The forest was silent, and the dusk was deepening towards nightfall. Snow drifted through the branches of evergreens. A moment of tranquility enshrouded the wood until a knight clad in black armor crashed through the landscape to flee from his pursuers.
Ban Karst had always known that he wasn't much of a hero. He possessed neither the will or the ability, though he'd been provided with every opportunity. He was the noble son of an elder bloodline, yet Ban preferred the company of dockworkers and barmaids. He believed the goodfolk to be finer company than any lord.
He was a carouser, gambler, back-alley scrapper, womanizer, and an infamous lout. A rogue. An embarrassment to his noble father and the shame of his ancient house. For nearly all his young life, Ban took pride in all of it.
Winter was ending, and a new spring approached. It was a relative concept, as the cold remained fierce enough to take the life of anyone caught without fire or shelter. The expansive forests of Altier Nashal, stretching from the coastline to the northern mountains and along the full breadth of the Continent, were broken only seldom by the lights of hearth fires.
The southernmost realm of the Five Kingdoms, Altier Nashal was a vast and untamed land, wild and harsh. Port cities and fishing villages scattered along the coast and the fertile crescent of the Altieri Peninsula in the west were the only truly successful attempts to master the frozen south.
Within his full plate armor, black as midnight, Ban hardly felt the cold anymore. Numb from the patterns of frost creeping into the gaps in his plate and from the fatigue in his heart, Ban no longer felt much of anything. Little, save for confusion, weariness, and fear.
Ban was being hunted.
The shock was too fresh and the pain too raw. For a week now, Ban had been fighting and fleeing those he once named as comrade. He could hardly understand why or how it had happened. The First Legion was newly victorious, and what felt to be the next moment, everything went wrong.
This part of the forest was familiar. Ban's father, the Lord Regent of Altier Nashal, took Ban here on hunting trips with his older brother when they were young. Back then, the forest offered a young prince regent the promise of boundless excitement. With the tribes of the fey nearby and the great beasts of the wild as his prey, Ban had thought it to be an adventure.
Now, Ban simply remembered that he needed to steer clear of where fangblades and medhveds could be lairing, also to remain wary of crossing into the dark folk's territory. The recent war Ban had fought against the fey had been brutal if swift, and goblins had a stronger friendship with the forest than Ban ever could. They wouldn't look kindly upon a lone mortal knight trespassing within their home.
Creatures worse than even fangblades prowled these woods. Ogres often came down from the foothills to hunt aurochs and goats, unnatural fiends twisted by fell magics lurked in foul corners of the wilderness, and winter always brought a rise in the number of wendigos.
Ogres don't attack unless provoked, Ban reasoned. I'm too close to civilization for wendigos, and there hasn't been a fiend sighting in generations. The only things I need to worry about are other mortals.
Ban needed to stop running before much longer. The drifts were only getting deeper the longer he remained in the forest. Each step sank into the powdery snow, almost to his knees. He was tiring, and soon his fatigue would become too heavy for him to face what pursued him. He missed his horse, dead of exhaustion three days earlier.
Placing his hand against an evergreen to steady himself, each breath was labored. His lungs ached. Air tasted more precious than gold marks. Every gasp left him in the form of a puff of mist through the raised visor of his helmet. Ban eyed the condensation of his breath in the air. Just breathing could give his position away, and the twilight hour gave the inquisitors more than enough light to follow the trail Ban had left as he crashed through the underbrush.
Inevitable. He couldn't escape. It was time to fight.
As fine a place as any to die, he thought grimly. Before pushing away from the tree, he stripped the bark and scratched into the wood. His gauntlets had little spikes on the fingertips for that exact purpose.
The legions of Altier Nashal had many noble knights within them. Only those with the skills of an arcanist, a practitioner of magic, were granted the title of paladin. Ban was the kind of arcanist known as a scrivener. He was a rune knight.
Ban wrote Cordek, rune of warmth. Around Cordek, Ban drew a pentagon. At each of the shape's five corners, he scratched a mirrored Sucé. Once finished, the final sigil was no bigger than the palm of his hand.
