The sunlight casts across the capital, and glitters across the blue-tiled roofs. Dew drops appear like little gems across the branches of trees dotting across the streets. Citizens are out for the morning and trading at the stalls already, and children run around playing tag across the plaza, stores are open for business.
The sound of clacking sticks echoes through the courtyard of the stone castle; the proud representation of Rarenth towering over the city with its obelisk turrets and spired towers, and thick walls with front gates securing the entrance.
Derrick tries to keep his breathing steady, but still winds up gasping for air as he swings his wooden practice staff at the fellow guardsman, his brother Douglas.
Douglas' golden hair shines as he ducks and weaves, aiming his wooden staff to whack at Derrick's sides. He steadies his feet and jabs the end of his staff towards Derrick, who sides steps out of the way. Two more jabs Derrick blocks and he holds his staff steady as Douglas lunges for him, connecting their staffs, splinters scraping the wood.
Douglas is strong. He was strong before, but now he's incredible. Even their father was surprised to see his skill increase; he could even handle two broadswords in each hand, and each is nothing more than steel extensions of his arms.
Derrick growls as Douglas smirks at him, keeping in mind his arms are shaking as he tries to keep the block. Derrick pushes his brother off, spinning in the process as he brings his staff up ready to swipe down, but his brother easily hurls himself back, flipping on one hand as Derrick's staff whips down onto the stone. The crack sounds throughout the courtyard.
Douglas stands a yard away from him now, his hair glinting in the afternoon sunlight. His eyes shine with excitement and amusement as he spins the staff in his hand. With one hand on his hip he smiles as he faces his brother. "You know Derrick, I found myself saying a little prayer for you last night."
"Did you now, Douglas?" Derrick smiles as he readies his staff. "How kind."
"Yes," The staff softly whoops behind Douglas with each rotation. "I prayed that the gods would inspire you with a strategy that might end your rather long string of defeats at my hand."
Derrick snarls and lunges forward. Their staves whack and clack against one another and when he swings his leg, ready to slam it into Douglas' side, his brother dives and rolls. Derrick is there ready to stab down his staff but Douglas pounces back and blocks as he goes for a deathblow. Douglas grips both ends of his staff and pushes his aside. His legs follows smoothly and connects with Derrick's staff, breaking it in half.
When he goes to lunge to Derrick, his brother dodges to the side and turns and grips the one end of Douglas' staff aiming for his ribs. He holds the end by crossing the two pieces of wood. He then chucks one end at Douglas, of which he blocks with his forearm, gritting his teeth.
Douglas realizes his mistake a second after, but it's too late.
Derrick slams his foot onto Douglas' staff, slapping it into the ground and tearing it from Douglas' grip. He can feel the scraping of the splinters in his palm, joining the other many scars and scabbed over blisters of his callus skin.
Douglas gasps as Derrick readies to ram the other end, spiked from the breakage and aims it directly under Douglas chin. He leans back to a stand as Derrick comes close and keeps the piece under his chin.
"Praise the gods." He grins.
Douglas manages to angle his chin away from the pointed end and raise his hand up while Derrick allows himself a moment of glory. That is his last mistake.
Douglas grips the hair at the back of his head and pulls. As Derrick yelps in pain, in one smooth motion, Douglas grips his wrist and yanks the staff piece out. Then he uses his foot to knock out Derrick's, sending his brother spinning as he falls.
As his back slams into the stone, Douglas places his foot on his brother's neck, lightly, and just smirks down.
"Obviously, I'm not praying hard enough." he doesn't fight the triumphant smirk on his lips.
Derrick just glares at him, but he can see a small smile on his lips when he says: "If you were not my sibling . . ."
Douglas raises his eyebrows, but on cue, he hears the doors to the veranda creak open and out steps their father and former Captain of the Guard. His greyish silver hair ripples as he steps from light to shadow. His pale blue eyes gleam with pride, and the scar that decorates his right eye still holds the gleam of its former glory across his fairly wrinkled features.
He wears his usual dark-grey, ornately designed armor with the head of his belt and clasp at the center of his breastplate in the carving of a wolf. "Well done, Douglas." he chuckles. "But be kind to your brother. Believe it or not there was a time when he was the fiercest warrior among us."
