Chapter 1: The Memorial
by Julian Lawler
The Prologue appeared in issue 118.
The fog swirled. Nomen, possibly the oldest city in the Nations, with its ruins, towers, and awesome cathedrals, was under siege. Castles as vast and expansive as the people who dwelled in them lay shrouded in whiteness as thick as cotton. Its streets were empty, its shops devoid of life, and its market as lonely as a widowed bride.
All across the city visibility was reduced to several feet. A carriage lumbered by and tendrils reached around as if to swallow it whole. The carriage went by soon disappeared.
Palance Demondread wrapped himself tightly within his robes and continued onward. He hadn’t realized he stood in the middle of a cross way until the carriage had come out of the fog like a ghost. He was lucky visibility kept most moving at a cautious pace, or he might have been trampled.
A slow smile crossed his face as he pondered the thought. The fog shifted for a moment revealing large buildings all around. The street continued before it was lost behind another bank of thick cloud.
He continued moving carefully through the mist. The carriage had been too close. It was no small wonder he felt like the only person alive in the city. Maybe he was, he thought darkly: a ruler to an empty city.
He felt the cobblestones beneath his feet give way to smooth, hard ground and felt a little safer. At least he was across the street. No unexpected carriage would get him here.
He checked the sword at his hip. It was his only defense against an enemy if one should get past the two men who flanked him. He took in his surroundings once again and shook his head.
If the entire city was dead, then he was a ghost.
Moving silently, he went to the end of the block, and went south. The mist cleared for a few breaths and closed shut once again; leaving the world separate from Palance Demondread.
It cleared long enough for Palance to find the gates to the land of the dead. Quickly he crossed the street and moved in front of the black iron bars that made up the fence.
Shaking off wisps of mist, he peered into the grounds beyond. Visibility was zero. He caught a momentary glimpse of a scraggy, lifeless tree before that too was gone.
He felt a hand touch him on the shoulder, but he didn’t flinch. “What is it, Soulcryst?”
“My lord,” said a voice out of the mist next to him. “I think we should proceed together if you are to enter.”
Palance nodded agreement. Even though it was early morning, there was no need to tempt fate. It wasn’t unheard of to find things, that shouldn’t be walking, walking throughout the night and being found the next morning.
Palance trusted in his companions and moved to the gates. He pushed the large, iron-wrought doors open quietly. His companions pushed through the fog silently and left him standing in the middle.
The fog seemed to dissipate in here. The two men who watched his every move slipped in at his sides. They were mere shadows; ghosts as white as the clouds that surrounded them.
Palance took it all in at a glance. A trail lead away from him, much like a snake leaves a path. Rocks were strewn across the trail in uneven broken stones, leaving a legacy of being left unattended. The lifeless tree he had observed earlier stood like a depraved sentry across from him; an old knight a king had forgotten about. Its branches reached up to the sky as if to pull itself from the blanket of fog that threatened to smother it.
The fog here shifted to reveal patches of green grass. Head stones dotted the area like an ancient puzzle waiting to be solved. Flowers revealed recent audiences that otherwise might have been kept secret or otherwise gone unnoticed.
This was the land of the dead. But he knew, as surely as he took his next breath, that he would find what he was searching for deep within, at the heart of this jungle.
A light breeze blew in and gave him a chill. But the fog was thick and was hardly stirred. Palance wondered how cold this winter would be. Autumn was nearing the end of its days and already winter was pushing its way through.
There was a nice metaphor in that, he thought. But his immediate surroundings sobered the moment. It brought back to mind why he was here.
Then he was moving. He walked down the broken path and left it to his companions to see to his safety. He followed the path as it wound its way past several trees and scattered tombs. The trail wound its way erratically. It curved left and then right. He passed next to other similar trees as the first. If that first tree was the knight, then these trees were the infantry.
He passed next to several mounds; large clumps of dirt that had stood for so long that grass had decided to grow on top of them. The mounds were rumored to have been there since ancient times. The mounds, many speculated, were mass graves.
Silent statues stared down at him from atop their home of granite and concrete. He felt their stares through the fog as he moved through. He half expected them to come alive and demand a reason for the intrusion.
Without smiling, he thought of how that would be like: deadly cherubs with their spears and bows and arrows. If they blinked, he wondered, would he hear their eyelids grind together?
He was so caught up with imagery of his own thoughts that what he was looking for caught him completely by surprise. He came around a corner and found the fog had cleared. In the middle of a small rise, a large monument stood in its oblique grayness.
