Chapter 0

Kingdom of Light;

Someone saw a man being escorted into the Citadel by a party of ten.

The party marched on along the main street leading to the central square in front of a grand cathedral. The leading man was the bishop of Ironheart, a well-known religious father. Behind him were ten fishermen dropped off a routine caravan that had seen its destination in the marketplace.

This was Azeth—the capital city where the first Holy Church resided.

The city sits in a plateau, a formidable fortress created by God. Bordering both the northern and southern front are treacherous mountain ranges. To the west of Azeth is a bottomless trench, impassable unless one wanted to consider an abandoned hanging bridge left behind by the Old Miners. The only safe entry is a narrow valley leading to the heavily guarded Silver Gallop harbor east of Azeth.

Every now and then, a troop of city patrol would pass by. One of them would inevitably glance at the group for a moment; perhaps asking himself who would lead a pilgrimage at this time of the year. And when he noticed the bishop, he would take off his helmet and bow to the religious man, then resuming his patrol.

In the days before the witch hunt, the city patrol used to be trivial at best. But, ever since a demonstration advocated by the Illuminati heretics turned full-scale inner city riot, the city patrol had constantly increased in number and quality. Hardly anyone would mind having trained soldiers walk among them, unless it was heresy they were aiming for.

A hundred and threescore years,

A man went to the heaven,”

An old fisher in the group gazed at a gypsy dancing on the sidewalk. A white-coat minstrel was singing a lively ballad of his Excellency, the Archbishop, and there were many passersby clapping hands after the mesmerizing melody.

The wise prophet foresaw

A shadow upon the throne;

And by the sword God set,

The light of Azeth reborn…

The ballad went on and from there on were new verses, a tale appended to an old legend.

In Azeth, one could see a radiance pulsating from the Holy Church’s highest tower. The blue light was so bright, it could be seen anywhere in Azeth, even in places far beyond. They said the light had never left Azeth, the city was blessed by God and the Archbishop was the messenger.

Wishful as they may say, he who had been in Azeth long enough would know; but few would share, and only in a closed room away from prying ears of the Church; what once stood in the central square before the light.

There was nothing, a broken down bell tower, that was it.

“Religion is to believe in what they want you to believe in. Do you believe or choose not to believe?”

These were the closing words the bishop of Ironheart said to the fishermen when they asked him about the light.

The minstrel’s voice faded and eventually vanished into the distance. The party went on until the tower that housed the light was in front of them. There, in the central square, a legion of knights, footmen, archers and missionaries was assembled. They had arrived at the grand cathedral—or the Holy Church of the Saints it was called.

They were told to wait in the cloisters as a priest went out to find the Archbishop. It took a good while before the priest returned with the holy leader.

“Pardon our intrusion, your Excellency,” the bishop greeted.

The Archbishop wore not a miter but an old gray wizard’s hat. A jeweled silver crown with a sapphire gem on the front side interlocked the hat’s pointy top. The Archbishop’s right hand still held onto a golden pectoral cross, but his left hand held onto an elaborate wooden staff with crystal ball implement. His attire was classic clergy’s cassock. However, the cassock was white and it was accompanied by a kingly blue cape.

“You don’t have to be so formal, father. I presume these are the men who found the pillar?” the Archbishop softly spoke.

“Yes, father.”

The Archbishop of Azeth, unlike other clerics, did not limit himself to religious contexts. He seized control over all aspects of the Holy Church. The city riot in the past had driven many of the inhabitants into seeking shelter in the house of God. He gained a great deal of support in the period; so great that the Common’s Hall never truly regained its authority.

And besides, why would they bother?

Under his see, the city prospered. New churches were built across the districts and the Holy Church’s influences overtook many neighboring cities. He foresaw famine, he negotiated death and he shone the light upon the faithful lambs of the Lord, his God.

A genuine king he had become, a wise prophet and a beloved leader he was.

“This morning, we have channeled the river water back in as you ordered. The pillar was two third under when we left, it should be submerged now,” the eldest fisher of the group stepped up and reported.

“Fantastic! As promised, each of you will receive twenty silver pieces for your service to the Holy Church.”

“Thank you, your Excellency!”

“And father, I give you this,” the Archbishop turned to the bishop of Ironheart and shook the wizard’s hat, from which a dusty pale green coin fell on his hand. He tossed the coin to the bishop, “Catch,” he said.

“What is it this time, father?” the bishop asked. It was not the first and definitely not the last time he received an unusual item from the Archbishop. In fact, it was a well-known tendency of his Excellency.

“A protective charm,” the Archbishop replied, head nodding. “Took me a few tries, but I got the arrangement right in the end,” he smirked in self-delight.

The bishop chuckled and examined the coin closely.

“What evil can it protect me from, when the Lord has plans to prosper and not to harm?” he asked.

Both of them burst into laughter, the fishermen also began to laugh.

“Indeed. But, remember this well, not everyone is on God’s side. For those who are not, this coin will flip their death.”

The Archbishop dramatically turned and reminded in a solemn, stern voice that seemed to have been a threat all along. Then, he turned again, this time towards the party and he peered at the bishop. He laughed.

Awkwardly, no one was laughing with him.

“Y-Your Excellency…” the bishop stammered. His body trembled.