"And still would be if given the chance in a real battle." Derrick comments as he dusts himself off. His brown tunic hides the dirt, though it clings to his body from sweat.
"Then forgive me my son if I am grateful that you will never be afforded that chance."
"But father, we have been training like this since our birth. If we're not charging into a battle, then what is the point of such intricate lessons? That is other than to humble Derrick from time to time." Douglas smirks.
"We train so that we may always remain vigilant, Douglas." His father looks to Derrick, and Douglas can see a fog cloud his father's eyes in remembrance. "I once let my guard down and paid a terrible price." Then, just like that, the fog is clear. "And the world is full of more rivaling dangers other than petty thieves and drunken brawlers."
"Yet how will we know those dangers if we never encounter them." Douglas argues.
"Well, you could always take a trip the library and pick up a book." A voice chimes from behind. "And perhaps, father, letting down our guard is precisely what we must do."
Looking over to the veranda, seated in a cushioned wicker chair with a book in her hand is master scholar and eldest sister of the three siblings, Deborah. She wears a black tunic with grey pants and black leather boots, a belt of daggers around her waist. As she closes the book, her bright blonde hair flowing down her shoulder, she smiles.
"And now, before yet another century passes, perhaps it is time we engage ourselves with the world. Even if only to add some new material to our library."
"Perhaps Deborah's right father." Douglas chimes. "Why not give a chance to prove how useful these skills are? If I'm going to be Captain of the Royal Guard, I should prove myself."
"And who says that you're going to be captain?" Derrick smirks as he crosses his arms.
"I do," Douglas says, lifting his chin. "As does the multiple defeats bestowed upon you, Derrick."
His brother pouts. "How is it that even though you're the youngest, you've gained the silver tongue?"
"Skill, and a brain that fills my head." Douglas smiles.
It is true Douglas was the youngest child, and while it has benefits – such as forcing his brother to share daggers with him when they were young – it was a constant battle with his father to let him do tasks and incorporate training lessons that were far beyond his time. Douglas is not one to quit, as he showed when he was six and challenged the biggest man on the Royal Guard. Douglas still wants to call it a tie.
While his brother was a little more built than him, his sister was the one who inherited the strongest mind, graduating at the top of her class. Now when she's not face-deep in a monstrous volume, she spends her days at the stables, brushing, cleaning and riding with the vast majority of stallions and sometimes enormous steeds the stable has to offer.
According to multiple woman from around the village, and even ladies-in-waiting of the Queen's court, Douglas is a combination of both his older siblings in looks and strength.
At a passing glance, one might think Douglas' eyes are a blue or grey, depending on the color of his clothing. Up close, though, they are a stunning cerulean with a brilliant ring of gold around his pupils. His golden hair catches the attention of most, maintaining a shimmer of gleaming glory.
In short, Douglas Highmore is blessed with a handful of attractive features that compensated for the majority of average ones.
His brother pouts and their father chuckles. "Now, now Douglas. I said be kind. Though, I suppose it was only a matter of time before you all turned against me. Just understand that there are evils in this world that I, as a father, am compelled to protect you from."
"We are men now father. We no longer need your protection." Douglas says. Deborah comes down the stairs, joining in the group as their father crosses his arm.
"There is a case that has been on my desk for a while, and it would seem that I can't leave it as no one else picks it up or even take on the challenge."
"A challenge, eh?" Douglas grins.
"Though perhaps it is too soon –" Thomas debates.
"No! No it's not." Douglas interjects.
As their father sighs, out of Douglas peripherals, he sees Derrick roll his eyes. Tucking his hand behind his back, Douglas returns the gesture with a vulgar exchange of his finger. Their father runs his hand through his hair and nods. "Very well." Their father agrees. He waves his arm and starts to walk. "Follow me children."
As they start to follow their father, behind them, there's suddenly a quick pitter patter against the stone. Douglas stops and turns to find the flapping tongue and wagging tail of the family dog – or more precisely his dog – come running down from the porch steps and into the group.
He leaps up on his hind legs, smothering Douglas' face with sloppy kisses. "Okay. Okay, Vash! Down!" Douglas barks.
The dog immediately drops and sits his furry bum on the stone, his tail still wagging furiously. Deborah pets the hound's head, the dog huffing with glee.
"Did you ever find out what breed he is?" Deborah asks. As the three continue to walk, Vash joins them, trotting next to Douglas' left side.
