Avarron stared blankly out of the tiny window of his cell. Not only was it the only source of light, it was also the one way Avarron could tell the time. He watched the sky turn dark and as the first stars lit up, he decided that it was best to go to sleep and see what the morning would bring. As he turned away from the window, he noticed that a man was standing in his cell, and the door was wide open. “What do you see up there?” he asked casually.
It took Avarron a moment to recognise him in the dim light. “Grandmaster Adian,” he said surprised and bowed. Then he realized that the Ardaithe had asked him a question. “I… I don’t really know,” he replied. Of course he had been watching time pass by, but there was something more. Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
Adian gave him a friendly smile. “Few people really do. But we shouldn’t delay. Come, you think on an answer as we go,” he gestured at the open cell door, inviting Avarron to go through.
Instead, the knight froze in place. Trying to escape would only convince people of his guilt.
“I arranged for your release with the king. You have nothing to worry about but a missed opportunity,” Adian said and left the cell, as if giving an example of how to walk through a door. Turning to face Avarron again, he said: “You can stay here, or you can come with me. The latter is without a doubt the more dangerous option, but I will promise you this: if you succeed, no king will dare to imprison you again.”
Avarron forced his legs to move forwards, towards the door. “Succeed in what?”
“I have a mission for you. I will tell you of it on the way, if you’ll come.”
Avarron thought about it for a moment, but realized that it was a simple matter: When the Grandmaster of the Ardaithe tells you to follow, you follow. “I’ll come,” he said and stepped out of the cell.
He followed Adian out of the dungeon, expecting him to start explaining this assignment, but the Ardaithe remained silent as he guided him to the stables. Two horses were left outside, of which Avarron recognized one as the steed that had carried him to Altraom in the afternoon.
“Where are we going?” Avarron asked
“To the sanctuary,” the Inquisitor replied as he mounted his own horse.
As Avarron followed the example, Adian spurred his horse out the gates. Avarron immediately chased him, wondering what the hurry was and why the gates were open after dusk. Yet as soon as he passed through, the guards started to close them. The grand Inquisitor must have requested them to remain open until his departure, he guessed, but still wondered why.
When he caught up with Adian, he asked: “Are you afraid that we’re being followed?”
“Your mission must remain a secret. Even more so than your previous one. The later people discover your departure, the better. Only you, I and the king know where you’re going.”
Avarron shook his head. “You haven’t told me yet where you intend to send me.”
The Grandmaster studied him for a moment, looking slightly disappointed. “I had taken you for more perceptive than this.”
When no actual answer came, Avarron guessed that Adian wanted him to figure it out by himself. There was only one place that came to mind, but Asian wouldn’t send him there. He wouldn’t send anyone but the most experienced Ardaithe knights there. Yet with no other answer to give, he asked carefully: “Terrálh, isn’t it?”
Adian gave him an approving nod, which made Avarron feel like he was a boy again, being lectured by his teachers. There was still one question that Adian would have to answer for him: “Why me?”
“You ask that question a lot, don’t you?” Adian chuckled. “It is a humble question, born of a sense of justice. However, you should not forget your own merits.”
“That’s not an answer,” Avarron protested. Instantly, he wished he’d swallowed those words and phrased it more politely.
Adian ignored his rudeness. “Your question is valid. Why indeed, would I request you, when I have a host of Ardaithe at my command? The most skilled, disciplined and well equipped men in Kyst. Still, there is something you have done, which none of them have succeeded at. What bothers me is that I’m not sure how.”
Avarron gave the grandmaster a puzzled look. He knew very well that he was no match for an Ardaithe in any field.
Seemingly reading his thoughts, Adian continued: “You have travelled half of the fallen kingdom and lived to tell the tale. Almost two hundred kilometers you have walked, not having met a single soul. You have not been waylaid by the Southern Raiders that call it home, nor the demons that infest it. Not once have they even attempted to ambush you, to shoot you in the dark or simply overpower you with superior numbers. Even though you and Lady Mantione were clearly worthwhile targets. How did you manage to evade them all?”
“I… I don’t know,” Avarron stammered. He had never even known where he was until he returned to Altraom.
“A wild guess,” Adian theorized: “Many of these raiders specifically target Ardaithe. Here’s why: Terrálh is currently the realm of a number of warlords, who occupy the empty castles of the murdered nobles. Some of them call themselves knights, though they are nothing but raiders. They spend as much time fighting and pillaging each other as anyone else. However, there is a kind of overlord, whom these warlords fear, to the point that they’ll obey this man. Or, if the rumours are true, this demon. Either way, he has a clear interest in keeping the Ardaithe out of Terrálh.”
“You think it’s the same one that captured Lady Mantione and I?” Avarron asked.
Adian smiled. “Now you’re paying attention. Is my suspicion that this abductor called himself the ‘Shadow King’ correct?”
“That he did,” Avarron confirmed, though he found it hard to see what all of this meant. “What do you want me to do?” he asked. Fighting demons was the Ardaithe’s speciality, after all.
“Lord Tueram is currently on a journey to capture one of these warlords for questioning. I want you to be there for the interrogation. He will probably respond differently to you than to an Ardaithe. There is more, but that will have to wait until we’ve spoken with Lady Feria,” Adian explained and dismounted.
Avarron looked around before he did as well, and found that they had already arrived at the great sanctuary of Ardu. He quickly followed the Grandmaster inside.
