People stood and cheered as the mouth of the gods closed above. They looked to me as their savior, but only the gods themselves knew the truth.
You see, the blood on my hands is from the righteous. Nameless heroes lay dead at my feet.
I am their greatest fear, and the fuel for their hate.
Like a wave returning to sea, the men, women, and children bow before me, their lord, king, and villain.
Welcome to my Scorched Kingdoms.
Korver lunged from his bed, awakening from what had to be a nightmare. He clung to his sword as he surveyed the room.
He could hear rustling behind him. Without pause he turns and swings his sword toward the partially open door.
A small boy falls to his knees and covers his head. It was Korver’s son, Gorn.
“I'm sorry, father!” the child cries out. “I didn’t mean to scare you, I heard noise coming from your room.”
Korver moves toward the door and slides to the floor next to the terrified child. “It was just a dream, nothing to worry about.” he says as he pulls Gorn over to lay on his lap.
“The dreams have been getting worse recently. I can feel the flames and taste the blood.” Korver looks down at his hands, still shaking from the terror he had awoken from.
“Go back to sleep boy. Tomorrow is a big day for us.” He smiles as he gives Gorn a tap, pushing him back towards his room.
He walks back to his bed, shrugging off everything that had just transpired. Looking down at his hands one last time, images of the dead flash through his head.
He laid there the rest of the night, but not once did his eyes close.
As a small shred of light began to creep into the room a horn bellows in the distance. He hears Gorn run down the hall and bust through the front door. Korver gets up and looks through the only window in his room to see they finally landed.
He walks out onto the deck of the boat they had been riding on for a fortnight.
“Welcome to the Boundless Bays.” he exclaimed, rubbing his kid on the head. “One day, this will be your kingdom”.
The Bay is the first providence to be released from the Scorched Kingdoms. The people there are free from all other nations. A title earned by Yolind, leader of the Seven Servants, and Korver’s father. It was a reward after the Battle of the Crying Cathedral, which crowned the new King of Ethalios.
The Bay is a piece of land cut from the Deviician Providence on the southwest tip of the country.
Their boat docks more than a mile from the cliff side, unable to get near the shore. Ships have been pouring in for what looks to be weeks, creating bridges outward from ship to ship, building a city of their own on the sea.
As far as the eye could see, boats transformed into markets, pubs, and even inns for those looking for more room. It was a happier sight than had been seen in the Kingdoms for many years.
Gorn looks up at his father, “There must be a thousand boats here!” he exclaims while jumping up and down with excitement. He ran across a large plank leading onto the next vessel over, joining a few other children that had been traveling next to them at sea.
Korver turns around to find the boat captain standing behind him.
“Your father asked to see you as soon as we landed.”
The captain, a man with a face not easily forgotten, had burns and scars that could be seen across the right side, but go unnoticed due to his eye, stale and grey as if turned to stone.
Korver sighs, “Thank you for the ride. I’m sure you have a family anxious for your return.” The captain silently stares at him and walks back into the ship.
“Well, thank you again.” Korver says as he walks over and throws a small bag of gold down to the man.
Korver then makes his way toward the next ship to catch up with his son. He sees a hooded figure talking to the boy. It puts its hand out toward Gorn, and a small dagger is pointed at his face.
He charges the unknown assailant, grabbing its cloak and ripping the hood back. All he found was an empty cloak in his hands and no one to be seen. Gorn laughs as a finger taps on Korver’s back.
“I was always faster than you- and smarter too!” he hears a voice snicker. He turns around to find a familiar face smiling back at him.
“Grainer, my friend! I see they’re letting anyone in these days.” Korver shouts out, this time with joy on his face.
“No, just those that singlehandedly win battles for you.” Says Grainer as he puts his hand out. “I was summoned by Yolind, so I figure we are already at it again. So much for this free nation you are supposedly building.”
Korver's smile immediately turns into concern. “Do you know what it’s about?”
The mysterious man lets out another snicker. “I haven't made my way past this maze of mead and women yet, but people usually only ask one thing of me.” He pulls a dagger from his side flipping it in the air and catching it a few times over.
He points it at Gorn once again, flipping it over to hand the jeweled blade to the child. “A warrior like you needs a weapon.”
The boy looks up at his father, then back at the blade.
Korver pushes the dagger back down. Gorn, looking disappointed, runs back over with the other children, waving goodbye.
“We will catch up soon. I'm on my way to talk with my father now. It's good to see you.” Korver nods towards his old friend and throws him his cloak.
He grabs his son and they make their way across the ships toward the land. Each plank they cross brings them to new crowds enjoying the makeshift town. Korver can’t help but smile seeing so many people enjoying life, watching his son observing the world like he is seeing it for the first time.
The two finally reach solid ground after traveling through the rickety city below. Looking onward, they find there is only a single finished structure in an enormous field of lumber and stone. A fort that has the Seven Servants Crest carved into the highest tower.
“He sure has his priorities.” Korver states as he kneels down by Gorn.
“I need you to keep watch out here for me. If you see your aunt, send her in to find me, can you do that?”
Gorn shakes his head and runs toward a coup of chickens near the front gate.
