The Barony of Witwark was a relatively large demesne within the hold of the Baron Lorank. It was his design and it was to his credit that its size had expanded extensively. During the ages of instability and constant civil wars, petty nobles and ambitious warlords frequently exploited the opportunity to extend the reach of their land.
They would have been foolish not do to so, for it would have been others if not them. Although the common folk certainly didn't profit from turbulent times of near lawlessness, lords and counts revelled in them.
Without an authoritative sovereign that would leash his subordinates, the power vacuum provided vassals with free reign, allowing them to control their domains as they saw fit. Fuelled by greed, many would embark upon the path of conquest no matter the cost.
However, that cost might have been beyond sustainable. Raising an army, training the soldiers and keeping them – it didn't come cheap. In fact, it had exhausted the treasury of Baron Lorank, putting him before a delicate dilemma as the warriors under his service were expecting pay any day.
He was sitting on his lavish golden throne, his grimace worn down as he was in the middle of debating the trouble. He was a flamboyantly dressed man in blue and red coat, his face wrinkly but clean-shaven.
His eyes were fixed on the oblong table in front of him in the spacious room. There were five men and five women of importance. Some were his allies, some were his relatives, others were his advisors.
Although each had a say in the affairs of the court, there was one that Lorank trusted more than the rest. It was an old and wise man called Ristok. There were many reasons for that, but perhaps the most important of them all was that he had advised three of the Baron's forefathers.
"What would you suggest, Ristok?" Lorank finally turned to him. "You've been silent so far."
"Well, my lord, this is a most intriguing situation that none of your predecessors were in," responded the elderly individual that was sitting at the far end of the table. He was the archetype of an erudite scholar, his white hair being the symbol of mystery, his beard as long as his enigmatic life, his gray cloak stressing out that impression.
"None of them had the chance to harvest the crops of strife and civil unrest either. If it wasn't me, others would jump at the opportunity, clawing ripe lands from the not so firm grasp of our hands. However, we were ready. Now we just need to reward those faithful to our cause."
"It's more than a question of faithfulness, my lord. Many regiments are looking forward to receiving their share."
"And they will get it, in time. That is why I turned to you for advice. Our coffers are empty and we have to be prepared for the financial strain that is yet to come. As has already been mentioned, raising taxes and collecting them in the newly subjugated regions..."
"Would be most unwise. Although people have little say in your affairs, if you rob them even more than the previous owners of the land, they will take the matter into their hands. You will give them no option. They won't have anything to lose but their wretched lives that weren't worth the poverty imposed upon them."
"So, what is your opinion?"
"It isn't an easy task to solve, I give you that. Desperate times can lead to desperate measures..."
"And we might just have to resort to them."
"Surely you don't mean to follow superstitions now, we've discussed this many times before," one of the women objected. It was Lorank's aunt.
"I tend to agree with Salia," Ristok replied.
"Hmm," Lorank seemed to be deep in thought. "But what other options do I have? The treacherous tale of betrayal and redemption. A burnt down village. Search for a long lost treasure of a retired pirate captain."
"After all those years you are inclined to believe it?" Salia shook her head in disbelief.
"In the end, all the legends and fables have a grain of truth to them. It didn't have to happen exactly as the stories go, but the undeniable fact that there are ruins of an old settlement overran by trees proves my words."
"It doesn't have to mean anything. Stories are made on a daily basis to underline the importance of an enchanting place. Or to discourage overly curious individuals," the woman elaborated.
"What about the Hedoran Massacre? Was that a story? A fabrication? Would hundreds of families agree with you that it is a made up incident? That their children haven't been kidnapped, never to return?"
"That is different, not all the tales are either to glorify or damn. Folks tend to twist and change a story as it travels on the wind," Ristok debated. "There is no denying that such an event transpired, but that doesn't mean every detail is correct."
"You," Lorank suddenly turned to the old advisor. "You should know more than details concerning that fable. It is close to your birthplace, isn't it?"