There was once a time when Ban needed to concentrate to draw his sigils. Now, they came as naturally as drawing a breath, striking with his blade, or winking at a tavern girl. His ether filled the runes as he worked, binding the completed sigil to the wood.
Once the sigil was done, Ban ran a dozen paces and made another. His mentor, Knight-General Kastus, called these kinds of sigils "lookouts" due to their clever method of triggering. The general always did have a macabre sort of humor. Ban supposed he should have seen that as an omen of some kind.
Then again, the hydromancers of House Karst weren't able to foretell what General Kastus planned. How could Ban have seen it any better? He was no augur. The elder bloodline that gave the royal houses a power above other arcanists had not marked Ban.
Stupid, Ban rebuked himself. Blind, spiteful, floundering idiot. I should've listened to Rodrik. He must have seen what was coming. I should have left the legion when he did.
Ban placed a fifth lookout. Any more and his ether would be too drained for a fight. As it stood, he'd have little enough to invest the sigils on his armor. He'd need every advantage he could get once the inquisitors closed the distance between them.
Rodrik Karst, Ban's elder brother, had gathered the greater portion of House Karst's levy to the First Legion and returned home without Kastus' leave. Perhaps he knew what was coming, or perhaps he had seen signs that Ban was blind to. Whichever it was, Ban needed to reach Rodrik and warn him of the general's mad plan. House Karst and House Romov needed to know what was about to march on Ecclesia.
Ban turned to face the way he came and drew his half blade. Two feet long from hilt to point, it wasn't an ideal weapon for fighting off elite inquisitors. It was, however, all he had the strength to lift at the moment. His other sword, the full blade strapped to his back, would only tire him out quicker. The trees grew close together here, so swinging that monster around would only get him caught on branches and killed.
His eyes took in his immediate surrounding. A fallen evergreen, good cover; he'd stand behind that. Two trees grown too close together for a man to pass between; keep that ahead for concealment from arrows and ranged spells. A standing boulder; he'd try to fall back and get on top of that once the inquisitors started to surround him.
Three inquisitors. When this chase began, there had been a full complement of five. One suffered a fall when Ban caused a rockslide in the box canyon they first thought to trap him within. The second succumbed to poison Ban slipped into their cooking pot on the fourth night. These were hardly the honorable tactics that should be used by a paladin of House Karst, but Ban had never been the shining example that his brother was.
Ban chuckled to himself. Were their positions reversed, Rodrik would have likely stood his ground in an open field and challenged each inquisitor to single combat one after the other. The floundering dolt would probably be scandalized beyond measure when they turned him into a porcupine with their bows from a safe distance. Inquisitors didn't hold to the same notions of honor as a paladin.
"To fight an enemy, you must become your enemy," Kastus had once said. Ban heard those words in a time when the world seemed much simpler. Even so, he remembered them. Ban's former mentor was many things, but a fool wasn't one of them. Therefore, Ban fought without the honor Kastus had taught him.
The last war had taught Ban something else. There might have been glory to be found in battle, but honor had nothing to do with it.
Ahead. Motion through the woods. Three shadows approached at a swift pace, following Ban's trail through the snow drifts. Ban held the point of his half blade forward.
Three opponents, he thought. Only heroes from the stories and fools fight three men alone.
There was a burst of light and noise from ahead and a cry of pain. One of them had walked too close to Ban's first lookout. The Cordek rune trigger sensed the heat of the inquisitor's body and activated the five mirrored Sucé runes. Sucé, the rune of force, could shatter bones and turn boulders to gravel with close proximity.
Ban watched as the evergreen groaned and toppled over from the explosion. If he was lucky, the inquisitor had been turned to pudding. Doubtful, though. Inquisitors didn't earn their horns by being easy to kill.
Three plumes of spellfire erupted in the spare light and spread through the undergrowth. Ban's four remaining lookouts triggered, and the resulting blasts showered this section of the forest with snow and wood chips. Ban covered his face with a gauntleted hand to protect his eyes from the debris.
