In The Light of the Sun
Tzar Nazar Vasilkaya the Fourth of his Name looked down from his court upon the ivory carved Winter's Throne in Castle Solnt in the capital of Narshel, Bozhiglaz. The large throne room was white with purple marble flooring, archways flanking the monarch. A snowy carpet rolled in front of him, a bunch of faceless peasants lining up to see him.
The Tzar's hard expression looked down each visitor that mumbled and blubbered to him and then with a wave of his hand, dismissing them. Beside Nazar, was the strange masked man who the Tzar insisted on referring him as the "Maimed Angel" from the church scriptures, staring down each petitioner with an unblinking eye.
He'd been here with him for years now. He'd offered his services to take over Talum to the south in exchange for a favor. There was soon talk of him among the boyars that he killed the The Grandmaster of the Order of Paladins Maximilian of Ferromont himself on the orders of the Tzar.
The other was Zakhan Bogatyr, captain of the Tzar's personal Winter's Guard. A man of fifty-five, he was proudly adorned in the purple cape and white armor of tomethion plate adorned, a light metal that enhanced the ability of the wearer. His hair in a close buzzcut and a fencing scar guiding across his cheek. Two gently curving guardless shashka sabers resting in wooden scabbards hung on his belt.
A dirty commoner by the name of Maria looked up at the Tzar, on her knees. "Please, sire." She said, looking up at Nazar. "We are poor on our lord's manor and he won't hear us out. Our crops won't grow and bandits take away our animals. Please, allow me and my family to be a part of your household."
The Tzar stroked his beard for a moment and raised his hand. "Are you suggesting treason?" he asked. "Give me one reason to not send you to the Wellspring." The woman looked at him dumbstruck, her mouth was agape and eyes wide.
Zakhan withheld his shiver. The Wellspring was where the magic gear of the Winter's Guard were made. A whirling vortex of magical energies that were unpredictable. People who worked down here had a good chance of being torn apart by the Wellspring's power.
"Because… your land is rich in soil thanks to the Wellspring's power. His soil refuses to grow anything and whatever comes out is small and shriveled, milord." She said, opening her hands. She stood up and the Tzar narrowed his eyes. He stroked his beard for a moment and frowned deeply. "Besides my liege tells me of how benevolent you are."
Nazar held up his hand, gesturing to the masked man. "Maimed Angel, dispose of her."
The Maimed Angel levitated over to the woman, she turned tail. Maria strode over to the door, the masked sorcerer catching up to her and pouncing on her. He grabbed her head and his arm muscles bulged as she screamed, a current of blue arcing electricity streaming from his hand.
Three other people behind her that entered the room looked at shock at the sorcerer doing his work. The woman's eyes, nose and mouth bled. Her heartbeat got slower and slower until she keeled over, blood marring the carpet. Her body twitched a few times, before the life left her.
"The Tzar is no longer seeing anyone." Zakhan held up his hands. "The court is now closed." The straggling petitioners rushed out of the throne room eagerly, the large metal doors closed with a resolute slam.
The Tzar sat up, in his fur lined finery. His gaze still had a fire in his eyes. He walked down the stairs and bid the pair to come with him.
"Good call of you," The Maimed Angel said, looking at the Tzar. The featureless mask gave him no hint of whatever emotion the man behind the mask felt but his tone was like a father congratulating his child. "Misbehavior from your lessers shan't be tolerated in the presence of a blessed man as you are. You made her an example."
Zakhan held up his hand. Ever since the Maimed Angel had come, the Tzar's actions have been more or less at best, sending people to work in the Wellsprings or having the sorcerer shock them to death. "Sire, she was asking for you to accept her in your household."
"You're lucky you still have a job in my personal Winter's Guard, lest I would take that office from you." He said, in a low growl. "She left her rightful lord illegally, anyway. No need or room for riffraff like her ilk here."
"And you're luckier still that you're not dead yet." The Maimed Angel said, his single eye looking at Zakhan. Zakhan grimaced at the Maimed Angel.
