Chapter I

"The morning is red."

Dawn bathed the stone walls of the inn known as 'The Last Resort', and as the man had said, the light was red. Light poured in through the windows, reflecting off the thick clouds of dust and debris floating lazily through the still air. It gave the impression of blood, flowing in slow motion from a deep wound, and did not bode well for the coming day.

He had risen early that morning, and he did not know the reason. Perhaps it was something simple, some noise may have stirred him from rest, though he remembered it not. More often, however, he rose early when his subconscious sensed the coming of another battle, and more bloodshed.

The man sighed deeply as he looked out from the second story window of his room, and as his eyes appraised the surrounding terrain he spoke to himself, "Almost a month, it's been. He'll have heard of the newest failure by now, and sent another battalion after me. I should never have allowed the last soldier to escape. Possibly today, or tomorrow will they arrive; it's time for me to say goodbye to this village and move on again." The man held back the tears that threatened the corners of his eyes, and clenching his fist toward the capital city he continued, "Cursed be the name of that bastard son of an aqem sludge worm who hounds me ceaselessly. Cursed be the name of my brother."

The pain of hunger cut short his thought pattern; on the previous day he had hunted down a band of thieves who preyed upon the townspeople, but had returned after all had gone to bed, missing the evening meal. He began to dress himself.

First came the pants. They were far wider than was normal, and flowed around his ankles with room to spare; several hundred pockets were hidden in the folds. On the day he arrived in the town a pickpocket had attempted to search them. He pricked his finger on a poisoned dagger, and in a matter of minutes began vomiting forth his internal organs. He died within the hour. Needless to say, no other pickpockets tried their luck.

The man then slipped on his undershirt. Not made for protection, it was crafted from a soft, yet durable material that would cushion his shoulders and chest from the equipment to be put on after. It also was made loose, and hung freely about him.

After this he pulled on his boots, with some effort. They were made tight enough that they needed no straps or laces, though it made them harder to put on. The thick soles were made of steel, with a thin layer of cork around them to provide padding and silence, the boots themselves were made from leather. Boot tops came up almost to the man's knee, and he tucked into them the hem of his pants, causing the pants to billow around them.

He now drew over his head a long, wide-ringed chain mail tunic; taking special care to make sure that it rested on the undershirt, and not on skin. It was made from High Breed silversteel, and though the wide rings would do nothing against arrows, no amount of force could damage them. Silversteel was heavy. Far heavier than any normal alloy, anywhere that the metal touched skin would be rubbed raw after a full day of wear.

Drawing on his overcoat, he buttoned only the top two buttons, and fastened the weather cape over it. He had made the coat himself; and the make of the material was known only to the few remaining pure blood High Breed. It was light, and smooth as silk, but would guard the wearer from wind, water, and fire, and could not be stained by earth.

He then bolted around his wrists devices of his own design. Like the chain mail, these also were made of silversteel. In the shape of metal cylinders, they were made in two pieces that were held together with long, threaded pins, and had guard pieces that extended past the knuckles. Still having the full weight of the silversteel, it was no small feat of strength to use them proficiently, but the man was able. They could deflect any weapon that hit them, and a swordsman using them could bear a second sword. Though their load put the user at a disadvantage under normal circumstances, if the wearer were skilled at fisticuffs, the added weight would become the bane of any enemy.

Finally, and with another sigh, the man swept back the edges of his coat, securing them in place at his sides with his sword belt.

The belt was made of braided black leather, and on the left side hung the sword Vidran, which had belonged to his father; he patted the hilt of the sword, and softly spoke to it, "Soon, all too soon will I have use for you again."

These are all the physical things that the man possessed. The clothing, the weapons, and whatever small items he carried in his pockets. In his heart, the man said goodbye to the inn's room, for it had grown familiar to him in the month that he had spent there. Turning away, he walked out, and never saw it again.

The man made no sound as he glided down the stairs into the inn's common room, a hard thing to accomplish. Though his form was well toned and slim, the weight of his accessories and the make of his boots would've made it impossible for any normal man to manage. Yet manage he did.