The sanctuary was surprisingly well-lit for the time of day. The polished white stone and inlaid silver lines reflected candlelight, maintaining the sanctuary’s brightness even at night. While Avarron marvelled at the wondrous construction, Adian led him into a large, central hall with a circular table. Despite the size, there were only three chairs at the table, in one of which sat a woman with long, blonde hair and golden eyes. Slowly it crept into Avarron’s mind that this was the council’s chamber; the place where the three grandmasters gathered. The decisions taken in this room were probably even more important than those in the great hall of Kynnard.
It also marked the blonde woman as Lady Feria, the Prophet. She looked up at him and smiled. “Finally we meet, Sir Avarron. Please, sit,” she gestured at the two empty chairs.
Adian readily took his own chair, but Avarron hesitated. He looked around for another chair, but there was none but Tueram’s.
“Lord Tueram has already left for the south. Do sit,” Adian said. Avarron wasn’t sure whether it was an offer or a command, but he listened and slowly sat down in the chair.
Feria nodded approvingly when he did. “Long have I waited to speak with you, Avarron. Your destiny is most fascinating.”
“My destiny?” Avarron asked. Something about the word made him very uncomfortable. The way she said it was as if she was looking at a curious bird.
“I have a prophecy, and you’re the key,” she said, giving him a look that made him feel transparent as water.
“I’m the key?” Avarron repeated the words, wondering if he had heard them correctly, and what they meant.
Lady Feria got a solemn expression, as if she was looking far into the distance, and then spoke in a voice that was not her own:
“As the bladed wheel turns
the rynd on ash,
scattered wide by the winds of war,
rusts in rippling water
to the colour of blood
on the hands of a man long dead,
who spins in reverse direction,
unravelling the threads of life.
As the bladed wheel turns,
Down goes up and up, down,
dusk has cast long shadows
over an empty throne and lost crown.
In a palace of life forsaken,
A prince will come and claim
ancestral bonds and dawn
light on the king of dead.
As the bladed wheel turns,
the wood has cracked.
Splintered by force, weathered by age
yet still remains unbroken
and grinds the stones of might.
For the cycle to end, the blade must turn
on the wood that gave it life.
War must come to end the strife.”
As her gaze returned to normal, Avarron realized that she had just voiced a prophecy. Yet it didn’t tell him anything. He had heard that prophecies were difficult to interpret, but this was downright cryptic.
“This is about you, Avarron,” Feria said in response to his confused expression.
“Me?” Avarron gasped. “But it doesn’t relate to me at all.”
Feria smiled amused. “You wear the bladed wheel on your shoulder, Theryndonash. The wheel of the miller, the sword of the knight. A symbol that tells of humble beginnings, rising to nobility through courage and honour. As for the miller, his role is obvious.”
Avarron gave her a pained look. All his life, he had tried to distance himself from his accursed ancestor, but it seemed that not even the angels would let him. “That’s the first verse. What about the other two?” he asked, hoping faintly that there was still a way out.
In response, Adian placed his fingers on the table. Only now did Avarron notice that there was a large map of all of Kyst spread out over the table. “We have discovered that when Haran defeated Theryn Donash, the necromancer survived and fled south,” Adian said and turned the map around so that the north was now down, and the south was up.
Avarron opened his mouth to ask how they knew about Donash’s survival, but managed to stop himself after “How…”
Luckily, the two masters took it as shock and awe. He wouldn’t know how to explain Nariain and the Witchwood.
Adian traced his finger up south to the forsaken kingdom. “The throne of Terrálh stands empty, but as I’ve told you, someone rules those warlords like a king rules his vassals. The connection is clear.”
“And if Donash is a king, you might well be a prince,” Feria added cheerfully.
Very slowly, Avarron nodded. Gradually, it all started to sink in. There was no escape. His family’s honour was founded on the necromancer’s defeat.
“Know that there is more to this task than your personal responsibility. It is your Destiny. The armour you wear is the same that Haram wore in battle against his father. It was blessed and granted to him by the angels themselves. And as the only man who has travelled the breath of Terrálh, you are more suited than any Ardaithe in the order.”
Avarron shook his head. “I can’t even lead an escort mission to the border and back.”
“Oh? And how exactly did the mission fail?” Adian asked him.
As he opened his mouth, he realised that he didn’t have an answer to that.
“Cheer up, Prince Avarron,” Feria teased him. “Remember that success does not go unrewarded.”
“Destroying the necromancer is but the first step. Once he is dethroned, Terrálh will need a new king. A real king, that is strong, honourable and that can claim the throne, either as its rightful heir or successful conqueror. Preferably both,” Adian added.
Now Avarron was really in shock and awe. “You… you want me to become king? Through conquest?” he asked as he tried to wipe the stupefied expression off his face, entirely in vain. “W-With what army?” he stuttered.
“Without an army,” Adian added, revealing a slight, amused smile. “You must do this, relying only on your own resources, without outside help. There can be no doubt as to who conquered what. Besides, an army would only slow you down. A small force of say, one knight and seven loyal men, is more suited to this mission.”
Avarron sighed. This was not what he liked to hear. Yet he could not refute the grandmaster’s logic.
“Yes, the plan is bold, but the prophecy proves that we have the angels’ blessing. And of course, the Order will support the rightful ruler of Terrálh, and our knights will defend him,” Adian argued against his reluctance. “However, I can still return you to your cell, if you prefer.”
“No,” Avarron replied, surprised by his own decisiveness. “This is not a matter of choice.”
Feria suddenly stood next to him, putting a soft hand on his shoulder. “We must all follow the path of destiny, Avarron. This is yours.”