"You dare threaten a member of the Winter's Guard?" Zakhan asked. "I would say your head would be rolling on the ground were you not a member of the court." He bared his teeth, glaring.
Nazar raised his hands and said, "Stop this madness in the name of your lord!" He sighed. "You two are getting out of hand." Nazar frowned deeply. "The two of you need to get some time out of this court I think." He narrowed his eyes and turned to the Maimed Angel. "What's the status on Arkad and his search for this 'advantage' you keep telling me of?" he asked.
"He's located it somewhere in some dark catacomb in the middle of Talum." The Maimed Angel said, his one eye boring into the Tzar's gaze. "I assure you, my Dear Lord, that his search won't be fruitless. This artifact will be a thing of great power. It will allow you to have the old Empire of Talum and eventually, the Imperial Republic of Ventis." He gave a grave chuckle. "After all, Emperor Clovian is only seven years old, a regency that won't end for another nine years. More than enough time to claim the Seraphim Throne."
"Soon, His reign on the earth will begin. People need to be reminded of their creator once in awhile." Nazar said, nodding. "But for now, Zakhan." Zakhan stood up straight and put his fist on his heart, keeping his chin up. "Gather a small entourage of your men and watch over Arkad's expedition. If everything goes wrong, do not interfere. You and your men are only there to watch him, not protect him."
Zakhan nodded. "Yes, my liege." He thought about that man, Arkad. An obese, bald defrocked priest that ran from his lord's court on the borders of Talum after an accusation of selling a backwater patriarchate to a lowly wizard. The man after three nights raided the larder at night and Zakhan happened to discover him.
The Tzar jailed him and planned to execute him but the Maimed Angel just had to step in and suggest some plot to get this 'advantage' that he wanted so desperately to redeem himself. Funny enough, it was somewhere in that same patriarchate's land.
"My dear Maimed Angel," The Tzar said. "Go recruit some new men for our new army." The Maimed Angel bowed.
"Ask and I shall do it." The Maimed Angel hovered away, willing the two heavy doors open with a wave of his hand.
It was a typical overcast day in the training yard that housed some of the lower ranked capeless white-armored Winter's Guard. The clanging of steel on steel and the soft rattling of metal sung through the air. Soldiers were splitting wood, sparring with their guardless sabers, tumbling around and flipping around in somersaults. Zakhan stood on top of the of the towering wall of stone the hue of gold, his cape flowing in the wind.
"Winter's Guard, attention!" Zakhan held out his arms openly, shouting. The sprinters braked, woodchoppers dropped their axes and the acrobatics quieted down, every member of the Winter's Guard now paying attention to their commander. "Gather your shields, men! You are going to Talum and we will be assigned to Arkad's expedition." The men saluted their superior officer and gathered up their heater shields emblazoned with purple suns.
They were soon marching in the streets of Bozhiglaz, Zakhan leading the shield-bearing footmen. The looming Castle Solnt rose behind them, the large gold colored walls and the silvery keep towering over the squat wooden houses that the commoners called home. A grey brick road stretched ahead, a few plebeians gawked at the marching soldiers.
The city was up of humans, but the scant beastkin and the tusked stone-skinned reyvani that called the Tzardom's capital home that dotted the crowd were few and far in between. They carried water, lifted crates and walked with their masters as they went to the market. The Tzar's household even had some reyvani and a beastkin bought from the market, it was even that a poor freeman could afford at least one reyvani for the household.
Not too far away was the Maimed Angel standing on a box and gathering a crowd of young men and women around him, shouting tales of bravery about the new standing army. Zakhan glowered at him and looked away.
It wasn't long until a leonine beastman carrying water bumped into one of the Winter's Guard. The soldier bashed his shield into the slave, knocking him down on his ass and spilling the water from the buckets.
Zakhan let out a "Hmph." Slaves were always an unusually uppity bunch, he thought. They continued on, without much so of a stir, the populace keeping their distance away from the Winter's Guard.