"I'm sorry, my lord. Hailing from there doesn't necessarily entitle me to being granted the knowledge."
"Doesn't matter, my trusted friend," he grinned as he realized something. "I think I have figured it out."
"Figured what out, my liege?" Ristok wondered.
"Although many would disagree with me, I believe trying won't hurt. There is nothing to lose."
"I assume you want to assemble a scouting party."
"Exactly. Two people should suffice. And I want you to be part of it."
"Me, sire? You chose me of all the people? But I'm afraid that my frail bones won't be of any use to the expedition. Why not sending trained men to do this? The effort..."
"I've already decided, Ristok. No more soldiers. They wouldn't hear anything of this until they have been paid and I suspect that tricking them won't work."
"I'm sure they could be convinced. If you allowed me, I might as well accompany them and offer them guidance."
"I appreciate your counsel, but I feel it in my guts that this time I'm right."
"Alright, sir," the old man replied, his voice conforming yet showing a subtle hint of disappointment. "It will be done as you wish, though I can't resist asking. Who will be the second to venture into the Farlakah Woods?"
"My son Dirk," Loran spoke in triumph. "It's time he proved himself. Made a name that would solidify his position. He has the potential to reach very high. I aim to make sure of that. Don't doubt it for a second."
"I never would, sire, but there are plenty of opportunities elsewhere. Why wasting time with..."
"I said don't doubt it for a second, my friend. I will be proven right. No armies are necessary. They would only draw attention to that cursed place."
"I don't doubt you, my liege. It will be done as you wish."
"I would expect no less."
Dirk was an outgoing fellow just like his father had been at that age of thirty. Unlike his father, however, he wasn't a shrewd and ruthless schemer. He certainly had spirit and was strong enough, but he lacked the ambition that set successful nobles and kings apart from those that were doomed to fade into obscurity.
It didn't matter at the time, Lorank believed. There were many years still ahead and the Baron was confident that all will be changed. Yet now was a different moment. Trouble was stirring and the necessity to stem the gathering tide was growing ever so apparent.
That is why the mission to Farlakah Woods was commissioned. Besides hoping to lead his son to the path he threaded, Lorank was convinced that he would solve two problems at once by gaining enough wealth to pay for his skirmishes.
However, he was unaware that he wasn't the only one to secretly plot and to exploit others' lack of readiness. There were those that wanted to profit, being so close by the lampshade like carnivorous leeches.
Nevertheless, the expedition was already underway. The two were marching towards the distant target. Forgotten ruins in the middle of a deep forest where no foot dared to venture alone.
They were rushing through the countryside, travelling on horseback. While Dirk was protected by a layer of chainmail and had a sword sheathed under his belt, his companion was dressed in the same cloak as always.
Their path had led them through various villages and cities, yet they didn't stop at any as they were instructed not to tarry. Only when the sun was beginning to set and threatening howls were echoing in the wilderness did they decide to hop off their steeds and head to the nearest inn.
It was a modest settlement with the pub in its centre. That building itself wasn't particularly large, but appearances were deceptive. As soon as they entered, they found themselves in a spacious room that could house a whole army of drunkards.
However, very few seats were taken. The innkeeper, a weathered woman in her late fifties, didn't seem happy. Perhaps it reflected the state of her business, or perhaps there was something else troubling her. Either way, they approached her.
"Do you have free beds for tonight?" Ristok asked.
"Aye, I do have," she spoke to them whilst leaning against the bar. "Two gold pieces per one."
"Good. We'll take two then. Here is your money," Dirk replied.
The lady smiled and led them to their rooms, leaving them to themselves afterwards. It was already after dusk and they gladly fell asleep, having travelled more than a hundred of miles.
The son of the Baron was hard to wake up, not expecting any disturbance whatsoever. That was a fatal mistake. It must have been past midnight and everyone inside was slumbering. Yet that didn't mean that those outside were too.
