The gloomy forest was barren. The autumn air was quiet, bereft of the sounds of life. There were no flowers or plants besides the tall trees, and those that yet lived were growing strangely, choked on their own offspring as there were no birds to carry the seeds. The grass was tall and unkempt, not having been trimmed for years on end. In all his years, Jace had only seen one other place quite like this; the heart of the Amber Plains, the capital of their people. In the years following the Reincarnation, the once-gleaming Amber Plains had become a gloomy, desolate place. Plants survived, but animals either shied away or died entirely. Caldimar had become a place shunned by the natural life of Auriga.
In the center of this forest choking on stagnation, a cluster of once-magnificent structures stood. Broken walls surrounded the village, devastated by the passing of time, conflict and neglect. Towers dotted about the wall were in various states of disrepair, but none of them functional for their purposes. Just inside the walls, small houses and workshops would be scattered about as needed, working to feed and armour the soldiers who would have been stationed here. Perhaps that could be again, Jace thought. After all, the Lords of the Amber Plains had changed, but the world around them was still a dangerous place. Soldiers would need be here again, albeit for a different purpose than when this settlement had been built. Noblemen’s houses rose above the walls, their spires reaching as high as they dared. Above it all, a turret so tall it seemed to reach the stars still stood, seemingly untouched by the decay that had struck at the rest of the village, but for one feature; the beacon was dead, the light within it shone no more.
To Jace, it looked like they had found the temple they had been searching for. As he waited for their guide to catch up, his troops marched past him, dust-metal weapons gleaming despite the pale blue light. Ordering them to keep marching till they reached the settlement’s edge, he kept to his waiting. Eventually, as more than half of his men had passed him, their hired guide stopped next to him. While in the blue light of the forest, his skin was almost a deep blue, Jace knew it would be like dark brass in more natural lighting. The man was aging but still full of vigor, a Roving Clanner who had come to Jaces Lord bearing news of a discovered settlement. The man, who had called himself Sparian, had an avid interest in the history of Jaces people, and said he had reason to believe the village was from before the Reincarnation, when the Lords of the Amber Plains had changed forever, become something different. In the wake of that change, the Lords realised that the price they would pay was even greater than they had anticipated. Where before they had been knights of great valour, protectors of order, now they were like parasites, needing to feed upon the life-essence of the world around them to even live. It was a stark choice to many. Renounce your valour and live, or perish while, at least, feeling your honour was intact. His people continued existence was evidence to their decision. Some things other than honour had been lost in the Reincarnation, so the chance to retrieve it was too good to pass up. And the power it might bestow was fast becoming a valuable currency in the capital of Calimdar.
Sarian tightened the orange scarf around his neck against the cold. ”Good to see that my memory is still functional, even at my age.”
”Indeed. You have done well to lead us this far.” Jace replied, glancing to his left to see his lieutenant, Halbard, was also waiting next to him. All of their soldiers had passed now, cautiously marching through the silent forest. ”Ser guide, if you would lead the soldiers to the entrance you found, I need a word with my lieutenant.”
The clanner nodded, his gold ear-ornaments jangling. ”You’re the one hoofing the bill.” He stomped off, leaving the 2 officers alone on the rise overlooking the broken village.
Halbard leaned in, trying to be subtle through the layers of metal armour. ”Do we truly trust him?”
While the acoustics of the armour made private discussions difficult, he had long hours of practice from serving in the capital. ”It matters not. Our Lord trusts him to fulfil his end of the deal. He will lead us to our destination, and we will return to Calimdar as heroes.”
The entrance was one of the large wooden gates. Once it had been opened wide, but the passage of time had weakened the hinges on the doors, causing one of them to lean at an awkward angle into the doorway. The remaining space was still wide enough for two soldiers to walk side by side. Halbard went in first along with a spear, then the troop slowly marched through, their clanner-guide following the middle in and Jace following the rearguard. Inside the settlement was an eerie place. Once full of the vim and vigor of life, now it was empty, as barren as the forest outside. The houses and workshops were in various states of disrepair, with none seemingly beyond saving. If Calimdar acted quickly, this village might yet house their people again. After half an hour of careful progress through the streets, they arrived at the central structure; the citadel. Most villages from before the Reincarnation had a central structure, made to house the knights when they were not in the field. According to his Lord, Jace would find their objective in the central chamber of the citadel.
