life had been drained from his body.
“Is he sick?” I asked.
“He was. It was his own undoing but we capitalized on his untimely demise. Without the King chaos would have overtaken the kingdom. Luckily, our group was here to hide his death and take order over the kingdom.”
“Why do you care so much about this kingdom, if you can transcend any time.” “You might have put the other realms on a pedestal but they aren’t anything special. People wage wars just to raise through the different worlds. They don’t take time to enjoy life. When the time is right we’ll reenter the second realm.”
I thought back to Crom, how he talked about these people as deserters.
“It sounds like you’re hiding from someone.” I stated.
“Hardly.” said Nick.
I just nodded. It wouldn’t be good for me to point out that he was lying. He didn’t need to know my relationship with Crom. I was certain he wouldn’t appreciate my involvement with the alleged criminal.
“So. How do you hide the fact that the King is dead?” I asked still slightly appalled by the situation. Perhaps I would be more sensitive to finding out the King was dead if I hadn’t spent the last week with wolfmen that performed brutal rituals.
“Kalic’s magic specializes in illusions. With a limp body behind the throne it isn’t hard for him to create a puppet that is convincing for most people. No one ever gets close enough to distinguish the minor flaws in the spell. “
“So why did you want me to join? What do you intend I do?”
“Nothing right now. We’ve got the situation covered. After the Duke’s army is destroyed I’ll introduce you to the others and we’ll figure out a job for you. Right now, I’ll show you to your room. I have some matters I need to take care of.”
I followed the mage through the confusing corridors that headed in all directions throughout the palace. Even with the king dead, the place was kept in immaculate condition. Occasionally we’d move past maids who were cleaning the ancient tapestries that hung on the wall or dusting off furniture.
Eventually Nick opened a door that led into a large room, whose ornate decorations hinted at the lavish lifestyle I signed up to. It was certainly nicer than the army quarters the Duke had stashed me in before.
The room was spacious. The bed was large enough to comfortably fit four people on it and looked thick and soft. I could imagine wrapping myself in the warm covers on a cool winter night.
The room even had its own bathroom with running water. I had heard that such things existed but I never had a chance to experience it myself. With a turn of the knob water poured into a dish-like bowl.
I felt conflicted. My stay was the most comfortable I’d ever been. I grew tired of the politics between the nobles. I grew tired of my friends abandoning me. I grew tired of being tortured and even tired of Crom. He had disappeared long ago.
After many ordeals I realized I didn’t know the man. He was always so reluctant to share anything about himself. He had helped me and I was thankful for that but I still wasn’t certain he wasn’t a criminal. Or what he told me was the truth. I had been lied to too much lately. I didn’t know where to put my trust.
Only Obran truly deserved my friendship, but our paths had diverged significantly.
Nick left leaving me to my own thoughts. I sat on the comfortable bed thinking. I decided I needed answers, so I eventually stood and opened the door to my room. There were definitely more secrets within the palace. Maybe some that would settle the ideas spinning in my head.
I lost myself in the corridors. The only sign of life were the maids who scowled as I perused past them. Whether they disliked me for some unknown reason or they disliked their job I didn’t know. I didn’t care enough to ask them.
Every door I passed contained the same excess I experienced in my room. Gold was scattered out so casually it felt as if gold cost no more than the cheapest of lumber. Eventually, I came across a cellar door that I could only assume was either a dungeon or a wine cellar. It was made of a dull heavy iron and stuck out from the bright gold that was scattered around the room.
I decided to unlatch the trap door and walk down into the cold room beneath the palace’s surface. The room was carved into stone, lacking any of the opulence that could be seen in the rooms above.
The dimly lit torches suggested that this bland room was used. As I walked down the corridor I noticed empty cells, many of which had cobwebs on them. It was clear that the palace rarely had anyone down here to clean the dungeons. I continued walking down the corridor full of empty cells, peering into each one to find signs of life.
I shuffled further and further down the dimly lit corridor. “There must be people here,” I thought. Why else would the palace keep the torches burning and the walls fairly clean?