A mysterious individual shrouded in a black cloak was approaching the inn. He was silent, his footsteps impossible to hear in the wind. He effortlessly climbed to the windows of the pub, carefully glancing through each.
He located his target swiftly, his sharp eyes locking on him despite the dim moonlight. Silently, he opened the window and leapt in. His victim was so close. Dirk was sleeping deeply, unsuspecting of the assassination attempt.
The assailant unsheathed a dagger. He was almost within reach of the son of the Baron. The fateful moment of decision was merely seconds away. Yet as the cold steel was about to plunge into the heart of the slumbering person, a brisk flash of lightning struck the attacker, reducing him to a pile of ash.
The sound that accompanied it was so loud that it woke Dirk up instantly. He rose up, his breath heavy. What was going on? What was that noise? A plethora of questions occurred to him at the same time.
He glanced the way the disturbance came and spotted none other than Ristok. The old man wasn't holding any weapon, but since Dirk hadn't witnessed the assassin, he didn't have a reason more to wonder. Still, he was confounded by the fact that the advisor was standing by his bed.
"Nothing special. You can resume your rest."
"Ristok, you have to tell me what happened," Dirk insisted.
"Alright, sir. A killer was trying to take away your life."
"A killer? Here?" the son of Lorank was confused. "Where?"
"These are his remains," the elderly person pointed towards the floor where the ashes were.
"Are you making fun of me? A pile of black something?"
The advisor didn't reply with words, choosing to use his magic instead. He raised his right hand and a flash of blue light emerged from his palm. It swiftly landed on the ground, reassembling the individual that had been undone.
There he was, captured in his murderous pose just before he had been stopped from behind. Holding a dagger and leaning over his victim that was now sitting on the bed and watching in confusion.
"This is... magic?"
"A few of ancient tricks that I've learned."
"And you killed him with this?" Dirk's amazement was overwhelming to the point of making him ignore the horrid implications of the assassination.
"Not quite, but it was... a spell too."
"Oh my god. Do you realize how marvellous your talents are?"
"I do, but I try to keep them secret, my lord," Ristok replied and clenched his fist, causing the reanimated corpse to disappear.
"I... I understand. It helps you protect my father... and me apparently. You are truly an invaluable servant to my family. I hope Lorank realizes that."
"And does he know about your abilities?"
"He is the only one apart from you, sire. It allows for an easy dispatch of enemies that resort to such underhanded moves. Assassinations like this."
"Assassination," Dirk repeated that word, recalling that there had been an attempt on his life just now. "Why did he want to do that?"
"It appears that your family has enemies. And they have waited for this very moment," the old man thought aloud.
"But who? Who exactly could be behind this attack?" he was boiling with anger, demanding revenge.
"There are many people your father has offended and you know that."
"I do, but... they must have followed us. Ever since we left the keep, they must have been after us. Somebody from the inside must be it. Who was informed about our mission besides those gathered round the table?"
"Possibly no one."
"We should return and tell my father of this treachery."
"My lord, I advise you not to do that. If we return, the plotter will witness that their scheme failed. It will put a serious dent in your father's plans to solidify his dynasty's prestige and satisfy the demand of his army for gold.
This way, nobody has to know that we have failed. We will gain some time and will be left undisturbed for the majority of our journey."
"But he might have had an accomplice that could have been watching and is now on the way to inform his employer."
"I doubt that. Years of experience with nefarious schemes, evil plots and power-hungry coups make me an expert in this field. This has been a botched attempt doomed to fail from the very beginning. They deemed you easy prey and me a laughable aide. They supposed you would be removed from existence without complications.
They underestimated us terribly. They sent one assassin with a dagger. Took them this long to do something when they had a plethora of chances in the past. Expected that since this was almost a perfect moment, there would be no hindrance."
"Alright then. I believe I don't need to sleep anymore. What about you?"