The gate before the citadel still stood, barring the way. Halbard called for axes and it was soon removed. The small courtyard within still held the small buildings that had been used by the knights. A small forge hid from the drizzle beneath a small roof, and the stable still looked serviceable. The people must have brought the horses when they left the village, not that horses would have been much use to Jace and his men. Horses could sense the curious nature of their new bodies, and did not like it one bit. The doorway leading into the interior of the citadel had no door. Jace wondered what had happened that necessitated the removal of the whole door, but decided it was not important. The hallway beyond was well preserved; stained glass-windows cast the blue light in new shades, bathing the corridor in light.
Sparian could not contain himself. “Exquisite!” As their guide made to rush forward to examine the intact windows, Jace put an armoured glove on his shoulder, holding him back. ”Wait.” The remains of the stained glass-windows were indeed lovely and evocative, but Jace found it difficult to fully appreciate them. The Dust-flow in the hallway was different from the rest of the ruins. He could see that his second-in-command sensed it too. “Halbard, take two men and check the room behind us,” the lieutenant saluted and marched away, 2 soldiers behind him. “You and you, follow me. Rest of you, keep our guide safe.” There was a clatter of metal against metal as the assembled warriors saluted. Wasting no time, Jace continued on to the doorway, drawing his sword. He was glad to see that the dust-inlaid metal was unmarred from the, albeit scant, fighting during the journey to the ruins. The two soldiers following him carried spears and shields, as well as swords belted onto their waist-plate. The heavy armour necessitated by their condition would make a silent approach difficult, but if his suspicion was correct, sound would not be something to worry about. Slowly but surely, they entered the next chamber. While the floor of the circular room was littered with broken furniture and rubble, the ceiling was high, domed and filled with small holes where the architecture had not stood the test of time. Black, slimy blotches scattered throughout confirmed Jaces suspicions.
Haunts. The men of Calimdar were not a suspicious lot, but the eerie resemblance between the undying phantoms and the new form their people had taken was enough to cause worry and rumour among the smallfolk. Luckily, he had come with soldiers, not peasants. His lieutenant returned shortly after himself. The room behind was clear, and the weird disruption of the dust flow was clearly from the Haunt dwelling. But while the black slime, along with the disruption, left no doubt as their recent presence, the actual phantoms had not yet been spotted. The group moved cautiously forward, weapons out and shields up.
They had moved halfway through the room when a piercing shriek filled the air and a group of the creatures glided into view in the skylight. Their form was wavy but distinct. A ragged black cloak was all that made up their body, while a gilded helmet crowned the creatures. Notched and rusty long swords hung at their sides, floating as if held by an invisible hand. At order from Halbard, the spear wall quickened the pace and bashed the broken furniture aside, moving swiftly towards the exit. Just as the edge of their circle reached the round open doorway, the clatter of swords on shields rang out as the Haunts struck the rearguard. While quick and strong, they were not sturdy creatures so they could not withstand sustained combat. The wide open space of the broken assembly hall would allow them to fly about as they wished, so it was pivotal that they be deprived on this advantage. The much lower ceiling in the hallway would either deter pursuit or allow the soldiers to fight on their own terms. Jace trusted Halbard to maintain the advance, so ordered him to continue as he went to join the rearguard. The soldier in front of him had to take a step backwards as a massive steel blade smashed against his shield. The Haunts eerie mask floated around the side of the shield just as the soldier retaliated with his spear. Reeling from the blow, the specter did not notice Jaces own sword descend on it. Mask split in two, the Haunts form dissipated, leaving nothing behind it but a broken metallic mask. The majority of them defeated, the specters retreated, shrieking at the soldiers as they left the building. While Halbard and his men swept the chamber, Jace picked up the strange mask. He could not determine what kind of metal it was, only that it contained a great quantity of Dust, greater than that of the armament of him and his soldiers. But Dust alone does not an armour make, and compared to the armour of Calimdar, these Haunts were practically naked on the field of battle. They fought with terror and a strange capability of flight, not by standing their ground.
He diverted his attention from the mask as Halbard stood next to him, resting the butt of his namesake weapon on the ground. ”We have driven the enemy away, sire, but we know not if they will return.”
Jace kept hold of the mask. ”Give the men a little time to rest, and then we move on. In my experience, the specters are not likely to return, and even less so while we are here.”
His lieutenant looked at him, clearly curious. ”The men need not rest, we do not tire as we used to, sire. We are ready to move on.”
Jace could not quite return his subordinates stare. ”It matters not if they do or do not need it. They will take the time to rest. I will speak with our guide, and then we can move out.” With that, Jace walked over to where the dark-skinned clanner was stood, leaving his lieutenant behind to order the men.