Waves and tides, they're clever. Not a scrivener among them, but they figured out how my sigils worked.
Inquisitors were wizards, more often than not, casting spells with hand gestures, simple reagents, and only the most basic of runes. Wizards were the undisputed masters of spellcraft. They had an uncanny knack for ferreting out the secrets behind other arcanists' abilities and assimilating them for their own use. They couldn't break the Law of Five, but they were quite good at bending it. Incredibly versatile and more troublesome than a noble lady's jealous suitor. Ban disliked wizards as a personal rule.
"Bannlyth Karst," one of them called out.
He and two others materialized from the woods, none the worse for wear from the lookouts. They wore bone-white chain and mail of the Inquisition and had black cloaks around their shoulders. Their faces were veiled by black shrouds, and their helmets were each adorned with a pair of horns. It was the man in the center who spoke. His helm bore the curved horns of a mountain ram, a totem of strength and leadership.
"Bannlyth Karst," Ram repeated, "Paladin of House Karst, Knight-Captain of the First Legion, Second Prince Regent of Altier Nashal, you are invoked by Knight-General Kastus Valdar of the First Legion. You are charged with the crimes of espionage, assault, murder, and desertion. How do you plead?"
Ban reached up and slammed the visor of his helmet down. "Sod off," he snarled.
The inquisitors drew their own half blades— best for fighting exhausted knights in confining terrain.
Ram's face was concealed behind his shroud, but Ban could sense the sneer on his lips. Inquisitors didn't hold to the same codes of conduct as a paladin, but they were every bit as prickly. More so, in most cases.
"Judgement," Ram shouted.
The other two, one with diabolic horns and the visage of a demon painted on his shroud and the other with the antlers of a whitetail, both spoke in unison. "Guilty."
Well, they're not wrong.
"Sentence!" Ram demanded.
Devil and Buck crouched as if to pounce. "Death."
Ban expected no less. He fed his ether into the sigils inscribed on his black armor. They were written with runes of resilience, strength, and alacrity. Etherlight glowed within the lines of the sigils, white and cold like the Altieri moon.
The light of glowing runes traced over his chest, back, and abdomen, around his shoulders, and down his limbs. The trees and bushes cast eery shadows from the light he gave off. This was what made a rune knight so formidable on the field. The runes made Ban a threat.
Not enough of one.
Only heroes from the stories and fools, he thought. Ride hard, Brother. Tell Pacifica I'm sorry I couldn't make it to our wedding.
They came at him as one, half blades held forward as they charged him. There was no way to dodge or parry three blades at once. Ban kicked the fallen evergreen. His sigil-enhanced strength tossed the frozen log into the air and disrupted Ram and Devil's charge. Buck slid underneath the tossed evergreen on his hip and quickly regained his feet.
Ban parried Buck's blade, deflecting the attack just enough that it would stab wide of his body. Inquisitors were trained swordsmen and knew precisely how to fight paladins. Such was their traditional quarry, affluent criminals and the like. Perhaps any other knight in the Altieri Legions would have fallen to Buck's swift counter and riposte, a maneuver tailor-made to kill a paladin.
The nobility couldn't take full credit for teaching Ban how to fight. His earliest lessons had been rather more coarse and carried the salty stench of the docks.
Inquisitor shrouds were intimidating, but gave no protection whatsoever from a head butt. Ban felt the man's nose break, and Buck stumbled back. The inquisitor covered his veiled face with a hand, and blood trickled down the chest of his bone-white armor.
Ban's half blade flashed out but failed to penetrate Buck's chain mail. The blow knocked the inquisitor onto his back just as Ram and Devil reached Ban.
Fool things, those horns. They gave the inquisitors presence, to be sure. Most men they cornered would likely cower and plead to be taken to the Halls of Justice. In a brawl like this, the horns were just a liability.
Ban batted aside Devil's half blade, which made an opening for Ram to drive his forward. Trusting in the sigils and craftsmanship of his full plate, Ban accepted the blow. Steel scored across the black lacquer but didn't penetrate. Stepping forward, Ban lashed out with his hand and seized one of the curved horns. He pulled Ram off-balance, then wrenched back. There was a gratifying pop from the inquistor's neck.
