The Empress had ample means at her disposal by which to punish me for my trespasses - offenses never named, but known by all. There were countless novel cruelties she could order visited upon me. She chose among those the most wicked.
It was an youthful Imperial scribe chosen to deliver the message. "By her Majesty's decree, Rafaz Wexeven, who has disgraced himself by failure to keep his charge, is hereby banished from Teyach, to be relocated to the Umbrein to await his fate."
His words shattered whatever noble composure I had maintained; I was as a scarred beast in that moment, roaring and straining against the men who restrained me. "You wish me dead but lack the moral courage to drive in the blade yourself, is that it? The seasons I spent exploring the fringes of that hell in your name, and you reward my service by driving me into the heart of it? This inhumanity is my reward?"
The Empress did not react but to trace the features of her fallen servant with her basalt eyes. Emotion, that delicate and volatile thing, was one of many vices she surrendered to claim the throne; but somehow, somehow I could only think that she would yet have some measure of devotion for one who had been loyal through her own darkest nights.
"Restrain yourself, there are yet worse fates that might be unleashed." The scribe drew as close as he dared, casting his own eyes down at the broken dog before him. "There were many within the Imperial court who called for your death, with little debate that you deserved it. You should hold naught but gratitude for her Majesty and her boundless mercy that your life is spared."
"Spared? A foul joke. Spared that I might suffer until my last breath in the Umbrein." Delirious laughter took hold of me. "Perhaps the members of the court wished to lay wagers on the nature of my death? Breathing my last on a brigand's knife, or caught by something lurking in the deep hollow? Be cautious with your bets, or you may find that her Majesty has already hired the mercenary to do the job!"
"The court has had enough of your accusations!" The scribe, dumbstruck by outrage, left his fear beside as he snatched a truncheon from one of men and struck out at me himself. "You shall show the honor due to this court or we shall batter it into you!"
"Due honor..." Again I laughed, as the scribe's feeble blows and ignorant words. "Can the Empress not speak in her own defense? Must she rely on sycophants? Speak! Strike me down with the venom inside you!"
I wanted a response as much as anything. There was a more radiant time when it was a blessing to be addressed by the Imperial family, a privilege to be savored and relished. There was no blessing in that moment, but a curse - and oh, did I wish to hear that curse spring from those narrow lips of hers. She did not respond to my hectoring, not as much as a whisper - only regarding me through her stone eyes.
"You lack the fortitude to condemn me by your own words?" I screamed. "I bleed for you, I broke my flesh to defend the prince when you invited chaos into your family, and now you order my death and cannot speak the words? What weakness has claimed this throne! What treachery! Speak, you damned witch! SPEAK!"
The Empress gave scarcely a flutter of an eyelid in recognition. Nothing I would say, no insult, no reminder of the madness I had stilled, would budge her composure. She did not speak that day, and would never address me again. That silence, far more than the abuse of the guards, would follow me on my exile to the Umbrein. That silence, I expected, would haunt me into my grave.
The Umbrien is a no man's land untouched by the civilizing forces of Teyach, a thing strange to those who've seen the maps of our glorious empire. How could it be that the Imperial family, which unified the minor tribes and squabbling lords into a prosperous and stable domain, could yet fail to tame this one insignificant patch of badlands? But the answer is not a difficult one - fear, that ruiner of grand schemes. There are places so dark that even the raven dares not traverse its skies, and the Umbrein is one such land. No less than the very first Emperor, the legend in his time, was aware of this.
For all the warnings, there has likely not been one generation since the founding that has not attempted to conquer and absorb the Umbrein, and each has failed in turn. I was part of such a failed endeavor on behalf of the Empress, an endeavor that nearly claimed my life. The Umbrein is more than a wilderness, but a place beyond the light of reason. It was never mine to understand what has made this patch of thorny trees and caverns impervious to civilization. The eternal barbarians who dwell there demonstrated for us their inhumanity, and it was only by chance that I emerged from the grave that swallowed the others. The Empress knew of my dread, and used it to scourge me.