Eventually, I spotted a hunched figure in the back of one of the cells. It was difficult to tell what he looked like. His dark hood blended into the shadows that danced on the back wall of the cell, brought to life by the dim torch, lit on the opposite side of the room.
“Who are you?” I asked.
The person sitting in the back of the cell mumbled something under his breath. I didn’t catch what he said.
“If you tell me, I might let you out?” I said. The man laying down in the cell chuckled.
“Alright, I’m Han. Why are you so nosy? Who let you down here?”
“I got caught up in some feud. I want to know if you’d heard of anyone named Crom.”
“Hmm. There was a man named that came through with that name months ago. From what I heard he was executed just days after arriving.”
I just nodded solemnly. After I heard the Duke had no idea who or where Crom was, I assumed maybe the king had found him. The mages were desperately looking for him after all. It was enough closure for me.
I kept my end of the bargain, sticking my hand onto the cell and calling forth heat. The iron bar melted as I ran my hand down the metal shaft. I kept doing this until I had created an opening where the figure in the cell could easily fit through.
I watched in horror as a flurry of magic slammed into my army. Sparks from lightning were blinding, incinerating troops below. The only indication of life were the cacophony of screams that rang out from my troops.
It was all downhill after Cloud had fallen. Sarah leaped into the battle with her soldiers but she didn’t have the same offensive magic that Cloud had. Rayan lacked any offensive ability so it was planned that he would avoid the battle. It wouldn’t be wise to risk his death. I’d sent a scout to check on him. The scout had recorded he was missing.
I was furious when I found out, but mostly I felt regret. I was a noble with deep pockets. I could have lived a long life of comfort. It was my birthright after all. I knew that wasn’t how it was going to end, not when I watched my troops be torn to shreds in front of me.
“I have prepared the horses, lord. We should leave quickly if we want any chance of getting out of this mess alive.”
I nodded. It wouldn’t be easy hiding from the King’s mages. I shuddered as I remember the numerous stories the Duke had told me of the mages efficiently hunting down and torturing rogue nobles and escaped prisoners. They took their job seriously. It would have been easy if Rayan hadn’t already deserted. He was a prodigy tracker that I suspected even the mages couldn't find. If I ever found him, I’d slit his throat.
Now wasn’t the time to think about him. It was time to leave. I threw myself onto the back of the horse and began the journey away from this hell-hole.
Erik I scurried up the dungeon stairs and reentered the labyrinth of decadent hallways that hid the fake King and his many royal relatives. I rushed down the corridors trying to locate the room that Nick had showed me. It was difficult to retrace my steps and I was forced to ask some of the maids I’d seen on how to get back to my room. Most would scowl disapprovingly before telling me to turn down this hall or go through that door.
I opened the door to my room. Inside Nick and two other were standing.
“Ah, Erik you returned. I brought some people I need to introduce you to.”
I looked over at the figures that stood with Nick. One was familiar, he was the same mage that hunted Crom and I as we escaped from Lord Cresten. The other I had never seen before.
“This is Devik and Gorn they’ll be working with you while you learn the basics of what we’re going to have you do.”
Gorn, the mage I knew, stared at me with his solid black eyes. I could tell he recognized me.
“You seem familiar. Have we met?” Gorn asked. “You passed by a village I was from, so you probably noticed me in the crowd,” I stated. I hoped the lie would be convincing enough to stop Gorn from looking into my past.
“That’s possible,” said Gorn but his tone indicated he wasn’t convinced.
“Take today off. We’ll start tomorrow.”
“Ok. I’ll see you tomorrow.” I said.
I watched as the mages casually made their way out of my room. I sat on the ground in panic. I knew if I stayed he’d eventually recognize me or I’d let something slip that would give away who I was whether that be Crom’s friend or a member of the Duke’s army.
As I sat there, I realized it was time to leave. For so long I was caught up in trying to find out what happened to Crom that I became embroiled in this pointless war. Only bad things would happen once I was outed.
I picked myself up and headed into the gilded hallways once more. I had a feeling the nexus was close to the palace.