Lightly geared in clothing that could hardly be considered armour, they rode all day long and all night, stopping only to switch out their tired, half dead horses for brand new ones at every guard post and tavern they could. It was imperative that they arrive at their destination as quickly as possible.
The Black Messangers was what they were called, a group of loyal nobles formed quickly after the rebellion ended. They were not the frilly dandy nobles that were afraid of messing up their hair; these were the noblemen who were not afraid to get their hands dirty and hunt down the remaining rebels. It was an honour to be called a Black Messanger, they were considered to be trusted and loyal.
One of those honoured and trusted noble families part of the Black Messangers was the Merano House. A dozen Merano men in black clothing road South. They rode hard, merciless in their treatment of their horses. They could always find more if one failed and died. These men had been tasked with chasing down the traitorous De Nere family. The De Nere’s were traitors to the new regime. Collecting rumors as well as horses in each tavern they passed, the Black Messangers of the new King knew they likely too late. Lord De Nere had probably dragged his family past the Zingarian border by now, but it did not matter. If they needed to pass the border to find them they would, no matter the danger. Fullfilling the king’s orders was all that mattered.
Soon the Meranos were deep in Zingara. De Nere had to be close.
Late in the night they road south by the road in an ancient forest rumored to be deadly. When the scouts returned only then did the riders stop. The young knight bowed his head. “My lord, I’ve found them. Lord De Nere and his brats are camped out just ten minutes from here.”
Old Teo jumped off his horse. The poor beast trembled, letting out a pathetic neigh befpre its overworked heart gave out and it dropped behind the uncaring lord. “Allek, stay here with the horses.” The Lord Merano pulled out his dagger. “Gentlemen, time for the hunt!” His eyes gleamed greedily at the prospect of finally catching De Nere, and he looked at the young scout. “Lead us, squire.”
Late in the night like shadow-thieves the Meranos surrounded the camp. De Nere was easy prey, just a bunch of women and children, only a couple of men present that could be considered warriors. Lord De Nere slept peacefully, thinking himself to be safe so deeply in the ancient forest, far from Aquilonia. He would soon find out how wrong he was.
The signal to move was an owl hoot. Once the signal sounded, the shadows moved in, making no sound as they moved on the camp, daggers and bows ready, lusting for blood. It almost seemed like it would be easier than taking milk from a kitten…until one of the De Nere men scrambled to his feet, shouting, “I’ll be cursed…AMBUSH! AMBUSH!”
He was no match for the messangers, and was quickly cut down. His body fell to the ground with a thump, a look of surprise on his very dead face. Steel sung in the darkness as swords swung, chopping bodies and lopping off heads. The Merano men had no mercy, they spared no one. Women and children alike screamed as they were cut down. It seemed like forever for those on the receiving end of the bloodshed, though it only lasted a few seconds. Soon there was an errie silence. The Shadows began cleaning their blades and looting the bodies. Old Teo himself chopped off De Nere’s head, soaking in his pathetic cries for mercy with cold glee. He tossed the head to one of his knights as if it were a bag of filthy trash. “Gift for the King….” He trailed off as his attention was caught by the tied up girl being dragged over; one of the De Vere’s daughters. Just children, eight or ten years old, already showing the beginnings of her future beauty. “My lord, she almost managed to escape. What should we do with her?”
The Lord Merano sighed. “I suppose these girl is… what was their names?” He glanced at the parchment in his bloodied hand. “Janvarra or Evanee. Doesnt really matter... Why the fuck she still alive?” Old Teo turned to his bastard son Athelies and his nephew Tavio. “You two useless milk drinkers…I bet you got no guts and you hid in a bush the whole fight!” As he spoke the insults he watched his only son Athelies. “Men, we’re leaving. One of you has to end her life. Do it fast, we aren’t waiting the whole night. Prove you’re true Meranos. In this war blood must be on everyone’s hands. Crimes uniting. Remember that.”
The Merano knights disappeared into the darkness, leaving behind the girl and the two boys. The De Nere girl were tied up near the camp fire, young eyes wide with fear, clothing in shreds. Sixteen-year-old Tavio stepped forward and pulled out his dagger. “Athel, lets get this over with.”
Teo’s bastard grabbed Tavio’s hand. “We…we can’t!” LOOK at her! She is child! Mitra would never approve this!”
Tavio threw his hand off and fast as a tiger placed the dagger at Athelies’s throat. “I can’t believe you would be this cowardly Athel! I know its inhuman, but war usually is. These are our ORDERS! Their family was traitors, therefore they are by blood. My father died so this tyrant Numedides would fall, and all of his supporters with him! Not so you could whimper and spare his enemies just because they’re children!” He glared, eyes fierce. “She deserve no mercy.”
