The kingdom of Corbach stretched cross many lands. Where once stood independent nations, there now was simply Corbach. The tribes to the north with their Frozen Ways. The wanderers to the South, the origin of magic. To the West, Forest-wide and unknown. Into the east simple farmland and on it simple people made their homes. And in the Center of it all, the royal family built their fortress, and from there they ruled.
In the east, Helkias sat near his mother’s grave, or rather the place they’d chosen to honor her. His father stood only yards away leaning at the entryway to his home. Nurem’s mug steamed in the cool winter air. The wine had warmed them both. Until Helkias had come to the conclusion that Alis should be brought up to date on their lives.
The Blackraven rose.
“I must know father, with everything that’s passed. With all I’ve told you. How can you welcome me so?”
“Easy, my boy,” he chuckled, “Long ago your mother and I chose this place to make our home. And we agreed then that no matter what came to pass here we would always find respite and love here. And when you came to us it became even more important to us.”
Helkias accepted the mug from his father’s outstretched hand.
“I promised her no matter what, you would have a place here. No matter what came to be, who you came to be, you could always come home again.”
Nurem held his son. Tears welled in both their eyes. And Helkias sobbed, embracing his father someone whom he had never dared hope to see again.
“The wine has done its job then,” Nurem said stoically. Helk pushed himself away and let both his hands rest on Nurem’s shoulders. He chuckled and wiped the tears away.
“Clearly it has,” Helk threw one arm around his father’s shoulders and led him back inside, “Does not mean we should stop it from its task.”
They drank long into the night and the morning sun found them asleep at the kitchen table. Nurem rose first and groaned as he stretched. He looked at his son. He had not thought to see his boy again. The rumors from the capital were too outrageous, too slanderous to be anything but propaganda. He chuckled. His boy, the one he had told when and how to shovel horse shit was the stuff of royal propaganda. It was absurd. And yet, the way Helkias looked at him across the fire. Nurem wondered what else had happened to his son those many months away.
“Helkias,” Nurem shook his son awake.
“Err whassat?” Helk turned away and shrugged his feathery cloak over his head.
“Boy, you have to ride to meet whosit’s, the girl,” Nurem set the cook fire to burn and hung a pot above it.
Helk pushed his hands through his hair. And glared at the sun.
“Figures I’d come and start a durned revolution hungover and with wine shits,” Helk groaned in a familiar fashion as he rose, “Well, does nothing to complain about it.”
The Blackraven’s shadowy form stalked. To the Outhouse.
The clearing was busier than he remembered it. Instead of just Lycans, he could now make out the chatter of Dryads, Elves, assorted Animal-Kin, Gnolls, Orcs, Harpies, one Kul’Matha, and a smattering of Pixies who were busy perching on Brutus much to his annoyance. Each time they landed he would try and swat them away, but they’d just come back a few minutes later to pester him.
The many conversations softened as Hygar approached, and he sat himself down upon one of the stump stools. It wasn’t his intention to stifle their exchange, but they all looked to him as if expecting him to say something. The large Werewolf cleared his throat, uncomfortable with the eyes upon him. “Greetings, friends,” he mumbled softly. “Per your request, we have gathered to discuss the happenings in Voraniss.”
Following suit, many of the gathered began to find their own seats; though some of them were content to plop on the ground, and Brutus stood vigil in the back as was his way. One of the Dryads wistfully clasped her hands together and sighed. “Thank goodness you’ve arrived, Hygar. There are many things happening in the forest that require your attention.”
“Would you like to begin, Lavendoris?” Hygar asked of the Dryad. They were kind creatures, elusive to outsiders as they spent most of their time within their groves or wandering the deep forest. He was fond of them, for they reminded him of Voraniss itself. If the forest was ever turned into a person, he imagined it would be a lot like a Dryad: Mysterious, beautiful, and giving…so long as you didn’t cross them.