Ram dropped to his knees, his head looking in the wrong direction. He fell forward and lay face… up, Ban supposed, in the snow.
Devil was on Ban in the next moment. His sword play was impeccable. Precise, swift, and cautious. He allowed no openings from his assault, and his flurry of steel kept Ban on the defensive. The painted visage on his shroud leered with an evil expression.
Ban gave ground. All his concentration was taken up by keeping Devil's sword at bay.
Flames roared over Ban, blinding him and searing him within his armor. Buck was casting a fire spell. Ban clenched his jaw to keep from crying out, then spun to get the close-grown trees between him and Buck. Both inquisitor's then pounced towards him in unison.
Ban used every defensive maneuver he ever learned to hold them back, but it was too much. Their swords struck against Ban's plate more often than he managed to block them. Eventually, they'd overpower him and slide a knife through his visor. Ban needed an armsman, or a whole company of them, for backup. All he had left was a useless full blade and a few precious measures of ether.
Devil got behind him. The two close-grown trees separated them, but there was more than enough space to plunge a blade through and into the weaker armor covering Ban's back. Ban sidestepped just as the strike came between the trees.
Grinning, Ban grabbed the blade of Devil's sword and pulled. His gauntlets protected his hands, and Devil was yanked forward so that he was wedged between the trees trunks. Devil snarled in frustration and struggled to free himself. That gave Ban the moment he needed to kick out and knock Buck back a few steps.
He didn't press towards Buck. Instead, Ban used his fingertip spikes to scratch a sigil into one of the trees. He was practiced enough that he needn't watch what he was doing for a simple sigil like this. Drelb, rune of metal, inscribed within Hotan, rune of wood.
Buck's breathing was hindered by his broken nose. He charged. Ban parried, sidestepped, and used Buck's momentum to slam the inquistor's back against the invested runes. Drelb triggered at the touch of Buck's metal armor and activated Hotan. It was a simple binding sigil using basic runes that even a wizard would be able to duplicate. Metal and wood became as one, and Buck wouldn't be pulling away from the evergreen until he got out of his armor.
The two remaining inquisitors were tangled with the trees and each other. Ban spun to Devil and snatched a knife from a sheathe on his belt, then spun back to Buck.
"Sorry, comrade," Ban growled, "but you chose the wrong master." He drove the knife through Buck's shroud to nail him to the tree.
Sharp pain erupted in Ban's right calf, at the seam between the plates of his greaves. Devil had freed himself, and his precise strike nearly dropped Ban to the ground.
Ban got his half blade up and pointed it at Devil's chest as he limped away from Buck's corpse. The last inquisitor stood motionless, his sword held waist-high as he watched Ban stumble away. He was gauging his opponent, deciding on the best way to make his attack.
Devil's anger had gone cold, and he held himself perfectly calm. Ban had seen stances like his before, centered, languid, and at complete ease. Devil was a master swordsman. His leering demon visage stared at Ban with a hateful menace.
Ban's breaths were ragged and erratic. That last sigil may have been simple, but it had taken most of the ether he had left to him. Keeping the sigils in his armor invested was dragging Ban dangerously close to ethershock.
Wounded like this, Ban wouldn't be able to fend off Devil's attacks for long. He'd be lucky to deflect even one. His armor could only hold out a little longer, and each blow against it would hasten the drain on Ban's ether.
Heroes and fools.
Ban ignored the pain in his calf and stood tall. He tossed aside his half blade and reached over his shoulder. If this was his moment, he would face it in a way that even his father could be proud of. He'd clasp hands with Fate like a Karst.
With a blade five feet long and a hand wide, Ban's full blade was too heavy to wield. But, with his armor's sigils glowing with etherlight, Ban unhooked and swung the massive sword from his back as if it weighed no more than a wooden sparring blade.
Devil altered his stance. The full blade's greater reach forced him to reconsider his tactics. He crouched low to present a smaller target, his trailing foot placed wider to allow a swift dodge against an overhand strike.