Athelies stepped back, keeping an eye on the dagger at his throat. “Perhaps,” he spoke softly, “brother…forgive me…”
Tavio removed the dagger and slowly moved towards the girl. He made the mitran cross over her, then himself. “Mitra forgive me, it must be done.” Raising the weapon over Janvarra, he whispered, “I’m sorry.”
Suddenly his world went black. “I’m sorry, too, brother.” Tavio fell unconscious at Athelies’s feet, knocked out cold. When he awoke they were long gone.
He had no idea that this night would be the beginning of future events that would one day unfold for him, and would one day mean his untimely death.
While Elymir and the whole of Aquilonia began the official one week celebration of the victory over the Dictator Numedides, young Tavio Merano crawled on through cold hard ground deep in the tall grass. Right after the Black Messengers had fulfilled their duties, and the Merano knights returned back home, Uncle had sent him to the Southern scout outpost, to watch the picts behind the river. On his very first patrol he came across a trial. It was a single man, most likely he had crossed the river less than an hour ago. Such luck… Tavio sarcasticaly rolled his eyes.
Invisible as a shadow, Tavio was getting closer to his target. It was getting late, the sun was slowly slipping behind the horizon, it’s last few rays of light casting a quickly dimming low glow upon the world below. As luck would have it a strange bout of fog had settled around him, reducing his visibility. He could hardly see anything in the distance. Finally the young Merano saw him, a hooded man sitting on the stone. Easy prey…
After getting closer it was clear it was not a pict. The man looked like a scout himself, perhaps zingarian or argosean, or even perhaps an aquilonian servant. Tavio had his crossbow loaded and ready, a little closer and he would reveal himself.
Suddenly the man stood and leisurely turned towards Tavio. Two absolutely black eyes looked impassively at the spot Tavio was hidden in. “Milord.”
Confused, Tavio slowly rose up onto one knee, crossbow still, ready and aimed at the man. “No sudden movements! You’re trespassing on Aquilonian soil, name yourself or I’ll shoot!”
Tavio could hardly see the face of the man in the thick, strange fog, just his unnaturally black eyes. “I am just a traveler, Milord. A Seeker of knowledge…”
The young Merano kept his crossbow pointed firmly at the man. “I said name yourself! By the count’s orders anyone crossing this river is to be shot on sight!”
The man stepped back into the fog and seemed to disappear within it. All Tavio could see now was a hazy black silhouette moving somewhere deep in the thick fog. Shit, why didn’t he shoot? Tavio cursed in Zingarian and, crossbow raised, quickly moved after the hooded man. No matter how fast he moved the shadowy silhouette was still out of his reach somehow. Tavio was almost running now, chasing, but he could to get close enough for a clear shot.
The young scout entered the forest. He was here before, he had fond memories of this place, though tonight it seemed scary and grim, like something from a deep-deep nightmare.
He saw the camp fire not so far ahead. Gripping the crossbow tightly, pointing it ahead Tavio moved slowly towards the light. It did not take long until he reached a small glade. Ancient pieces of Acheronian ruins lay here and there. Strange, he had been here more than once but never saw this glade before. The young scout targeted the man who sat at the campfire. “You try running again, and I swear by Mitra, this time I’ll shoot you dead. Name yourself! Now!” The young noble tried to look menacing.
The man slowly removed his hood, revealing a pale white face covered in brutal scars and cuts. It was difficult to gauge his age, he did not seem young nor very old. A pair of frightening black eyes flashed demonically. “Does my name truly matter so much, milord? Take a seat, I have alot to say.” The grim-faced man nodded to the empty place in front of him.
Tavio stepped forward but kept a cautious distance. “I don’t think you understand; if you won’t name yourself by the count’s orders I’ll SHOOT you. Now answer my question, trespasser!”
The man only rolled his strange black eyes and threw a couple of sticks onto the fire, seemingly unafraid of the situation and the threat. “My name matters not.” The man paused a moment, thinking. “Your family respects only power. But what do you truly know about power? Is it military strength? Is it wealth? Is it fanatical belief? Tell me boy, what is true power?”
The young scout stepped closer, crossbow still armed and ready. “The one who holds the crossbow has the power! Now answer the fucking question! Who are you? And how do you know so much about me?”
The man slowly pulled out a smoking pipe and began to leisurely fill it with black powder, powder that looked very much like black lotus. He seemed quite calm and collected considering there was a loaded crossbow aimed at him. “Is it not obvious I am here for a reason? Is it not obvious I am here on business? Is it not obvious you know who I am? You gave a very poor answer, but you got me, to help you.” Demonic flames burned in his black eyes. “Finally, take a seat child, and listen. There are many powers, all of them different, working in different ways. But there is one power that stands above them all.” The man watched him. “Do you know what that power is?”