For that fool scribe to speak of "mercy"...words from a place of ignorance. When I first scouted the Umbrein, I came with the finest armaments in Teyach and ample provisions, and these were scarcely enough to save my life. They did not grant me such a chance this time. Once they grew weary of battering me, the guards carried me to my estate and forced me to watch as they made ruins of my equipment. My sword bent and sundered, my bow splintered and burned, my armor melted into slag - this was every bit as symbolic as their ruination of my honors, but it was also to ensure my death. I would carry nothing into the Umbrein save a flint box, a waterskin and enough dried food to last a few nights.
When the time came, the guards were too fearful to even near the edge of the accursed place, so they strapped me to a blinded horse with my hands loosely bound and set the beast to running. Perhaps one of them was being merciful by leaving my feet free - the better to knock myself free of the horse and let fortune grant me a broken neck. I did not take this opportunity. For my own fears, I still wished to live.
I always wondered if the Umbrein was an entity in its own right, gifted with the ability to save or condemn itself - and that first night, it did both, providing no food but the supplies to start a fire. The forests of the Umbrein are all the more eerie for the firelight that fails to penetrate their twisted limbs, but it did give me light enough to review my belongings. Not my supplies - I knew how limited they would be - but the sole honor that the guards had allowed me to keep. It was a pendant, cast for me alone and engraved with the name and emblem of the prince.
Had they placed this around my neck as a form of mockery? Certainly they would say that they had allowed me to keep this out of duty, and once I would have believed this. The Empress had bestowed this upon me with her own hands. In a moment of crisis, I had pulled the prince from the jaws of chaos and been named his champion. To a man outside of the Imperial family, there was no greater honor. What had come of it, though? The prince still lived, he was strong and capable, and yet there was no need of his champion. The Empress had no need for her loyal servant, no grace for one she had once named a knight beyond peer. But some offense - some trespass that none felt the need to explain - and that reputation was as dust, and this honor merely metal.
I destroyed it, this honor that I could no longer bear to carry. I pulled it apart with my own hands and cast the pieces into the heart of the fire. The fragments carved through my hands as I did my work, the ground beneath me stained maroon - the last wound the Empress would inflict upon me.
The shadows stirred once I had finished as though roused by the act. I was not alone - this I had always known. The one mystery was which party would find me first. I would not have to wait long. It was nothing as obvious as footfalls that alerted me to their arrival; the men of the Umbrein are too wily for that, too experienced in the brutal art of the hunt. It was the rusty sound of their breathing, heavy and hollow. The accursed barbarians are comrades of the shadow, who can move without trace and without sound, but there is no force in this world with charms to restrain their joy. How many feckless wanderers met their sudden end here, not knowing the significance of that maddening sound?
"Make yourself known," I said, not turning from the firelight. "I am unarmed. If you came for a challenge, then it is my shame to disappoint you. If you seek mere prey, then come and claim it."
The air fell silent, save the constant rasp of their eager breaths. Then, a new sound - feet shuffling through the thorny undergrowth, converging on the tiny clearing. An unusual privilege, that they would make their presence known to me. My thoughts flew free in search of an explanation - was this the failure of their confidence, or a tactic to elevate my fear? In case of the latter, I chose not to reward them, and granted them no response. Still they advanced, step by step through the crowded timber.
Again, I addressed the darkness. "Speak. Have you come for my life? I'll hardly offer a fight in this state. Do as you must."
And then, a response: "Friend, what would we ever do with your life?"
With that, a mass of phantoms appeared at the edge of the firelight, pale silhouettes against the trees behind them. These were men of the same barbarous groups I had faced on my previous excursion - strange how benign they seemed, hardly the ogres of whispered myth. They even dressed much like the men of Teyach, save the odd metal ornaments that dangled from their belts and gleaned from their tunics - talismans, I had gleamed, meant to mask the bearer from the eyes lurking in deeper shadow. These ones kept their weapons at their belts, not aimed at my throat as their kindred had all those years ago.
"What deceit is this?" I said. "Has the Empress sent for you? You are to mock me before my death?"
"So much talk of death from this one. I'd think he desired it." The barbarian at the fore took a step into the firelight. "Do you have a name, or should we give you one?"
"Rafaz Wexeven." I spoke it with no fear - there was nothing left to besmirch, I suppose, nothing left to guard.