As he reached the foot of the stairs he looked out across the room and found it to be as crowded as ever it was; The Last Resort was known for its fine drink and vittles, and the man could not remember it ever being empty of townspeople. Yet even so, his target could not avoid his eye. The target was a veritable giant of a man, finding him was, in fact, an easy thing to do. It was crossing the room and catching him that might prove difficult.

But it was a simple matter for this hunter. He slipped from shadow to shadow, his dark clothing blending in perfectly. And by some effect, either a trick of the hunter or some hidden property of the silversteel, no light reflected off his mail or sword. He passed by completely undetected, no man or woman saw anything more than a wraith of a shadow, nor heard anything but the slightest stirring of the air, until the hunter reached his quarry.

Then he came, cautiously advancing upon the back of his prey, until his mouth was almost touching the giant's ear; he spoke then a single word.


"Uuuaagh!" The large inn host, Ben, jumped in shock, nearly dropping his tray. He turned to see the source of the voice, and laughed, "Vayn! I should've known!" Ben straightened the unused foodstuffs he had been carrying, and with a slight chuckle continued, "These sneaking games you play will be the death of me! I'm not used to it. Most of the people I deal with come up to my face, you know. You almost gave me a heart attack just now!"

Chuckling was not the style of VaynMacc, (or Vayn, as most called him) however, he did manage to offer a slight grin as he said, "You must forgive me, I'm afraid that I'm not quite used to polite company. As you know, most of the people I deal with are thieves and ruffians."

Ben sighed. "I'm sorry, my friend. I do forgive you, and I apologize if my comment reminded you of the less comfortable part of your lifestyle. You know that all of us in the town are grateful to you for dealing with that scum. Understand this, if ever there is anything that we can do for you, me and my house are ever at your service." The giant had come into a quiet state of reverie as he recalled the many brigands whom Vayn had brought under lock and key, he broke out of it quite suddenly and asked, "So is there something I can do for you? I don't make a very good host do I, one of my patrons come up to me for something and I go on and on about the way he acts and don't even ask him what he wants which would have been bad if it were one of my normal patrons but even worse since you're my friend and because you've done so much to help and..."

VaynMacc's slight grin became somewhat more defined as he broke off his friend's rambling, "Just a meal, Ben, and then I'll be on my way."

The middle-aged man nodded, and with his smile returning, began to make his way towards the kitchens. This was common for Ben; to have small periods of time when he was truly serious, then return swiftly into a cheerful, chuckling giant again. It was a rare occasion that he was ever found without a smile. Even struggling to make his way across the floor, he managed to say hello and good day to most everyone present, including even the beggars, to whom he tossed the un-eaten bread platters on his tray.

VaynMacc was glad as he watched his friend travel to and back from the kitchen, for Vayn knew that it was his task to protect the peoples of the realm. To know that gentle giants like this could remain gentle because of his chore somehow made it seem worthwhile; he had little time to think on it though, for Ben returned swiftly.

"So, Vayn, you're planning to leave us already?"

"Yes. I thank you very much for the room, the hospitality, and also for your friendship, but too long have I stayed here already. It's time for me to go."

The host sighed deeply, and Vayn could see tears forming in the great man's eyes. He was unable to see them fall however, for Ben drew him into a firm hug of parting.

"Careful, Ben, I'll be leaving today, broken bones or not."

Ben laughed long through the mangled shrub of a beard that he wore. After finally releasing Vayn from his massive arms, he picked the tray of food from the nearby table where he had set it, and handed it to Vayn.

Without warning, a bottle flew between the giant and the guardian, smashing on the wall behind them.

"What the bloody heck is going on!?"

The start of a brawl inside of Ben's own inn did not make him happy. In fact, VaynMacc had never seen him as upset as he was now. Ben treated the inn as though it were his own home. And although most people thought of him as a gentle giant, none who saw him now would ever think the same way. His normal smile replaced with a withering scowl, Ben stormed through the peoples of the common room. No longer shouldering his way through the crowd, those who did not move out of his way in all haste found themselves shoved aside with the force of a raging bull.

Soon, the not-so-gentle giant found the source of the outbursts, a pair of men fighting tooth and claw, knocking over tables, chairs, and patrons, while using speech that would've made a sailor flush. That was how they were when Ben found them, but when he grabbed the two by the backs of their shirt collars and lifted them into the air with his tremendous arms, they were quickly cowed into a more peaceable mood.

