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Prologue – Defiance

Droplets of black ink flicked from the quill's metal point as Bagrinus hastily scrawled his desperate message, the old man's trembling hands ill-suited to the task. The tiny bit of parchment gave scant room for anything substantive, and the letters were hardly recognizable as such, legible only by the slackest of standards. He ground what few teeth he had left, flexing the frail muscles in his writing hand in an attempt to ease some of the shaking. It was no use - the scribbled missive would have to do.

The old magus hunched over in his plain wooden chair, feverishly folding the small scrap of paper this way and that until he had managed some semblance of a respectable letter. His heart raced as he shakily tipped up one of several burning candles, their light scarcely enough to pierce the night air in the small study. Red wax dripped over the edge of the candle, some of it managing to land on the lip of the folded parchment. Bagrinus quickly righted the candle, careful not to apply too much wax. He grabbed the smaller of the two stamps from the corner of his old oak desk and applied his former master's seal to the little puddle of wax.

He took deliberate breaths in a vain attempt to calm his nerves, at the same time fanning the seal with one hand and replacing the stamp with the other. If he could just get the letter to Eradyl, it should be enough. His faith in the Tower had waned over the years, but it seemed unlikely that a threat of this magnitude would fall on deaf ears.

Without consideration for his failing back, the old man stood as swiftly as he could manage, grasping the letter in one feeble hand. Pain shot through his spine, but he pressed on, lunging for the stone sill of the study's small window. Once there, the old magus turned to the wire bird cage he kept on the floor of his study, bending low to squint at the wooden tray that sat atop it. Bagrinus struggled to focus his failing eyes, groping about in the half-darkness for one of the small, leather tubes that would carry his message to Eradyl. Finally, he felt his little finger brush across something small and cylindrical. He grabbed the tube, half rolling, half crumpling the missive and stuffing it into the small opening.

The old man dropped to his knees, the pain of old age hardly registering. He grabbed hold of the metal bird cage, frantically fumbling with the rusty latch. He struggled desperately, wrapping an arm around the cage to hold it down while he tugged on the metal pin. Finally, the latch squeezed its way free of the small slot, the cage door springing open as it did.

Bagrinus looked on in horror as the solitary, white carrier pigeon dove for the opening. The bird was his only hope, a symbol of all that remained in a lifetime of empty deeds.

His shoulder was wracked with pain as he shot his arm forward, arthritic fingers closing around the bird before it could make good its escape. Relief washed over him as he pulled the small creature to his chest. The old man lifted the sheathed letter to one of the bird's fragile legs, fumbling with it as he tried to steady his relentless shaking.

The bird struggled in his hands, unaccustomed to being handled so roughly. Bagrinus applied a firmer grip, holding the creature's tiny leg between his thumb and forefinger as he used his other hand to push one end of the string up and and over, looping it through itself. He took one end of the string in his free hand, the other in his teeth, pulling the string taut. The old man quickly doubled up the knot to secure it, one corner of his dry, cracked lips turning up in a smile of victory. He had done it.

Bagrinus raised the bird aloft, preparing to release it into the air when the creature's small form suddenly erupted in a violent blast of pressure, taking the old man's entire right hand with it. He knelt in shock for several moments, watching as a cloud of red-stained feathers rained down around him, floating gently toward the earth where they landed in the already mounting pool of blood on the stone floor.

Clenching his right arm with his good hand, the old magus turned to the door to find a familiar figure looking back at him. "I know what you're thinking, Bagrinus. I can see the question there, lurking behind those sad, brown eyes of yours." The blonde-haired intruder smiled, his expression mocking. "You always were inquisitive. Allow me to satisfy your unspoken query. No, I did not have to do that. Oh, but it was such a delight, wouldn't you agree?" The man's smile grew into a toothy grin, the dim candle light reflected in his emerald eyes.

Bagrinus had failed. His entire life had lead him to this one moment and he had failed. He supposed there was only one thing left to do. If he couldn't put a stop to the madness, the least he could do was wipe the smile off the bastard's face.

