“NOOOOO!!!” A piercing cry shredded apart the frigid atmosphere.
Drenched in a cold sweat, he frantically opened his horrified eyes and anxiously pushed himself up from the freezing ground.
He was no longer surrounded by darkness, but sitting amidst a world of white.
Ignoring the freezing cold and the thousands of white flakes that were dancing around him, he fearfully willed his arms out.
With unsteady motions, hesitation and confusion grazed at his thoughts as he turned his gaze downward. Shuddering briefly, he felt his body shaking in relief as frigid air filled his lungs.
His arms were still there. Slim and pale as he remembered.
There were a number of still bloody blisters and scratches on the inside of his palms along with welts and bruises along his arms, but nothing out of the ordinary. Bringing both hands together, though freezing, his fingers were tangible and easily moved in correspondence to his will.
With another thought, he commanded his legs to respond and they instantly stirred underneath his frost-covered cloak.
He was still whole.
Still shaken but having confirmed the existence of his limbs, he lifted his unsteady hands up to his face.
His vision blurred and he felt his eyes watering.
The ephemeral nightmare rushed back into his mind, reminding him of the darkness that had so wholly encapsulated him within the endless ocean of nothingness. Yet, it was not the fear or horror that had forced such a reaction.
He gritted his teeth as tears began flowing out against his will.
Try as he might, he could not hold them back as loss and loneliness clutched at him from within. It was as if he had lost a part of himself within the darkness, a part of himself that he could no longer recall.
Burying his face into his arms, he silently wept as the unknown emotions slowly weaved together and faded, leaving only the vigorous sound of his beating heart and his own sobbing.
For what felt like an eternity, he sat alone, wallowing in the unknown as thoughts shimmered in his mind like reflections upon a turbulent pond, fleeting and fragmented.
“Over here! He’s awake! Hurry!”
A hoarse and haggard voice grated loudly through the cold atmosphere, startling him and forcing him to end his tears.
“Who had the keys?!”
A different voice rang loudly through the air, followed by the sound of crunching snow and heavy breathing.
Wiping his swollen eyes with the inside of his cloak, he turned toward the disturbance and quickly froze.
Covered in thin veils of snow, dozens of neatly spaced out stones were protruding from the ground all throughout the area around him. In dark drab colors, some appear to have been intricately carved while others were of simpler designs.
Beside him, the spot where he had been sleeping and was now sitting atop, was also itself a grave with a large headstone.
Memories of why he was there in the first place surged back into his mind and he hastily stood up. Tentatively stepping away, he turned his gaze toward the voices once more, this time spotting a number of men behind the cemetery’s set of large gates.
Uncertain as to what was in store for him, he began taking slow and fearful steps backward.
The powerful voice thundered through the air toward him, evaporating all the falling flakes in its path and instantly quieting the multitude of other chatters.
His insides shriveled at the tone and his gaze unwittingly found itself locking onto a tall slender man with shoulder lengthed silver hair. ‘F-father…’ Jolted wide awake by the man’s undoubtedly furious expression and stern glare, he instinctively lowered his eyes to the ground. With his legs unwilling to move, tears began welling up from within himself once more as the gates screeched open.
Unlike his father’s commanding tone, a woman’s voice entered his ears.
Filled with relief and panic, the voice wrapped itself around him like a tender flame as a set of light footsteps hurried toward him.
Edging his face upward, a slender woman with amber eyes and loose brown hair tightly embraced him as she reached him, “What are you doing out here!? Don’t you know how worried we were?!” She shouted, failing to hide her relief behind a mask of anger and panic.
Unable to muster a reply, all he could do was stifle his tears in an attempt to stay strong as the grogginess of sleep vanished and his mind returned to him.
“That is enough, Meryl.” His father’s deep voice intruded as heavy footsteps stalked toward them. Firm and irate, it swept over him like a fierce wind. “You coddle him too much. It is time he grew up.”
“Grow up?!” His mother snapped back, her eyes flaring angrily like an animal’s. “Why do you think he is out here in the first place?! Don’t you know how frail he is?!”
“It was your excessive pampering that has made him this way. I am merely aiming to correct that.”
She quickly lifted up his cloak and took hold of his arms, revealing the crisscrossing lines of old bruises and fresh welts all along his forearms.
“There are better ways to go about it than thrashing him until he cannot move!”
“He must awaken to his potentials… and for that, I will do whatever it takes.” A cold and unfeeling reply without a hint of remorse or sympathy came from the man before them. Even without looking up, he could sense the raw disappointment in his father’s silver glare.
“He is not Rolam. Or are you so blind that you cannot see your son for who he is?” She retorted.
“Weakness is a death sentence and we will not be here to protect him forever. Remember that.” His father finally conceded after a long pause and stepped back. Without a second glance, the man quietly turned around and trudged back toward the gate to where the others were waiting.