While the men rested, Sparian was examining a mural on the wall. Two knights of the Amber Plains, distinquishable by their armour, were repelling a kind of creature that Jace had come to know too well. Necrophages. The insect-creatures had become far more prolific in the years follow the Reincarnation, as the once-vigilant legions of Calimdar were thrown into despair and disarray. Hopefully, the discovery that awaited them in these ruins would be the first step in reclaiming the power their people used to have. Jace knew not if any of that mattered to their guide, who was studying the damage done to the mural by the passage of time. “A truly fascinating place, and well preserved to boot.”
Jace turned to regard the scrawny guide. “Indeed. It has shown us much of the difference between the then and now.”
The man adjusted his spectacles. “Sadly no artefacts though, and if the size outside is any indication, there’s very little left,” he gave a low sigh and looked back to the men talking in small groups in the center of the chamber, “Your lord might have to be disappointed.”
The captain could not resist a short echoing chuckle. “Ah, on the contrary, mister Wolkin. I believe the final chamber to be the most interesting. The life’s work of one of our foremost generals from the years after the Reincarnation.”
The guide raised his eyebrows at this. “Interesting. You have made no mention of this before now. I must admit I do not know much of the nobility in that era.”
He is somewhat of a legend among some of our people,” he pointed behind him, down towards the assembled group that was now preparing to move out again. “So I will not unduly excite the men by a casual mention. When I have confirmation, trust that I will talk further.”
The hallway terminated at 2 large wooden doors. The wood looked to be quality worksmanship, but the years past and the effects of Dust had rendered it unrecognizable. There was no keyhole, and the handle was merely a brass ring in the center of the 2 doors. At a nod from Jace, two soldiers forced the doors open, revealing the chamber beyond. Their objective, the center of the citadel. The chamber had used to be the warroom of the citadel, where the officers planned the deployment of their knights. There were still chairs and tables strewn around, but all the valuables like charting tools or markers had been brought with them when they left. But in the center of all this, in a space obviously cleared of debris, stood an object that must have been added since the settlement was abandoned. A stone coffin, made in the local cemetary judging by its insigna. And the Dust-flows in the room were very different from the rest of the settlement, in a different way from when they encountered the Haunts. They had found their objective, he was sure of it.
Sarian ran a finger along the edge of the coffin lid as the soldiers examined the room for hidden compartments or hidden foes. Halbard had himself and another soldier positioned at the door, preventing anyone from entering, or leaving. Jace was also studying the coffin, although the craftsmanship of the actual coffin was of no interest to him. The clanner seemed perplexed by the coffin. ”Is it normal for your people to put coffins inside their citadels?”
Jace subtly leaned against the lid, bracing his feet. ”No, it is not. This is the work I spoke of, and I am overjoyed that we have finally found it,” With that, Jace pushed, shoving the heavy stone lid aside, ”Now, let me show you of whom I spoke.”
The heavy thud of the lid hitting the floor demanded the attention of the soldiers throughout the chamber. Of all of them, only Halbard seemed more interested than alarmed. Even if there had been no sight or sound to behold, they would still have noticed a change; the Dust flows were shifting again, becoming intensely focused around the now-open coffin, so much so that Jace found it uncomfortable to be in its presence. But where the soldiers were merely made uncomfortable, Sparian was short of breath, his face growing paler by the second. Within the coffin was someone like Jace and his men; a spirit trapped in armour, but they were as different from the one in the coffin as a baby bird was from its parent. They might be able to just about fly, but he could soar. ”Samhane Haligtide. The foremost of our people at what defines our new existence; devouring the energy of others to sustain his own life.” Still lying down, Samhane opened his eyes, their blood-and-gold gleam different from Jace and his fellows. Sparian could not stand on his own feet anymore, and was leaning against the coffin. The Lord reached up, pulling himself out of the coffin by the lip. His other arm came up grasping a sword, beautiful Dust inlay gleaming in the light of the room, the edge untouched by the years. From the seams of his armour, the same eerie light that shone from his eyes illuminated the chamber, brightening as Sparian slowly collapsed. Samhane rose, standing to his full height. He was taller than Jace, reminding him of the Lords from the capital. Stepping out of the coffin, he stepped on the dead clanner as if he weren’t there. Haligtide stood in the center of the chamber, keeping hold of his sword as he scanned Jaces soldiers. One by one, the soldiers in the room kneeled, with Jace and Halbard first.
In the wake of the Reincarnation and upon seeing the possibilities of their new state, Jace had known. Their ‘honour’ had been an easy sacrifice for what they now were, the power they held.
The Lords of the Amber Plains were now destined to be the Lords of all of Auriga.