Without waiting for an invitation, the old magus clambered to his feet. He called out as he had so many thousands of times before, the excruciating pain in his right arm forgotten as he began to gather every shred of power he could muster. Even in his prime, Bagrinus would have hardly stood a chance against one who was bonded, and there was no question how this particular contest would turn out. Nevertheless, he was hardly about to submit without a fight.

Before Bagrinus had completed the gathering, his blonde opponent stretched his arms out before him, the man's red silken tunic shimmering in the candlelight. "Now you die, old man." With that, the air began to crackle, alive with energy. It swarmed about both men, as they stood facing one another from opposite ends of the study, his study. The small stone room had been a home to the old magus for over five decades, now. He found it strangely comforting to know that he would meet his end in the place where he had spent the greatest part of his life.

Bagrinus took a deep breath, raising himself up to his full height. He set his legs apart at shoulder width to steady himself as he continued to drink in the ancient power. It quickly consumed him, hammering his senses, physically rocking him back on his heels. He had to have more. The wily old magus flared his nostrils, biting down hard as he willed more and more energy into his being. He drank it in like a fine Vetrian vintage, bathing himself in Azjran's wrath until he thought he would burst from within.

The old magus grinned, baring his only three visible teeth. "Come on, you rat bastard!" He yelled as loud as he could manage, his voice barely audible over the crackling and rumbling of the energy gathering about the pair. "Let's see if you even remember how to fight!" With that, Bagrinus loosed a mad cackle, releasing every spark of energy he had managed to muster. With a deafening boom, the small study erupted in a brilliant flash of white light.

As quickly as it had come, the light blinked out, and Bagrinus was hurled into the wall behind him. There was a definite crunching sound as pain flooded his body. He was held fast to the wall for several seconds, before falling to the cold stone floor in a heap.

His opponent took slow, deliberate steps toward him, his grin alight with menacing mirth. "Impressive, for one so feeble." His grin grew wider. "I shall…" The smile disappeared from the man's face as he looked down to find a trickle of blood splattering onto the back of his hand in fat droplets. The desk had been obliterated in the blast, and it appeared that some bit of shrapnel had made it through the man's transmutation, slicing through his cheek like butter. The wound was deep; he would need an Abator. Bagrinus smiled, his amusement unwavering as his opponent's cries of anger reached a crescendo, unfailing as the man planted a foot hard on his collar bone, steady as the darkness overtook him.

It had been five days since the Darini surrender, and still the negotiations droned on, the languid discourse of polite debate echoing throughout the great hall at Alemir. After three years on the battlefield, Erlich found the proceedings dull at best, and he had to constantly berate himself for drifting off.

"Che'Oriama, while I can certainly appreciate your concern, I hardly think that your people are in a position to bargain for land." It must have been the fifteenth time Lord Tidus had struggled to reclaim the discussion from the Dela'Morians. The duke of Lathia, Tidus acted as sitting regent in the absence of Duke Havastis, lord of the Vetrian duchy. Havastis had fallen ill in the early days of the Uprising, his health having progressively declined over the course of the war. He had taken a turn for the worse in the days leading up to the Tyrilian victory, and it was only a matter time before Vetria would need a new duke. As the baron of Alemir, Erlich was next in line, though he felt anything but equal to the task.

Oriama's eyes locked with the duke's, the gaunt Lord Tidus unwavering in the face of the big Darini's poorly-veiled hatred.

"You appreciate my concern? I think not, Tidus of Lathia. Have you lived among my people, taken bread at our tables, drank from the cup of our suffering? Your kin had no right. I ask for the slightest consideration and find only deaf ears to ask it of." Oriama bit off the words, his deep voice rumbling forth, reverberating within the massive gray stones of Alemir's great hall, commanding the attention of the thirty-plus in attendance. The pointy-eared Darini gripped the edge of the thick, oaken long table with meaty hands, his forearms pulsing with monstrous strength as he visibly struggled to quell his anger.