"You wish to continue in our quest?"
"If it can be put that way."
"I forgot to thank you for saving my life," Dirk said as they were approaching the edges of the vast forest that spanned across half of the land.
"There's no need to. I am merely doing what I am bound to," the noble old man replied humbly.
"If only all the people in the world were as selfless," the son of the Baron responded.
Ristok chose to remain silent. He laid his eyes on the infinite rows of trees in front of him. It truly seemed that there wasn't an end to the woods, but he knew that it was a trick that his mind was trying to lie about.
He spent many minutes pondering the serene nature. Trees were reaching out towards the sky as wind rustled with their leaves and birds were chirping songs. It was like a paradise. Devoid of struggle, devoid of plots and devoid of warfare.
However, the atmosphere was growing creepier each second. The transition was subtle at first yet it didn't take long and they could recognize hints of ferocity of the woods. The same trees that had been leaning to the sun in envy were now aggressively attempting to blot it out. The winds were cold and severe, pressing harshly against flowers and bushes in a bid to break them.
Although believing that there was something sinister within the forest was bordering with superstitions, human mind was designed to be susceptible to them. Both men couldn't help but to feel there was a curse reigning free, yet their reason promptly negated those thoughts.
"Where did you learn the magic?" Dirk wondered, asking not just out of interest but also because he wanted to divert his attention from the increasing darkness.
"I was young back then. I can barely remember that."
"Surely there must be a memory somewhere out there."
"All I can recall is that I was sitting by a lake. Although the village I lived in was teeming with life and I could hear shouting coming from its way, I felt tranquillity pervading my surroundings.
It was as if mystic energy surged through my very being. I was connected to the ethereal base of this realm and I was suddenly enlightened. Magic flowed from my fingertips and I could witness it.
That was my first experience with it. I've been learning to understand the hidden powers of the world ever since. Sadly, it seems that I am the only one gifted with command over magic."
"You've tried to teach others?"
"In a sense, yes."
"I suppose you won't be able to teach me then."
"We could try when our task is over."
"Good, I'm looking forward to it."
Silence ensued afterwards as they travelled the treacherous forests and were soon engulfed by dimness. They were closing in to their target. A long since lost settlement. Abandoned by its previous inhabitants due to unknown reasons. However, travellers' feet often allowed restless people to behold the mysterious remains of the past and their imagination did the rest, resulting in wildly different tales.
A great fire that had consumed the village because of a drunken sailor that had been careless. A raid by the authorities in order to catch a pirate. A surprise attack planned as revenge.
The number of versions to it was high. Yet there was always a common denominator. A chest full of gold buried somewhere in there by a seaman. During the civil war and before, many attempts to uncover it had been made by previous owners of the land. Yet none had succeeded.
Dirk was thinking about it. What would make them succeed? What would set them apart from all the others? Ristok's abilities? It was quite a possibility, but it wasn't guaranteed to work.
Besides, the old man would be the one to deserve fame if he discovered the treasure. Although Lorank had different plans for his son, it didn't feel right to take credit for the deed of another.
Nevertheless, they weren't yet done and it was hard to tell how things would evolve. That is why his attention eventually shifted towards something completely diverse. Towards an interesting fact.
"Is it true that you were born in a town about thirty miles from the alleged location of the riches?"
"It is, but I know as much as you do about the folk tales if that is what you're aiming to point out."
"Surely an erudite man such as yourself must have picked up whispers during his lifetime."
"Well, there isn't much. I have to admit that I was fascinated when I first heard one of many variations of it. I was a little kid back then though. As I aged, my interest in fables waned naturally."
"But you are gifted with understanding of magic. Isn't that quite a tale in itself? A trait that could inspire legends?"
"Agreed. However, it's a thing that I know and am able to grasp it. Tales of a pirate captain abandoning his passion for a hideout in the heartlands... not so much. Magic has its logic, but this folk tale does not."