“Oh yes, please. Thank you,” the Dryad stated, turning her attention to the group. “As most of you are aware, there have been many refugees entering the forest as of late. It is becoming difficult to keep track of them and make sure they understand the rules of the Forest. Why just the other week I caught a human trying to chop down one of my trees and I had to chase him out and send him running in the direction of Kenkilit for Cronin to deal with. We cannot continue like this or someone is going to get hurt.”
Brutus grunted his agreement. “She is right, Hygar,” he said lowly. “These newcomers don’t know the way of things. Not as a collective. They enter our borders and if they are lucky they are found by one of your Circle. If they are not lucky…” he jerked his thumb towards the Gnolls without any sense of subtly.
“What are you looking over here for?” demanded the largest Gnoll. Zok Bloodknuckle was his name, but he was only the most recent voice to step forward for their people. The Gnolls were frequently changing leadership and fighting amongst themselves. And if they weren’t fighting with themselves, they were fighting the Harpies. “You sayin’ we killed a few wanderers? So what if we did? They ain’t got no business bein’ in our space.” His words were buried deep beneath an accent flavored by barks, growls, and whines, but Hygar could understand it if he concentrated.
Brutus growled angrily. He didn’t take kindly to being sassed by the Gnolls. “If the Alpha says it is their business to be there, then it is their business.”
“We ain’t werewolves. Who says we gotta listen to your way?” Zok pushed back.
Brutus slammed a fist into the ground and the Pixies that were sitting on his head fluttered off to hide behind Lavendoris instead. “This is what I’m talking about, Alpha. The Gnolls continue to do what they want without any regard for anyone else. They need to submit to your authority or get out.”
“Get out? Try and make me, dog breath.” Zok stood up and stared into Brutus’ good eye. He was itching for a fight and Brutus wasn’t going to deny him.
In a flash, the large Werewolf pounced and the two were brawling on the ground and exchanging punches. Lavendoris yelped and tried to move out of their way, while the Harpies cackled in amusement. One of the Orcs got excited by the promise of battle and decided to jump into the fray by turning and punching the Orc next to him. This caused the Elves to get nervous and they drew their bows, turning their aim on the motion in the center of the clearing. Who knew how long the brawl would go on for if Hygar didn’t speak up against it?
“Enough!” Hygar roared. It was an uncharacteristically loud sound for him. Loud enough so that the hair on the back of Brutus’ neck began to bristle. “Is this what you want for Voraniss? Do you want to be an unruly mob of savages forever?” He furrowed his brow and shook his head in disdain. “Right now we have enemies at our door. Enemies that don’t care about your freedom,” he said pointedly at Zok, “nor your wolves,” he said at Brutus, “nor the Forest you all call home. If you do not unite to fight you will just be picked off one by one. If not by the poachers today, then by the Strangers from Beyond the Stars tomorrow.” His disappointment in them was intense, and despite their tough exteriors, they felt ashamed by his scolding. “Your petty squabbles can wait.”
Brutus released the headlock he had on Zok, and Zok removed his fist from Brutus’ gut. The Orcs helped one another up. Nobody dared to speak. The clearing was too tense and too uncomfortable. Hygar’s dad voice had cowed them all into submission. Well, all except for one. In the back of the clearing came a soft rumbling voice that spoke painstakingly slow.
“There is wisdom in the Wolf’s words,” said Autumn-Elm. “This forest has seen its share of bloodshed, and if we are to see more I should like to see us united and not opposed. As things were in the days of Vangrim.” He gave a nostalgic sigh, his wooden body groaning as he lifted his limbs to approach. “We need a leader. One that all people can rally behind.” Being an old tree he needed a break from all the excitement; so he paused to take another breath. “There is a precedent for this. The Giants had King Velindahl, the Animal-Kin had their Queen in Mon’ghora, the Wolves had their founder in Vangrim who was once a human Lord, and the Elves had Othorion Elderheart. Title and nobility invite respect on some level.”