The Archbishop tapped his staff on the stone floor twice. The crystal orb on the staff began to glow; a soft glow that inspired the mind and eased the heart. His voice became gloomy and ominous.

“Father, I have foreseen it. In three day time, death will come to test your faith. The Witch will be in Ironheart and surely she will bring you great grieves,” he warned and started walking into the nave.

“Although,” the Archbishop paused a bit, “you are free to give back the charm, or you can keep it as souvenir, no more, no less. It’s your choice, father.”

The bishop contemplated his options, and then he dashed after the holy ruler. Finally, he gathered his resolves and firmly pledged under the cross:

“My life is in the Lord’s hand, father.”

And he tossed the coin back to the Archbishop, into the awaiting wizard’s hat. Sitting on his throne at the crossing, the Archbishop gave a wide grin. The holy ruler stood up and declared:

“Now hear me, father Felacia, bishop of Ironheart. You and your men shall have dinner with me tonight. At the table, I shall bless you and your men and I shall reveal to you what awaits you in your future. After the meal, I shall send you and your men home and you shall be thirty silvers richer.”

Just as he declared, his clerics prepared a feast in the refectory, a building separated from the cathedral by a small corridor to the east of the south transept. Compared to the grand archivolt of the north porch, the entry to the refectory was particularly plain in design: a polished wooden door that was often seen in taverns across the city; nothing special would strike the casual observers.

Nevertheless, first appearance was deceiving.

Upon entering the dining hall, the men could only marvel at the exquisite fresco, secular paintings on all four walls; every detail was exquisite, more fitting in a royal palace’s than in a cathedral’s dining hall. One could see where natural lightings should have come in: the stained glass arch windows at the eastern and western end of the hall. However, a great shadow of the ancient oak had darkened the entire west front as the tree outgrew the cathedral.

The light of Azeth could not reach this table.

At dusk, the only lighting in the room was from artificial sources. It came from a line of three silvery-chained wooden chandeliers. It came from candles in a small altar at the eastern end. And, it came from the crystal orb on the staff of the Archbishop as he settled down on a seat at the table’s center.

To the holy leader’s right was an empty chair; to his left was the bishop of Ironheart and all around the table were ten fishermen from Merlock. The bishop first approached the right-hand chair but the Archbishop directed him to the left-hand side instead.

“This seat belonged to a traitor of the Church and henceforth it shall be empty,” explained the Archbishop as he asked the escorting priest to bring more chairs for the fishermen.

The men asked no more and settled down. After that, the Archbishop ordered the servants to serve white bread and wine. A grill was lit at the fireplace between the stained glass windows. The Archbishop was the first to raise his cup as he prayed to the Lord for the food, and then, he blessed the men.

“Hail the Lord and may he prosper us long!” he cheered.

“Hail the Lord and may he prosper us long!” the men hailed, raising their cup as well.

By the end of the meal, mistrust and formality had left them. The first encounter with the holy one ended in cheers and drunken singing as the Archbishop saw them off with a bag full of silver coins. What awaited them in the future was not mentioned at all.

They rented the most expensive rooms in Asha Foura, a picturesque inn three blocks west of the marketplace.

The bishop and four fishers picked the rooms with a clear view of the beautiful southern mountain range in the south-facing corridor. The eldest fisher and three others stayed in the north-eastern corridor where they could see the light of Azeth. The bishop insisted on a single room—he wished to spend the night praying for the people of Ironheart. Two unlucky fishers who drew the short straws spent their night in a more boring west-facing room looking down the street.

That night, these two fishermen witnessed the final remarkable event in this short journey.

Rapid galloping and iron footwork disrupted the silence of the night. Iron-clad lancers marched ahead in rows in perfect order. A distance behind them was archers and crossbowmen riding on horseback. At the very end of the parade was a caravan of white wagons and workers, slowly trailing along the stone-paved passage way. Every ten or so rows there was a missionary who would raise the dark blue coat of arms of Azeth showing the trinity shield of the Holy Father in light silver; with a crowd that resembled that of the Archbishop and silver outward radiances representing the light.

They moved without any torches, but they did not move in the dark. The light of Azeth and the blue moon were shining their path, and their path to the southern gate was empty without guards. A white horseman bearing a golden crowd on his head led the army through the city’s gates. The gates closed behind them as the last men passed through, and torches from the guard towers lit up.

The usual patrol routine was resumed.

The bishop from the south-facing room could see a small white halo in a sea of darkness, fading and fading into the heart of the mountains. Someone from outside the group was with him that night. Neither of them could only see anybody but the white horseman.

At dawn the next day, neither of the fishermen in the western corridor said a word, they had decided to keep what they had seen to themselves. The bishop of Ironheart asked nothing about the event the night before as he and the men joined an acquaintance’s caravan.

As soon as their feet were on the eastern route, the bishop received a package from a courier. The Archbishop sent the same pale green coin from before with a letter urging him to find and trial the Witch before sunset on the third day.

For some reasons, the bishop decided to return the coin and asked the courier to give the religious leader his thank. One of the fishers asked the bishop if he could have the coin instead. The bishop agreed to the request but refused to share why he firmly believed the charm was a bad omen.

The caravan departed for Merlock and they reached the fishing village on schedule at noon. The bishop did not stop for long and soon embarked on a mad rush to the city of Ironheart.

*Revision February 2016


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