A gray horse with a rider on top made of iron pointed a spear Palance’s way. The rider was covered with chain mail and he had a large shield in its other hand. The statue held the reins in its shield hand. On the shield were engraved two long swords set in a cross. They were set upon a backdrop of a full moon.
The Montress Memorial
In front of it, kneeling before the great memorial, sat his best friend of twenty-seven years. His friend had a long gray cape that spilled around him like water. He had a blue shirt beneath and wore black gloves and riding boots. A sharp, jeweled dagger rested against his thigh and a long sword hung at his hip.
Everything was so quiet Palance didn’t want to break the silence. He was afraid the sound of his voice would break the spell that surrounded this place. The fog did not encroach upon the rise where the monument stood. Leaves were strewn across the grass and the air smelled of sweetness.
Ian Dihn did not look up at Palance from his kneeling position. Palance did not interrupt his friend. Several moments passed in silence before the other finally stood up.
“I hope you don’t mind me coming here,” said Palance, breaking the silence between them. “She was my friend, as well.”
Ian Dihn didn’t move, nor did he look over. “I come here every morning, my lord. I come to apologize and to pay my respects. Nothing more.”
Palance regarded the other quietly. “So you come here out of regret and pain and not out of love?” It wasn’t a question, but a statement. Palance did not think unkindly and spoke with a trust born of a friendship so deep and so cultivated; few understood the depth of it.
When Ian spoke, there was always heaviness in his voice. Palance was used to hearing it by now. “Always out of love, my lord. Always. Without that, there is no duty. How else could I serve you?”
Palance entered the sacred area and hugged his friend. They embraced warmly and exchanged greetings.
“So how is everything?” asked Palance.
Ian nodded. “Good for the moment. I heard you came in last night?”
Palance nodded. “That is correct. I was trying to keep my arrival secret.”
Ian almost smiled. “Nothing escapes my eye in Nomen. Besides, sneaking five hundred men is no small feat. Even if you had Light Bearers to help.”
The fog was beginning to lift. Morning was well underway and the sky was brightening. The fog swirled sharply and recoiled from the day. Palance half expected to hear it hiss.
“So what brings you here?” asked his childhood friend. “I’m sure it’s a matter of great importance. Your visit should have been months in the planning. We didn’t hear a word of it.”
Palance stared at the other solemnly. “My friend, this trip has taken almost a year to plan. It isn’t coincidence that I came here in secret and with no fanfare.”
The Lord of Nomen stared hard at him.
Palance continued. “Father Rayul was shocked to see me and my troops knocking at his gates like barbarians. I’ve traveled for four weeks straight, risking life and limb through the Raven’s Reach, to be here.”
By the look on his face, Ian was beginning to understand this was no vacation. “Is something amiss? You know you can tell me anything. Were you followed here?”
Palance felt a chill run through him. His dark blue eyes inspected his surroundings furtively. Eyes and ears were everywhere, he knew. Even the dead heard whispers, and sometimes, he knew, the dead could speak.
Palance’s handsome face took on a haunted look. “The trip here was dark and perilous. Twice we heard something out in the darkness. It’s as if the darkness was following us. We would never see it. But it was always there. One morning, some of our containers were missing and a small portion of our food supplies. It was tricking us. It went as far as to leave claw marks on my tent one night. Eliath had to double the watch. He posted Soulcryst and Larson at my tent flap, but they saw nothing.”
Palance let the news sink in. “My men are well trained, Ian. The Iinnin Lodar is one of the finest divisions in the Acrene Tarrynth army. They were next to helpless against whatever was out in that darkness.”
“Is it safe to be out?” asked Ian. “I mean, with the events from your trip, I’m not so sure we should be speaking out here.”
Ian glanced back at the memorial. His hand went to the jeweled dagger at his thigh. The weapon was his most prized possession. Palance could almost feel the pain in his friend’s heart. There was great loss there.
With one final glance, Ian moved past Palance. “Let us be gone from here, old friend.”
Palance followed without comment until they were away from the monument and back on the trail. “Have you had any strange happenings in the city?”
Ian thought for a moment. “There have been strange sightings. There have been reports of dogs that prowl the streets when it rains. No injuries as of yet. Argenal thinks they’re just the ramblings of men heavy with drink. I’m not so sure.”
The Lord of Nomen gave a soft laugh. “This is my city, Palance. I’m the Lord of Nomen.” Pain creased his young eyes. “I earned that title. And when someone says one thing, I can dismiss it as rumor or nonsense. But when old ladies, children, and respectful men say the same thing, I have to wonder.”