"Still, you could share a few words about it."
"If you insist, then I will. We'll have something to pass the time with.
Jarred was his name. He was a pirate. A dreadful menace that plagued the known coasts of the world. Every captain dreaded seeing the flag signalling the coming of the devil himself. Skull and crossbones.
He sank dozens of ships and slain hundreds of seamen that dared to stand in his way to infamy. There was no man to defy him and live the next day. Or at least that's what the legends said. He didn't mind having such a reputation. In fact, he revelled in this twisted glory.
Despite being viewed as an unbeatable god amongst people, he was still a mortal. His age was proof to that and he couldn't deny his increasingly numerous wrinkles scarring his withering skin.
The prognosis that he was becoming aware of was making him despair. He wasn't as strong and undefeatable as he had once been. His powers were slowly but confidentially waning and it was a matter of time until he would face his first defeat or worse. A humiliating death.
That is why he decided to put an end to his life at sea, change his name and move far away from his field of influence. He hoped that he would eventually be forgotten and that stories of his deeds would never reach his hiding place. He was convinced that the wealth he had amassed during his lifetime would be enough to provide for peaceful years of the remains of his existence.
However, his belief that he would be safe was terribly wrong. Living incognito as an old hermit on the edge of a silent and serene village surrounded by the woods, he left his house and its surroundings only if he had to gather supplies.
Many wondered about his shadowy nature and elusive habits, but none could learn the horrid truth of his past. Until an adventurer arrived. Having travelled the land to great extent, he was familiar with stories and even more people. He quickly connected the dots and realized that the elderly solitary individual was no other than the once feared captain.
It was obvious what a fame and fortune seeking person would do next. Confront the criminal with a sword in his hand. He demanded all the gold, but the former pirate wouldn't agree. And so they fought.
Their swords clashed, the metal clattered and clanked as they duelled, yet it seemed that the battle wouldn't have a victor. Suddenly, the traveller unsheathed a secret dagger and plunged it straight into the chest of the unsuspecting villain.
The adventurer believed that the riches would be his, but he was mistaken. With his last dying breath, the seaman cursed the whole village so that nobody would steal his accumulated treasure.
However, the hero wasn't superstitious and disregarded the threat, deciding to search the cabin for the stash. He spent hours at it until he finally stumbled upon a loose candlestick on the wall. As he pressed it, one of the planks that formed the ground sprang upwards, revealing a hidden chamber leading beneath.
Although there was darkness, he wasn't afraid of it and bravely ventured inside with a torch in his hand. Yet that marked the beginning of his undoing. He found a chest full of gold there and greed immediately took over his soul.
Time flew by like a bird and he didn't even realize it because he was too busy raking and rummaging through the shining riches. And that was a costly fault. He didn't notice the smoke filling his lungs. He didn't notice the cracking of wood. He didn't notice as the ceiling behind him collapsed and sealed him in the underground room. The only thing that he did notice was the flames that surrounded him, burning him alive.
And that's it. Pretty gruesome story, but people tend to spice it up."
They arrived at their destination. It was an abandoned place almost unrecognizable from the rest of the dreary and dark forest where mighty and twisted trees were rising from the remains of houses. Merely a few structures were actually visible, others were buried deep beneath the soil.
"Here we are. We can start looking but I doubt we will get anything at all," Ristok spoke as he hopped off his horse and glanced around.
Dirk followed his example and began his search, trying to heed the legend that he had been told by the old man. He inspected every stone and checked every bush, recreating the image of the village in his mind. His goal was to locate a cottage that would fit the scarce description of being secluded and modest in size.
Although it was most likely a fool's errand and the leads were made up, those were his only clues and he had nothing to lose. He was becoming increasingly annoyed and convinced that they wouldn't succeed after an hour of meticulous effort, but then luck shined on him.
