Six thousand miles away from where Thaddeus slept, across mountains and the Middle Sea, was the Rygis Continent. There lay the Inner Provinces, the beating heart of the Empire. Along the Empire’s far eastern borders were the Mountains of the Sun. At it’s highest peak rose the Tower of High Sun.
It was not the heart of the Empire, that honor belonged to the Capital, but it was the Empire’s most powerful symbol. It was also the official residence of his Holiness, the Prime Heir.
A family, whose son or daughter served as one of his Holiness’s companions, made the family a member of the Upper Nobility. It was living above the clouds of High Sun that gave the upper nobility its name. It was also why members of the nobility who lived lower down High Sun were of the Lower Nobility.
The Grand Duke, second only to the Emperor in power, wanted to make sure his only legitimate son, Duke Prince Gustav and his decedents, maintained the family’s ancient positions for generations to come.
While his son had inherited the right to sit to the right of the Prime Heir, the Prime had not taken a liking to the wastrel brat. That placed the future of Dmitri’s House in great danger.
The titles of the Upper Nobility would be reassigned on the Prime Heir’s ascending to godhood, and therefore, Gustav might not inherit his father’s title. The loss of his family’s position was the one thing the Duke would not stand for. If things didn’t improve between his son and the Heir the Duke, he would replace his son with one of his countless bastards.
Prince Gustav was well aware his father might disinherit him. It was for that reason he insisted his father’s bastards be brought to the High Sun to serve him as prey for the Hunt.
He was no fool and neither was his father. In the Imperial Court, custom was more powerful than law. Laws could be easy changed or overturned. Traditions going back to the ancient days of the Midnight Wars could not.
The custom, in which lesser cousins of the Upper Nobility serve as their better’s slaves, went back to the days when the Midnight monstrosities, known as Changelings, had replaced much of the nobility with skin changing assassins.
To put an end to the assassinations, it was decided that the positions closest to the Emperor could only be filled by those who shared the same blood. Though the secret was long lost, the ancients had the means of knowing who shared their blood from those that didn’t. No Changeling, no matter how skilled, could mimic a person’s blood. Once the first God Emperor gave his approval, the Changelings among them were quickly detected and the assassinations stopped.
Though the magic had been lost, the tradition continued. It was one that Gustav was using to his advantage. Even though his father might want to stop the killing of his bastards, there was nothing he could do. As a companion to the God Emperor, his son had every right to have those who shared his blood serve him in any way he wished. That included using them as prey in the annual Hunt.
Damn you Simma, is your hatred of me so great that you resort to helping our son hunt down my bastards? Each time the Duke thought he had found one of his bastards, they were quickly brought to the tower. It seemed his wife had kept better track of his trysts than the Grand Duke Dmitri. His many lovers had meant little to him other than to sate his notorious sexual appetite. They had nothing he wanted and had no wealth in comparison to what he already had. Sleeping with them gained him no political advantage over his rivals. All they could give him was their flesh. After he had that from them, he would have them exiled to a fief a proper noble would not want.
It was different with Yalla. While she did not share her half-sister’s royal blood, both her mother and father were heads of important families. Still that didn’t stop him from bedding her. The perverse nature of sleeping with his wife’s sister had only fueled their lust.
After Simma gave birth to his first and only legitimate son, he knew he had to end the affair. Unlike the others, Yalla wasn’t going to let herself be gotten rid of so easily.
He might have been able to gain his wife’s forgiveness but Yalla saw fit to announce she was pregnant with his bastard. That was bad enough. What made it worse was she did so in front of the Emperor and his entire court.
Yalla had to go. Banishment had not been enough for Simma. She insisted her sister be more humiliated than she had been.
A month later Yalla was called to court and publicly stripped of the symbols of her nobility. The signet ring she inherited from her father was defaced. Her banner was shredded and burned. She screamed as one of her former slaves shaved her of all her hair. On her right arm was branded the mark of a freed slave. Worst of all was being made to stand as each member of the court, many of whom had been among her friends, spat in her face. She was then exiled to the furthest edge of the Empire on the poorest land her sister could find.
Even so, there was one revenge he wife had not sought… the murder of her sister’s bastard. It befuddled Dmitri that she had not sent for the child. He would have thought Simma would want her Gustov to kill the boy. Yet she hadn’t.
Regardless of her reason, Dmitri was going to use it to his advantage. If she had no desire to kill the boy, that made him the best choice to replace Gustav as his heir. At the very least, a child born in absolute poverty should prove easier for him to control than Gustav.
