Chapter 1 – Prince Eric’s Choice

 

Fourth of Learning 1142 – Battle Song Eve

Dahr had always understood that you had to look up to see stars. Yet as he gazed down into the night from atop Rish’s city walls, the stars waited, an endless procession hovering on a blanket of grass, stretching as far as the eye could see.

He looked away from the spectacle on the plains below to Prince Eric, who stood beside him.

“What are they?” he asked, only a hint of a lilt teasing the edge of his words.

Dahr had been born in Death’s Doorstep, which was quite far from the Kingdom of Twyl where he now resided. He 

Prince Eric

had become a palace servant after the untimely death of his mother, just over two years earlier. Dahr had only recently become Prince Eric’s personal servant and he loved it, not only because it got him out of some of the more menial chores he’d been expected to do in the palace kitchen, but also because Prince Eric seemed to have infinite patience for his endless questions.

“You’re seeing the enemy’s campfires. Their army wishes to conquer us but has neither the skill nor artifice to breech our walls. There are ever more of them than there are of us, but they can never win for they are inferior.”

Dahr glanced from Prince Eric to a pair of guards in unfamiliar armor walking past. Mostly the guards ignored them, for few dared tell the prince where he could and couldn’t go. Even Captain Jericho, who was in charge of the city’s defenses, had smiled and winked when he’d seen them. Dahr goggled at the masses below.

“What makes them inferior?” asked Dahr.

“Oh, they’re not inferior. It’s just what we’re supposed to say about them today. They’re us. Well no, they’re me, not you. Your people had nothing to do with this.”

A stiff breeze ruffled Dahr’s black hair. He frowned at the prince, green eyes twinkling in the torchlight. “What are you even talking about?”

The prince smirked, sandy hair too short to be much affected by the breeze, blue eyes surveying the younger boy in amusement. Dahr realized the prince was deliberately trying to confuse him. Prince Eric chuckled at Dahr’s scowl. As a servant, Dahr knew he should probably not look at a royal that way, but at the moment he didn’t care. Prince Eric could be so annoying at times. At any rate, it seemed to have worked, because the prince finally gave him a straight answer.

“More than a hundred years ago, my people came to the city of Rish. That’s us down there. They’re not really soldiers, just people pretending. Celebrating our victory. The attitude of my people being inferior is what the people living here said before we took the city. This is Battle Song Eve, the anniversary of the night before the original battle. And it’s why the guards are wearing this ridiculous armor. It’s the armor of those that stood against us during that long ago engagement.”

Dahr’s eyes widened. “You were at war?”

“We were. The short version is that King Herrold of the Kingdom of Lethe marched into Andara and tried to claim some of its land as his own. He soon learned the error of his ways. Andara sent a huge army under command of the great warrior Mavros, who not only defeated Lethe’s forces in Andara, but chased them all the way back to the city of Rish, which was the capital of Lethe.

“After Mavros took the city, he declared himself king, and renamed the kingdom Twyl. A lot of people wondered at that, because Andarans don’t own land or live in palaces, but King Mavros had a point to make. He felt he could be more valuable to Andara by staying in Rish and reminding people what happened to kingdoms that decided Andara was an easy target.

“Battle Song is the annual celebration of King Mavros’ victory. It’s meant to remind us.”

“Remind us of what?” asked Dahr.

“To never underestimate our enemies. It’s how Empires fall.”

“What’s an Empire?”

“No idea. Not really. Maybe like a really big kingdom? There aren’t any empires anymore, but I don’t know why.”

Dahr looked disappointed. “Oh.”

Dahr was a couple of years younger than the prince, who seemed quite grown up at sixteen. And he knew all sorts of stuff, which he was happy to share with Dahr. Dahr knew the prince used his knowledge to show off but didn’t care. He liked learning, even if it came at the price of appearing foolish. Dahr went everywhere with the prince, which is how he had ended up on the city’s walls, a place he’d never have been allowed to go on his own. Prince Eric treated Dahr like a younger brother, and the two had become inseparable.

Dahr turned his attention back to the ground and wondered how many fires there had been a hundred years earlier. It didn’t seem likely that anyone could have counted them. He tried counting himself, when a hand closed around his arm.

“There you are, ya scoundrels. You’re not supposed to be up here.”

Dahr gulped. He looked up at Maynor, the captain of the guard, one of the few who wasn’t scared of the prince, or anything else for that matter. He was a terrifying sight, a huge man with a full beard and mustache, brown eyes that always squinted suspiciously, at least when they looked at Dahr, and a head full of unruly brown hair that didn’t dare turn completely gray. Eric didn’t have quite the same fear of him that Dahr did.

