The Varsian Kingdom Book 3: Liberation of Sephiera
It was a crisp autumn morning. Only the sound of clashing blades disturbed the serene countryside scene. Three men were present at this duel. The eldest man watched, while the other two fought. A series of blows were parried. High, right, high again, then low to the feet. The younger opponent, by appearance, seemed near a decade and a half younger than his adversary. The older fighter, seeming to be in his early thirties, was clearly a more practiced swordsman. Around the two fighters, golden leaves decorated the ground. The sparse trees were now mostly barren.
The younger fighter backed towards the large rocks, blocking several more strikes from the sword of his foe. He tried to strike back, but the older man’s speed was too great. He was bested and he knew it. He tried, nonetheless.
“Don’t give ground,” the eldest, the spectator, advised the youngest as he sat on the large boulders. “You only give your opponent momentum.”
“Not helping,” the youngest said, straining to keep himself in the competition.
The lapse in attention was all it took, however, for the older fighter to whip his rival’s sword to the side. The tip of his own sword now rested at his young challenger’s neck. A soft, slightly smug, laugh came from the victor. “Anyone else think they can overcome the champion of the day?” His eyes shifted towards the man on the rocks. The older man, however, only sat silently. It wasn’t that he was above the age of combat, being only thirty-six years of age, but he simply had no desire to spar.
“I’m good,” the youngest spoke, seeing his training partner glance back to him. “I’ve finished my training routines for the day.”
The other brandished his sword, not willing to leave well enough alone. “Training routines are not sufficient! If we are to be great… if we are to be kings, we must live and breathe battle! It must be our life!”
The young man, shaking his head, slid his sword back in his sheath. “We’re not royalty. You are always bragging about how you are the king’s second best knight, why can’t that be good enough for you? We can’t just be kings.”
At this, the thirty-three year old man scowled. “And how do you think King Rowen got his crown? He took it. He is not royalty either. He stole it from the original line of kings. Now he lay sick on his deathbed and his nine year old son, Cyril, says he refuses to assume his father’s roll. The kingdom will pass to one of the knights, and I intend to be that one.”
“It’s not that simple,” the younger argued.
“Or…” the eldest chimed in, still perched on the rocks to the side. “Perhaps it is.” He looked upon the other two, a menacing appearance on his face.
“Every boy dreams of being a king,” the youngest said with a sigh. “But I am a young man now. I have more realistic things to consider. Besides… if battle must be my life to achieve such things,” he met his sparring partner’s eyes and held them firm with his own. “I want no part in it. Why make it your life to take life?”
“Well said, Raze,” a voice from the trees startled the three men. The three turned to see their own father, Valen Braxon. “We are loyal citizens of Sephiera,” Valen continued, looking hard at his middle son. “Your occupation as a knight in this distant land which you have made your home may earn you a high position… but do not be foolish enough to think you can gain a kingdom by the untimely death of King Rowen. His demise is already suspect in the minds of many. Whispers speak of poison. There are clearly others vying for the throne. If you act on impulse, you will only accomplish bringing on your own death.”
Raze looked from his father to his brother, seeing a thoughtful yet haughty look on the face of his ambitious sibling. “I will be wise, father,” the man finally spoke. “I will not, however, let this opportunity pass me by.” With no more words spoken, Valen fixed a hard stare on his second son as he walked away. The eldest also stood and left with his brother.
Raze wanted to follow his brothers. He hoped himself able to talk them down from their lofty positions. Time offered no such opportunity, though. Valen had need of his youngest son. The day was spent hard at work, cleaning old armor for new recruits to the Sephiera militia. That night Raze went to sleep exhausted.
Valen, on the other hand, sat by a fire that was nestled into a stone pit on the far side of the house. The house, a sturdy stone structure, was small but well built. Valen had built it with his own hands, before he had dedicated his time to the militia. He wondered now, if perhaps he had made a mistake by joining. His eldest two sons worried him. It was that thought that kept him up that night. As fate would have it, the darkness in his older sons would save his youngest. As Valen contemplated his troubles, a deep and evil presence entered the house. It was a presence so vile that it made Valen’s skin crawl. Had he been asleep, it would have passed unnoticed.
Valen bolted from his chair, eyes wide. Whatever this dark feeling was… it was coming from Raze’s room! Valen drew his sword and burst into his son’s bedroom. If it were not for his stalwart heart and love for his son Valen Braxon would have cowered in fear at the sight he saw.
There, standing over Raze Braxon, was a dark varsa cloaked in a black shadowy robe. His hands had long pointed claws, one of which reached towards Raze and touched his forehead. At the interruption of Valen bursting the door wide open, the dark varsa looked up, revealing a bone-like skeletal face.
Valen, pushing through his fear, thrust at the varsa with his blade. The beastly creature backed away from Raze and growled in a low gravelly voice. “Foolish human.” The dark varsa waved a hand, sending a black mist that flung Valen’s sword from his hand. Then, as he stretched out his long dark claw towards Valen’s forehead, he spoke, “You can not defeat me, human. I am Azrael!” With a tap from the vile claw of Azrael, Valen fell ill.