"Wexeven, truly? It seems luck favors both of us today." The barbarian drew nearer, close enough to the fire that I could see his serpentine visage - the rough and sallow skin, the sharp eyes, the lethal tongue. "You may address me as Randam."
"Does it strike you as strange? It is as good a name as any, is it not?" With an invisible gesture, Randam summoned the rest of his group to enter the ring of light. "Relax. I'll not say you're among friends, but at least you're not among killers...for the most part."
With the shadows dispelled, Randam's retinue was a sorry lot. Some had the ragged remnant of Imperial breeding, long since worn away and shed. Others were of rude stock, ruffians and outcasts born and raised. Yet even the roughest made no aggressive moves, drew no weapon, offered no hint of violent intent. They merely stared, stared with weary eyes that had known their share of tragedy.
"A most different reception than on my last visit," I said. "You must forgive me, but brutal experience told me to anticipate an ambush from the men of the Umbrein."
"Another day, maybe you'd have been right, but we have other intentions," said Randam. "We are practical folk. What does it profit us to take your life, when we have more to gain by sparing it?"
"You see some value in this broken hide?"
"The shape looks fine to me, and every set of hands can contribute - especially those of your bearing."
"You've been led astray. My honor was taken from me." I considered anew the people before me, a varied and ragged lot. "What force has gathered such a strange collection?"
"Circumstance, friend," said Randam. "Ours are a hundred tales. Some were born here, nursed on brutality. Some were voyagers to Teyach, turned aside for lack of lucre to tip the right official. Some were of your ilk, vital souls quietly disposed of after some controversy - though none as well-regarded as you. What we have in common is that we have nothing in common, with each other or with the world. You have entered the domain of the misformed."
"You seem to know much about me, Randam, but what of you? In what sense are you misformed?"
"It is a dark tale. We can speak of it on another date. For now..." Randam beckoned me to follow him back into the trees. "...let us find a safer place. Not everyone out tonight is as well-mannered as I."
Perhaps I had already accepted death - I can think of no other reason why I followed this man, who had the stink of murder about him. Perhaps the why is not so important. It was naught but fate guiding me, and destiny awaited at the other side.
For many hours I trod the path that Randam and his group carved through the Umbrein thicket, gathering from their knowledge of the land and its pitfalls. There was much to learn on the journey - while I always kept one eye locked upon Randam's back (the better that he not find mine in a meaner moment), the other was free to watch the trees for the signs that the outcasts used to find their way. My ears served me just as well, taking in as many of their stories as time would allow. One was a masterful deceiver, gifted in using his tongue to burnish his reputation, until one day he wove a lie that he could not escape and found himself punished for another's crime. One was a young lady who had received, in secrecy, correspondence from a man of rank; a mere game, until one day she spoke of their words and she became a liability. They were open with their own tales but cautious with each other's, and none had words to spare for Randam, their leader.
The forest fell away, and we found ourselves at the badlands, a blighted place riven with canyons and natural passages. It was as a hive for some beast long forgotten by the civilized world, or perhaps the cradle of a more savage sort of civilization. In some strange way, I dreaded this place more than the dark wood, and the fear I had locked away found its path back to the surface.
"I pray this is not your home," I said. "There are omens here."
"Our people have no home, Teyach, save the land where we rest," said Randam. "And as to omens? I thought the raven had no fear of such things."
"The raven has never visited a place such as this. I have. It raises memories best left buried."
"Then we'll just have to bury them again, eh?" Randam sprang to one of the crevasses - a hole etched into the ground by nature's hand, scarcely large enough to allow passage to a lone man. "It's safer where eyes can't watch us."
"There is no such thing as safety in the Umbrein, let alone in a place bound in shadows," I said. "Nothing holy can dwell in there."
"You think I would spare you in the woods, only to kill you here?"
"I think I have learned much about the limits of trust."
"Then you'll have to expand those limits." Randam planet one food into the crevasse, half of his body lost to the darkness, leaving only a beckoning hand and a worrisome smile to be seen. "Will it give you comfort if I lead the way?"
"Comfort is a fantasy, but I will accept what I'm offered."