“Like you never slipped your guard when you were young,” said Prince Eric.

The grizzled veteran frowned. “I was never young. Anyway, you need to come with me. His Highness awaits your presence in the throne room.”

That got Eric’s attention. Eric wasn’t scared of Maynor, but Dahr knew he loved and respected his father and would never keep him waiting. The captain of the guard released Dahr and led the two boys toward the ground, where a royal coach waited. Dahr tried to keep the prince between himself and the captain as they made their way downstairs. The captain half stumbled on one of the steps.

“Blast this Lethen armor. I don’t know how anyone wore it. This is what you get when you design armor for looks instead of functionality. Every time I take a step, the top of the leg armor sticks on the bottom of my breast plate.”

“It’s only for the day,” said the prince, clearly amused at Maynor’s discomfort.

“They say Lethe lost the war because they underestimated us, but the real reason is that they couldn’t defend themselves while wearing this crap.”

Dahr continued to follow, eyes on his feet, trying to hide his smile. Maynor was scary enough when he wasn’t annoyed. The last thing he wanted was to give the irate captain another reason to notice him.

*

In the throne room, King Terrence awaited the arrival of his son. He sat on his throne, a modest affair made of intricately carved white oak, just big enough to give the appearance of a ruler’s seat without being ostentatious. Other rulers may have required something larger or more pretentious. Terrence felt that if he couldn’t rule through wisdom and knowledge, he didn’t deserve to rule at all. His decisions would define his reign, not the size of his seat.

Terrence’s body and presence both seemed too big for the throne. He was thirty-five, with shoulder length brown hair and a neatly trimmed goatee. He had the body of a soldier, because he was a soldier, like his father before him. He dressed in the house colors green and gold, which matched both his eyes and the flecks in them respectively.

The room was as understated as the throne itself, except for the tapestries hanging on the walls, which depicted battles and conquests of years past. A proud warrior’s singular concession to the glory of his house. High on the east wall, stained glass windows overlooked the throne room like soldiers standing watch. They had been on duty since the palace’s original construction. During the morning hours, they showered the room with much-needed color, but after dusk, as it was now, they were dour reminders of a time past.

They had been there for the sacking of Rish, more than a century ago. Before that, they had born witness to the dark reign of King Herrold of Lethe and his blood court. Terrence considered them only briefly before forcing that particular darkness from his mind. The world was a brighter place than it had been, and this wasn’t the time to dwell on the grim circumstances of the past. This was Eric’s transition day, the day his son would choose the god he served for the rest of his life. Should that god accept Eric’s offer of service, he would be given a class and skills, allowing him to level and become more powerful.

He wondered what class his son would be granted. That Eric might fail the trials he would face today had never entered Terrence’s mind. He had no doubt his son was worthy, nor did he doubt that his son would choose to serve Sheba. Warrior, Soldier and Hunter were the most common classes granted by the goddess of combat, but there were others, less common: Protector, Guardian, Defender, Berserker, Sword Master, Archer—the list went on and on. Terrence whispered a prayer to Sheba that his son would get a class worthy of the man he knew him to be. The man he would become today when he completed his transition. The most important day of his young life, and he was late for it.

His son had absconded to the wall to see the fires, as he did most years, causing a delay that would have annoyed the king had it been any other day. But Battle Song had always been Eric’s favorite holiday, and this was the day he would become an adult. Let him have what little freedom he could before the mantle of manhood settled on his shoulders.

His wife, Treya, sat beside him, her throne both darker and somewhat smaller than the king’s, though just as intricate. She looked like the queen she was. Hair brown like his, worn on her head like the crown she almost never wore. Despite that, she always looked regal to him. Her eyes tended to change with both the light and what she was wearing. Today she wore a sea green gown, and her eyes were like storm clouds reflecting that sea. His family couldn’t have chosen a better match, and he was well pleased with his wife most of the time, but not particularly at this moment.

“It’s time, Terrence. He’s been here almost two years already. You can’t keep putting it off.”

“The fact is, I can. I’m the king. Who’s going to make me do it if I don’t want to?”

“You mean besides me? Look, the boy has been here for so long already, it would be ridiculous for us not to adopt him.”

“Why rock the boat, Trey? Just acknowledging him could put him in danger.”

“We can adopt him without acknowledging him. There’s precedent enough for that. There’s no reason for the boy to go through life as a servant. And you promised his mother. My husband is not a liar.”

King Terrence dropped his head. “No. He’s an adulterer.”