As quickly as the encounter had started, it was over. Azrael backed into a dark corner and seemed to vanish. Valen, terrified for his son, rushed to his bedside. Raze lay sick in bed, far worse than Valen. Valen felt Raze’s forehead, fever burning sweat out his pores. The fever was inconsequential, Valen soon discovered. As he held a lantern closer to his son, he saw his skin slowly begin to change to a black shadowy tint. As much as he dreaded the idea, there was only one who could help his son now.
Valen rushed outside, hitched his horses to his wagon, loaded all his wealth and money, and then carried his son out. “What’s going on?” Raze asked, drifting in and out of consciousness. “I feel terrible.”
“Don’t worry,” Valen spoke, trying to hide the angst in his voice as he lay his son down in the wagon. “You are ill, but I am taking you to someone who can heal you.”
The quick ride through the pitch black night ended at the docks on the far east side of Sephiera. “Matrax!” Valen yelled, pulling his horses to a stop. He jumped out and ran towards a large ship which anchored at the dock closest. “Matrax!” he called again.
“Who is it?” Matrax, the captain of the ship, called in a voice thick with accent. The man walked to the edge of his vessel and looked below.
Matrax’s ship was light in color, perhaps the lightest thing in sight. It was made from an extremely light weight wood that made the craft one of the fastest to be had. It was durable, too. The craft could weather any storm and its hull could withstand the brunt of vicious attacks.
“Matrax, it’s Valen!” Valen called out. “Please, Raze is terribly sick! You told me, all those years ago, about the man from the Plains of the Burning Sun. Please, you must take me to him. Otherwise I fear my son will die!”
Matrax wasted no time. He lowered the large ramp, allowing Valen to drive his horses and cart right into the ship. It scarcely fit between the masts, but a final step from the horses pulled the back wheels off the loading ramp.
Few words were exchanged between the two friends. There was no time. The ramp had to be lifted, the sails unfurled, the rigging set right. Not until they were at sea and at full speed did Matrax glance into the wagon at Raze. The nineteen year old boy looked quite poor indeed. It was then that Matrax noticed the black patch of skin on Raze’s forehead.
Matrax looked to his friend, the concern in his eyes only hidden by the dark of night. “Valen… his forehead?”
Valen slumped against the wagon, hands over his mouth and chin as a tear fell. “He has been touched. It was Azrael.” Valen looked up to Matrax now. “The man from the plains, he can help him? He can heal my son?”
“I have heard it said that he can heal any illness,” Matrax answered. “Even those touched by darkness.” Nervously, Valen nodded, letting his tears flow freely now.
The journey by ship was swift, all to the good fortune of Raze Braxon. Matrax sent a messenger falcon ahead of them. It would find the man from the Plains of the Burning Sun. The man could then meet them at the docks in the city of Ember. As fortune, or blessings, would continue to be with them, the man was there waiting when they arrived.
Matrax let the anchor down as Valen cranked quickly to lower the ramp. In his weakened state he lost hold on the crank and the plank came crashing down. The man waiting on the dock seemed unstartled by the event, but Matrax hurried over to Valen’s side.
“Are you alright?” Matrax asked, helping Valen up to his feet. As the man from the docks ascended into the ship, however, Matrax’s question was answered for him. The lantern that the man carried, with the strange green fire inside it, illuminated Valen’s face. There on his forehead Matrax saw the same black patch of skin that now consumed nearly half of Raze’s face. “Valen, your-”
Valen hushed him with a shake of his head. “I’m fine. If this man can heal my son, he can heal me.”
The two then turned their attention towards the man, who spoke as they set eyes on him. “I am Absalom, the great healer who hails from The Plains of the Burning Sun.” Absalom sighed. “I would ask what illness besets you, but by your face I can see the answer. You mentioned your son? Have you both been touched?”
“Yes,” Valen said, motioning for Absalom to follow. The three men made their way to the wagon where Raze still lay in a restless, sleep-like daze.
“He seems much worse than you,” Absalom stated.
Valen nodded. “The varsa was trying to kill him. I- I don’t even know why! I just came into his room and found Azrael standing ov-”
“Azrael?” Absalom interrupted. “You are sure it was Azrael himself?”
Again, Valen nodded. “He spoke. He said he was Azrael. When I attacked him he disarmed me and tapped my forehead. I don’t know how long he poured his darkness into my son, but his condition worsens faster than my own.” Valen tore his gaze away from his son and looked Absalom in the eyes. “Can you heal him?”
“I have only seen this once in my long life,” Absalom stated. “Soon the darkness inside the soul will consume it, transforming the individual into a shadow. He will become an agent of evil.”
“Yes, but can your stasis sleep heal him?” Matrax implored.
