Time for another story. This one is from what I call the exile era, the seven years where Nathaniel Drakkon traveled the world on a self-imposed exile while carrying out work for the Watchmen. It is set three years and two months before the White War in the Golden Empire.
Water. It is a major concern, Nathaniel Drakkon thought dryly. People take it for granted at times. How fickle the world is, that a man’s ego can claim great power, command armies, have nations chant his name, and yet water has as great a power over him as it does over any other living thing. Water can quench your thirst or crush your bones depending on the quantity. Nathaniel on the other hand was simply glad he had some. As he rode slowly towards his destination he took another small sip from his water-skin. His horse was ok for the time being; Nathaniel could feed and water him when they reached the next stop. It would not be long now. Water had occupied his mind as surely as the spirit of Lilith Albrecht had haunted his steps.
As if the thought awakened her, Lilith appeared in the air before him, startling the horse slightly. Animals were more sensitive to evil, even though the horse could not see her. Lilith looked at Nathaniel with scorn “I hope you run out of water damn you. I’d like to see you waste away and just leave behind some bleached old bones. Hah.”
Nathaniel, his voice rough and gravely from not speaking for almost a day, replied dryly “I buried your body in the mountains of Kuren. After all these years the worms and beetles will have finished picking your bones clean I imagine.”
The spirit screamed “I hate you mage! I’ll see you die just like I killed your brother.”
A flash of anger swept over Drakkon’s face, but he said no more. Arguing just played into the spirit’s hands. He had to remember that. Staying calm would also conserve his energy. Nathaniel would need it where he was going. Just like the water. The water had been vital; after all he had travelled across all of Ahm-Shere to reach the Golden Empire. The desert was harsh and unforgiving; nobody could survive it without water and food, but water most of all. The heat here was sweltering but Nathaniel was glad to be out of the desert. Before leaving Ahm-Shere people had warned him to be careful of warlike tribes called the Glacic as he headed northwards. They were not like the tribes of Ahm-Shere who might be wary of strangers, but some of whom had helped Nathaniel with directions and trade as he made his way north. The Glacic lived in territory between Ahm-Shere and the Golden Empire. There were a couple of areas where Ahm-Shere connected to the Golden Empire border. Nathaniel had headed for the western one, but he needed to go further north-west to reach his destination without running low on supplies. So the black-robed mage had ridden through the lands occupied by these tribes. And some warriors had tried to attack him, this strangely clothed man in a strange land. But when green lightning had shot from his eyes, fuelled by his anger, killing three of the nearest ambushers, the rest had fled in abject terror. And well they should have, for was Nathaniel Drakkon not cursed? Was he not a plague upon those who would assail him? Nathaniel gave these dark thoughts credence when he was at a low point. What good had Nathaniel actually done? So he had killed some monsters and some criminals. In the grand scheme of things, what was that? What was that at all? The spirit smirked, laughing at him. Her forked lizard tongue flicked and cut through him like steel. Nathaniel tore his mind away, forcing Lilith out of sight as best he could.
This was the Golden Empire. This was another chance to rid himself of the spirit. Nathaniel had learned of an old legend in this area. Now he rode with a purpose towards his destination. It was called the well of Khalabuz. The water of the well was said to have healing properties. It was Nathaniel’s hope that drinking the water, combined with the right spells, would banish the spirit. She did not like that. Lilith raged and boiled in the background of Drakkon’s head. The noise grated on the man’s nerves. Soon, maybe very soon, he thought calmly.
Nathaniel stopped just outside of the large outcropping of rock. There was a small building nearby, little more than a shack. Sunk into the ground were several stout posts of wood besides the building for tethering animals to. Drakkon tied his horse to one and let the horse eat. Nathaniel himself took some supplies and put them in his musette bag. Nobody else was here, Drakkon was glad of the privacy.