"What do you two mean by roughhousing in my inn!? Were you both raised in barns? If you want a brawl you can go find the nearest tavern and fight all you want. In this inn there is no excuse for such behavior! Explain yourselves!"

The man held aloft by Ben's right fist, who went by the name of Paul Butcher, was the first to speak. "It's all his fault!" He cried out as he pointed at the other man, "That, that scumbag was insulting the steward! He's made up some ridiculous tale about the Realm Guard raping his daughter at the steward's command! It's blasphemy! It's outrageous! It's... hhuuu!" Paul inhaled sharply as pain shot through his body. Tears poured down his face as he gripped his hidden parts with both hands.

The man who was held in Ben's left arm, now wearing only one shoe, decided that it was his turn to speak. "I swear on my life that my story is true." Turning as best he could to face the crowd that had gathered around, he continued, "You'd all like to believe that your steward is perfect!? That he's beyond evil!? Well he's not! Yes I insulted him, and I'll do it again! I'll Insult the vilgehk High Breed Lord himself, if I have to! Steward or Lord, they're all the same; I want justice, and I'll not rest until I have it!"

"Ben." A firm voice cut through the racket of the man and the din of the crowd, a voice as cold as ice, and hard as steel. "Ben, put them down."

Silence came instantly. The people were shocked that any man would ever have the courage to command Benjamin Smithson in his own establishment, their shock increased all the more when the command was obeyed, and the two quarrelers found themselves placed on their own feet.

The outsider who had caused the ruckus was extremely smug in composure as he found that the fearsome giant who had restrained him could be disarmed by a simple word. A prideful smile overtook his face as the stunned onlookers gaped at him. A swagger came into his step as he walked across the floor to the place where his shoe had fallen. And then, he stopped.

His smug composure melted into abject terror. The prideful smile froze across his lips, no more a thing of pride, but another sign of the stupefying fear that he faced. The swagger in his step was gone without a trace, indeed, his legs had turned to pulp beneath him. He couldn't even have taken a step if he'd wanted.

A single droplet of blood ran down the outsider's face from an unknown point on his forehead. His eyes crossed to locate it, and there he found the sword. It was not driven in, but if he were to move forward another half inch, it would be. He searched down the length of the blade, past the hilt, up the arm, and into the eyes of the sword bearer. Into the steel-gray eyes of VaynMacc himself. The man's legs failed him.

"I would suggest that you explain yourself."

The man looked up at the roof of the inn, at the place where the tip of the shinning sword hung motionless. "You're not," the man gulped down the saliva that threatened to gag him and started again, "you're not going to kill me?"

Vayn was silent for a moment, then sheathed his sword and answered, "No."

The man realized he had been holding his breath, and released it. Vayn held out a hand, and the man took it, returning to his slowly strengthening feet.

"One thing I will say, however," VaynMacc brought the outsider's nose up to his own, with their eyes only a few inches apart, then continued, "If you ever, ever again liken me to my brother, that decision will change. And you will not have time to be afraid before my sword pierces your skull."

The man did not forget the look in the eyes of VaynMacc until the day that he died, and until he took his final breath, the very thought of them would freeze the marrow in his bones.

It was odd, though, for not one person in the room thought to ask who VaynMacc's brother was.

"What is your name?"

"I am called Jacob Shepherd, sir."

"Now tell me, Jacob, what reason you have to think so ill of the steward. Was something done to you?"

"Not me, sir, but my daughter. About ten months past, she was invited to be a maiden of honor at the Autumn Harvest Festival, at the capital. She did not return until a fortnight ago."

"Did she tell you what happened?"

"Yes, sir," Jacob's face told of great sorrow, and of great burden; tears touched the corner of his eyes as he went on, "as a maiden of honor she was placed beside a captain of the guard for the evening festivities. After they were over, the man convinced her to come to bed with him for the night." Many of the woman standing around turned away, their faces flushed.

During this time period, sleeping with a man before marriage vows were taken was still considered inappropriate. (Interesting how that works, sex before marriage was considered inappropriate, and somehow or other, there were a lot less single mothers, illegitimate children, and S.T.D.s in the world. Who would'a thunk it?)