"No," Douglas says, wiping his chin. "I haven't, and I don't think I want to. Seems like too much work."
Vash, as well as the rest of this twelve sisters and brothers were the result of a bitch after she escaped from the kennels. It's unknown who she might've mated with, through judging from Vash's sheer size it could've been a wolfhound. Or an actual wolf. His front torso is packed with muscle, his legs long for speed, and a nose that could sniff out a mouse. His coat is a pale grey with a white spot on his chest. He trots happily, nudging Douglas' hand every ten seconds.
The three blonde children follow their father around the perimeter of the castle. The front iron gates appear, a dozen guards flanking the gravel path winding up to the giant front doors. Spears erect, they hold rectangular shields, and their eyes are dark beneath iron helmets. Each wears a red cape. Their armor, while tarnished, is well crafted from iron and leather.
The gravel road is lined with trees of gold and red, glass lampposts sprouting up between them. The sounds of the city mumbles and murmurs beyond the walls, and the light is quenched as they walk under an alcove, open a door and descend down stone steps into the castle's dungeon.
"Why are we here, father?" Derrick asks.
"It is only within this prison, my children, can you glimpse the true darkness that lurks within this world." They reach the bottom of the stairs, a guard on duty greeting them. The man straighten and nods his head to their father.
Douglas watches how his father sets his hand on his sword, the serpent-shaped pommel glinting in the light of the torches. Glancing over his shoulder, he sees his sister's face is placid – even she doesn't know what is down here. His brother just as curious as he looks around at the dark stone.
Stepping through the threshold, it is nothing but a long rectangular room with the stones a dark grey and moist, five torches lining the length of the walls. Douglas hides his cough as best he can, the smell of the burning wood making his nose itch. There are benches cut into the stone, sharp and cold and small table sets with several weapons hanging against the walls. But it's not the heavy weaponry what surprises Douglas.
Rather it's the six more guards he finds inside the room, all standing tall, armed to the teeth with more weapons. Four stand in each corner, others sitting on the benches, or at the tables playing card games and drinking some ale. The room would be spacious if not for the muscled helmet heads crowded together.
But it makes Douglas curious. Whoever this prisoner is, he or she must be some threat.
"Sir Thomas." One guard acknowledges, others nodding their heads and raising their tankards.
At the very back of the room is a single cell door, gleaming silver, but with a couple of pale scratch marks beneath the barred window. Its tips slowly trailing back inside into the cell. Vash approaches the door, sniffing along its bottom edge, then gutturally growling and taking a couple steps back.
Their father stops and side steps. Vash comes back to Douglas' side, hackles high, teeth bared in hatred. Deborah stands, her hands folded in front of her, the book still in her hands. Derrick levels with Douglas as their father motions them forward with his head.
A small part of Douglas' stomach twists. His father had to have been setting him up for a scare. Of course, Douglas won't give him the satisfaction.
The siblings exchange a look, and Derrick raises his eyebrows. Douglas looks to the cell door, seemingly ominous with just pure blackness on its inside. His skin crawls when he thinks he hears whispering. After a hesitant half-step, Douglas steps forward. Vash whines behind him.
"Quiet Vash." He orders and the dog sits.
Douglas makes it all the way to the door, more scratches and dents appearing. It disturbs him how the dents were made from the inside, as if the inhabitant was trying to get out. Bracing a carefully hand below the window, Douglas peers inside the black. The whispers increase.
After seconds of tense silence, Douglas hears the shift in the dirt. A brief second of rattling chains.
He leaps back just in time as a long-fingered hand shot through the bared window, accompanied by a horrific, bloodcurdling scream and a harsh bang against the door.
The entirety of the room flinches, the guards reaching for their weapons and Derrick and Deborah jump. Deborah sets a hand on her chest, Derrick taking a couple scared steps back, his hand reaching for his dagger.
The scream continues, rattling against the walls and deafening everyone's ears in this cramped room. A pale, dirtied and skeletal arm is spastically clawing at the front of the door, more banging coming from its inside.
The woman's scream softens into a manic laugh of insanity. Her arm retreats through the small window, her banging ceasing.
"Behold, my children. The Witches of Tamarak." Their father says.