Finding the outline delimiting the foundations of a small house separated from all the others, his attention was piqued instantly. There was a sturdy tree standing before him, its strong roots blocking a darkened hole. Perhaps it was merely shallow. Or perhaps it was the fabled stash of gold.
Whatever was true, he rejoiced. "Ristok! Come here!"
The old mage immediately rushed to Dirk's aid, observing his findings. And in a single wave of his hand, he made the roots disappear and reveal the entrance.
"Good job. You go in, I'll bring the horses and prepare to load them."
"Alright," the son of the Baron agreed and quickly jumped in. The light barely reached inside, but it was enough for him to see.
He had to crawl through debris, but his perseverance was rewarded. He witnessed the contours of an ornate chest in the room. It was more than a reason to cherish the moment, but his joy was interrupted in its very wake.
"I'm afraid that whatever riches you have found, they are mine to take. Now step away so that I don't have to kill you."
He turned around swiftly, standing face to face with the unknown interloper. It was a man in a blue cloak, armed with a sword. Dirk drew his blade in response, not intimidated by the words of the invader.
They clashed, but it was apparent from the start who would win. The noble easily overpowered the despicable thief, knocking him down and approaching him to finish the duel once and for all.
"Wait!" Ristok shouted, stopping Lorank's son in the last second. "There might be more of them, we need to interrogate him!"
Although the noble was possessed by a craze, he knew how to command it. He lowered his weapon and let his adversary recollect.
"I'll take care of it. You get the treasure," the advisor said and Dirk did as instructed, kneeling in front of the chest and opening it.
White light appeared from behind that allowed him to see, he didn't try to find what its origin was as he believed that Ristok was casting some sort of a spell. Besides, it was more than helpful.
However, he was able to witness the horrible truth. There was no gold inside. Somebody must have been there before them.
"There's nothing here!" the son of Lorank exclaimed in horror, finally turning to the old man. The intruder was lying dead and the mage was his executioner.
"I've delved into his soul. He has followed us ever since the beginning. Someone is ratting out our secrets."
"Who? There must be more than one side to this as this thief didn't know about the fact that the treasure is missing."
"Hmm. Clever. But the treasure isn't missing," the advisor commented as his slow steps brought him closer to the confused noble.
"Isn't? Then... I don't understand."
"You see, it was all a fabrication. A trick."
"Trick? But why?" Dirk asked. He was deeply confounded, unable to realize that he was paralyzed and ensnared by cunning magic of the traitorous elder.
"The story I have told you... the legend of the treasure... it isn't entirely fabricated. The struggle indeed took place, but the adventurer didn't prevail. No. It was me. The pirate captain.
I have assumed his form, burnt the village so that none would know the truth and made my escape. Changing shape and taking others' bodies has been my way for many centuries and I'm not going to stop anytime soon. You are merely the next chain in the link.
That's right. I'm old and need a new body. That is why I manipulated Lorank into this. Cleverly left hints, subtly advised him to do this and that. It is truly a shame that he wouldn't send a whole army so that I could be able to choose from a much wider pool, but never mind. Of all the people I have met, you are more than a fitting candidate for my plans.
Don't worry, nobody will suspect a thing. This chest is an enchanted object that will consume your soul and replace it with mine. The cycle will continue and I will live on for another age."
The speech was done. As it had happened, Dirk was drained of his power, his skin now withered and pale. There was no escape. He dropped dead shortly afterwards, his body motionless.
The old sage lifted the corpse from the ground, threw it inside the chest and closed it. Within a second, even he tumbled to the floor without any sings of life. However, the coffer opened and the deceased was alive.
Everything went according to plan. He only had to return to Lorank and present him with treasure. Treasure that he didn't have, but he didn't mind because it was a trivial matter for him to conjure it up.
He grinned as he mounted the horse and disappeared in the distance, for he knew that great future awaited him. In fact, there was nothing less than great future anywhere he went as that was a prerogative he treasured greatly.