King Terrence himself had traveled to retrieve Dahr, making a show of stopping at a number of his allies along the way. He hadn’t wanted to make his final destination obvious. And when he’d arrived, she was there, a woman who had borne one of his sons. A woman he remembered fondly. Who had helped him get through a difficult time…but not the same woman. Much thinner. Much older looking. Coughing up spots of blood. Eyes distant with rheum. His healer had examined her, but the king knew the prognosis before he heard it.

Could she have been saved if he’d ridden straight to her instead of taking the meandering path he did? Probably not, but maybe. Most likely he had waited too long to leave in the first place, putting off the uncomfortable encounter as long as he could. Too late to save her. He had promised her that he would care for their son and raise him. The look of gratitude in her dying eyes haunted him to this day. A gratitude as misplaced as the pride that had prevented him from coming soon enough to save her.

“So many regrets.”

He didn’t realize he’d whispered those words loud enough for Treya to hear. She responded not to his inner turmoil, but to his previous confession of adultery.

“You were young and at war. Far away, with almost no contact. Did you think I sat alone in my rooms every night in the year you were away? Do you think I expected you to remain true to me when every day might have been your last?”

They had been through this conversation or variations on it before. No matter his wife’s insistence that what he’d done was forgivable, Terrence had never forgiven himself. And it was one thing for his wife to know, indeed he’d never kept it from her, not even in the beginning.

“Everyone will know.”

“And they’ll find out what? Their king is human? Oh the horrors. Anyway, do you think no one suspects?”

King Terrence twisted in his seat, trying to find a comfortable position to compensate for how he felt. “Suspecting is not the same thing.”

“It’s not. But you might be underestimating the degree of certainty out there. People may not be sure but it doesn’t mean they don’t believe it. When it comes out, it will be a confirmation, nothing more. Beyond that, it won’t matter to them. Those that will judge have likely judged you already. Most won’t. You’re not the first noble to be in this situation, after all. The only one who’ll care is you and Eric…well and Dahr. Speaking of which…hello boys. What trouble have you been getting into?”

Eric knelt briefly, which he only did when they were in the throne room, then got up without waiting and ran toward the throne. Dahr remained kneeling until the queen surreptitiously motioned for him to rise.

“We were on the city wall. I think there are more fires this year than last. Do you think people like sitting outside all night?”

The king chuckled. “Do they enjoy sitting around a fire, eating and drinking before their full day off tomorrow, is that the question? I think they can probably deal with it.”

“It’s worse when it rains,” the queen chimed in. “Tonight is beautiful though.”

“Beautiful as it may be, there’s other work tonight,” the king said. “It’s time to make a choice, Eric.”

Eric nodded solemnly. He knew tonight was the night of transition and he would have to choose a god to serve. His family had always served Sheba, but tonight was his choice. Whoever he chose would define his future.

“It was ever going to be Sheba. It’s tradition.”

“This isn’t about tradition,” said his mother. “Don’t choose the way of the warrior if you feel more affinity for another path. There’s no shame in choosing another.”

“No, mother, it’s okay. I choose to pledge myself to Sheba.”

His father smiled proudly, even though he knew what his son would say. Then, to everyone’s surprise, Dahr spoke.

“Will I be able to pledge myself to Sheba too one day?”

The king and queen shared a glance, but it was the queen who answered. “I don’t see why not.”

Eric looked both confused and hopeful. He knew only nobles got to choose the gods they wished to pledge themselves to. The lower classes could worship whoever they wanted, of course, but that was quite different from transitioning in a temple, directly communing with the deity of your choice. Dahr undoubtedly knew this as well. The king looked sternly at his wife, but when he turned his gaze on the boys, the expression was gone. He cleared his throat.

“Yes, well I was going to leave this announcement till later, as I didn’t want to take away from Eric’s transition day, but shortly we’ll be adopting you officially, Dahr. You’ll be a servant no more. You’ll be a member of the royal family.”

Dahr’s jaw dropped in disbelief, but Eric looked elated. He ran to the throne, throwing himself at his father. Terrence caught the boy in a hug and wondered how he’d feel when he learned the truth. He was a bit annoyed at his wife for forcing that decision now, but he’d deal with her later. Who was he kidding? Not only did she have as much right to make that choice as he, but he wasn’t the injured party in any of this. Whatever came of it, he was the only one in the room who wasn’t innocent. He’d deal with whatever consequences he had to. It was what kings did, at least the good ones.

