Authors: David Wells
Tags: #Epic, #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction
Alexander decided he’d had enough sleep. His pack was mostly ready since he hadn’t taken the time to unpack from the wolf-hunting trip. He opened it and replaced a few items with their clean counterparts, cinched it down tight and set it next to the door. Next, he went to his weapons cabinet and selected his favorite set.
Alexander was the son of a minor noble. House Valentine had considerable land holdings, so Alexander had access to money. He didn’t take it for granted but he wasn’t afraid to spend it to get what he wanted. In this case, Alexander had always been a student of military history. He loved weapons and stories of war.
When he was five he started practicing next to his brother, with Anatoly as their master-at-arms. Alexander was skilled with a sword, a spear, and a bow. He wasn’t a seasoned warrior by any means but he was well trained in the use of his weapons.
He chose his favorite long sword. The blade was thin but strong, light, and well balanced. It was a fine piece of craftsmanship and Alexander was more familiar with it than any of his other swords. He slipped a small knife inside each boot and clipped them in place, then slid his throwing knife into its sheath on the back of his belt.
He picked up his heavy long knife and looked at it. Its oak handle was well worn and smooth, the brass pommel was polished to a shine, and the blade was old steel but sharp and well cared for. His father had given him this knife on his seventh birthday. He’d carried it every time he’d left the manor house since then. He took a set of three extra throwing knives and then he checked his short bow, found a few extra bowstrings, and filled his quiver with broad-point hunting arrows.
Alexander was suited up a few minutes later in his leather breastplate, greaves, and bracers. His finely crafted long sword hung on his left hip; his long knife on his right. He hoisted his pack on one shoulder and a set of saddlebags on the other, gathered his bow and quiver, and left his room. He stood for a moment looking at the door to his bedroom, took a deep breath, turned abruptly and headed for Lucky’s workshop.
He decided to face his problems head on. He would follow his teachings. He would deal with what is, and he would do so with reason, courage, and morality. All of his childhood lessons took on new meaning. They weren’t just theories anymore.
The Reishi Arch Mage, Prince Phane, was awake. Darius was dead because of it. Alexander was marked. And Phane knew.
Oh, and he was seeing a ghost.
Alexander suddenly chuckled mirthlessly at the insanity of it all. “Darius, may you find peace. I will mourn you properly, but not today.” He spoke under his breath, putting his grief away for later. His brother was dead. He couldn’t change it, so he set it aside. He couldn’t afford to let himself indulge the pain that swirled in his soul lest it overwhelm him.
Phane was probably going to try to kill him, and soon. Now that Alexander was awake and his head was clear, he could feel alarm starting to build. They had killed Darius. Then Alexander had received the mark. They would come for him as soon as they realized they’d missed the Marked One.
He picked up his pace slightly. The ghost had told him he was in “great danger” and to “find the Thinblade.” And why exactly was he seeing a ghost? Alexander wanted to talk to Lucky about it. Maybe he would know more.
The house was already awake with staff bustling about preparing for the family’s departure. Word of Darius’s murder had spread like wildfire and everyone was both sad and angry.
Alexander nodded good morning to the few stable hands in the courtyard. They seemed slightly more deferential today than ever before. He knew it was because of the mark, and the fact that he was now heir to Valentine Manor.
“Lucky?” Alexander poked his head into the door of the shop. The room was cluttered as usual. Books, scrolls, vials, and jars were stacked here and there. All of the shelves were crammed full of ingredient containers. There wasn’t a flat space in the place without something on it.
Lucky and his assistant were busy boxing up jars of odd-looking things used in the preparation of potions. Next to the door was a set of traveling robes, a stout oak staff, a pack, and a set of saddlebags. Lucky hated to travel but looked to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. Alexander became even more concerned; Lucky was taking the situation very seriously.
Alexander stepped inside and said, “Hi, Lucky.”
The rotund alchemist turned, “Ah, my boy.” He turned distractedly back to his assistant. “No, no, no … put that one over there,” he said, pointing to a stack of boxes.
He turned back to Alexander, “I’m afraid there’s just no use for it. I’ll never be able to pack up everything before dawn.” He looked somewhat distraught. This little workshop was where his heart was most at home.
He stopped short and looked hard at Alexander. “What’s happened?” Lucky had helped raise and teach Alexander. He knew him as well as anyone. He could see that there was something bothering Alexander.
“I’ve seen a ghost,” he said.
Lucky’s brow furrowed. He nodded thoughtfully. “Come and sit, have some hot tea and breakfast while you tell me about it.”
Lucky was a good cook and always had some form of food to offer. Today he had a sheet pan of warm biscuits with fresh butter and strawberry jam. Alexander was suddenly hungry. He ate his first biscuit quickly.
“I saw him the first time last night on the tower after Abigail went to get me a cloak.” Alexander had just swallowed the last bite of his first biscuit and was breaking another open while he spoke.
“The first time?” Lucky asked around a big bite of biscuit slathered with jam and butter.
Alexander nodded, “I saw him the second time about half an hour ago in my room.” He looked at Lucky to see if he believed him. Lucky was frowning in thought but gave no hint of doubting Alexander, which was a relief, because he wasn’t sure he believed it himself.
“The first time, on the tower, he put a hand on my shoulder. When I turned and saw him, I was so startled that I leapt backward and started to fall over the tower wall.” Alexander looked a bit sheepish. “He grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me back from the edge, then everything got really cold and he disappeared. I think he saved my life.”
Lucky frowned in thought and motioned for him to continue while he chewed. Lucky always claimed he did his best thinking while he was chewing.
Alexander took another bite and continued. “The second time, just now in my room, started with a bad dream. I woke with a start and sat up on the side of the bed. When I looked up, he was standing right there.”
“Back up a moment. The ghost actually touched you, twice?” Lucky was still chewing.