Lavendoris urged the Dryads to move to Autumn-Elm’s side, taking care of him and making sure he was well. The poor old tree had already lost all of his leaves; more excitement was the last thing he needed. “You are saying we need a King?” she asked sweetly.
“Yes. Yes, I am,” the Ent replied. “There can be no confusion upon our laws, nor their enforcement, if we had a King.” He seemed relieved when the Dryads drew near, their presence healing the painful aches deep within his bark. “Kings unify lands and people. They create empires and defend them. I know better than most that time changes us all; we can either be flexible and adjust to what is placed before us, or we can stay the same to spite ourselves.”
Lavendoris hugged Autumn-Elm tightly, stroking her fingers along his barky skin. “What you are saying makes sense to me, wise one. But it begs the question…who should rule? What King is there for this new age? And could we agree? That is the choice before us.”
Zok pointed at one of the Harpies on the other side of the gathering. “The Gnolls won’t follow a Harpy. We’ve been fighting on and off for generations. It wouldn’t be fair.”
“Well we don’t want to follow you either,” the Harpies hissed back, glaring at Zok.
A chorus of sound and discussion burst forth again. Everyone was arguing over old grudges and whether or not it would be acceptable to get in line behind one another. The Pixies squealed and tried to redirect the conversation to a more productive place. “Wait, wait!” they cried. “Instead of focusing on who you won’t follow, maybe think of someone that you would!”
“I would follow Hygar,” Brutus announced loudly, and without hesitation. All the gathered shut up and turned to pay attention. “You care about this forest and the people in it. All of us. You once had the chance to kill me and take my warriors for your own, but you spared my life believing that there was still something within me that could be of use to the forest and wolves that dwell here. You do not let hatred or personal grudges cloud your judgment when it comes to our wellbeing.”
Lavendoris smiled and nodded her agreement. “Yes, yes! Hygar, you once helped protect the forest from unnatural corruption by leading your adventurers in a ritual to purge it. You respect nature and those of us that are a part of it!”
Even the Harpies didn’t seem to have a grudge with Hygar. “You returned one of our stolen eggs. We haven’t forgotten.”
The present Kul’Matha’s tongue flicked curiously in and out of his mouth. “You do not encourage your Wolvessss to hunt in the ssswampsss. You leave usss our landsss and ressspect our independence.”
Zok grumbled and huffed. He didn’t want to say anything nice about Hygar, but he also didn’t want to lie. “Last winter the Gnolls were starving because they couldn’t hunt in the heavy snows. Hygar brought us meat.” He kicked at the dirt sheepishly.
“If Mogar Ironblood follows you, then we follow you too,” the Orcs agreed.
Hygar took another heavy breath and looked around the clearing. “The peoples of Voraniss that adventure with me have indicated through a vote that they too would like a King, and yet I am not sure that I am the one for it.”
“All the more reason you should be,” Brutus replied. “Those who are wary of the power they wield are the only ones fit to have it in the first place.”
Hygar plopped his chin in his palm and squinted his eyes. “If all of you will it, then it cannot be helped. I must accept the path before me, but I will need to turn to you for your collective wisdom. Voraniss is a beast like no other and she cannot be ruled as other Kingdoms can.”
“Fortunately you’re stuck with me,” Brutus laughed, baring his teeth in a jovial grin.
Lavendoris was clapping her hands softly together with newfound excitement. “We should have a celebration and invite all the Realms to come and see the spectacle!”
“I don’t know,” Hygar grumbled, “that seems like an awful lot of people.”
“Yes, yes!” the Elves insisted. “We shall make a holiday of it!”
“Can there be fighting?” asked the Orcs.
“And food?” asked Zok.
“Oh, what about games?” the Pixies inquired.
Hygar merely sighed.
Before he knew what was happening the rumor had spread throughout Voraniss. Come the spring he was to be crowned King.