While replacing his son with Yalla’s bastard was the best option he had, it was far from being a good one. His best hope still lied with Gustav gaining the Heir’s favor. With the Emperor entering his third century, he would have to gain it soon. No emperor, god or not, had lasted so long on the throne. Having no other child, the fate of the empire rested on the young, inexperienced shoulders of the Emperor’s son, the present Prime Heir. If the Emperor were to outlive his son, a real possibility given the extended life godhood granted each new emperor, the resulting dynastic war would certainly tear the Empire apart and leave it in ruins.
Seeing the familiar silver mask worn by his son, Dmitri did his best to appear glad to see him. Gustav looked like anything except a member of the nobility but then he never had. His pale, grayish skin made him an oddity among the ivory skinned nobility. No matter how often he washed his dark hair, it remained oily. To his displeasure, he saw his son walking hunched over. He had tried so hard to beat the habit out of him. Members of the Upper Nobility were expected to stand straight and tall with confidence and pride. His son had both but it was tainted by the cruelty he showed his slaves. Even as an infant, Dmitri loathed his company. “You look well my son.”
“As do you father. Is mother well?” It was hard to tell if either was well. As was the custom at High Sun, everyone was required to keep their face covered with a mask. The Heir himself had never been seen without his sun gold mask.
“She is and sends her love. She longs for you to visit her.” He would give his son treasures more valuable and useful than mere words of affection if he gained the Heir’s confidence. “How is the beloved Prime Heir?”
“You mean has his heart warmed towards me. No father… he has less reason to wish for my company than you do. I do not understand. Did the Emperor not pick me among all the nobility to serve at his right side?”
It pleased the Duke that his son was as troubled as he was. The Emperor’s personal soothsayer had foretold the Pairing would be unbreakable. “You have to try harder. If you were to pay attention more, you would know exactly how to please him.”
“I do… the only thing that seems to please him is my leaving. He hates me!”
“Hush… stop making a fool of yourself. Not around me. You have to try harder.”
“I have… I’ve tried everything you’ve told me.”
“Then try things I’ve not told you.”
“I could kill him. I haven’t tried that. You never know. It might work.” If his mask were removed, it would reveal a sadistic grin.
The Duke backhanded his son with enough force to send him sprawling on the floor. He then kicked him until his son begged for mercy. “If you ever suggest anything like that again I will see you gutted. Understand me boy?”
“Yes, father, yes… I would never think of harming his Highness. Never.”
To think at the young age of 13, his son would speak of committing treason. He should have known that having killed so many of his half-brothers would give him a taste for blood. Not for the first time, Dmitri suspected his son was going mad. “I think your mother is right. It’s been too long since you last visited her.”
“But if I leave the Tower, how will I gain the Heir’s trust?” If Gustav loved anyone, it was his dear mother. After all, she had taken great pains to remove the threat that her husband’s bastards posed him. Still, High Sun was not without its pleasures. A prime example was the seasonal Hunt.
“You said it yourself… he is most pleased when you are not bothering him. I think it would be best for you to spend a few years away from the Heir. Give him time for his disliking of you to lessen. While you’re away, I will see you are given a proper education… military tactics and swordplay. Please spend some effort mastering the nuances of imperial law. All the things his Highness will need his best advisor to know. What takes place in the throne room is more important than what goes on in his bed.”
“If you say so father. I still don’t see why I can’t do both in High Sun”
“The Heir needs time to mature as do you. When he’s older, he will be better able to grasp the need for good council. One way or another, I will see you become that man.” Sending him away from the Tower would also end his participation in the Hunt. That will give me some time to find and prepare a proper replacement. To think my son… a child of my own blood, would ever suggest assassinating the Heir. If he dares suggest it again, I will kill him myself.
Chapter Five: Shadow Wraiths
Thaddeus had never felt so happy or trouble-free as when he stayed with the Lord Fredrick and his family. Having been an only child, he had never had so many dote over him. The girls continued to tease him merciless but, with the passing of time, he found he actually enjoyed it.
While not out having adventures with the local peasantry, he was kept busy learning all Lord Fredrick could teach him. What he enjoyed most were his lordship’s stories of his time serving as the Earl’s squire. The description of the bond with the Earl showed him how his bond with Jack was much the same.
He was worried for Jack. While he stayed for supper, he left the house as soon as he finished eating. Thad knew his friend valued their friendship as much as he always had. He did not doubt his love for him either. That is why he didn’t pry into Jack’s secret adventures. So long as he returned safe and unharmed, that was all Thaddeus needed. Deep down he knew that whatever Jack was doing during the night, it was best he did not know.
Jack never liked keeping secrets from his dear friend but Thaddeus suspected it was for his own good.
Something dark and unnatural had been tracking them since leaving Yalla’s fief. Each night he hunted for it and each time he found nothing. Still, he was certain it was out there, watching and waiting for the chance to take Thaddeus from him.
