Night Hunter's Hope
Author's note: The cover photo for this book is completely random and has nothing to do with the actual story; I... Show full author's note »
RevelationsCrimson gazed afar at Cerpet Lake viewed out below the ragged cliff he stood upon, glistening in the sunlight, looking like a misshaped dot in a large valley formed with curvy hills and clustered trees. It rolled out like a scroll for leagues, inhabiting wild gazelle and ferocious leopards; it was a lovely scene molded in a detailed masterpiece.
“A beautiful sight,” the young woodcutter sighed quietly to himself, standing on the edge of the cliff and allowing the sun to warm his pallid skin. Golden hair ruffled with the subtle wind, light and smooth. The corners of Crimson’s mouth lifted to form a gentle smile. This is my paradise, he thought. Hours of hard labor in the beating heat still did nothing to ruin his comfort under the sun’s rays, ever so inviting as he took joy in the brilliant light.
Crimson was nearing his seventeenth birthday where he could finally work alongside his father Grenald, supplying wood for Markel, the small village hidden at forest’s edge. Whilst his mother kept their humble hut clean and provided dinner from the garden and the meat they bought, Crimson chopped wood for many hours of the day as a left-hand assistance for Grenald, as his father made a decent living sharpening axes and cutting trees for the town. His father was well-respected and taught Crimson to embrace work, but also enjoy life.
“My boy,” he heard a familiar, low and kind voice from behind. Grenald watched him with a bright smile lighting his tanned face, underneath a thick, scruffy black beard.
“Father,” he replied in a smooth tone. “Is it time for more work?”
A soft chuckle escaped the man. “Ah, Crimson. Always the responsible boy I raised well. Nay, I give you the rest of the day off. Aron has been asking for you, though. He wishes to resume your training.”
Crimson inclined his head. “Thank you, I ought not to leave him waiting.”
Grenald was brawny and barrel-chested, earned from years of handling heavy tools and smithing weapons, and took an immune to blistering heat and harsh winters, therefore hardly ever resting to wipe his brow year around. Not only an honest worker, but known to be kind and full of honor. His top priority, however, was his wife and child, whom he cared for more than anything life could offer.
Erineth proudly called herself Grenald’s wife, and was even sweeter than he. She fascinated in studying Heartfall’s history, reading countless books, and also followed in her own mother’s passion as an herbalist, fumbling with strange plants and Mandrake roots, and making love potions and lingering poisons. Erineth mostly tended the house and ran her own shop; most folks entitled her as the town healer. With their combined income, the happily married couple was far from peasants, and even saved a good inheritance for their son.
Crimson adapted a few qualities from each parent: he was muscular and well-fit, shaped and toned over his own hours of labor; not incredibly bulky, but strong enough to handle himself. The most important manners he had been taught, apart from obeying his parents, were to deeply respect his elders, those with authority, and, especially, women. He recalled his father telling him frequently in childhood, “Listen carefully to those around you and be quick to offer a hand, but lend not your heart and trust so easily.” Crimson, too, like his mother, took interest in history and read often. Though his hands had no talent for alchemy, his mind was willing to learn.
Grenald placed a hand on Crimson’s shoulder. “Now,” he said, looking at him directly in the eye. “Go pay your daily respects to Fehov. Aron will be waiting at his weaponry.”
With a last farewell, Crimson traveled down the slanted road leading to Markel. A gentle breeze tickled his cheeks as he observed the luscious atmosphere: thick trees dressed in a bundle of fresh leaves formed a tall wall on either side of the dirt path, with large roots tailing in different patterns along the ferny grass and exotic plants. From the knowledge of his mother, Crimson could identify some of the more effective ones: the pod-shaped ferns dotted with dark yellow swirls, named gelphies that commonly grew near forbus trees, could be used as tonics when crushed thoroughly in liquids and mixed with tospawn beans. Snow-white flowers that stuck out like sore thumbs in most forests were deadly to eat, useful in poisons, called delweed. Its only cure was to eat a caltic mushroom, which could also be used favorably and eaten harmlessly.