Douglas' heart is battering against his ribs at jackrabbit speed, hands slightly quivering as he takes a step closer back towards the window. Peering inside, the limited light breaks through the crevice at the bottom of the door. There his eyes adjust, and the silhouette of the woman forms in the darkness.
She sits with her back to the brick wall, thick chains and dirtied cuffs around her wrists and ankles. The chains snaking across the floor to each side of the walls. Beneath her is a simple pile of hay with dirtied animal pelts, a bucket to relief herself, a bucket of water, and crumbs from her last meal.
Douglas is surprised to see that she seems young – at least in her early twenties – his breath immediately leaving his lungs in astonishment at how beautiful she was, even with the dirt and grime and possible excrement smeared on her arms and legs.
Despite her skeletal appearance – her ribs reaching out from inside of her, past her haggard face with sharp cheekbones and sunken eyes, Douglas pictures how she might've looked before her imprisonment.
Her hair was matted and tangled, but exquisitely silver like the light of the moon. Her eyes were entrancingly purple, the color so bright and absolute like amethyst gems; her skin is as white as alabaster, but it's hard to tell if it's from malnourishment or if it was like that before. When the woman lifts those eyes to meet Douglas, he takes a shaky inhale of air. Her nostrils flare delicately, as if she is –
She's taking a whiff of his scent. Douglas' feet take steps back without thought.
"Do not fear, Douglas." His father says.
The woman creepily giggles. "He is right to be scared, captain. You're a fool if you think you can hold me." The woman expands her smile, and a small pinch of fear crawls up Douglas' spine. The woman's teeth . . . They're – they're razor sharp, like a fish's, and made of metal. Of – of iron! They push from the slits high in her gums, snapping down like armor.
Chains rattle, signaling she is moving. Stepping away further, Derrick approaches the cell door, but keeps a smart distance from the door. The closer she gets, the more he retreats back. Deborah stands back, peering left and right; no interest of getting close.
"Our kind are more than mere women." She grips the bars of the window. "We are forces of nature. We can tear down armies single-handedly and still have enough energy to devour the corpses."
"You are but breath and shadow, vile demon." Douglas' father barks. The woman hisses, her hand retreating into the shadows.
The Witches of Tamarak are a species of supernatural beings who live in the northern part of the continent. Their species was created by the god of the dead so that they may fill his halls with souls. Or at least according to history.
Douglas practically had this information memorized to the letter, as it was the most important – and interesting – information while he was training at a younger age, and it was constantly repeated in his elementary history classes.
There are three clans of the Tamarak Witches: the Scarletbloods, the Ebonywings, and the Thornhearts. The witches often possess great beauty, although some of them take the form of hideous old women.
All the Tamarak witches have sharp, retractable iron teeth and nails in addition to human sets of teeth and nails. They are very sharp and thus are lethal weapons in battle.
Though the Tamarak witches can be killed, they do not age as humans do, allowing them to retain their youthful beauty and vigor. They possess otherworldly abilities such as heightened sensory perception, rendering them skilled predators.
Each member of the witch clans can be discovered by something known as the Devil's Mark – intricate yet wicked looking tattoos that can be as small as on the wrist, or large enough to dominate her entire body. This woman's is etched down her left, thin arm, the whorls of black ink stark against her pale skin.
Her amethyst eyes glow in the dark, and they flick to Douglas. There's a small stinging on the tip of his nose that he didn't acknowledge before, and when he lifts his fingers, brushing the skin and they come back smeared with crimson. She had just gotten his nose.
As if sensing his fear and intimidation, the woman flicks her wrist in the air between them. Iron claws shoot over her nails in a stinging, gleaming flash. Gods, they must be at least five inches long from the bed to the tip.
"This, Douglas, is why you must prove to me that I can trust you and your skills. For these are the most vile and dangerous creatures you will come to face – and they must not be taken lightly. You are to accept the nature of these witches as it is: wicked, disloyal, and above all untrustworthy."
Looking at the woman again, she's standing at the center of her cell now, her arms loose at her sides, her fingers rippling, making her iron claws gleam. She still has a smile stretching from ear to ear.
Douglas swallows hard. "Come." His father calls, Vash following close on his heels.
Footsteps begin to shuffle, Douglas taking slow steps back, never breaking his gaze from the witch, almost entranced. She slowly lifts her thin arm, and waves, her iron claws clicking.