It’s been some time since I corresponded with the Corbachian War Council. For months I’ve struggled with the secrets I’ve kept from the other Broken Spears. The other Corbachians. Our time traveling together has led to a bond I don’t think can be replicated, not for me anyway. And yet it was all based on a lie. I lied to all of them. To Helkias.
I told Helkias everything prior to his leaving for Black and White, a masquerade ball. Which if I’m honest felt a fitting time to reveal myself for the low traitor I am. I expected cursing. I expected durns. I expected him to pick me up off my feet and toss me over the cliff. He did none of that. On the cliffside where we had so many of our chats, where he filled me in on his adventures alongside Cronin and his friends. Where he opened up about his past, telling me tales of his fights at his father’s side in Corbach, of his mother and how she cared for the sick during the plagues, of lost friends. Where he told me his hopes for the future. This grumpy and often silent dwarf-kin trusted me with all of this, and I betrayed him.
I sat there and told him of it all. The letters. My mentor. The council. And in the end, the fact that would change everything the Spears and Corbachians believed, that the princes yet lived. And he said nothing. Minutes past. He stared over Kenkilit. And when he finally spoke it wasn’t to tear me down. It wasn’t to swear vengeance, to tear me limb from limb. It was a simple question:
“Will you help me find them?” His voice cracked as he asked. But there was a fire in his eyes. One I had never seen before.
I was dumbfounded. But of course, I told him yes. He pulled me close then and in that embrace, I felt him shake. The sturdy dwarf, the stalwart captain of the Spears, this man I’d watch pull himself from rock bottom shuddered as he cried. I tried to comfort him. Until I realized he was beginning to laugh. He wiped his tears and jumped to his feet.
“Durn it girl, they live! Bwahaha! Me boys are out there just waitin’ to be found! Waitin’ on us, girl! Waitin’ for the durned Blackraven to take flight! Ah ha ha!” He shook his fists above his head and danced what I can only describe as a jig. I saw the mask he planned to wear to the feast under his cloak. He caught me looking at it.
“Everything has a story, girl. Let me tell you this one while my own brain percolates this news, bwahaha alive.”
Helkias’ father, Nurem, spent his son’s lifetime as a hunter of sorts. While in the village he worked as a blacksmith and helped where he could. But every few weeks Nurem would venture away from the village for varying amounts of time. When Helkias was old enough to be curious Nurem sat him down and told him of his band of hunters, The Vanguard. They took odd jobs from neighboring villages and occasionally wealthier clientele. They would hunt down bandits or procure artifacts. But their specialty was demons. From imps to greater fiends the Vanguard had trained and learned all they could in the libraries of Corbach to counter and destroy them.
A young Helkias took this as a challenge. He spent the next three years sneaking away to train with his friend Yrolf. The librarian at Corbach City’s library remembered Nurem, and was happy to tell Helk the tales of his father’s band. So it was that one his 17th birthday, Helkias waited on his father’s return. Each year the older dwarf-kin would ask Helkias on his birthday, what one thing the boy wanted. If it was in his power to do so Nurem did not ever turn his son down. So sitting by a cookfire outside their home Nurem returned to find the boy waiting, spear and shield laying against two packs.
“Take me on a hunt.” Helkias said as his father approached. Without hesitation, Nurem nodded.
Together they took to the road. A week they traveled in the early snows. At night they would either find respite in a tavern or camped along the forest paths. They spoke of the years past, Nurem had wondered what brought on his son’s sudden interest in reading and libraries. He expected Helk to take to the sword or spear, but not the boy’s intense desire to learn. He smiled.
On the coldest night of their trip, they sat across their campfire from each other. The sky was dark, clouds had moved in and snow likely. They caught the trail of a lesser demon and tracked it to a secluded area of a forest. The nearby village was plagued by disappearances and mutilated farmstock.
