The Invictus Mage

Jonathan W. Buchwalter


The golden sun shined hot above the Castle Highguard, it's towering bastions and walls casting long shadows over the teeming mass of people that had gathered in the cramped streets below. Archways of granite and marble crossed over the crowd, each lined with the pompously dressed nobility of countless lesser houses. The infinitely blue sky caressed the mountains of Highguard Range as they stood their silent vigil, just as they had for thousands of years, casting voiceless judgment on the proceedings below them. Marble roads were lined with black clad knights on both sides, their shimmering black armor gleaming in the noon light, the crimson palm fashioned onto their breastplates and tower shields casting off the light as if glowing on their own. Behind the lines of soldiers, the crowded mass of citizens pressed and churned to catch a glimpse of the spectacle taking place on the road before them, as children darted between the legs of those in front of them for a better view. The grumbles of hundreds of people echoed off the stone buildings that surrounded them in neat rows, tense in its rumbling. On occasion, a cry of 'Traitor!' or 'Usurper!' could be heard over the roar of the crowd, as all looked on as a procession of more black clad knights rode horseback down the street, escorting Lord Daniel Mirren to his execution. He took the Walk of Penance, a sacred tradition in the Akron lands, as he marched to his death. How many miles had he traveled down this road, hearing the jeers and mocking of a crowd of people who never knew him? How many faces had seen him when he was stripped of his armor and clothed in rags? Could they have only known the truth of what was happening, perhaps they would not be so cruel. Perhaps they would take up arms against these black knights and come to his rescue. No, they could never know of what was really taking place today, or how many of them would most assuredly suffer in the war that would follow.

Lord Mirren only wished to walk with his family, so that they could comfort him one last time before he met the fires of the funeral that awaited him, but they were kept behind him by a line of mounted soldiers, along with dozens of member of his court. They would be made to watch him die this day, made to see what happens to those that betray King Akron. He could only steal a glance behind him to see the beautiful face of his wife, stained with tears, and the stern resolve of his brother-in-law, Lord Matthew Cromwell. Lord Mirren knew that man like he had been raised with him, and discerned everything in his mind by the lines on his face. Lord Cromwell, ever the stone-heart, showed no emotions as he strode in the Walk of Penance, but that silent expression betrayed a rage that only those who truly knew him could see. While Lady Mirren wept, leaning on her brother as they walked under the raised, silver, shields of her Royal Guard, Lord Cromwell strode proud. He would not show suffering before the soldiers of House Akron. He would be the one to show them what suffering truly was once this grim day was done, once the cauldron of war finally began to bubble over.

The Walk of Penance rounded every avenue of Castle Highguard, creeping slowly through the outskirts of the city, down into the farmlands beyond the walls, and the back into the markets. Everyone had ceased their labors to come and watch, all of them mocking and jeering as Lord Mirren passed. The farmers threw fruit at him, the merchants tossed bottles, and the nobility nearer Akron Keep cast only their disdainful gaze. All who attended brought their own mockery, and all who attended were eager to watch a man die. 'The fools,' Lord Mirren thought as he strode onward. How could they know just what kind of man King Akron was? They had never seen his outbursts of rage in the council meetings, never heard his threats of military action against all who failed to meet his demands. The boy-king was brash, stupid, and even cruel. Yet, it was the company he kept that unnerved Lord Mirren the most. That creature, Lord Tulian, who stood a silent vigil beside the King at all times, filled Lord Mirren with a dread he had never known. Not once had he heard the man speak, but the gleam in his eyes at the mention of war reflected ill upon his character. Tulian stalked, rather that moved, the perfect symmetry of his features making his predatory nature all the more unnerving. He wondered if he would see Tulian today, after all, a man like that surely would not miss a chance to see someone suffer.

Lord Mirren lost sight of the highest point of Akron's Keep beneath the walls that surrounded it, and he knew he was getting close. Still he strode on, having no choice now but to lay in the grave he so carefully dug for himself. When the entirety of the column had passed below the gates of the Keep's inner walls, he could see his end. There, in the center of a beautiful courtyard, stood a prepared pyre. Like a carcass amongst roses, the thing stood gaudy in the midst of such a marvelous garden. Timber laid out in sheets, held up by stone, all encircling a wooden post fitted with shackles. The timber was thinly spread, and the mound was small. His death would be a slow one. Across the courtyard stood the marble base of Akron Keep, it's sloping walls supporting a dozen balconies, all filled with nobles of the Akroan Court, all filled with leering faces and cruel shouts that beckoned him to come and die. Black banners hung from the balconies, all emblazed with an outstretched, crimson palm billowing in the Summer breeze. On the ground level, beneath a canopy of crimson silk, sat King Akron himself, flanked by his generals. Lord Tulian stood proudly by the king's side, that monster of a man. Tulian was the cruel fist that the King brought down upon dissenters and enemies alike, his beautiful features marred by a black heart buried within. How Lord Mirren hated them both. How he hated them all. He hated their fine robes, he hated their cleanness. How many people in the crowed had gone without to pay the taxes that afforded their comfort? How many widows had starved during King Akron's farm taxation so that his generals could get drunk and fat?