"Then follow me." Randam slid beneath the surface in a moment, his words the only trace of him.
How can I explain my decision to crawl into the crevasse myself? It was an act of foolishness, yet my options were few. I did not allow myself a moment to doubt before I plunged into the abyss and was swallowed whole by the darkness. It was an unnatural thing - the light did not vanish by degrees in my wake but retreated at once, as though it feared what was below as much as I. My eyes were made useless, my ears confounded by the echoes of my own pulse.
"Randam? Are you there?" There was no response, not even the scuffling of boots and hands before me. "Randam?"
Then I felt a scratch in the base of my neck, a minor pain that would have fallen beneath consideration under any other circumstance. By instinct I grasped at the source, my fingers falling on a wooden barb. There were sounds behind me - the outsiders, possibly the one responsible for the attack.
"You swine! Come now and...and..." My words became as leaden things that could not escape my mouth. Speech was the first faculty I lost, followed at once by the use of my legs, which wavered with weakness. Still I dragged myself onward into the dark, chasing the pinpoints of light that I could only hope were the sign of safety - or were they there at all? It hardly mattered. My saviors had left me to the predation of whatever demon lurked in that hole, and I could only await its claws.
But there were no claws, no bloody fate, but something altogether more subtle and terrifying. The echo of my own heart warped until it resembled words, then a voice - a voice coming from within, a voice screaming out from the past.
"Where are you, my lord? Sir Rafaz?"
I had heard that voice - a man mortally wounded on the scouting campaign, laying across the field with a barbarian's lance pinning him to the ground. I had heard him, and then I could see his visage in my mind's eye - and then came the faces of others, and their voices calling out:
"Sir Rafaz, I fear that there is no way out for us."
"You think that a knitting needle like that is enough to stop me?"
"Is not a legend worth the risk? We shall be known forever as the men who conquered the Umbrein!"
"...Why? Rafaz, have you no eyes? Can't you see what will happen if the prince lives?"
They were the dead - faces, voices, the spirits of my enemies, my allies, those who had perished beside me and those who had fallen by my hand. I turned away but they were many, their accusing faces surrounding me, their pallid lips speaking poisonous words. Where there was one voice there were thirty, then a hundred, then a chorus, then a river of sound and madness filling the tunnel.
The first time I faced mortal peril, I emerged with no notions of relief or lingering terror, but only confusion. When the footing crumbles, when the arrow finds its mark, one swiftly finds a state of preparation for death, if not acceptance. When death goes astray, bewilderment follows, with relief arriving only once that bewilderment has surrendered to reality.
The poison that Randam had visited upon me was a different beast than the threats I had faced before. Yes, I had prepared to die, even wishing for the mercy as those revenants assailed me. But when the terror passed, and the revenants returned to their rest, I found no confusion, for in those initial moments I truly thought that I had entered the realm of the dead. Pain was a memory, and one fast fading, as were the others; I was in a place of respite, beyond all that I had known, beyond that which my mortal senses would allow me to comprehend.
I was alone in that space for some time (insofar as time had meaning there) before a presence joined me. She was not a foul memory, not a restless ghost - no, this was a vision, one I'd not lived enough years to realize. For a time, there was only the presence, for she - and I make no claim to understand how I knew it was a lady, but I would be proven right - did not speak a word, did not allow me even a glimpse of her form. I spoke to her, though, are reached out that I might have some proof of what I could only assume was true.
Then she spoke: "Your name, warrior." Except I did not hear her voice, for I no longer had ears to hear; I felt her voice as the pulse of the Ultimate, weaving in and out through the underlying stuff of existence.
I wished to respond, to speak in turn, but I had no tongue or lips to form the words - and besides, what could I say? In death, there is no nobility, no concepts of might or wealth or birth. Was there anything to divide me from this entity? Were we different at all?
"You need not answer, Rafaz. I already know." Again her voice traveled through me and shook my whole form - I had a body still! It was then I knew that I had not died, but had entered some ephemeral state unknown. I fought anew to move, to rise and open my eyes, but she rebuked me: "Not yet, warrior. The dream has not passed."