Left by themselves, “I- I’m sorry, momma.” He meekly apologized, tears already leaking from his eyes. “I- *sniff* I can’t be strong like Rolam. I-”
“Hush now.” His mother pulled him in closer.
Safe within her arms, his chest swelled further and his face twisted as tears erupted forth like an overflowing spring.
The snow had already stopped by the time his tears dried up. Barely able to keep his eyes open due to the excessive emotions, he tiredly leaned his head against his mother’s chest as they sat before the large headstone.
Stroking his shoulder as she held him close, “Is this cloak you’re wearing the one you got from Rolam?” His mother questioned softly, her voice low and soothing like a warm melody.
“I see…” Without saying anything else, she lifted her hand from his shoulder and affectionately ran her fingers through his silver hair, brushing it in a smooth calming rhythm.
“I miss him…” He whispered, his words weak and tired.
Pulling the enchanted black cloak tighter around himself, its warmth continued to wrap around him as it always did.
Just like the first time he donned it, and just like that day underneath the rains when his brother passed.
“I know you do.” Lowering her face to his own, she tenderly stared into his eyes and he could see her beautiful amber eyes darkening and filling with sorrow. “I miss him too.” She added before slowly turning her attention to the slab of beautiful dark marble before them.
There was sorrow and anger within her expression as she stared at the headstone and unable to do anything for her, “I’m sorry.” He meekly apologized.
“Hm? For what exactly?” Tilting her eyes curiously back down to him, there was a melancholic smile on her face.
“For running away.” He timidly replied, recalling his actions and admitting his shame. “For making you worried.”
“As you should be. This is no place to be wandering about for a child, especially alone at night. What if a shambler had found you? Or worse, a planes walker?” His mother probed at the admission, teasing him in turn as her smile brightened.
“T-those are not real, and I-” Halting his words, “I just…”
“I know, sweet one. I know.”
Extending her right hand forward, his mother gently placed her palm against the frosted marble slab and muttered an incantation.
Bright golden flames immediately surged outward from her hand to coil around the headstone, effortlessly melting away the snow that had settled upon it.
With another word, the golden flames brightened intensely for the span of a single breath and then vanished.
The headstone slowly lit up as the inscriptions upon it began glowing faintly.
Rolam Vox Anralt AnDargus.
Inscribed and glistening with the silver of Andarg, the name was all that was left of his venerable elder brother, the pride of the silver plains.
A remnant of the man who had been carrying his parent’s hopes and dreams, and the dreams of their house. A memory of an ally who had always shielded him whether he was right or wrong.
“Have you calmed down?” His mother spoke as a chilling breeze swept around them while they sat in silence. “Your cloak may protect you from this weather, but mine does not and it is awfully cold out here.” She added, making an exaggerated show of the chill.
“I- but what about father?” He reluctantly questioned.
“What about him?”
“He hates me.” He could feel himself shrinking upon his own words.
Holding back a chuckle, his mother smiled. “Your father cherishes you. Why would you think otherwise?”
“He does not.” He grudgingly disputed, his reply low and powerless almost like a whimper. “Father detests me. H-he said that he did not need someone like me. That it should have been me, instead of- instead of…” His lips faltered upon the words as the well of tears within himself began swelling upward again.
“Enough.” Her arms that were still wrapped around him tightened. “Your father was not himself last evening, and I can assure you that he has been regretting his choice of words. He would be a fool to say such nonsense again.”
“But I… I’m weak. And father-”
“You are gentle.” She interrupted. “That is not the same as being weak.”
He slowly edged his head upward to look at his mother. “But-”
“No more buts.” She cut him off again and carefully resumed her gentle strokes through his hair. “He is hurting, you know? He…” She paused and silently gazed at the headstone before them. “Your father blames himself for what happened to Rolam…” She eventually spoke, her voice vibrating softly and reluctantly. “He has been unable to cope with the loss even after all this time and he is hard on you not because of your weakness, but because of his own.”
Looking upward, he quietly stared at his mother. Though she was putting up a brave front for him, he could see the turmoil that was eating at her from within.
“A weakness of anger and fear, one of being unable to protect his own land, his own people, and his sons.” She continued as her hands slowed upon his hair, “He’s in a lot of pain even now but, being the sort of man that he is, he will never allow himself to show that weakness. Especially to you.” Halting her strokes, she lowered her amber eyes and stared painfully into his again as her long brown hair fell around his face. “He is not as strong as you think, sweet Rhul. He is falling apart. He’s been falling apart ever since your brother, and I fear…” As if hesitating to continue her thoughts, she stopped and her voice slowly trailed off.