Oriama was the Darini high chief, effectively the ruler in Dela'Moria, and it seemed that his will to fight extended beyond the field of battle. At Piotre, the first city that had been sacked some three years ago, the huge Darini warlord had cut through the Tyrilians like wheat before the scythe. Erlich's men had taken to calling him the night hulk.

Not only did the chieftain stand a head above an average man, his shoulders were like a pair of mule heads, his hide tunic stretched taught about his torso. His massive stature, combined with the midnight blue-black hue of his Darini skin and the wicked scar he bore from the hairline over one eye to the brow of the other would be enough to frighten most men. Not to mention his skill with a blade. Well, Erlich supposed it was more brute force than skill, but no one could argue the lethality of the man's tactics.

Duke Tidus took on a look of what could only be mock gravity, as though deeply concerned by the Darini's words. "Chieftain, your people are well served by your seat at this table; however, I must assume that you are cognizant of your current standing with his majesty, King Aelrod. It would be kind to say that the Darini are, at present quite far removed from his majesty's good graces." At that, Tidus' bushy, gray brows furrowed as he narrowed his gaze. For the first time in the last five days he raised his voice, biting off each word as he said, "I should think it wise if these proceedings were concluded with a great deal of compliance from your people."

The massive Darini warlord met the duke's gaze unflinching, the two Darini warriors on either side of him tensing in anticipation. As if on command, the entire room became abuzz with the sounds of shifting tunics and the clacking of sword hilts and scabbards as men came to attention in their seats.

Erlich swept his gaze around the big table, his crystal-blue eyes locking in turn on each of the men who had been under his command during the uprising. In total, three of the barons and the two counts in attendance were the only Tyrilians who had been at the battlements. Each of them nodded, though Baron Tolfort of Lanowé – the Lathian barony which bordered both Vetria and Mal'Drasta – did so with some effort, the muscles in his face and neck every bit as tense as the two Darini spearmen. The gash that had cost the man his right eye had left a nasty scar, and it seemed to pulse with anger as he visibly struggled to slow his breathing.

Once Erlich was sure that his men were under control, he stood. As the baron of Alemir and the highest ranking officer in the room, it was his duty to ensure some level of civility within the big hall. Gradually, the attention in the room began to drift towards him. After several tense moments, Tidus and Oriama turned from their private battle of wills, and the silence was suddenly overwhelming.

Erlich took a deep breath – commanding men on the battlements had become routine over the years, but this was something entirely different. These men would judge him not by his merit, but by the eloquence of his words. The Vetrian lord closed his eyes a moment to gather his thoughts before opening them to look upon those in the great hall.

"Gentlemen, we must not forget ourselves. As baron-general of his majesty's army I have seen my share of bloodshed. I have known the bravest of Tyrilians, men who would give their lives for their king. I have looked deep into the eyes of my enemy and found him to be without fear in the face of certain death, without hesitation when asked to front the charge." Erlich paused to return Oriama's subtle nod before continuing.

"While it is true that no drop of blood, Darini or Tyrilian can ever be replaced, it is my sincerest wish that this council honor the memories of those lost, both men of Tyrilia and of Dela'Moria. For their sakes, let us maintain a civil discourse." His voice took on a distant tone as he continued, "For my sons that they shan't have died in vain…" The words stuck in his throat, and he had to blink back the tears that threatened to give away his emotion.

He thought of Everis, the way he had handled a blade, his mother's jet black hair whipping behind him as he moved with the fluid grace earned by years of discipline under his lord-father's tutelage. Then there was Nolin and his ever-present grin, full of mischief as it had been. It was his mother's grin, Azjran rest her soul. The blight had taken her some years back, and Erlich had never sought to remarry.

His third son, Garad had been different, quieter, reserved even. The western lord had often marveled at the boy's ingenuity, his innate ability to see straight to the heart of a matter. Another gift from their mother, no doubt.