One moment, Ban thought tiredly through the pain. I'll have only one moment if any. Waves, but Kastus can go to the depths for this.
Ban held his full blade above his head in a high guard. There were few strikes that could fall from such a stance with a full blade, and Devil was set to avoid them all. It was a dead man's stance, the honorable suicide of a paladin.
Devil gave Ban a nod of respect. He knew how this would play out. Snow began to fall gently from the sky as they faced each other.
The inquisitor charged, wary of the downward strike from Ban's weapon. He was moving too swiftly for Ban to follow. There was no chance that Ban could avoid Devil's blade.
Out of the trees, a horn sounded. The staccato notes were a brass tenor, and it was the traditional call of House Karst. The sudden sound distracted Devil, leading him to glance to the side just as he came within Ban's reach.
I have him! Ban thought in triumph.
Whether Devil was even more skilled than Ban supposed, or Ban was simply too slow, Devil dodged deftly aside and avoided the strike. The inquisitor then looked to the trees where the horn's call had come from and back to Ban. Apparently choosing discretion as the better part of valor, Devil fled.
Ban ceased feeding ether into his armor's sigils. With no more drains on his store of energy, it began to slowly trickle back into him. Perhaps after an hour of replenishing his stores, he wouldn't feel like he was about to keel over from ethershock.
"I did not expect to find you here, Bannlyth," came a voice from the woods. Rodrik rode forward, a cadre of Karst armsmen at his back.
Ban's older brother was every bit the paladin that he was expected to be. He was clad in white plate and a flowing cloak bearing the Karst colors and crest, gold on green and a rampant seawolf. He rode straight-backed and tall in his saddle. His white charger pranced in the snow as if on the parade ground. Rodrik's helm was hanging on his saddle horn, allowing his long, crimson hair to hang about his broad shoulders. His pale turquiose eyes were fixed on Ban as his company rode up, and his expression was as cold as ever.
My dear brother, Ban thought. So serious. If there's one man on the Continent what needs a drink and smooching a barmaid, there he is.
The riders reined in ten paces from where Ban stood. The armsmen took in the scene. Ram's twisted neck lay in a snowdrift, and Buck hung nailed to a tree by way of his face. They returned their eyes to Ban, a speck of uneasiness about them.
"Just in time, Rod," Ban chuckled in relief. He raised his visor and shouldered his full blade. "Don't suppose you have a spare horse with you?"
Rodrik didn't reply. Nor did he or any of his men move. They remained still and didn't take their hands from their weapons.
Ban's eyes darted to each man in turn. The grin on his lips faltered. "Brother?"
"I see no brother before me," Rodrik said. "Bannlyth Karst is dead. He died the moment he chose to side against our kingdom."
"Don't be like that," Ban said, stepping forward and his free arm held wide. "I didn't know, Rod."
"You are a knight-captain of the First Legion," Rodrik said.
"You as well."
"You stood at Kastus' side in war council, and you expect me to believe that you knew nothing of his plans?"
"That's enough, Rod," Ban said. He lowered his arm. His eyes narrowed and a note of disbelief came into his voice. "Keep it up, and I might start to think you're not joking."
Rodrik gave no reply. He and his men just sat astride their horses, unmoving.
"Waves take me," Ban whispered under his breath. He licked his lips anxiously before raising his voice louder. "Brother, listen to me. I had no idea the general would turn the legion back south after Murdan was put down. We have to get back to Ecclesia. Father needs to be warned!"
"He has been warned," Rodrik replied. "Did Kastus truly think that the hydromancers wouldn't foresee his little attempt at a coup? Were you so foolish? No power in the Five Kingdoms is equal to the elder bloodlines. You should know that as well as any."
"You knew?" Ban asked. Sudden anger made his fists clench. "You and Father knew all along what was going to happen and you didn't tell me?"
"A loyal son of the house would have come back as soon as he was bidden," Rodrik said. "However, Bannlyth Karst did not. He chose Kastus over his own family."