Seeing the brave exterior that was filled with sorrow and silent lamentation, even though her eyes were gazing down at him, he could tell that she was looking at something else.
Ashamed at himself for being selfish and childish after the tongue lashing from his father the previous night, “I… I am sorry, momma. I didn’t- I wasn’t thinking.” He could only give an apology.
“And I accept, sweet one.” Lifting her head, she returned a warm and curious smile. “But you… you are not as weak as your father thinks. Coming out here all by yourself. Were you not afraid?”
“A-a little.” He confessed, faintly recalling the edging fear upon waking earlier–a fear he could no longer remember.
“Just a little huh?” Her smile broadened into a teasing grin briefly before disappearing again. Angling her attention back to the headstone, she softly reached out and brushed the name that was still glowing. “It sure has been a long time since we last visited, hasn’t it?”
The AnDargus manor loomed over the dreary horizon like a rotting husk in the midst of Sianoveil. As it was a period of rest and recuperation, the farmlands all around had been burnt after the latest harvest and the fields of crops were now nothing more, than frost covered ashes to help restore and give back to the ever-bountiful land.
A heavy and tense atmosphere began setting in as their mana infused carriage rolled itself through one of the four farming communities that circled their manor.
In strict contrast to the usual celebration and joys of years prior, the air was filled with an uncanny silence that robbed one of self and passion.
Looking out the window, he silently scanned everything that they passed by.
From the few people still wandering about or making their way home, to the increased patrols, and to the various empty houses that were becoming more prevalent. Upon spotting another carriage adorned with the insignia of their house–the silver stallions–being loaded up, his face stiffened and he quietly held down a frown.
As if she had caught the change in his expressions and seen what he saw, “The Jirlfanz.” His mother spoke from where she was sitting opposite him. “They have been reassigned to a different lord and asked to be allowed leave before the year’s end. Your father sent people to help as gratitude for their years of loyal service.”
“…” Silently staring out, he did not reply as there was nothing to ask further nor was there anything that he could do about it.
The reassignment of lordly subjects was handed down from the Imperial Court itself, and to go against such orders would be high treason. All they could do, was to accept it and wait for someone else to be reassigned to them.
As it is, the Jirlfanz were not the first loyal subjects to be removed from his father’s influence and from how things were going, they would not be the last.
Five altogether, the Jirlfanz where but the latest in a series of political maneuvers that had been enforced in ordered to weaken their house.
“We’re almost home.” His mother’s voice quickly drew him out of his thoughts. “There is something I must tend to so I will not be going with you, but I want you to go and apologize to your father once we’ve arrived. Afterwards, you will meet me in the courtyard. There is… something that you must know.”
“Mother?” He questioned, having heard the conflict in her voice and seeing her hesitation.
“There- … there is reason as to why your father has been so harsh. Why he pushes you so…”
“Reason? What reason?”
Instead of answering, his mother turned her attention out the window. “I will tell you once you’ve apologized to your father. After what happened, I don’t think he will be against me telling you…” Her voiced faded off again as she simply stared into the distance.
Understanding her unwillingness to speak further, he quieted himself and also turned his gaze toward the outside.
“We cannot stall much longer!” A voice reverberated through the hall from his father’s closed audience chamber and he quickly slowed his steps. It was a voice he had heard before, but one he could not put his fingers on. “My storehouses barely have enough to see my people through until the next harvest. Even then, due to the increasing number of refugees funneling in from the eastern provinces, it might not be enough.”
“The house of AnDargus will ration its store houses to assist you if that is your primary concern, my lord. But as for the heart of our matter, we will proceed as planned and wait.”
‘Proceed as planned?’ He wondered, hearing his father’s composed voice. Moving closer, he stopped outside of the door, uncertain of whether he should interrupt their curious conversation or not.
“We are gracious for your generosity my lord, but you have been provisioning others from own storage and treasury. I fear at this rate, you may not have enough for yourself and yours with how heavy the taxes have been lately.” A third voice cautioned, their words barely audible through the doors.
“Lord Throlg of Dalacur has already pledged his service to our cause. With his resources, even should I exhaust my own, we will still be alright for the time being.”
“With the way things are going, I do not see how that miser’s assistance or any of this is fine, my lord.” A fourth voice. “And it is not as if we need his assistance. As it is, the House of Jaedine, Mursuvas, and Aulthaur are already in the final stages of preparation. The various guilds have also been preparing for this, and the majority of our forces are also nearing ready. Should you give the orders, we can be marching before the new year.”
‘Forces? Orders? What are they preparing for?’ More questions filled his mind.
“We must not rush. We have already spent three years patiently waiting.” His father spoke, quelling the others. “If we make haste now and fail, how will I explain it to my wife and son? To my people? How will you explain it to yours? Being so close, we cannot allow a moment of uncertainty to cloud our judgement.”