In the deepest part of the catacombs of smoothed stone. Newly installed crystal lamps lit up the area that became the new dining room, groups of tables cluttering the room. Conversations, raunchy laughter and the clanging of tableware rung out. The spiked helmeted, yellow clad, sweaty mercenaries from Kriton made up most of the room, the Winter's Guard only a small fraction of the forces posted here in this expedition. Zakhan and Arkad were seated on a raised platform.
"So, the Tzar finally sees it fit that to send more troops to me. Winter's Guard, no less!" Arkad said with his mouth full of bread and meat, shoveling in the food with his hands. Zakhan gave him a glance while worrying at a steak with a knife, some of the cud landing on his cuirass and face. "None of that so-called professional army that your Tzar has. Riffraff is what they are."
Zakhan noted that Arkad's table had large helpings of white and yellow cheese wheels, peppered steak, powdered bread rolls, smoked hams from wild boars that roamed the sands of Talum, fried legs of capon, mashed turnips, jellied beets, grilled leeks and half a dozen of jugs of sweet red wine and bitter pale ale. The others had to make do with stale bread, roasted chickens and cheese and beer that was probably watered-down.
"Why haven't you been talking to me, sir Zakhan?" Arkad asked, spitting more food on his face.
"First off, civilized people don't speak with their mouth full." he said, his eyes narrowing at the fat man, while cutting at his steak. "And second off, do not think a regiment of the Winter's Guard is here for your pleasure," his eyes bore into the staring former priest. "You have your Kritonic anks to command and the only thing that keeps them bound to you is the patronage of the Tzar himself, otherwise, they would've left you long ago." he took a drink of wine. "A debt that you will repay to our liege."
"Don't such a rude man, Commander." Arkad finally swallowed his food, putting a greasy hand on his shoulder. "I never knew that the fair people of the Tzardom could be so rude."
Zakhan closed his eyes and sighed. "So, what's your progress on finding this artifact that this supposed 'Maimed Angel' wants?" he asked, sipping his goblet of wine.
"The artifact? I don't even know what this thing even is." he said, taking a slice of ham and gobbling it down. Again, to Zakhan's displeasure, he spat bits of ham on his chestplate. "The Maimed Angel, blessed his name be, didn't even so much as describe what it is." He gulped down ale, his double chin quivering as he swallowed.
"He said in that weird cryptic way that all angels speak in," he scooped up a piece of jellied beets with a leek and crunched on it. "Oh, you'll know when you'd find it." he said, his voice low in a faux-menacing voice. Zakhan snorted, at least he got that part down.
"Well," Zakhan said, allowing his tone to calm down. "My men will patrol the lower levels," He'd almost finished his steak. "The upper levels were not protected very well, understaffed really. Your mercenaries would be better spent up there. "
Arkad gave a belly laugh. "Don't I know it! I had to run off some peasant's teenagers a few times." Zakhan frowned. The fact that kids were even getting in made him grimace. "Don't make that face, I know what'll cheer you up. Pie. Pie always cheers me up." He clapped his hands.
From the doorway on the other side of the room, a shambling mass of flesh carrying two steaming cherry pies in its hands. It had a soft blue glow in its eyes as it marched forward. The Winter's Guard looked over to it, Zakhan's eyes widening.
"By the light of the Sun…" He said under his breath. "An undead servant."
The creature limped too close to a member of the Winter's Guard, the zombie being cut down with a swipe of a drawn saber, the halved body falling over lifelessly. Zakhan's face turned red, his brow furrowed.
"What the hell?" Zakhan asked, standing up from his table. "This food was served to me by the dead!?" He pounded his fist on the table. "What are you doing here raising the dead?"
Arkad glowered at him, standing up to look at him. "They were of no use laying around. I had to raise them."
"Are you trying to get my men sick?" Zakhan growled, kicking over the chair off the platform and into a table of Kritonic men. "No wonder you've been defrocked. You're not only a fraud, you're a damned sorcerer too! Clergymen aren't supposed to learn magic much less raise undead servants!" He held up his hands. "Come on, men. Let's leave this filth." The Winter's Guard on that revelation left the room, eagerly left Arkad and his mercenaries alone.
Zakhan had a feeling that it was going to be a long couple of days.