Quietly Nathaniel walked away from his horse and towards the cavernous entrance to the well. As he got closer he could see what a feat of architecture it was. There was a massive arch held up by square columns carved from the rock supporting the entrance. There was writing on the arch but Drakkon did not know the language. It was not an uncommon thing. During his travels he had encountered several written and spoken languages. Some times the people he met did not know the common tongue either, making communication very difficult. Inside Nathaniel found a large hall lined with unlit torches and held up by more columns. With a subtle hand movement Drakkon cast a spell. One at a time the torches erupted into flame down the line. At the end of the hall was a smaller doorway. Nathaniel continued on his way, seeing the thick layers of dust and grit on the stone floor which had blown in from outside. He could see the footprints of others who had come here, although even they were not fresh. His boots left behind their own marks. When Drakkon reached the doorway he stopped, listening. He thought he had heard something, but clearly the mage was mistaken. It had been a curious sound though, if it had been real. Taking a torch down from the wall, Nathaniel looked at where the doorway led. Stone steps spiralled down away from the black-clad mage. The wall on the inner side of the stairway prevented him from seeing how far down they went. He was about to descend the steps when the spirit taunted “What’s the matter? Second thoughts, doubts gnawing at you?”
Nathaniel’s jaw tightened and he said “No, I’m savouring the moment when you are obliterated.” His words echoed hauntingly in the hall.
As Nathaniel took the first step down Lilith laughed “It won’t work.” Drakkon tried to ignore her words, like he tried to drown out the constant noise the spirit filled his head with. It took a considerable effort of will to contain. Sometimes the barrage would be too much and the spirit would be able to appear to the world around him. Or she would do something to affect the physical plane. It rarely worked as she did not have the practise to do little more than move an inanimate object. Still Drakkon could hold her back most of the time. He walked down the steps, keeping his arm held out to let the torch light his way.
It took some time to reach the bottom and Nathaniel had counted over four hundred steps. If his bearings were correct, Drakkon was now facing west of the hall he had entered from. A wide corridor led away from the stairs. Nathaniel started walking but suddenly stopped. That was not his imagination, this time Nathaniel had definitely heard a noise. He could not pinpoint it or identify it; he was just sure it was a sound which he had not made. Once more the mage started walking, although cautiously now. As quietly and gently as he could Nathaniel drew his sword. It was a finely crafted longsword, with runes etched into the blade. Taken from the murderer Lilith Albrecht who had used it to hunt magic users, Nathaniel had put it to better use. Given his self-imposed exile Drakkon had named the sword for the journey. It was the Forsaken Path. But perhaps today that would end. Could he really dare to hope it was soon to be over? When you go through the inferno should you hope to emerge unscathed or just be glad the burns did not kill you?
Nathaniel had been away from Weissland for so long, he just wanted to go home. For Drakkon this was not the first chance to change his course. The others had failed, or would have made him give up his oaths to pursue them. Despite the torment he suffered Nathaniel would no sooner betray his loyalty to Weissland than he would stop breathing. The harmonics of the tunnels were strange, echoing and haunting. There were drips of water running off stalactites to hit off the tunnel floor with distorted sounds. It was like fingers of glass tapping and plinking on marble. It was the sort of sound that puts your teeth on edge and makes your back tingle. A phrase used in such a situation was the feeling that someone had just walked over your grave. It was not a phrase invoked lightly in Weissland given the nation’s history with the undead. Nathaniel Drakkon was not the sort of person who would succumb to paranoia and nerves without good reason, which was why he was cautious now. He would call it a gut feeling. There was no doubt in the mage’s mind that something was amiss. The sound of pebbles made him turn to his left. Nathaniel took a couple of calm steps towards the site of the noise, his sword raised to defend his person.
Suddenly something lunged out of the dark towards his head and Drakkon reacted with honed instincts. The sword sang through the air. The bat flying toward him was cloven in two and fell down. His pulse racing involuntarily, Nathaniel looked down at the two halves of the bat on the cave floor with spatters of blood around it. Nathaniel said sarcastically “Well, it wouldn’t be much of a memorable event for me if I didn’t kill something.”
“Didn’t kill something.” Echoed around the tunnel walls. Now that could get annoying. With a sigh Nathaniel continued along the tunnel. There were some side passages but Drakkon knew the well lay directly ahead at the end of the tunnel in a large chamber.
The spirit started to walk beside him with her hands clasped behind her back, she was almost skipping. Lilith said, pretending to be bashful “Don’t you think this is a bit silly? Can’t we just get along?”
“No on both counts. Now shut up!” Nathaniel growled as he kept walking.
“Awww, but why?” Albrecht smirked “I do so love our little chats.”
Nathaniel said darkly “Why couldn’t you have just stayed dead? You’ve got no bloody manners, you’re about as welcome as a wolf in a chicken coop.”
“Learn that growing up on the farm Nath?” The spirit asked snidely.
Nathaniel replied sharply “I grew up on the richest estate in Crint. Of course you, you undead whore, likely grew up in a den of thieves or in a cave like some savage.”