I could sense a further presence now, several of them - different forms crowded the space around me, some so close at hand that I could sense the damp life of their breathing, others at a distance minding me cautiously. They were but shadows, and twisted ones at that, but not fearful beings like the ones I had known from my past excursions into the Umbrien. They were strangers for sure, and quite possibly dangerous, but they were naught but men.
The ghosts finally departed my vision, and my eyes fell upon the first presence - and oh, that I could have seen such a face in Teyach, I might have abandoned all ambition and accepted joy as just recompense. Eyes of obsidian and locks to match, hers was a bloodline that had crossed through the Imperial Heartland at some point in the distant past. The Umbrein had stamped her more gently with most, scarcely marring those noble features - bones at once strong and delicate, a graceful curve to the jaw framing her almond eyes. She watched me with curiosity - a trait of the sacred blood that I knew, at once, she must bear.
"Then I still live," I said. "And to what paradise did you deliver me?"
"You are either very forgiving, or yet delirious," she said. "But at least you are awake. You may call me Esha, for sake of ease."
"And you know me already," I said.
"I know much," said Esha, those words a rough and haunted melody. "Your guide relayed the story of your betrayal."
"My guide..." My mind was still in fog that hid the name of my betrayer. "...Randam? He guided me only to my death."
"He guided you to the place of my request," said Esha. "I did not specify the method, but I could reckon his plan, and he did not disappoint."
My reserves of strength and willpower had returned enough that I could rise to a sitting position, the better to study the others in attendance. They were a mixed lot, much like Randam's retinue, though I could swear (through senses admittedly still bent by the poison) that I had glimpsed some of the faces in the grand court. Petty nobles, I think, enemies of the Imperial family - how many inconvenient servants had they disposed of here? Beyond them was only shadow, the walls and ceiling of whatever edifice housed me still lost to my wounded eyes.
"It would be fair to exhibit anger," said Esha. "Had someone ordered me drugged with that stuff, I would be fit to kill."
"I am still too lost for outrage, it seems," I said. "I never wholly trusted Randam, but I anticipated a dagger between my ribs."
"The treatment for a dangerous enemy, not one such as you." Esha drew to her full height - hers was a build fit for a lady of the Umbrein, strength and grace wedded in perfect symmetry. "The Draught of Shadow is a special purpose tool, to invoke torment on a particularly evil foe or to conjure an ordeal for a future ally."
"Your man has an unorthodox means of greeting."
"A test we've all faced. Everyone in this room has seen the ghosts, been the victim of their predation. It is important to sample the worst of the Umbrein, that we might understand the hell that we wish to visit on our enemies." Esha extended a hand to me. "But I'm sure one with your mind would rather hear the full story?"
"Stories offer little appeal, I'm afraid, but..." I took her hand, less for need than to confirm her existence. "...for a lady of such rare gifts, I am obliged to accept."
I can not tell if Esha gleaned my intent from my words, and there was no time to ponder such childish romantic fantasy. There was much I did not understand about my predicament, and much to learn, though I had my suspicions from the moment I set eyes upon the group. This would be a challenging situation, and love would wait until the puzzle was solved.
For the time I had spent scouting the Umbrein, I had no concept of what dwellings might be there - why would I? From the watchposts of glorious Teyach, one can only see an unmastered land locked in a brutal past, with naught but a few barbarian camps and firelight-streaked caverns to suggest any trace of civilization. One's eyes spot little more on the ground, only dense virgin forests housing horrors untold in the lightless gaps between their branches. Yet - and I can only decry my maladroit skill as a scout on overlooking this - those branches, those caverns, those shadows, they hide a world just as vast as anything within the bounds of the Empire.
Such is what I beheld as I followed Esha from winding staircase to narrow pass until, at last, we reclaimed the open air. The border watchposts of Teyach stretched high over our heads, casting shadows over sickly woods. Then my eyes grew to the darkness, and I could see what was before me - not only a forest but a city, the buildings stitched into the spaces between thickets, their rooftops blending eagerly into the blighted trees. There was no clear way to distinguish what was offered by nature and what had been wrought by man - the latter rose from the earth as surely as the former, and the former obeyed the design of the latter.
"Remarkable," I said. "And with the walls so close! How did we never know of a place resting so close to our borders?"