Green mosses and large caps tangled wildly among the trees, giving Ayer Forest a livelier tinge; many individual species lived deep within. Stretching out for leagues from both sides, this was where Crimson enjoyed to roam and chop wood, but never strayed far from the beaten path. A major road outside of Markel led directly to Falner, the nearest city, and provided the only easy way to each town. Otherwise, it was nothing but forest. Apart from the other activities, Crimson liked to bring his sword and train next to the stream near town, or read one of his large assortments of books and scrolls.
Arriving at Markel, the bustle of townsfolk and caravans greeted him. Most were out of their homes and walking to multiple shops, stands, and trading posts. It was more crowded than usual, as horses’ drug caravans and a few guards coated in chained armor patrolled within the town.
The traders are in town! Crimson had forgotten all about it, now thrilled. The traders came about once a year at random times, selling fresh food, fine jewelry and trinkets, useful supplies, ancient and rare artifacts, weapons and armor, and the entire sort. Many journeyed from distant cities across desserts and mountains, carrying valuable and interesting items. Some even told tales and stories involving past kings, mythical beasts, brave heroes, and great lands beyond Heartfall. Songs were also exchanged, usually around nightfall.
“Step right up!” Crimson heard a man yell over the noise. “For do I have some valuables for you! Magical amulets that bring good fortune to the wearer, statues retrieved from ancient tombs and even a spellbook to delve and learn the arcane arts…”
His voice was muffled by dozens of excited and curious villagers. Eager, Crimson dug in his fabric pockets for some coin, but unfortunately found none. Disappointed, he shrugged it aside and headed toward the chapel. It’s probably a load of troll dung, anyhow. Crimson had heard stories of fortune tellers, sight seers, and historical wizards, yet had never witnessed any of it and disbelieved half the tales. The little magic that actually existed in all of Heartfall was extremely rare and nigh impossible to learn, and most of it was evil and dangerous, as he had been told throughout his life.
No one occupied the tiny chapel in the center of Markel but the town priest, Vipir. His bald head reflected the candlelight above, hunching over a book whilst sitting in the front row behind the alter.
“Crimson,” he greeted, looking up with a grin. “Come to pay refuge to the god of mercy and family?”
“Of course,” he replied. Vipir had on long white robes and a golden amulet around his neck, with the symbol of Fehov, one of the many gods that ruled from above. . He spent the majority of his time praying and receiving blessings, spreading Fehov’s worship among the town and helping the poor. Crimson’s deep blue eyes aimed at the priest for a moment before he approached the alter and fell to his knees.
O great Fehov, he began in prayer, eyes closed and head bowed. Father of Family and Giver of Mercy, may your mighty hand watch over my mother and father, and allow me to bring praise and honor to them and achieve good works.
Rising up, Crimson touched a hand to his heart as a sign of respect, and then turned.
“Short and sweet today, eh?” Vipir said courteously, smiling at him. “Always one to stay true to the gods. Aye, I wish everyone had your spirit, Crimson.”
“Please, sir.” He smiled politely. “I wish only to protect my family.”
Vipir chuckled and rose, moving closer to Crimson. “Ah, a fine line of faith. Boy, do you know why it is always honorable to worship the gods?”
Crimson didn’t respond immediately, thinking. He sat at one of the pews, leaning down and resting his hands on his legs. Father reminded him constantly that blessings and acts of kindness from the gods was not a reward for good works, but a gift; they gave it out of purity.
“Blessings are given to us when we worship,” Crimson echoed his thoughts. “When we pray out of selflessness.”
“Exactly!” exclaimed Vipir. “Exactly. You, Crimson, pray for your family and their safety. In that, young one, you shall receive true blessings from the great divines.”
Crimson beamed, pleased by the thought. Remembering Aron, he rose, saying, “Thank you for your time, sir, but I must meet with Aron the blacksmith.”
“Of course, of course,” excused the priest. “Take care now, and give my regards to Aron!”
Bowing respectfully, Crimson rose and made his way. Stopping just at the old wooden door, however, the traders’ announcement rung in his ears.
“Um, sir?” he asked, spinning around. “I had a question regarding magic…”
Vipir’s attention was caught at the words, as he looked back with an indifferent expression. “Yes, young one?”