Lilith chirped “Wrong, wrong, wrong.”
Nathaniel waved a hand dismissively “So you grew up on the street then, whatever, I don’t really care. Not now.” He entered the chamber at the end of the tunnel and saw the well of Khalabuz. Word of it had led him a long way, ever since first hearing tell of it in a town in northern Ahm-Shere. At first he had thought it merely a story, a legend with no substance, but then he looked into it further. After checking some historical documents in a library in the Ahm-Sheran city of Umit he discovered just what the well was capable of. If it could heal terrible illnesses and conditions, strengthen the weak of body, then combined with magic, perhaps it could heal the mind and rid him of what he had been cursed with. For she was a curse, a curse upon mages, and Nathaniel had attempted to rid the world of that curse by slaying Lilith Albrecht. Now though, the curse had merely been confined to his person, to torment Nathaniel Drakkon until he could find a way to banish the spirit.
As far as Nathaniel dared to hope this was it, the beginning of the end and the beginning of a fresh start. All he had to do was try his luck and play his hand. If he could figure out what spells to use while drinking from the well, then Nathaniel might just be free of his brother’s murderer very shortly. Lilith interrupted “What if you screw it up? What if all you manage to do is free me, or allow me to take control?”
“To be free of you it’s a risk I’ll have to take.” Nathaniel said grimly. Even if such a thing did happen he would just have to fight her again, and a second fight would only lead to Lilith’s destruction. Nathaniel would not allow her to continue to exist if he could help it.
The well itself was made of ornate stone in an octagonal shape. The stones displayed symbols and pictures. There were figures with head-dresses and spears. Some of them had lines coming from their hands like a sun pattern or perhaps lightning. Maybe they were some form of mage. If it was telling a story Nathaniel could not decipher it. There were pieces missing or worn away by age. Turning his attention to the mechanism which worked the well Nathaniel saw a handle of ivory which connected to a strip of metal running up from it. This in turn connected to a cylindrical piece of metal that ran along the top of the well, supported by a metal framework. The chain was wound around the cylinder and disappeared into the gloom of the well, presumably attached to some form of bucket. Slowly Nathaniel began to turn the handle, watching as the chain began to be pulled up and wrap itself further around the cylinder. Turning the handle the other way, Nathaniel lowered it so the bucket would reach the water of the well.
Lilith goaded “Take your time, I’m not going anywhere.”
Nathaniel snapped back “You will be soon!” Once Nathaniel had drawn the bucket up with the water inside he filled two water skins with it. He believed that some experimentation would be required as it was unlikely the first spell he tried would give the desired result. Nathaniel had noticed that there was an altar off to one side of the chamber the well was in. Walking over to it he put one of the water skins down on it and held the other one, ready to drink from it. He had thought about this for quite some time, since hearing of this place, and he knew exactly how he would go about the spells. Nathaniel would begin with white magic, healing spells, which hopefully in combination with the healing properties of the water, would banish the spirit. Unfortunately for him healing magic was not one of his strong points; in fact it was possibly his weakest magic. Nathaniel began to chant the words to a healing spell “Astel novalla uncarro delilis gatto teroch!” The white magic surged around his body and before the spell ended Drakkon drank from the water skin, just a small amount to fulfil its purpose.
As the aura around the black-clad mage faded he realised the spell had not been successful in banishing the spirit. Lilith laughed hauntingly, and the laughter echoed around the chamber to the point that it was all that Nathaniel could hear. He just wished so much that he could drown the sound out. The spirit said “Nice work mage. That did absolutely nothing!”
Nathaniel held back a retort. Now was not the time for being distracted by the spirit, he had to remain focussed on the task ahead of him. Nathaniel realised that there had been some effect. An old injury in his right knee which had never healed properly, it was now completely gone. His healing magic alone could not have done this; Nathaniel knew it was not strong enough. The water did have healing properties, it was certain now. Nathaniel had not truly expected the healing magic to rid him of the spirit, but there was one more healing spell that he would try before moving on to other lores. This time he held the water skin in one hand and began to make a circular pattern in the air with his other hand. Nathaniel spoke the words quietly “Daviel jastion agallarus cotinashiel ter ma-oon seranat.” Once more he drank from the water skin and felt his body fuelled by the white magic, before the spell ended. There was silence.