The double doors opened again, and Veloran, high priest of Sheba for the city of Rish, entered. Like many of Sheba’s priests, Veloran used to be a soldier. He was bald now and clean-shaven, but even at his great age, his muscled body strode with purpose and would have looked equally at home in full armor on a battlefield. Instead he wore the black and silver fighting robe of his goddess. He carried no weapon, but walked as if he were used to balancing the weight of a sword on his hip.

He knelt before the throne and was immediately instructed to rise by the king, who stood, walked down the single step, and crossed to where his son was standing. “Are you ready?”

Eric nodded, staring at the priest intently. Veloran moved his gaze from the king to the prince, and their eyes met, but he didn’t speak. He was waiting for Prince Eric to state his decision.

“I choose Sheba to guide me on the path of the warrior on this fourth day of the month of Learning, the anniversary of King Mavros’ remarkable victory over the forces of Lethe. Sheba grant me his strength, wisdom and courage so that I may succeed. Not for my own glory, but to honor my house and my parents, who have both served you well. I embark on this journey with my eyes and heart open. Wherever the path of the warrior leads I shall follow till the end of my days.”

The high priest gave a single approving nod, whirled, and marched out the door. Eric followed quickly, without looking back. Dahr looked like he was about to follow, but the king’s voice rang out.

“No, Dahr, not you. You shall remain here with us…we’ll wait together.”

Dahr turned to look at the king and queen, and nodded once. Terrence thought he wanted to ask a question, but instead the boy fidgeted nervously and turned to stare at the now closed throne room doors.

*

Outside the palace, a group of a dozen priests and priestesses, all wearing the black and silver robes of their order, waited for the prince and the high priest. Together they moved through the city of Rish. It was approaching midnight, but Prince Eric couldn’t have been safer even if he had been accompanied by a contingent of palace guards. Only a fool would attack priests and priestesses of Sheba.

Eric followed them proudly, aware that when he left Sheba’s Temple, he’d be a man. He wondered if he would feel any different. He considered his father’s announcement about adopting Dahr. His father had been worried about taking away from Eric’s transition day. Eric couldn’t understand it. Adopting Dahr would be the perfect gift. He had no brother or sister, and now he would. How could that take away from anything?

Dahr was his closest friend, would always be his closest friend. Nothing would ever come between them. He knew this with the same certainty that he knew that choosing the path of the warrior was the only choice open to him. Admittedly, he’d had a few crazy moments where he’d tried on other paths in his mind, like walking into a hattery and putting on a bunch of funny hats, but you’d never buy one. There was always that one hat that seemed to fit perfectly. You knew it as soon as you put it on. That was the path of Sheba– the path of the warrior.

The palace was well and truly behind them now, and the streets in the Temple District, normally deserted at this hour, were busy with revelers. Prince Eric frowned at the number of drunk, rowdy, disrespectful people. He glanced worriedly at the priests, but none of them seemed to notice or care. As they moved, the crowd parted before them and closed behind them as if by magic. The temples were near the palace, so the entire walk had only taken about fifteen minutes.

Set back from the thoroughfare were buildings in all different colors and architectural styles, each representing a different god. Large temples represented more popular gods like Sheba, Iorana, Mitra and Sylinar. Lesser gods had smaller temples, set further back, but for all that, most were detailed works of art. Most, but not the Temple of Sheba.

The Temple of Sheba was a large structure without much adornment. White, simple, well-constructed but not as ostentatious as many of the others or even some of the guild buildings, which were located further away from the palace. A statue of Sheba in front of the structure portrayed the goddess as a beautiful human woman, holding a bow, sword on her hip, accompanied by a white wolf. This was a standard representation of the goddess, though of course, she could appear as anything she wanted. Few folk were ever privileged enough to see one of the gods in any form, but it wasn’t completely unheard of.

His father had once told Eric that one of his dearest wishes was to be visited by Sheba in person. Eric believed it would happen one day. After all, his father was not only a king, but a just and fair king. He’d heard it said again and again, by rich and poor people alike. It occurred to him few would insult the king in front of him, but he still believed most people did think his father was honorable.

The priests ushered him inside, but not into the main worship area. Instead he was led down a side corridor on the left that he’d noticed on earlier visits to the temple, though he’d never seen anyone take. The corridor was lined with small rooms that contained sleeping mats.

“This is where hunters and injured can stay if they have nowhere else to go,” said Veloran. “There is no charge to use these rooms. They are free to anyone. You do not have to worry about your safety while you’re sleeping, since we will stay to guard you. You will take one of the furthest rooms from the entrance.”