“I heard of a trader selling odd trinkets, and speaking of a spellbook…I was wondering, is that sort truly real? Were there really wizards who could call upon magical forces?”
Surprisingly, a wicked grin lighted the old man’s face. “Ah, magic is a very mysterious and impossible concept to us humans, yes? Stories tell of powerful sorcerers possessing abilities to cast magic from their palms: fire, lightning, water, and summoning creatures from different realms, or charming and tempering with the minds of others.”
“Yes, but are they real?” He repeated.
The priest laughed quietly and stood up from the pew, looking at him. “I suppose that is for you to believe, hmm?”
Crimson grinned, and with that, left Vipir and the chapel behind.
Aron’s Armory was in sight, with the owner standing just outside of it. Broad and hardy, the tall man scratched his beard, thicker than Grenald’s, and looked at Crimson with two, beady black eyes.
“Took your sweet time, did you?” He boomed in a hard tone, his voice far from friendly. “Thought it amusing to keep me standing here in the heat?”
Guilt enveloped Crimson, and his face became hot and red. “Apologies, Mr. Delry, I meant no—“
A loud chuckle barked from the blacksmith, slapping a hand to his apron. “Ah, come off it! I’m only stretching your chain, lad.”
Relieved, Crimson couldn’t help but laugh with him. “How’s old Grenald doin’?” Aron asked with a wink.
“Fine,” he said. “His job is holding well, and we have enough meat to last a month.”
“Fantastic! And Erineth?”
A smile spread across Aron’s face. “Good, good. I was hopin’ for a good report, what with this feud rumoring across Heartfall.”
Confusion swept over Crimson. “Feud?”
“Aye. Rumor has it that Emperor David Morian himself decided to leave the palace to go search for sum’ weapons or whatnot.” Aron’s face was wrapped in concentration. Chattering citizens and banging caravans strode all around the two, filling the environment.
“Is that so?” Crimson was warped with questions. “He left the palace just to search for weapons?”
“Well, not entirely,” started the blacksmith. “Here, let’s go inside me’ shop and I’ll fill you in. Then we can get started.”
Upon entering the armory, multitudes of finely steeled cuirasses and shields aligned the stone walls. A pit of fire lay in the middle, whilst swords, axes, and bows hung on weapon racks in various places. A counter was in the corner of the room, behind which Aron stood when the shop was open. His wife, Delphine, currently stood there running the store. She smiled and Crimson when he walked in.
“How’s about a mug of ale?” Aron asked Crimson.
“That sounds refreshing,” he replied gratefully. He took a seat at a far table in the back next to a smoldering sword in the making.
Moments later Aron returned with two large mugs filled up completely. He took a seat on the other side of Crimson and slid him one, which Crimson gulped down happily.
“Now, about Emperor David…” continued Aron, taking a drink of his own mug. “Folks ‘been talking around here, and it would seem he decided to go on a…well, expedition, in order to find these rare items scattered across Heartfall.”
“So a few valuable weapons are worth leaving the palace unattended?” Crimson interrupted.
“Ah now, you didn’t let me finish,” confided the blacksmith in his scratchy tone. Crimson apologized and he moved on, “The king isn’t leaving his palace unattended. He’s a lot bloody smarter than that… dammit, he’s the best emperor this land’s seen in decades! Nay, his wife… uh, Violet, I believe her name was…is taking his place until he gets back. And, here’s the thing: as it turns out, these ‘items’ are not just old ancient swords and that sort. S’matter of fact, David’s out looking for the rarest and most powerful weapons, armor, and items that can ever be found in Heartfall.”
Crimson pondered on the new information for a minute, resting his hands on the round wooden table. “Wait…” he concluded. “The most powerful? I’ve heard many tales regarding powerful weapons and artifacts. If half those stories are true, then wouldn’t finding the best be—“
“Impossible,” finished Aron, nodding his head. “Aye. See, David thinks he can roam out in the wild and magically find all these incredible weapons, but I’d sooner believe a dragon will destroy Markel tomorrow!
“It does sound illogical,” agreed Crimson.