Absalom nodded slowly, looking to Valen. “Yes, it can. He must sleep for many years. You see, the darkness feeds on conscious emotions, mostly fear. If we put him to sleep, his conscious emotions vanish and his body is run by the subconscious. The darkness inside of him will starve and eventually die.”
“And the young man’s father?” Matrax asked, motioning towards Valen. “Do you have what you need to perform the stasis twice?”
Absalom nodded slowly yet another time, but this time a grim look settled on his face. “I am capable of saving them both, yes. There is a matter of the price. The process of stasis sleep is rare, complicated, and delicate.” Absalom’s eyes shifted from Matrax to Valen, a hint of regret was revealed by the green glow of his lantern. “I’m afraid without the proper price, I can not offer you even a single stasis sleep, not even to save an innocent soul from such a fate.”
“Name your price,” Valen told him. “Whatever it is, I will pay it. At least for my son, if nothing else.”
“A king’s ransom,” Absalom stated in a hollow voice.
Valen’s eyes grew wide, disbelief evident as he shook his head and staggered a few steps away from the man. “I- I have the salt… and most of the gold.” Valen shook his head again, looking to Matrax with pleading eyes. “But I don’t have half that much silver. Please, I beg you… for my son!”
Absalom sighed and hung his head. “I am sorry. It’s not just about my revenue. It is part of the process. There are strict rules that I am bound by to perform the stasis sleep. Without a king’s ransom, I can not set the soul to slumber.”
Valen’s breath faltered. He looked to Raze and cried, “I can not lose my son!”
“You won’t,” Matrax interjected. “I’m very sorry, my old friend, that I have not the resources to pay for both you and Raze. I can give you what you lack for a single king’s ransom, though.”
“Thank you, Matrax!” Valen spoke, relief washing over his worried mind. “My house is forever in your debt!”
“Very good,” Absalom broke back into the conversation. “I will begin the process as soon as possible, so the darkness will spread no further.” Absalom then turned to Valen. “Please, take the young man into the captain’s cabin so I may have some privacy while performing the process.”
“Of course,” Valen replied with a nod.
“Valen,” Matrax called out, placing a hand on Valen’s arm as he went to pick up his son. “Let me carry him. You are weak enough.”
With one last tear that fell from Valen’s eyes he shook his head. “This may be the last time I hold my son in my arms. Do not rob me of that.”
Matrax, his face rent with sorrow, released Valen’s arm. Valen lifted Raze out of the wagon, struggling to walk steady as the small group made their way into the captain’s cabin. As lanterns were lit, the room came alive. Charts, maps, and navigational tools lined the walls. The bed looked hardly used and the table on the opposite side of the room seemed to possess more wear than anything in the room. With the cabin well lit, Matrax’s dark skin, long dark hair, and black eyes were finally visible. Absalom gave him pause for a moment. It was not often that a dark elf was seen outside their home and away from their clan.
Absalom, looking now to Valen, spoke once more. “It would be best if you wake him. Explain to him what will take place. Say your goodbyes and tell me when he is ready.”
Valen looked at his son with eyes that seemed empty. What was he to say? How would he explain to his son that he would sleep for years, and when he woke his own father would be dead? As he pondered, Absalom stepped outside for a moment, allowing Valen some privacy for his last moments with his son.
As the door to the cabin shut, Valen turned not to his son but to Matrax. He took the sword from his side and reached it out to his friend. “Take it,” he told Matrax, looking deep into the aged elf’s eyes. “Keep it for Raze. I will be gone when he wakes, but your people have long life. You will still remain. Raze will need someone wise to guide him through the changes that will have taken place. When he wakes, please, give him my sword and my undying love.”
Matrax stepped forwards slowly, forlorn and somber. His hands reached out to take the sword, then they reached beyond to Valen. Matrax enveloped his friend in a firm hug. “I’m so sorry, Valen. I wish I had enough for you both.”
“Nonsense,” Valen returned. “It is enough that I know my son will live.”
Valen pulled away from his friend and walked slowly to the bed where Raze now lay. While Valen roused his son, Matrax joined Absalom outside the cabin. “Raze,” Valen spoke, stroking Raze on the face. “Raze, wake up.”
“Father?” Raze called out. “Where are we? What is going on? I’ve heard voices, but my mind is not clear.”
“You are sick, Raze,” Valen explained, sorrow dripping from his words. “But there is a man who can save you. In order to heal your illness, however, he must put you to sleep for many years. I… won’t be here anymore when you wake, son. Know, though, that I will always love you.”
“Father, please-” Raze tried to object, but was silenced.
“No,” Valen’s voice broke Raze off. “It is no use. There is no other way. You must live. I have given my sword to my dearest friend. He will find you when you wake. When he finds you, trust him above all others. He is a good friend and true. Now… sleep.” Valen leaned down to kiss his son’s chin, the only part of his face where his skin had not turned to shadow. Then, as Raze slipped back into an unconscious stupor, Valen walked away from his son for the last time.