“Only the most powerful ghosts can actually manifest physically,” Lucky said as he motioned for Alexander to continue, while taking another big bite of biscuit smothered in jam.
“When I looked up and saw him beside my bed, he told me his name was Nicolai Atherton. He called me by name and said he wouldn’t hurt me. Then he faded out of sight, came back suddenly, and said, ‘You are in great danger,’ then he flickered out again. The room started to get much colder and I heard him yell from very far away, ‘Find the Thinblade’ and then he was gone.”
Lucky’s frown deepened.
They both ate in silence for a moment while Lucky digested what he’d just heard. “I believe I’ve heard of Nicolai Atherton but I don’t remember where. Perhaps we can find some reference in the library at Glen Morillian.” He stood and took two more biscuits along with a big dollop of butter and a couple of heaping spoonfuls of jam.
“As far as the Thinblade goes …” Lucky’s voice trailed off in thought as he slathered butter on a biscuit.
Alexander waited a moment before he couldn’t help himself any longer. “What about the Thinblade?”
Lucky looked up and smiled. “Ah yes … well … the seven Thinblades were created by the First Reishi Sovereign and given as gifts to the seven Island Kings. Each is a longsword said to be the length of a man’s arm, the width of a man’s thumb and black as onyx. It gets its name from the thickness … or rather thinness … of the blade. When you turn it sideways it’s so thin you can’t even see it. Each Thinblade is bound by Reishi magic and cannot be broken. It’s said that a Thinblade can cut through anything with almost no resistance. Most have been lost since the end of the Reishi War.”
“Maybe the ghost knows where it is?” Alexander mused.
Lucky grunted his agreement as he cleaned off the breakfast table. He was making a plate for his assistant when Abigail came in carrying all of her gear and wearing her armor, a sight that always made Alexander a bit nervous.
“Ah … my dear, you’re just in time for breakfast,” he said, holding up the plate of biscuits with butter and jam that he’d just prepared for his assistant. Abigail smiled.
“I can always count on you, Lucky.” She dropped her gear by the door and strode to the table, touching Alexander on the shoulder in greeting as she sat down next to him. She started in on the plate of biscuits. Abigail was thin but she didn’t eat like it.
Alexander watched her for a moment until she’d taken a few bites, then casually said, “So … I saw a ghost last night.”
She stopped chewing. “What do you mean you saw a ghost?” She covered her mouth as she spoke.
Alexander recounted his two encounters with the ghost while Abigail ate her breakfast. She listened carefully as always. When he finished, she considered what he’d said for a moment before launching into a litany of questions. “Who’s Nicolai Atherton? Why is he a ghost? Why is he bothering you? How does he know your name? What does the legend of the Thinblade have to do with any of this?”
Alexander held up his hands to slow her down. He wasn’t even fazed by her string of questions; inquisitiveness was in her nature. “All good questions and I can’t answer a single one. We’re hoping we can find more information in Glen Morillian. If we can’t find what we need there, I think we’ll have to go to the Wizards Guild in New Ruatha.”
Lucky nodded his agreement.
Alexander looked out the window. There was just the faintest hint of light on the horizon. Dawn wasn’t too far off. He could hear people going about their chores in the yard. The day was about to begin. Abigail resumed eating while Lucky made up another plate for his assistant who was busily packing the little workshop into storage boxes.
Outside in the courtyard, an inhuman shriek cut through the still predawn air. It was a sound like nothing Alexander had ever heard, a sound born of madness and hate. His blood ran cold. For the briefest moment he froze in utter terror. Whatever had just made that noise was here to kill him. He was certain of that.
The alarm bell rang. Lucky was up and to his travel packs in a blink. He quickly dropped his plain woolen robes and donned his travel robes. They were much warmer, had an oiled leather topcoat, and were lined with dozens of pockets, all filled with potions, powders, and salves. He took up his travel bag and ordered his assistant to find shelter in the cellar. The young man scurried off.
Alexander and Abigail followed his lead, picking up their weapons and gear. They heard shouting and then the ring of steel. The three of them emerged into the courtyard from Lucky’s workshop to a pitched battle between three of the Valentine house guard and a single man armed with only a sword.
Then the man shrieked again and Alexander knew he wasn’t a man, at least not anymore. A man couldn’t make a noise like that.
Everyone froze for a moment, and the man that was not a man lunged at the closest guard. It was a reckless attack; he left himself completely open. The guard thrust with his short spear, driving hard straight through the midsection of the intruder. It was a kill strike and the guard knew it. What he didn’t yet know was that his enemy was already dead.
Alexander let his eyes go out of focus. The colors he saw made him catch his breath. The man that was not a man was indeed already dead. He was a corpse, animated by a creature from the netherworlds. The colors of his aura made Alexander’s eyes hurt and his soul squirm. They were not the vibrant colors of life but the inky darkness of death.
The man that was not a man smiled as the spear drove through his belly. He grabbed the haft and pulled it through his gut to get closer to the shocked guard. A moment later the man that was not a man drove his sword cleanly through the guard’s breastplate and into his heart, then cackled with a whining, scraping, rasping voice that was altogether unhuman. He watched with rapt attention while the guard died on the end of his blade.
Alexander stood staring at the creature’s aura. He saw a palpable hatred for life, visceral evil, and a coiled, tortured rage, drunk with the chance to lash out at the living. He also saw a pulsating power that was much greater than anything he had ever seen before.
But the thing that frightened him the most happened when the guard died. The guard’s colors flowed into the man that was not a man and the demon’s darkness swelled. Alexander focused his vision and steadied his resolve.
Once the life was gone from the guard, the man that was not a man stood and pulled the spear through himself slowly as he looked casually over his shoulder at one of the two remaining guards. Then the man that was not a man moved.