“Even if he did manage to get his hands on sumin’, wouldn’t ya’ reckon he’d have a fat chance getting past whatever’s protectin’ it?”
True. “Any artifact like that would be sure to have some sort of protection, maybe hidden in an ancient crypt or something of the sort.” Crimson took another gulp.
“Hmm. And I’ll tell ya’ what the craziest part ‘bout this is.” Aron leaned in closer, staring directly at Crimson. “The emperor didn’ tell anyone where he was goin’. Not a damn soul!”
Shock flashed on Crimson’s former-curious expression. “David told no one?” he repeated, incredulous.
Aron shook his head, almost glaring at him with a hard stare. “Nay. Thas’ why the entire Empire is throwin’ a hiss fit! Neither the Elder Council nor the servants know where he went, or where he’s goin’. Not even his wife!”
Crimson could not suppress his dumbfounded countenance. “Why in Dursvagon would he not tell anyone? Did he at least bring a companion?”
Aron was vigorously shaking his head before the last word uttered from Crimson’s mouth. “Not even that! He left alone. I’d reckon if he’s not back by the end of the week, they’ll be sendin’ the whole army lookin’ for him.”
More questions flooded Crimson’s mind. “Did he say how long he would be gone? Does he even know where to start? Can he fight well?”
Aron snorted at the last question. “Fight well! He’s one of the best bloody fighters I’ve ever ‘eard of! Of course he can fight. Yet he never said how long he’d be, nor do they think he even knows where to start.”
That’s outrageous! The Emperor of Heartfall cannot simply leave on some quest to search for artifacts. Why is he even going? What exactly inspired him in the first place? “And what if these weapons of such were not made by humans? What if not by elves or dwarves?”
The blacksmith shrugged, slamming his mug down. “We all have questions,” he said. And if these items were made by an elf, there’ll be a lot of problems in gettin’ his hands on that, especially if they still have a hold of it.”
“Would they not bend to his royalty?”
“Nay, not if it’s precious to them. Elves are a stubborn race, they are.”
“And what of dwarves?”
Aron paused before answering. “Ah, they’re a mysterious bunch. Reckon they’d put up a fight to, if it came to it.”
Crimson was far from getting all his questions answered, but he couldn’t see how Aron had all the answers for him. “How can our emperor simply just leave, noble as he is?” He was mostly thinking aloud.
“He has to have a good reason,” Aron supported, even as shocked and frustrated as he was. “David Morian is a great man, wiser and braver than I thought men could be! I don’ fully agree with it all, but there has to be a good reason. I’m not a strong believer in destiny, but gods’ better have a firm grip on that man, bless his soul.”
“Maybe he prayed beforehand,” Crimson suggested. “Or maybe even one of the gods spoke to him.”
Aron held back a laugh, but shook his head. “If ya’ wanna believe in that sort, go right ahead. As for me, I just think these artifacts are much better than we believe, for him to go outta his way like that.” He took another huge gulp and finished off his mug. “Want some more?” He asked, as Crimson’s was nearly gone as well. He nodded and the blacksmith got up to refill.
During his brief absence, Crimson dwelled in the many questions and problems that now swarmed his brain. If the emperor is out there somewhere, he thought, He must have overwhelming strength just to survive, even if only a week. Several dangerous animals and creatures inhabit Heartfall…he must have a miracle…
As a new mug of ale was placed in front of him, Crimson openly asked, “How is his wife able to know all that needs to be done at the palace if she hears neither word nor whisper of David?”
Aron drunk deeply from his mug before answering, “I reckon he left a list of the most important essentials, but I haven’t a clue on the rest. I’d say he’s contactin’ her somehow, but that would require revealing his whereabouts.”
That gave more for Crimson to think about. “If he has no food or fresh clothing, how is he supposed to survive without visiting any towns? And as royalty, wouldn’t you think he would be unwilling to leave comfort and rich robes for a mere journey?” Royalty is usually a stubborn bunch.
“Ah, King David is different than most nobles I’ve heard of,” he retorted. “He doesn’ view himself as royal or rich half the time, even in his own palace! Nay, his mind works in stranger ways…I’d wager my best ax the Elder Council is furious.”