Helkias saw it first. Its golden eyes seemed to appear out of the chill dark over his father’s shoulder. Helk shouted a warning and lept across the flames, singeing his cloak. His father ducked out of the way and Helkias grabbed the demon. It stood two heads taller than he. But it’s wiry frame buckled under the surprisingly nimble form of Helkias. He wrestled it to the ground and held it there.
“Kantador hear my plea,” he shouted raising one hand above his head, “By your hairy ass and all the rest of your nonsense I ask you to bind this thing to my will.”
The flames flashed and died out. Helkias held it’s flame within his hand and without hesitation slammed his palm into the creature’s nose. It struggled and screamed as the flames engulfed its face leaving only bone, with the odd fleshy bit. As the flame engulfed the creature, Nurem took his axe and cleaved the demon’s head from its body, the flames stopped, the body remained whole.
“You looked so easy sitting there. I’ll kill your women and rape your cow.” The demon’s skull spoke without motion.
“You’ll hear its voice for a while yet, boy. “
Helkias nodded and pulled out a large coin. He tore the demon’s facial bone free from the rest of the skull and quickly strapped the coin to it. He tied off the rope.
“Yer mine now demon. The viscerocranium will never leave my person. It will stay wrapped until long after I am gone. Now, a simple matter, I require your name,” Helkias held the skull in front of him.
“My name breaks mountains and dries up rivers. You would melt if you heard it.”
“Yer goin’ ta tell me. Now.” Helkias scratched a divot into the coin with his dagger. The demon let out a screech.
“Fethalrimnar. Stop leave it. Fethalrimnar is my name and I call you steward of my life. Now stop.”
Helkias looked to Nurem who nodded and smiled. The Vanguard would live on. Would live on in his own son. Nurem looked to the sky and could just make out the stars. He told his wife everything she needed to hear.
I looked at the mask held by a small rope at Helk’s belt.
“Does it still speak,” I asked.
“Only occasionally. And only when I wear it. I’m sure with all the turmoil of today he’s going to be quite chatty during the masquerade. Maybe I’ll shut him up by dancing some.”
Helkias smiled and put his hand on my shoulder as he moved to head back to Kenkilit. He didn’t say it was okay. Or that he forgave me. Or that my place here was safe. He didn’t tell me anything. But it felt like I knew. As he made his way back home I saw he moved a little lighter, a bit more jump to his step. At least until he made it to the gate and saw the Spears contingent that would travel to Black and White.
“Durn it. I’m gonna have to leave all this. Bah.”
It has been weeks since that day. And plans are already in motion.
My last letter to the council was succinct. It was perfect. And I wrote it while Helkias paced behind me, drinking that god awful clear liquid he’s been so taken with. Smelt like you could clear paint off of wood. But that’s neither here nor there. The letter was less than I’d ever put to a page for those bastards. It wasn’t much of an ultimatum. It wasn’t even really a threat. It was a statement of fact really. It read simply:
The flames are not out and The Raven flies again.
I warned Helkias to not send them word, to just show up in Corbach one night. To rain Helfire on them. “But now,” he said, “They’ll tremble in their beds for enough time that I get to enjoy it. Then months pass. And nothing. They get comfortable with the idea that I’m not coming. And when they return to their beds one night. I’ll be there. Broken spear in hand. And then I’ll have my vengeance.”
His eyes got dark though the tone of his voice hadn’t shifted into his gloomy voice, he got when he drank too much. He was focused then. More so than I’d seen in a long time.
Alongside the barkeep they call Matthew and my watchful eye, The Blackraven will fly back to Corbach. And there he’ll tear apart the whole country to find you. I stopped writing the letters of betrayal. Now I write for a different reason. These journals are for you, Prince Eric. I will catalog the whole thing. And hope in some way it brings you closer to this man. They are for you to see what Helkias Gotholias Ryunn, son of Nurem and Alis, born of Corbach, Steward of the royal family, Voranian, Demon Hunter, Vanguard and best known as the Blackraven has done out of love for you and your family.