Korver reluctantly opens the front doors, entering a great hall, massive and grand, like those of the Capital. Giant banners are hanging from the ceiling of the three clans that fought to take the throne. Armor of fallen warriors line the walls, ending at a raised platform of three stairs leading to a chair constructed with giant bones. A skull lays at the top, four horns twisting together from the cap.
“I see you're still trying to appear as a god among men, father. Who made this one for you?” Korver says as he walks up the grand stairs to get a closer look at the creature.
“This coming from the man they call the Branded Beast. What is it they say? Strength of a bear, speed of a wolf. Or is it because you wear armor of a lion.” Yolind says as he walks out from a corridor leading into the great hall. He moves with a limp toward the throne. Now a much older man, but still physically impressive with scars covering his skin that can be seen through his royal robes.
Korver stares at the new lord. “I want to remind you, father, I was the one winning those battles. If there are tales about me they were all earned, while you hid behind stories of monsters and demons.”
He takes a seat in his father’s crafted throne.
“How dare you!” Yolind swings what seems to be a jeweled staff at Korver. With little trouble Korver catches the rod and rises from the chair to observe it.
“So you had them remove the head from your mighty mace. Now it is nothing but the mighty walking stick of the Demon Lord.”
Yolind pulls back “You know very little of this world. You might have fought those of the essence, but there were many evils before you and the crystals in these Nations.”
Korver shakes his head and continues to walk back down the steps. “Why is Grainer here? Who's battle are you fighting now, father?”
The lord of Boundless Bay takes a seat on the wicked throne, placing his staff in a slot drilled into the stone to the right of him, twisting it in place. The sound of shifting stone quakes below the grand platform. Yolind shifts forward in his seat. “The Savages of the Fuerion Nation in the east have been making their way towards the Capital. They have burned every city to the ground on their way, and killed men, women, and children alike.”
“Why are they heading to the Cathedral? Has the king already made enemies across the country?” Korver asks, now realizing why he has been summoned.
Yolind raises his voice. “There is not much you can ask the dead, so your guess is as good as mine. If they reach the Cathedral of the Royals, what is stopping them from coming here next? Why fight to become a free nation, to have it burned to the ground in front of us?” He is now standing up, filled with anger toward his son who seems to shrug off the chaos.
“Your path has already been chosen son. These people are led by the rise of kings and fall of men. I'm still writing our story.”
Korver turns his back on the lord and starts walking to the front gate.
“What are we free from father? You are just a character in their story.” Without looking back he walks out the giant front doors to find his sister sitting with Gorn.
“Who is that beautiful lady you're talking to?” Korver yells.
Selia looks up and runs toward her brother.
“I didn’t think you would come.”
He looks down at the leather armor she has on. “I was hoping to see you in a dress. You know it’s hard to sell peace to people when everyone is still getting ready for war.”
She takes a step back, “Have you talked to father already?”
“I guess you can call it talking. Don’t tell me you agree with this hunt for the Savages.”
Selia takes another step back, “We have to do something, they are slaughtering people. Maybe they have reason to hate the king, but those people did nothing. You might think freedom means standing aside, but how long will it last?”
“You've let him get in your head Selia, you’ll be fighting in his wars until it comes time for me to bury you. I won’t have that life for my son. He already lost his mother to this world.”
She looks down at the young boy then back up at her brother. “I know you, you won’t be able to watch the world burn forever. We are leaving tomorrow, I will feel a lot better with you by my side.”
Korver grabs Gorn and makes his way back towards the docks. “Goodbye my sister, we will feast when you come back from your glorious victory.”
As they make it back to the dock Gorn pulls away from his father. “You're going to help them right? I can fight too! I'm 12 now. You knew how to fight at my age.”
“I do not want that for you, we should not have come. I should have known it would never be different.”
Korver pauses, taking a deep breath to settle his nerves.
“Let's go back to the ship and get some food, you can teach me to play one of those games you were playing with the other children.” Gorn slowly walks back over to his father and they make their way back across the city of ships.
That night Korver sits in his bed, pure anger running through his mind.
It will never end, he keeps thinking. Slowly he nods off, falling back into the nightmare from the night before.
He finds himself standing on a cliff with the Cathedral of the Royals in the distance, flames blazing across the city.
A giant shadow in the clouds soars toward the radiant towers. A voice playing in his head as it passes, “We will scorch this earth together. Their blood is our water, their flesh our food.”
He looks down to find all the people that were bowing in the dream before, now laying in a sea of red. He looks back up towards the Cathedral as a creature parts the sky and flies down, encompassing the entire city. The creature is covered in the shadows and is impossible to make out the features, other than the eyes that are starring back at him.
“They will forever remember our name, the Fourth Hand will rise above the others.”
He realizes it is not the creature speaking to him, but him speaking to the creature. He looks down at his hands, then feels his face. He can no longer recognize himself, feeling features more of a beast than man.
His chest begins to burn, and he begins ripping off his armor and raising his shirt. The mark of a hand sears in his flesh.
Korver wakes up shouting, stabbing his blade into the wall beside him.