“Do you suppose they will disposition him?” Crimson asked.
Aron wiped some ale dripping from his chin. “Impossible. He’s from a royal family. Even if they wanted him to step down, which I know they don’t, the Elder Council couldn’ do a thing.” He scooted his mug aside and pulled out a pipe from his pocket, lighting it with a match. A plume of smoke fluttered in the air above. “By Tyran, boy, I thought you studied often!”
Crimson shifted uncomfortably. “Not much in Empire terms,” he admitted. “Mostly old folklore and Heartfall history.”
The man shook his head, appearing amused. “An emperor can’ simply be dispositioned, and the Morian family has been rulin’ Heartfall for over a century.”
He thought absently for a moment, and then Crimson asked out of curiosity, “What is Emperor David like?”
Aron’s beard rose from the smile that spread across his face. “He’s a great man, from what I hear. Born with an astounding wizard for a father, and a loving, supportive mother. He trained in more than one of the top academies in the world. I reckon he’s incredible with a blade, and even more impressive with magic.”
A sudden flare of awe suddenly overtook Crimson. “Wait, so you mean magic does exist?”
The blacksmith looked confused, puffing consistently in the pipe. “Well o’ course there is, boy. What’d you wager from all those historic figures told by storytellers?”
“Well…” the young woodcutter fondled in his thoughts. “I assumed most of it was myth, considering I never seen not a single hint of magic in my life.”
A short burst of laughter sounded from Aron. “Says the sixteen-year-old who’s never left Markel!” he scoffed. “Eh, ‘tis true magic is exceptionally rare and even more difficult to learn. But understand, boy, it does exist.”
“Can anyone in Markel use it?” He wondered.
He shook his head, finished with his pipe. “No, not in Markel. Like I said, it is very hard to learn, but I’ve seen a man or two use it before. Nothin’ masterly, of course, but a few charms here and there.” Seeing the peculiar look on Crimson’s countenance, Aron added sternly, “Don’t get any ideas, boy. Magic is extremely difficult to learn, even the simplest of spells, and nigh impossible to master. Besides, it is highly dangerous and causes death annually. Waste of time and life, if ya’ ask me.”
The small consideration Crimson had shrugged aside. “I wasn’t planning to try much, anyhow.”
Aron shifted. “Believe me, Crimson, the closest ya’ ever gonna get to magic is a blessin’ from a god, and those are hard to come by.”
“What else do you know about David?”
The blacksmith looked thoughtful, staring off into space, mug in hand. “Eh, not too much. Hey, ya’ hungry?”
Now that he had mentioned it, it was hours since Crimson last ate, and his stomach growled desperately. “Actually, yes.” With that, Aron rose and once again left the table. Crimson sipped at his ale, thinking even more deeply on his emperor’s odd decisions. I’ll never understand why. I don’s suppose anyone will, for a while. Could it really mean that much to him? What prowesses do these items posses?
A platter of meat was placed in front of Crimson along with a small portion of steamed mushrooms. Aron also set out a bowl of fruit in the center of the table. Starved, Crimson, eagerly begun tearing up the venison and stuffing it in his mouth; it tasted scrumptious and well cooked. “’Ow long ‘as David been ‘one?” he asked with his mouth crammed.
“Do you always eat like that?” Aron laughed, taking a bite of his own meat. “Two days ago, he left the palace.”
“What gave him the influence to begin with?” He asked, this time with less food.
Yet again, his question could not be fully answered. “Dunno. He never said, or revealed his source of information.”
Crimson was already picking at the strawberries, the light reflecting off them and showing the small hairs that grew from the fruit. “I don’t understand…”
“You’re not alone,” assured the blacksmith. “Nor do I, and many others. What is the real value of all this, or the outcome? Is our king searching for total power? Doubtful, he already has that. What about untold riches and heaps of gold? Probably has more than enough in his treasury. So what, then?”
Crimson was just as stumped. What, how, when, why? Every answer led to a dozen new questions, and every question left another puzzle.
Just then, a scrambling villager burst through the door, panting. Crimson and Aron immediately jumped up, surprised. “Everyone!” He shrieked. “Come quick! An adventurer traveled with the traders, says he’s got something major for all of us to here! Come quick!”