“Daviel blah-blah, that didn’t do a damn thing! Ha-ha-ha.” Lilith mocked as she floated up through the altar to appear as a head staring at Nathaniel.
Nathaniel bellowed “Will the gods not grant me peace? What have I done to deserve such torment?”
The spirit crowed “The first answer is no and the second is everything!”
Nathaniel tried to ignore the spirit’s taunts. He tried to continue what he was doing, what he should be doing. Banishing the spirit was something he could not give up on so easily, or else all his struggling, all his torment, everything he had been through over the past few years would all be for naught. Over the intervening hours Nathaniel tried dozens of different spells. Each was met with failure and the disrespect directed at him by the spirit. At his lowest ebb Nathaniel attempted one last black magic spell. Summoning his power Nathaniel spoke the words “Medrenoth draakanai tovalis ter ami ter gannis cthulak!” A coruscating black flame engulfed his form, radiating out a strange heat into the surrounding chamber. Nathaniel seemed to watch from elsewhere, outside of his body, as he picked up the water skin and placed it to his lips. Drinking the cool liquid, he felt a surge of energy, hoping that it was working. Alas, it was not meant to be. The magic stopped abruptly and Nathaniel staggered, gripping the corners of the altar to steady himself.
That was when the spirit spoke softly into his ear “Are you quite finished yet? This place is boring me.”
In a fit of rage Nathaniel held onto the altar and spoke words to a spell, suddenly he violently tore the altar from the very stone of the chamber and hurled it across its length to smash into thousands of shards of rock against the far wall. He breathed heavily, head down and fists held so tight his fingers drew blood from his palms. The mage would never know how close he had been. If he had tried the last spell first, if he had drank more of the water, if his powers had been as great as one the Thaendils, or if the stars had been aligned correctly, if some of these things had been true he would have separated himself from the spirit. He would not have been able to banish it completely from him, but once separated the spirit could have been destroyed like other undead of its kind. While Nathaniel did not know it, could not know it, it would take the combined might of individuals like the Thaendil cousins to perform a binding spell before banishing the spirit completely and freeing Nathaniel of his curse.
For now this had been a failure, with only a few lessons learned. Nathaniel recovered the water skins as well as his composure. It was time to leave this place; he would travel further into the Golden Empire. The Orians were people he had not really encountered before, much like most of the people he had met along the way. But this was different, for the Golden Empire, much like Ahm-Shere and the White Realm was a powerful nation, one of the world leaders. During his life in Weissland, Nathaniel had met several people from the White Realm and a couple of merchants from Ahm-Shere. While the Golden Empire’s mercantile prowess was almost legendary and they had outposts in many lands where they traded, Nathaniel was yet to meet any of them. After reaching the well of Khalabuz Nathaniel Drakkon had realised just how thin his supplies were. It had also become apparent that his money was on the verge of non-existence. The wealth of his family was tied up at home, Nathaniel had not dared to take a great deal with him on his exile, just enough to get by. Quests and adventures could only replenish so much of that gold. In a way he was thankful that he was now in the Golden Empire, as this was a land well known for its use of mercenaries. It was here, or to be more precise in one of the Orian cities that Nathaniel hoped to find employment as a mercenary. It would have to be for the right people, Drakkon would not do anything which could be harmful to Weissland or to innocent people, but he was certain opportunities would present themselves to one who searched hard enough for them.
Taking what belongings he had with him, Nathaniel began the trek back out of the cavernous shrine to his horse. He fastened the water skins to his belt, after filling the one he had used already. His sword had been sheathed for the time being but he had used a spell to teleport his staff from where it had been packed amongst his belongings outside to his hand. He did not want to be without some form of weapon in his hand, as these lands were unfamiliar to him. It took about twenty minutes for Nathaniel to reach the outside again, and the sun was still shining brightly. Glancing up at it for a moment it reminded him of a smile, one smile in particular. That stunning, radiant smile that Jessa Aeris would flash which could dazzle you and enchant you, Nathaniel had likened it to the sun several times before. Everything reminded him of home, and that was not a good sign. Nathaniel could not return, not yet, he had to keep trying on his own. As he was nearing the shack where his horse was tethered the black-clad mage noticed riders approaching from the east. The noise of their thundering hooves was growing louder and the dust they flung up in their passing obscured them from proper view just now. Nathaniel continued preparing to leave, unconcerned for the time being. He put the water skins amongst his supplies and stroked the muscled neck of his horse, putting it at ease that he had returned and they were about to depart.