It was already light out and he could hear the bustle of the ships at work. It took a minute for him to calm down, but as he did, he lifted his shirt. Still feeling the burning flesh, Korver felt around for markings, but there was nothing.
He got up and walked down the short bobbing hall to Gorn’s room. “I'm going to go get us some food, I’ll be back soon.” He realizes he’s talking to an empty bed.
He rushes to the window to see if his son was just playing with the children of the surrounding ships, but sees nothing.
As he leaves the room to go outside Korver spots a note pinned to the door:
You have always done everything to take care of me. Now it’s my turn to make you proud.
I’m going to fight, so you don’t have to.
Korver rips the note from the door and sprints out of the ship and toward the land.
“What is he thinking? He has never even held a weapon before. I will kill them for this.” Korver shouts to the sky above.
He reaches the fort and shoves both doors open, stomping into the echoing hallway. “Where is Gorn? Have they left? You better have him sitting in one of these rooms.”
“What are you going on about?” Yolind gestures for the servants to leave the hall.
“Gorn left to join your hunting party this morning. Tell me you sent him back to the ship.” Korver bellowed, throwing the note in the direction of his father.
“I have not seen your boy, not that it wouldn't be good for him to come along and learn a few things. The kid has no skill. You are raising him to become worthless, and he will be on the street begging.”
Yolind picks up the note and reads it. “They left at day break, so if he is with them you better get that famous armor of yours and go find them, though I doubt you’ll catch up with Grainer leading the party.”
Korver moves toward his father, “You might want to start praying I don’t make it back. Next time you see my face, it will be sitting on your precious throne.”
Korver starts moving back, still facing his father. One sword drawn he points it towards the Boundless Lord, “That’s a promise”. He turns around and runs to retrieve his armor and supplies.
Returning to the ship one final time, he opens the only other door in his quarters, revealing the Branded Beast Armor. Steel with Dwarven Gold trim and inscriptions on the chest and arms in a language unknown to most. The helmet, shaped of a lion’s head with fur around the neck as a mane. Last, two longswords with curved hooks at the end of each, known as the Beast’s Fangs.
Korver jumps on a horse that is stalled a few ships over, leaving behind a bag of gold as he rides out of the Bay.
While Korver holds no skill compared to Grainer’s tracking, he knows enough to find the trail of those not trying to hide.
He makes his way across field after field, riding from midday until he could no longer see a horse length in front of his face. Searching for a tree line to rest at for a few hours, his eyes lock onto a continuously growing glow in the distance. He realizes they are buildings ablaze.
Korver leaps back on his horse, leaving everything behind that might weigh him down other than the armor and swords on his back. He forces the horse into a furious sprint, panic flooding his face at the thought of his boy in one of the collapsing buildings.
Many miles later still riding at full speed, his horse collapses to the ground, unable to go on without rest. He pats the horse on the back and whispers to the animal, “Thank you, you have earned this time.” In a full rush himself he takes off without another thought.
He is now finding the title Branded Beast well placed. A man running at the speed of the horse he left laying behind.
By the time he finally makes it to the small farm, the houses and stable have burned to the ground. The sun began to crest over a forest in the distance, and smoke could be seen filling the sky all around him.
With no thought for his own safety, he screams for his son, “Gorn are you out there?… Selia?… Grainer?”
There was nothing but silence to follow.
Korver makes his way toward the two houses that were now simply piles of ash on the ground, searching for anything he might recognize. A few moments pass and he lets out a sigh, finding no sign of life in either building as they crumbled.
Obvious that this was no accident, he finds himself ready to move on before anyone decides to return.
He spends a good portion of the morning backtracking to regroup with his new companion, finding a corpse where the poor beast lay resting just hours ago. He saw a deep stab wound through its neck. A swift death, but unnecessary slaughter of an animal they could have set free.
The only chance he had now was to make his way to Bassondor, a town used as a trading post to the north, between the Capital and Gearton. His son’s trail had gone cold, and now it was his trail that worried him. He quickly took off, moving north, leaving all his supplies near the tree line he had first stopped at during the night.
Korver tries to keep moving day and night, but ultimately traveling without sleep or food for over two days was taking its toll on the Branded Beast. His armor became heavy and his sense of direction began to fade. He knows he is dead without cover, a small cluster of trees in the distance was as good as it was getting.
He picks an inner tree and makes his way up into the brush where he is slightly hidden, falling asleep within moments.
Korver was so relieved to rest that he had forgotten, for just long enough, that as his eyes close, his demons awake. He was transported from that tree to complete darkness, an abyss that had no end in sight.
In the distance a light begins to grow, then another. Moving toward Korver, he backs away from the giant orbs, but never seems to make any ground.
He can now make them out, those eyes that he had seen before. The beast that was engulfing the city, had returned to him once more. A smile now emerging from the shadowed lands, “Sheep to the slaughter, he will make my reign known”. The smile never falters, but the whispers leak into his head, as though they were his own.
The burning mouth begins to open, and a sharp object fires out towards him. He immediately awakens as a spear is launched into the tree just inches from his face.
He looks down to find two men standing only a few yards away.
Part 2 Tomorrow