VaynMacc noticed the stop in the story, and asked, "Was that the end, then? For it is not illegal to have immoral activities. If that is the end, please tell me how it has anything to do with injustice. If it is not the end, however, then please continue."

Jacob heaved a deep, tremulous sigh, tears in the corners of his eyes began falling softly across the stubble of his rough shaven chin, and he did indeed continue, "The morning after, the captain took my daughter down to the barracks where his men were quartered. He threw her inside, and told her that according to the steward's orders, she was to do whatever the men told her. She begged him not to leave her, asking him to remember what they had done together the night before."

The tears ran freely down the shepherd's face now, and his chest was racked with silent sobs as he went on, "The captain told her that he had simply gotten first shot at the new whore. He left, locking the door as he went.

For the following eight and a half months the men raped her brutally, 'till one man who had not joined in the raping helped her and one of the previous victims to escape. The girl who had been there longer died before they could reach the nearest town, from loss of blood and lack of food."

Jacob's voice cracked, his voice was a harsh whisper as he finished, "When my daughter came home, when she finally made it back to me, I could not recognize her through the bruises and scars that covered her face. I took a complaint to the steward, asking for justice. Instead of receiving even recompense for the medical care, he told me that the guards protected the entire realm; If a few girls had to die to keep them happy, then he was willing to make the sacrifice."

"Did I not say that his claims were ridiculous? We know that our steward would never say such a thing. Why, I don't believe that even a common criminal would do anything that, that horrible! Why did we even bother to listen to the mindless fool?"

VaynMacc, with a quiet smile on his face, cocked an eyebrow in the man's direction and asked, "Paul Butcher, did you realize that you've just proven an ancient High Breed proverb true?"

Paul smiled dumbly at the people around him. He was not an intellectual, and had no idea what Vayn was talking about, but figured that anything to do with the High Breed had to be good.

"It's a fairly odd proverb actually, but still good sense. It says, 'From the mouth of an ass will come only the braying of a donkey'." Vayn did not give the man a chance to realize the insult before continuing, "You know nothing about the subject which you speak, yet even so you state your mind as loudly and clearly as possible, making your lack of knowledge obvious. You do not know the steward personally, do you?" Paul shook his head, and Vayn resumed his speech, "If you do not know the steward personally, than you do not know his character. You do not know what he would or would not ever say. And to simply state as fact something with no basis of experience is stupid."

Vayn's smile disappeared as his gaze shifted back to Jacob, and he asked, "Did your daughter tell you which sect of soldiers raped her?"

"We already know the answer to that. None of the soldiers did it. This blasphemous old fool made up these rape stories, and to ask any more of him is pointless!"

VaynMacc reached the breaking point of his patience. He reached for the butcher's neck, fully intending to strangle the stupid git until his pent up frustration ceased. His hand met only with thin air; before it had made it halfway to it's target, Ben had picked up the poor idiot, and thrown him bodily out of the inn.

"Shut up you moron! Have you been listening with plugged ears throughout this entire conversation!? Go away; just leave the area, now. I don't want to see your ugly mug again until you somehow manage to get some sense knocked through that rock you call a head!"

Noticing the amused look on Vayn's face, the giant simply shrugged, and went back to the spot he had occupied before.

"I will restate the question, Jacob. Did your daughter tell you which sect of soldiers had raped her?"

"I think it was XIII, sir."

"And did she tell you the name of the guard who had helped her escape?"

For this question, Jacob thought for quite some time before answering, "His name was Mathew, Mathew Miller, sir."

"Very well, I will see to it that Mathew Miller is honored for his services and conduct. As for the rest of the soldiers in sect XIII," Vayn twisted his neck sharply to the side, audibly popping the joints and flipping his long black braid into the air; he waited for his braid to return to it's normal position in the center of his back, then, with a voice that sent chill shivers through all present continued, "from this time on, their lives are forfeit."


I Just made a tremendous, fumbling error. For those of you who noticed, I already had this chapter posted. HOWEVER, IN an attempt to export repair a mistake, I somehow overwrote this chapter, with a second copy of the prologue.

It's back now; forgive me for my bumbling, please read and review.