The corridor ended with open doors on either side. The rooms they led to were identical, containing nothing more than a sleeping mat and a low table beside it. The rooms were clean if not comfortable. It didn’t trouble Prince Eric. He’d gone hunting with his father innumerable times and his father had drilled into him how privileged he was, and how most people live in much worse conditions. Prince Eric was taught to appreciate what his position gave him, and understood the responsibility that went with it. Lying on this bed for a night in the Temple of Sheba was not a hardship…it was an honor.

Eric was about to enter, but the high priest stopped him and held out a flask of amber liquid. Within, wisps of silver drifted through it, as if they were involved in some slow, ritual dance. Eric took the flask, unable to take his eyes from the shifting patterns.

“Drink the entire elixir and immediately lie down on the bed. You will sleep and you will dream and you will be guided on a journey into the Other Realm. There, you will be gifted your class should the goddess accept your service, at which time you will receive the blessing of your first skills. Do you have any questions?”

He shifted his gaze from the flask to the High Priest. “No, thank you. And thank you for escorting me here tonight. You honor me.”

The high priest smiled. “Your father has raised you well, but I had never doubted he would. Drink…and may Sheba be with you.”

Eric unstoppered the flask, and took a hesitant sip, then downed the whole thing at once. It tasted a bit like he’d imagine a sunlit sky to taste. It was and wasn’t like rain, was and wasn’t like some sort of mild fruit juice, was and wasn’t like a lazy summer afternoon on the shores of an icy lake. The taste of it teased his mind. He was going to ask if he was permitted to know what was in it, when he felt it begin to affect him. Scared he would lose his balance, he scrambled to the mat and immediately lay down, fully clothed. In only minutes he was asleep.

*

He awoke on a grassy field, dressed the same way he’d been in the waking world– loose cotton shirt, leather vest, thick wool pants, leather boots. Traveling clothes, though fine ones to be sure. He had no weapons, nor anything else with him, but there was a solid wooden chest bound by iron sitting on the grass next to him. In other circumstances he might have been reluctant to look inside, but this was his dream…his transition. He had no doubt the chest was meant for him.

At his touch, the chest swung open of its own accord. Inside was a straight bladed, double-edged sword of better than average quality. A soldier’s weapon. He went to take it out, but it shimmered and changed to a bow, then a hammer, then a mace. He stopped.

Would removing a specific weapon make some kind of choice for him? If so, what should he pick? Every time he moved his hand to the chest, the weapons cycled. It always reset to a sword when he pulled his hand back.

Why did it keep changing when he tried to take it?

There was a bush behind him now, which rustled. He didn’t think it had been there when he’d awakened. He turned, ready to grab the weapon in the chest while waiting to see what emerged.

Prince Eric had prepared himself for the unexpected, but not quite this unexpected.

“Hey!” said Dahr, apparently happy to see him. “Where are we?”

*

The Other Realm is a place of dreams, magic, gods, demons and other less well-known beings that even the most educated scholars have little knowledge of. It is the world beneath the world, whose existence explains so much of what might be called fate. Only probabilities exist in the Other Realm– infinite probabilities.

The connection between the two boys might have been inferred by observation in the real world, but in the Other Realm that connection was tangible. Tangible enough for the denizens of the aether to feel its presence, and strong enough to attract the attention of Telisian.

Telisian wasn’t a god, nor was it not a god. It wasn’t a demon, nor was it not a demon. Not even the oldest of the gods could remember a time before its arrival in the Other Realm. What the gods did know was that it was as powerful as it was mysterious.

As it wasn’t a god, Telisian didn’t have a temple. As such, no mortal revered it or even knew of its existence. Telisian had never before been in a position to assign a class to a mortal. Prince Eric had chosen the path of the warrior, and Sheba would guide his destiny. Telisian had no desire to risk Sheba’s wrath, so it would never presume to interfere.

But now there was a second mortal, unbespoken, unvouched for, who had entered the Other Realm through a connection to his brother. This interested Telisian. Such an event hadn’t happened in a millennium. He focused on the link and followed it to the two boys, where he invaded their dream, silently watching.

One of the boys was vouchsafed and would receive his gift from Sheba, but just this once, Telisian thought it would like to bestow a gift of its own. A tendril of power emerged and ever so slightly brushed Dahr, waking him from his dream-slumber. Telisian watched the boy stand up, look around confused, and start moving in the direction of his brother, following the link between them without even knowing it. If Telisian had a mouth it would have smiled, would have laughed, would have guffawed over the joke it had perpetrated on the boy and indeed the entire world. It looked forward with great relish to the entertainment today’s mischief would provide over the decades and centuries to come.

 

Forward to Chapter 2 – The Other Realm 

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