When the riders reached Nathaniel they fanned out, with two trotting over to the left of him, another three moving to his right, and with one coming around behind him. The other four riders remained in front of him or at least on the side of his horse where he was standing. Nathaniel finished putting his possessions in order and turned to face the four riders, taking a couple of steps away from his horse. His expression was calm, even, no hint of a smile or a scowl. It was as if he did not care that ten men on horseback had just surrounded him at a distance. One of the four riders facing him was slightly closer, and Nathaniel judged him to be the leader by his body language, posture, the way he was acting. The mage slyly waited for him to make the first move, as Nathaniel was more than capable of seeing off a few mounted attackers.
The leader of the group said gruffly “Hello traveller. We live in these parts and noticed someone had come to visit. What is your business here?”
Nathaniel said simply “I heard the stories about this place, and as I was travelling through the area I thought I’d see if it was true.”
The man on horseback nodded “I see, I see.” He had short black hair, with one longer section of hair put into a braid, which hung down the right side of his head to end at his shoulder in a tuft. In his left ear was a small silver hoop, and attached to the hoop was a little charm, it looked like it had been fashioned into a skull. The man wore simple clothes, sturdy and well-worn, with a leather jerkin over the top of his sandy-coloured shirt. He reached down behind him with a big gloved hand and produced a small but bulky crossbow, aiming it at Nathaniel. He spoke again “Well you see people who come here have to pay a toll. And I’m afraid we can’t be too careful around these parts of Sertomortala so you’ll have to forgive the weapons.”
Nathaniel could tell this man and his cronies were not on official business. He replied “What authority do you represent? Do you have any documents confirming your right to enforce a toll here?”
“I represent my own authority.” The bandit said.
Nathaniel rolled his eyes “So in other words you’re trying to rob me. This won’t end well for you.”
The lead bandit said “Give us all your gold and items and we let you leave with your life.” Two other bandits had levelled crossbows at Nathaniel, and a third had a compact bow with an arrow notched. The rest held short swords, long swords, and scimitars part way from their scabbards, ready to attack.
Nathaniel replied darkly “No, I have a better idea. You give me all your gold, water and food, and I’ll let you leave with just a few broken bones. Your only other option is for me to spend the rest of the afternoon burying your corpses in a pit.”
The bandit leader growled “Have it your way. Kill ‘im boys!” The leader and his companions fired their crossbows at Nathaniel.
The mage calmly spoke the words to a spell, raising a magical shield around him like a bubble. The crossbow bolts and arrow hit the shield, making strange noises as they were repelled and fell harmlessly to the ground. Before the startled bandits could understand what had happened, Nathaniel was on the move. He ran forward and launched himself at the bandit leader, raising his staff to smash the man across the chest and knock him from the saddle. As the bandit leader’s horse fled in shock, Nathaniel yelled more spell words. Even as some of the men charged at him with their swords, two of them were cast down by orbs of black magic energy. Their lifeless bodies made meaty thumps as they hit the dirt. One of the riders got close to Nathaniel and hacked out with his sword. The Weissland mage did not block with his staff, but moved it as he dodged to bash the sword arm of his foe, before cracking the butt of the staff into his face. Drakkon walked calmly about, as the bandits tried to flee or fight, destroying them in his own good time. Lightning struck down from the heavens, on a day with clear blue sky and the sun shining, to obliterate man and horse where they galloped. Nathaniel held his hand out towards the fallen projectiles that had been launched at him earlier and used his magic to hurl them at his would-be attackers. Four of them died as the bolts hit them in the back or the throat. Nathaniel tried not to injure the horses if it was at all possible. In short order the bandits all lay dead about him, or were slumped in the saddle of the horses.
Nathaniel looked around at the destruction he had created, ten dead men in the space of a few minutes. The power of a mage could be both wondrous and terrible to behold. He pulled the dead men from their saddles and let the horses go their own way. At least that way they might find better masters than the criminals who had ridden up on them. He had taken what gold and supplies he could scrounge from the bandits, which was very little indeed. Nathaniel was about to start digging up the ground when he looked to the sky. Up high in the distance, large birds wheeled and circled. With some whimsy he said “Ahh, sod burying the bastards. Let the vultures have their fill.”
Mounting the horse he had bought in Ahm-Shere, Nathaniel rode slowly away from the well of Khalabuz. He was heading north now, further into the region of the Golden Empire the bandit had called Sertomortala.