That was the great secret he kept from his friend. Thad was happy living with Baronet’s family. When he was happy and so was Jack. If Thad were to learn of their Hounds, he would insist on leaving as soon as possible. He was not the sort to let others be placed in danger on his behalf. The role of dealing with such threats was the role Jack had willingly given himself.
On this, the 29th night since their arrival, Jack had once again gone hunting. He was certain he had narrowed their location down to the western edge of the Baronet’s lands. It made sense since it had been Sir Levi’s intent on heading in that direction towards Evermore. Where are you? I know you’re out there.
He heard the cracking sound of a twig being snapped but ten yards from him. With a leap no mere human could make, he jumped the entire distance. He landed with his knife drawn. All he found was dead raccoon. Damn it… I know they’re out there so why can’t I see them. By the smell, it had died recently. There was something else… its hide was quite large for its frame. It was as if the poor thing had starved to death. That didn’t make sense as food was plentiful this time of year.
He was about to examine it further when they struck. Like smoke rising from pots of boiling tar, they rose from the shadows of night. Towering two feet above Jack, they wore shredded, hooded ash grey cloaks. They stared at him with unblinking moon pale eyes.
They circled behind Jack. As they got closer, they extended their four eighteen-inch serrated talons. They hungered for mortal flesh, especially of one who could so keenly sense their presence.
It would have been an easy kill. But at the very last second, Jack felt the chill of their breath. He jumped up to the nearest tree branch, as he did so, he twisted his body around to face his attackers. There they were, the three he had been hunting. It seems they had been hunting as well... for him. Like a stupid beast, he had taken their bait and fallen into their trap.
Looking at them, he first thought he was facing men, but as they floating up towards him, he realized they were something far darker and unnatural. These were not men but creatures of Midnight… Shadow Wraiths. How they had escape the Underworld was a question for a later time. For now, all that mattered was for him to either kill them or escape. Kill or Escape… easier said then done. No matter what, he had to survive long enough to warn his beloved friend.
When a wraith reached his branch, he leapt across to another on the opposite side of the clearing. He could leap from tree to tree most of the way back to the manor but that would only bring the danger that much closer to Thad.
That left him with two choices, he could kill them or lead them on a merry chase away from Thaddeus. The later was the more feasible of the two but it, the running away like a coward, grated on his pride.
Holding his knife between his teeth, he continued leaping from branch to branch. It was lucky for him the wraith could not move fast enough to catch him. Even so, every time he thought they had lost him, they would reappear amongst the shadows and the chase would begin again.
It was not until two hours before dawn that Jack realized what they were doing. He found himself at the edge of the forest. Ahead of him was nothing but two hundred acres of flat fields planted with tall stalks of corn. As it turned out he had not been the one leading the chase but them. Like a pack of sheepdogs, they had nipped at his heels, herding him exactly where they wanted him. While they might move slowly in the trees, Jack very much doubted the same was true in the flat fields. Still, he had to try. According to legend, Shadow Wraiths could not endure bright light. If he could survive until dawn, he knew he would be safe.
Seeing the three wraiths rise from the shadows beneath him, he jumped from the tree and ran into the fields. With the stalks a good foot taller than him, he could no longer see his pursuers. He hoped he was as well hidden from their unblinking eyes.
With the senses the stars had seen fit to give him, he knew they had not given up the chase. Even so, his enhanced senses were not so finely honed as to tell him exactly where they were. When they did find him, he would only have the blink of an eye to react.
Though he knew they would find him, he was still caught by surprise when one charged directly at him.
He jumped towards the wraith. Leaping within reach of his knife, he thrust it into center of its right eye. The wraith screamed in pain.
While he had greatly injured it, it was not a mortal wound. To destroy it, he would have to take out the second eye. His sudden attack had caught it off guard but he would not be so lucky a second time. He also knew that the scream would bring the others. He might be able to face one but not three, not at the same time at least.
As the creature shifted left and right so did he. Regardless, since he had the advantage he had to strike. Instead of leaping up at it, he slid below it. Just as before, the wraith was unprepared.
Under its robes, Jack found not night but black mist, so cold it burned his skin. He leapt up, knife first, through the mist and through its head had hooded robes.
Unlike before, it did not scream. It died before it could. It robes melted into the shadowy mist it was made from. The stalks of corn touched by the evaporating mist went black with rot. Luckily for Jack, he seemed unaffected.
It was as the wraith disappeared that the others arrived. They looked down at the blackened spot where their compatriot had died then at Jack. If they had wanted to kill him before, they would certainly do so now.
“Well don’t just stand there. Come and get me.”
The two extended their 18 inch serrated talons and charged.