Erlich took a deep breath, straining to maintain a neutral expression as he pressed on. "This war has been a plague upon our nations, but let history say that the men at this table refused to be undone by hate. Let them say that here, now we came together, Dela'Morian and Tyrilian, placing aside our differences to build something that our children's children could be proud of. Those of you with sons and daughters at home, do not fail them here. Not now…" Erlich's voice softened as the images of a thousand corpses, blackened by soot and blood played across his mind's eye, "… Not after all that has passed."

Erlich suddenly felt old beyond his years. He leaned forward, placing his hands on the big table to steady himself. Any moment now, word would come of the death of Duke Havastis, lord of the Vetrian duchy. His health had been declining for years, but in the last several weeks he had taken a turn for the worse. The man had to be going on sixty years of life, probably half of that spent as duke of the west. His failing health was untimely at best, but Erlich supposed they should just be grateful that the duke had outlived the Uprising.

When Havastis finally passed, it would leave Vetria without a ruler, and Erlich would become the duke of the kingdom's western duchy. He wondered how he would manage.

When the war ended it had taken some part of him with it. He had no heirs, no bride to sit beside him on the dais at Verilimar's audience hall. All that remained were the people, the citizens of Vetria who depended upon the just hand of their ruler. Would that their well-being could be enough to make it bearable. He prayed to Azjran that it would be.

The Vetrian baron ground his teeth, steeling himself against the anguish, against the hate he felt toward the king for his foolish war. Erlich's emotions would not overcome his duty; he simply refused to allow it.

He raised his hands to his head, running callused fingers through his long brown hair. Before he had a chance to regain his composure, the doors to the great hall suddenly flew open, and a cadre of Alemir's city watch burst forth into the room. Hands shot instinctively for sword hilts as Tyrilians and Darini alike leapt from their seats in confusion. Before anyone could make a move, Raylen Graves stepped forth from the squad, holding up a hand for silence. Erlich had personally placed him in charge of Alemir's city watch following his predecessor's retirement some six years prior.

"Raylen, what is the meaning of this?" Erlich forgot his sorrow as his face began to heat with anger. He had not ordered this blatant disregard of protocol, but he would have the name of the man responsible.

"My lord, you are to come with us. His majesty, King Aelrod has issued a warrant for your arrest." Gasps of shock echoed through the hall as Raylen approached his baron. There was a look of pain in the man's eyes as he silently mouthed an apology. He was shorter than Erlich, stocky enough to be a worthy opponent, but not particularly quick on his feet. He would be easily overcome if it came to that. The Vetrian lord's head spun as he tried to grasp the meaning of what was happening.

Before Erlich could challenge the man's right to arrest him, the metallic sound of a sword sliding free from its scabbard rang out in the hall. Without turning around Erlich shouted, "Tolfort, put away that rusty pig sticker! I'll not have you kill the whole of my city watch in the middle of a bloody peace negotiation." A few men chuckled at that, though it did little to ease the tension in the room.

After several seconds of palpable silence, Erlich sighed in relief as he heard Tolfort's sword slide back into its sheath. There was nothing for it; Erlich would go quietly or the negotiations would be wholly undermined, plain and simple. With a nod for Raylen Graves, the baron held out his hands before him, palms up. Whatever this was about, it was obviously a mistake.

The baron's heart skipped a beat as Raylen's watchmen parted, making way for a man and a woman. Erlich immediately recognized them as lord Arsal Abrastus, the count of the Vetrian capital at Verilimar, and his wife, Naphila. The countess gave the baron-general a curt nod, her eyes shimmering as though triumphant. She was plump and unsightly, though she managed a regal gait. Her dress was a gaudy affair, all silk and lace, her dirty blonde hair a mass of wildly interwoven braids. Arsal openly grinned, thin, black hair sparsely covering his shining pate, oiled and combed to lay flat. Several gold teeth reflected the light from the torches within the great hall, adding a certain menacing affect to the paunchy man's bearing.

Erlich had always known the pair to be untrustworthy, and that simple truth coupled with the fact that Erlich alone stood between Arsal and the Vetrian duchy could only mean one thing. Betrayal. And if house Abrastus had somehow enlisted the cooperation of King Aelrod himself, Erlich was in serious trouble.