“What else has been reported?” asked Palance. They continued to walk. The gates came to view as they rounded another bend.
“Who is with you now?” asked the Lord of Nomen.
“Soulcryst and Larson,” answered Palance. “They won’t reveal themselves for the life of them.”
Ian shook his head but didn’t search for them. “In this fog, we could hide an entire city.” Up ahead, the deadly cherubs came into view. Beyond them stood the open gates of the cemetery.
Ian continued speaking. “Two days ago, there was a loud keening coming from the street out there. No one right in the mind went to find out what it was. “There have been reports of screams coming from the tower that houses the Garen Bell.”
Palance stopped. The Garen Bell. It was the oldest bell tower in the Nations. To this day, no one had set foot in it for the past sixty years. Palance Demondread as a young boy had been terrified of the tower.
The Garen Bell was contained within a shell of magic. It was the only thing that still preserved the old, clay bell. Housed within the confines of the Sun Cathedral compound, the bell rang nightly. It was for this reason people thought it was haunted. Palance didn’t know of a better reason himself. The bell would ring without a bell ringer pulling on its ropes or servant striking it with a metal hammer. The bell just rang.
As a boy, sleeping within the Sun Cathedral, the Garen Bell had been terrifying. Nightly, at the hour of midnight, the tolling of the bell conjured images the small boy had just as soon forgotten. But the bell, Palance thought as he walked, serves another purpose.
The Garen Bell, in all its mystery, served a greater purpose than to just house spirits and spook young kids. The bell was a myth in its own time. A legend since its inception a thousand years ago, the bell served as the one unifying force behind the city of Nomen. Every night, when the bell rang, its true magic was unleashed. The tolling served to unify the entire city as one. Visions became one as dreams were shared. The Garen Bell went as far as to make the hearts of the citizens of Nomen beat as one.
The only way to defeat the bell’s magic, was to stay awake through midnight.
Like all magic, Palance thought, it only works under certain conditions. Palance Demondread was not a huge fan of the mystical arts. There were short cuts to it, he knew. It was easy to side step the long, hard discipline.
“Did they find anything?” he asked after a lengthy silence.
His friend looked over to him. They emerged from the cemetery without speaking. The fog had cleared and the blazing sun was found peering down at them between buildings.
This time of year was strange in Nomen. As winter came, the mornings grew colder. But it didn’t stop the days from getting warm. The combination resulted in a population that knew how to adapt to any weather circumstance. Coats were always ready and handy. In the afternoon, women displayed their best. It was all a part of living in Nomen.
A cart full of apples lumbered by and Palance noticed his own heavy robes. It was growing warm.
Ian unclasped his heavy cape and draped it over his fore arm. “You know, nobody ever goes into that accursed tower. I’ve been tempted twice, already.”
Palance took his own cloak off to reveal a blue, silk shirt underneath. Beneath that he wore a smug fitting shirt of chain mail. He wore black, riding pants and boots. A large, black pummeled sword hung at his hip.
“Let me guess. Father Rayul stopped you both times.” Palance rolled up his robes and held them in hand.
Ian rolled his eyes. “How did you guess?”
Palance laughed. Being out of the cemetery helped lighten the mood and his friend joined in.
At that moment, a large blonde haired man with a tattoo of a raven across is back and armed to the teeth stepped out of the bushes to stand next to Palance. The blonde man smiled.
As if synchronized, another man, only slightly less tall, stepped out of the wall itself, right next to Ian. Soulcryst had dark, black hair and his eyes carried certain intensity to them, as if he expected everything to hide an assassin. Where Larson was huge and carried an axe, Soulcryst looked like a pole in comparison, with a heavy bow to match.
Both men bowed at the waist and acknowledged Ian with only a nod of his head. Iinnin Lodar guards. Unconcerned with protocol, their biggest responsibility was to ensure that Palance remained safe at all times.
“Larson,” stated Palance with an outstretched hand. The blonde man shook Ian’s hand friendly enough.
With a wave, he introduced the other. “This is Soulcryst. He is one of our finest warriors.”
Soulcryst shook Ian’s hand before turning away to face the street.
Palance took that as his cue it was time to go.
“Shall we?” he stated.
Ian nodded. “Let us go see how the old hen is doing.”
Like old times, before they had responsibilities, and the trials of life had tested both men, they laughed. If Father Rayul ever discovered how they had just slighted him, the old man would have both their hides.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2004 by Julian Lawler