Then, her shoulders begin to shake. A chuckle starts at her lips, then slowly, slowly it grows into a maniacal laugh. One that is laced with insanity and a cruelty that extends past her knowing the fear and intimidation she casts.
Her laugh echoes across the stones, making Douglas' temples throb.
A shudder runs down Douglas' spine as he turns and heads out of the cramped dungeon room. The witch's laugh still echoing.
"You're shaking," Deborah says, setting a hand on his shoulder.
"No, I'm not." Douglas hisses, batting his sister's hand away from his arm. He walks behind his father, his siblings flanking his sides. He's been quiet when they left the dungeon, he is still quiet even as they round the castle's perimeter and into the castle gardens.
While a small part of him housed fear for the witch, a majority of him was intrigued, dare say even fascinated with the Tamarak witch. A fool some would call him, unable to see the danger. No, he sees it, but he's able to look past it and find interest in how they were born with those iron teeth and nails. What gave them such beauty, their ability to fight? They're like the perfect predator.
He knew the stories – legends told that had given him nightmares as a child. He had thought of them nothing more than that, legends. Stories past down from veterans of war, those claiming to have firsthand accounts encountering the ethereal women, but Douglas thought them all to be exaggerated. But seeing that woman . . .
Seeing that woman, feeling the sense of otherness that radiated from her, Douglas had no trouble believing that these witches are capable of consuming a human child until nothing but clean-picked bones remained.
His father looks over his shoulder to Douglas, a rather cold smile on his face, but the amusement still in his eyes. "So, what do you think of the Tamarak Witches?"
"Oh, I didn't plan on sleeping tonight anyway. And I think my bowels are clear after all of the shit I shat out." Douglas retorts.
His father chuckles, his shoulders hopping. "I apologize my children, but do understand that when I says this, I mean it with love: I want you to hold onto that fear. Remember it, understand what it feels like, because these witches are the most dangerous predator you will face. It's not the same as a bear or a wolf. They are deadly."
"Yeah, I got that." Douglas grumbles, touching the tip of his nose again, clotted with his own blood. It's not a deep scratch by any means, but it does unnerve him at the thought of what could've happened.
"So, are you going to tell us the reason why you showed us the witch, and guaranteed a week of no sleep?" Derrick chimes.
"Because," their father stops, turning towards them. "as I'm hoping you might've heard by now, there are rumors going around about the Witches of Tamarak migrating towards Brithoterra."
The siblings exchange a look. "We have, but they can't be true. They agreed to never advance their borders with the treaty."
"The what?" Douglas asks.
"The Treaty of Crows." Deborah speaks. "Long ago, about four thousand years ago, the witches were at war with the mortals for land. After years of dispute, the three Mother Matrons and the kings of the countries gathered and signed a treaty that the witches would keep to their lands."
"But recently, they've taken a patch of land; a small village in Welirya, and it's said they're aiming for Veroneian next." Their father adds. "And with Dead Man's Pass leading straight to our city, it's not going to be long."
Derrick swears under his breath as he runs his fingers through his hair. "It's times like this I wish I lived in Zuiryn. At least they have a mountain range protecting them."
"What more could the witches want?" Deborah asks. "Their lands are so spacious, and beautiful even."
Their father shrugs his massive shoulders. "I can't say, but all we can do is be prepared. I'll gather the notes and we can have a briefing tonight." He waves his hand, dismissing the children. "Until then, I need you guys to run to the market. We're running low on some uniforms, and I need my sword picked up."
"Why can't you do it yourself?" Douglas spites. Deborah glares at him.
"Because I told you, I need to gather the notes."
"You just take them off your desk, and pat them neatly in line." Douglas says. "That's all you do."
Their father chuckles, rolling his eyes as he turns away. "Just go to the market. I'll see you when you get back."
"Lazy-ass." Douglas grumbles.
"Be careful, Douglas," Derrick grins. "Remember, he's the one who picks who is going to be Captain of the Guard. If you keep this up, I won't even need to train to get the title.
Douglas smirks. "We'll see about that."
In honesty, Douglas was glad to be going out into the market and seeing real people, to remind himself he's still in the real world.
Still, even as he mounts a massive mare with an ebony black coat, it was hard to escape the witch's insane laughter.