“But my lord. How can we-”
“Lord Sebaran… I am not blind to what has been happening outside of my own domain. The people are suffering, but we cannot be rash. Since we have decided to do this, let us do it right. We cannot not fail. The people deserve that much.”
“I-… as you say, my lord…”
“Indeed. Let us wait for Lord Rholan’s emissaries to return before proceeding further.” A fifth voice added to the discussion.
“Thank you, my lords. Kvanh and Eunso should be back before the year’s end. Let us discuss further once they have returned with their reports.” His father’s voice paused momentarily, then, “Are we in agreement?”
“Aye, my lord.”
“The Star Manor of Vrethral shall await your words.”
“Yes… the House of Ulqurin will bide our time as well.” A somewhat defeated compliance.
“The Scalvang Guild and its subsidiaries will also stand down until it is time.”
Four distinct voices answered his father.
“Then gentlemen… I thank you all for coming, and let us adjourn for now.”
His father dismissed and the sound of chairs moving could be heard before footsteps began approaching the door from the other side.
Glancing back at the corridor that he had trekked to reach the audience chamber, there was nowhere to hide.
The words came from the other side of the door, instantly causing him to tense up.
“Open the door for our guests, would you?”
Surprised, he quickly grabbed the chamber door’s handle and pushed the large and magically infused double doors. They swung opened without much effort, revealing four men and his father inside the room.
Each was as regally dressed as his own lord father and as they made their way toward him, in an effort to hide the humiliation of what he had done, he quickly stepped aside and lowered his head. Recalling them to each be influential lords with their own respective houses, he did not dare to lift his head until they had all passed.
“Eavesdropping is beneath one belonging to the house of AnDargus.”
A sharp and cold reprimand instantly whipped at his ears as the others disappeared.
“I-I’m sorry. I did not intend to-”
“You are sorry and you did not intend to eavesdrop?” His father’s cold silver eyes shifted to glare down at him. “There were no guards outside. You should have known what that meant.”
“You also made no effort to announce yourself to our guests. Instead, you stood motionless like a common criminal listening in on our conversation and you are telling me you did not mean to do such a thing?”
“I am sorry, father.” He lowered his head in shame, unable to contradict the statement.
The glare upon him intensified and even without looking, there was undoubtedly an angry scowl on his father’s face.
“While it pains me, you are a man of the AnDargus House. Next time, you will do as a respectable man of our house does and announce yourself before reputable guests. You are not a child anymore and are old enough to know what is right and what is wrong.”
“Y-yes, father.” He stuttered, not daring to raise his head.
“Now. What is it that you want?” There was neither love nor compassion in the question. Only disdain.
Quickly stepping into the room, he got on his knees and prostrated himself before the man. “I- I was wrong.” He eked out. “A-as a man of the AnDargus house. As someone who is sworn to protect this land of AnDarg… to have fled in the face of adversity and to cower before our ancestors, I apologize. I b-beseech you… please forgive me…” He mustered with all his sincerity while holding down a surprise at not botching the rehearsed words.
“How presumptuous… if you’ve nothing else to say, then go away.”
“Father…” He planted his face on the ground, feeling the dry well of tears bubbling forth once again. “Pl-please…”
“Run to your mother. I have wasted enough time on you this day.”
Gritting his teeth in an effort to withstand the impact of those words, without lifting his face he turned around and fled from the room as his father had bade him to do.
The solitude and chill that weaved through the opened windows did nothing to calm his troubled mind as he laid upon the cold stone floor of his own chamber. Instead, as he gazed toward the open windows, thoughts of flinging himself through them entertained him, even beckoning him forth to join his brother in everlasting dream.
Looking away from them, he turned to his side and closed his eyes as the sound of hooves thundered into the courtyard outside and a commotion began.
How peaceful his brother Rolam had looked that day.
It has been over two years since, but he could still remember his elder brother’s face as they encased him in marble in preparation for the eternal journey.
How his father had stood stoically as the mages did their job, even though he had heard the man weeping in secret the night before.
How his mother had cried and begged for the mages not to seal her son, his brother, away until she lost consciousness.
‘Would they do the same for me?’ He thought to himself, wishing it was him instead of Rolam as their father had said.
‘Would father have grieved in silence for me? Would mother have cried every night like she did for Rolam?’
He wondered, angling his head to look back at the opened windows as whatever was happening outside got louder and louder.
“It would probably be better if I was…”
He softly whispered aloud and with weak arms and unsteady legs, slowly pushed himself off the floor and stood up.
Someone slammed open his chamber doors, halting him in his steps.
Tensely turning around to see who it was, “Rhul!” His mother screamed his name as she rushed over to him.
On her face, there was nothing but terror and panic.