The two knights that gripped his shoulders pushed him forward as they neared the pyre, shoving him onto it with armored hands. He was chained around the waist and shackled at the wrists, bound now, to his sarcophagus. The Voice of the King, an old man who acted as an orator, stepped from under the King's canopy and strode to the center of the rounded courtyard, stopping just a few feet before he reached Lord Mirren. He was an elder, to be sure, and his silver hair hung limply atop his black and crimson garments. A golden cape billowed behind him, dancing proudly against the wind.

"All present, hear my words, as they are the spirit and power of our benevolent king, His Grace, King Akron!" The crowd cheered, as if some gladiator stood victorious before them. "King Akron, Unifier of Enos, Vanquisher of the Mongrels, Giver of Hope, Beacon of Highguard, has made a decree before you this day!" Again the crowed boomed in their applause. "He has given me his words, and they are as follows: Hear me, good people of Enos, hear the words of your King! On this day, a foolhardy and malevolent lord has declared rebellion against my holy name! I stand before you, a messenger of the will of the AEtherials, a man betrayed by one of my own!" The crowd gasped as one, enraptured by the Voice of the King. "On this day, Lord Mirren of Dorith has plead guilty to his crime of treason! He has admitted to the forging of documents that would call the lords and ladies of Enos to raise banners against me, defiling the sacred words written down long before our time, mocking the will of the AEtherials to have one unified continent! He has defamed my holy name with lies from the bowels of the Abyss, mocking me in his courts and speaking of rebellion in his halls! Yet I, a true instrument of the AEtherials, have not been made deaf to his treachery! I have seen the truth of his plotting, and will suffer not a traitor to live! Treason is a threat to all we hold dear in this brave country, and would do nothing but bring suffering into the homes of countless innocents! Therefore, I shall make an example of this serpent, who is bound before you, and vanquish the evils of treachery that threaten our peaceful land!" The teeming mass of humanity fell silent against the words of the Voice, and every ear leaned to listen to his words. "Yet, I am a merciful King! I shall offer this traitor one chance to repent, for such is the purpose of the Walk of Penance. He has had many miles to consider the evil of his ways, and I shall promise to spare him if he only repents! Speak, Traitor Mirren, beg for forgiveness and you shall have it! Though you may lose your title, your lands, and your armies, you will be spared your life!"

Lord Mirren looked past the Voice, onto the face of the king. He could hardly see him beneath his canopy, but he was so sure that the man was smiling. Lord Tulian was certainly pleased, his rose red lips pursed sharply upward in a leer. Behind him, the formation that had marched him here had split off, all the members of his courts ushered to a platform from which they could witness his demise. He looked to his wife and his brother-in-law, who had been escorted to the elevated, wooden platform above the crowd. Though she did not speak, he saw the love in her eyes. He saw the passion in her tear stained eyes that made him fall into such a trance many years ago. Age had been so kind to her, and like the finest wine she had matured. By the gods, how he loved her. His brother-in-law looked on him, his eyes now glistening with tears, vengeful; angry tears. He knew Cromwell, he knew his rage. Lord Cromwell would burn this city to ash in the war to come, he would reap a terrible vengeance on Akron. In his family, he found his strength. King Akron wanted to hear final words, and by the gods he would give him final words.

"King Akron!" Lord Mirren boomed, his call reverberating against the stone walls that towered over him. "Do you take me for a coward? You yourself are the coward! Thrice you denied my trial by combat, thrice you refused to speak with me while I was imprisoned beneath your Keep! You have denied me fair trial, denied me my right to stand in my own defense, and denied me even the company of my family as I was laid to rot in your dungeons! Burn me then, you coward! Show everyone here just what kind of man you are! Show them a King without mercy, show them everything I know you are!" The crowd erupted in a fury of wails and rage, all mocking the man bound before them, all screaming for his death.

"Silence!" King Akron himself spoke now, as he rose from his throne and strode forward. He wore crimson robes, trimmed in white. He was such a young man. He could have been such a good king. "You, you who are bound dare to mock me? Dare to mock my mercy?" His voice still betrayed the marks of youth. It was clear why he needed an orator to speak for him. "So be it, then! Burn with all your treachery!" Lord Tulian strode forward until he was along-side the king. The lord raised his gloved hands and spoke black words, horrid words, from a tongue that no mortal man should know, and dark flames leapt from his fingers, their blackness seeming to suck away the very light of day.

The fire engulfed the kindling beneath Mirren's feat, kissing his ankles with searing pain. Smoke billowed up and he chocked for air between cries of agony. The angry flames crawled up his boots, nipping at his groin as it climbed. It bit, and clawed, and sucked away his life in cruel hunger. He cried and gnashed, but his chains held tightly. He couldn't breathe, and his screams turned to rasps as one thousand eyes looked coldly upon him. The fire climbed higher, but he could no longer feel its heat. Lord Mirren slumped forward, his final gasps of breath stolen away by putrid smoke. Through the haze, he could see Lord Tulian turn his wife away from him and bow his head. He looked on Akron, looked hard into the eyes of the monster that he had been made to call 'king' for so many years. He wanted to mock the man, to spit at him one last time, but there was nothing left in him to muster the strength. Blackness swallowed his vision as the fire nipped at his throat. Then he was floating, lost in an eternal void.