"It was the right thing to do," Ban argued. "The Protectorate was burning, and Kastus was the only one doing anything about it. You know that, Rod. When Kastus marched, so did you."
"I came on my father's orders to confirm the oracle," Rodrik said, "and to give my fool brother a final chance to redeem himself. You chose to stay when I left, and now the First Legion has turned traitor. A legion of exiles bent on conquering their own people."
"I left as soon as Kastus declared himself king," Ban argued. "Look around you. He didn't send his inquisitors to ask me back politely."
Rodrik sneered. "A clever ruse, but I will not allow a traitor inside the White City's walls."
"A ruse?" Ban mouthed. "Rod, you floundering idiot!"
"How deep does your treason go, Bannlyth?" Rodrik asked thoughtfully. "Prince Sasha is with Kastus, either dead, a hostage, or he is also a traitor. Whichever is the case, upon your marriage to Pacifica, Sasha's absence would make you king. Would you see our gates opened to the exiles? Would you then cede the Sea Throne to your master?"
Pacifica, Ban thought in horror. "You wretch. What have you done?"
"Your betrothal has been nullified, Bannlyth," Rodrik declared. "Upon my return to Ecclesia, I will wed the princess."
"That's what this is all about," Ban snarled. "Bastard. This is all for you to become king."
"I have no ambition for the throne," Rodrik said in a bored voice, "but I will do as my house demands."
The sigils on Ban's armor began to glow with etherlight. He raised his full blade into a high guard. A suicidal stance to use against an inquisitor in single combat, but ideal for facing a mounted knight.
"If you harm her, Rodrik," Ban said, "I'll rip out your guts and strangle you with them."
Rodrik smirked. "Please, Bannlyth. Idle threats ill suit you. Pacifica has been most accommodating. She writes that she looks forward to our wedding."
"Lies!" Ban roared.
"No, Bannlyth. The princess is mine." Rodrik raised a hand up. "Kill the traitor, men. He was my brother once, so make it clean. He deserves that much."
Rodrik dropped his hand, the signal to attack. His armsmen lowered their lances and leveled them at Ban's chest.
Only heroes from the stories and fools challenged twenty men. The heroes invariably died in those tales, but Ban had always known he wasn't much of a hero.
The full moon was high overhead when Ban finally took off his helm. His stomach roiled with a deep, aching nausea, and he was breaking out in fever. Ethershock was easily the worst sensation an arcanist had to contend with. It was worse than the lance driven through his chest, but Ban could hardly feel that at all. Everything was numb except the ethershock.
His full blade lay in the snow, gore staining its entire length. A severed arm lay next to it, and Ban was grateful that it wasn't his. Thirteen men out of the twenty had rode off, Rodrik among them. The remainder lay twisted and broken around the forest like discarded toys.
He'd killed seven men. Nine, if he included Ram and Buck. Ban was pleased. He would have been surprised if he managed to get just one before they killed him. He decided that, traitor or not, Kastus had been a fine teacher. Sucé had proven particularly effective against riders. The blast caused more panic than anything, but it was more help than Ban could have hoped for.
His brother's white horse lay somewhere to Ban's left. Poor thing. It had been a fine animal. No wonder Rod had been angry enough to drive his lance straight through Ban's chest.
Ban was on his back in the snow. Rodrik's lance still impaled him, and Ban was certain the tip was poking out the other side. He was pierced, slashed, and bludgeoned, but still alive. For now. Rodrik and his men hadn't fled. Their job was done. Ban was a corpse that hadn't quite yet stopped breathing.
Made him work for it, Ban laughed to himself. He's so sure he's the better fighter. Floundering dolt never scrapped in the docks, and he's plain terrible with magic. A witch… bah. I'd put money down that I know more words in the Aeldenn Tones than he does.
Lying bleeding in the snow wasn't as bad as Ban always assumed it would be. Come to think of it, he was starting to feel warmer than he had in weeks. Cozy and comfortable. Once he got some sleep, he could see about this floundering lance.
"What I really could use," he murmured as he drifted away, "is a sky woman."