The blacksmith and woodcutter glanced at one another. Crimson uttered, “Do you suppose it could be about…?”
“There’s only one way to find out,” Aron murmured. Together, they left with the villager, even more confused than before.
Several people gathered in an immense circle around something covered from Crimson’s view. He stretched out his neck, looking for anyone he was close to or whom everyone gathered around. Pushing through the jumble, he and Aron finally managed to get a decent position. The sun was bright overhead, the sky clear, a wave of heat hovering over Markel like an invisible cloud.
The man standing in the center was older-looking, with a short gray beard and rugged robes, hiding his ankles. His face was wrinkled and solemn, his eyes a dim shade of green. He leaned on a long, poorly-carved wooden staff in one hand, stuffing his other in a feruled pocket. Low mummers rattled from the spectators as each eyed the strange man suspiciously. Most of the traders, however, seemed to be occupied. They must already know what the man is going to say, Crimson assumed. He stood very still, only the rustle of his robes from the light wind showing any sign of movement. He appeared to be in deep concentration…Or was it concern? Crimson couldn’t tell which, watching his eyes examine everyone around him with distant revelation.
After a few suspenseful minutes, as new people began arriving, the man finally spoke: “I am here to inform all of you, to warn you, of a most horrible and dangerous threat.” His voice was worn and rough, but loud enough for all to hear. Complete silence fell among the crowd. “I have traveled from city to village in the past few weeks, after discovering something so frightening and preposterous, I dared not believe if I hadn’t seen.” Another worried glance was exchanged between Crimson and Aron.
“Many of you will refuse to believe what I am about to tell you, as this terrible legend was claimed to be a myth, and tales of this news had died ages ago. Yet what I speak is nothing but truth, and I plead for you to heed my words!” Silence. The man looked at each individual with desperate eyes. His mouth barley opened, but loudly he spoke, “I have searched for a solution to this problem, but none may come! No god, army, or king may save us from this threat. For by my eye and my word, the Ones Most Feared have, as foretold, returned to Heartfall.”
The strangest shock and terror spread rapidly throughout the group, with mixed reactions: Surprise, anger, disbelief, fear, dismay, and confusion. “Absolutely not!” An angered voice yelled from within the citizens. “That’s outrageous!”
“Can it really be true…?”
The odd man raised a hand for silence, and it took a while for the stirring to calm. “Please, please,” he hushed. “Yes, it is true. From what the gods predicted centuries ago, has finally come to be. Believe or not, though I beg for all to be prepared, for anything could happen!”
Crimson was totally lost. As different reactions and chaos erupted around him, nothing made any sense. The Ones most Feared? What in Dursvagon is that? The traders eyed the crowd with presumptuous glares, and guards began ordering for silence. Wives were clutching their children with fretful eyes, husbands roared and complained, and the majority looked either furious or flabbergasted. Focused eyes bore into the robed man, as he himself stood in patient silence. Apparently, this was much bigger news than expected.
“Now is the time for panic,” the man spoke again. “Now is the time for action! To stop this threat, all must work together and be brave, defend your lands! Make haste, for the greatest danger ever brought to Heartfall challenges us all!”
It was no longer a murmur, but a distraught outrage. All the guards had to draw their weapons and shout over the noise; Crimson was left in the darkness. Aron himself was viewing the rage, but held a different expression, as if he knew what was going on, but knew not what to think of it. No one paid attention to the strange man anymore, only talking amongst themselves, seeming to be in furious debate or unresolved panic. Crimson’s mind ran wild, unsure of everything. Added with his endless curiosity regarding the emperor, this knew rumor about the “Ones Most Feared” rampaged. Could it be an evil lord? A rebelling army? An old and awful legend brought to life? Or even a world-ending threat? Crimson was only sure of one thing: it wasn’t good.
“I was afraid o’ this,” Aron muttered. Crimson turned to him, desperate for answers. “Aron, what does all this mean?” he pleaded. He sighed meaningfully before responding, “If it’s true, then it means…Dragons have returned to Heartfall.”