Confused and lost, Tavio found himself taking a seat and lowering his crossbow. Part of him wanted to shoot the man already and be done with this, but the other part felt compelled to listen. “Why do you ask that? What are you?” He stared at his demonic black eyes.
The man waved the question away. “What I am matters not, I am the one awaiting the answer.”
The young merano scratched his head. “Uncle says that Meranos are true power. We are destined to dominate. Blessed by Mitra we shall stand above all others.”
The man laughted. "As good answer as any. Yet your uncle is wrong. Knowledge is the true power. Only knowledge."
Tavio made a long Pfffft. The man sounded like his mentor when he was younger. “Riiiight…”
“I see you do not believe me. Knowledge is sharper than any sword. Knowledge is worth more than all the gold in the world. Knowledge can be stronger than the strongest fanatical belief. You want to see the truth? To see the unseen? To hear the unheard? To know what only gods may know? I know the way, the way to true power.” He handed Tavio the pipe.
The young Merano looked at the black lotus in disgust. “Are you out of your mind? Uncle says its poison we give to our enemies. No merano should ever try this shit.” He grimaced with disgust.
The stranger chuckled. “And your uncle is absolutely right. But today I am with you. I will be your guide. I can show you what no Merano has seen before. I can show you the past and the future. I can show you how to defeat your enemies. I can show you true power, and how to use it. I am giving you knowledge no one else has. A true weapon against your enemies.”
Tavio was hesitant still. It was forbidden for a Merano to use lotus. This stranger was no mere traveler. He closed his eyes. Perhaps Mitra himself had sent this man, perhaps… The young noble took the pipe. The man silently lit it up and Tavio took a long deep breath, sucking the lotus smoke into his lungs…
At first he felt nothing. He briefly wondered if this strange man was playing a joke on him. He opened his mouth to speak when he felt it… He was leaving hid body. Yes, Tavio was leaving his body!
The trees disappeared, the glade vanished, the whole world went in the blink of an eye. He was floating amongst the stars. Tavio could not see the dark and evil smile on the stranger’s scarred face. He could not see that the stranger had left him alone in the forest… Tavio was not there anymore. The Void had consumed him fully. No doubt it was the Void itself. He had heard some talks of scholars in Elymir about the Void. A great darkness full of demons and gods and nightmares. He could see them, see it all, see the Others. They were around him in the Void, and they had yet to notice him.
Somehow young Tavio felt no fear, only an innocent curiosity. He could swim in the darkness. It was somehow so…beautiful. One of the Others passed beside him. With childish curiosity he could not resist and reached out, touching it. This simple touch would prove to be the beginning of the end.
Tavio was thrown into the darkness. All beauty fled, any curiosity he felt was gone. Hellish flames burned around him. Screams of agony and torment filled his ears until he was certain they would burst from it all. If hell existed, this was it. The young noble looked around, eyes filled with panic, but there was no where to run. There was nothing but fear and pain and horror…
And then He stepped out of the fires. Tavio could see the silhouette. The demon laughed, a laugh so horrifying it could break the strongest man. It filled his ears like a thousand screams, grated against his mind. It was deep inside his soul. Tavio grabbed at his face and closed his eyes, as if this simple gesture could ward of the agonizing sound and feel of the demon’s laugh. “Please, no! No! STOP!!! GET OUT OF MY MIND!!!”
The demon kept laughing, his laughter enveloping the young noble, suffocating him, filling him with the horrors of hell. Painful whispers peppered the agonizing laughter, speaking to him in his head…
"...We know who you are..."
"..Little lost noble..."
"...You’ll serve us now...."
"...We are your master..."
"....We are your god...."
"...You seek knowledge, we will give you what you seek..."
Thousands of voices screamed into Tavio's poor head, all at once, all filled with agony and despair and torment, grating against his sanity, filling every corner of his mind until he was certain his head would explode into hellfire. It was impossible to stay sane in this madness. He was shown the horrors no mortal should see. What in the mortal world was only hours, here in the Void was weeks, maybe even months or years. It all blended together, the constant torment, constant hellfire scratching at his mind, burning his soul within. Demons played with him, driving the young kid insane. He resisted as best he could, but he was soon mad. He prayed to Mitra through it all, praying, crying, begging for escape, for mercy.
Until one day he opened his eyes and found himself back in the forests of poitain. There was no stranger, there was no glade, there was no hell.
Tavio return scared from this nightmare... Scared yet sane... Or was he still sanе?