"Does one always take note of what rests against his boot?" Esha strode to the edge of the dais on which we stood. "The builders did their work with caution, and slowly. They moved supplies when the imperial family was distracted by their internal affairs."
"Impossible," I said. "You would need a vast network of eyes and ears to accomplish this."
"Spies we have in abundance, but not the variety you've imagined," said Esha. "A season of chaos always leads to a purge. When our ranks swell with outcasts, then the builders know it is safe to do their work."
"And the castoffs carry information from their old lives as well," I said. "Thus the throne sows the very seed that will choke it."
"Precisely," said Esha. "But for their love of consigning inconvenient souls to the darkness, we would have been swallowed by barbarism."
"A delightful irony, though it raises more questions. Why build a city here, where a watchman might chance to see it?"
"Ah, to understand that, there is something else you must see."
A dozen finger-narrow paths led down from the dais; Esha led me down the one most mired in shadow, a steep and treacherous stair lancing into the heart of the city. The treetops and rooftops vanished above us, as did the streets that wound beneath them, and still we descended. At last regaining my footing on a steady floor somewhere beneath the surface, I found myself in a strange place - a constricted cavern, lost to the sky but lit as though by a miasma-throttled moon. The light came from the walls themselves, or rather the curious plants that struggled to break free into the stifling subterranean air. Enshrouded figures ran along the walls with blades, scrutinizing and harvesting a few select specimens and concealing them within metal crocks.
"Welcome to the sunken gardens of Cursed-by-Darkness," said Esha. "Far afield from the ones known by Teyach, surely, but you must admit a certain haunted beauty all the same."
"What sorcery endows these plants the ability to grow in such a place?" I said.
"No sorcery. Rather, these are the font of sorcery." Esha's eye drifted to one of the figures. "And here is your friend. Randam?"
"Well I'll be, the raven survived his flight." Randam cast back his hood, his diabolic features somehow softened in the accursed half-light. "My apologies, friend, for the unwelcome surprise. Merely a test...for both of us, to be sure. Was a fresh draught I used on you."
"Dwell not on his appearance, Randam is one of our most skilled alchemists." Esha plucked a plant from the wall of the cave, the indigo light bleeding over her features. "Cursed-by-Darkness and the Draught of Shadow were known in these lands long before we came. Why else would people avoid such a place, were it not tainted by evil? But at length, they learned how to extract the magic of the plant, and use it to perform fell miracles of their own."
"The monsters, friend," said Randam. "Naught but smoke and dreams, fed by the poison of the plant."
"Then the horrors of the Umbrein are conjurer's tricks," I said. "Fears given life by alchemy. You create this as a tool? A weapon?"
"Something more," said Esha. "We've extracted enough to create a pall of such size that it would envelop the Imperial Heartland. The whole of the court would vanish in the shade."
"A most cruel vengeance, don't you think?" I said. "Tyrant and servant alike would perish for it. You strike without direction."
"Fire would be directionless, friend. We've got a tool to sort wheat from tares." Randam's serpent jaw broke out in a grin. "The stuff purified us. It purified you all the same. A spell to divide the strong-hearts from the robbers and fools - this is what awaits them."
"The weak minds in the court will suffer dearly, but the rest will have a chance at redemption. A torment or an ordeal, just as you had to endure..." Esha extended a hand to me. "...We've stayed our hand until we had a court fit to replace the one soon to fall. Will you join our court?"
A storm of competing thoughts assailed me as I pondered these people and their scheme. They were my redeemers - did I owe them, as I had owed the Empress? Would this path lead to the same place? Was this madness the true escape, or just revenge - delectable as that may be? In the end, I could speak nothing but the truth as I saw it.
"I know not if you are visionaries or mere sadists, but my life lies with you. I shall keep my honor, though, and exercise it as I will. Yes, I will follow you into the maw of chaos, but know that if I ever catch a glimpse of conquest for its own sake in either of you, then I shall strike you both down, with naught but my hands if need be."
"I expected no less a response," said Esha.
It is the rising sun that I'll always recall, rising over a world on the brink of a transformation. The day before I had awakened beneath the sun of Teyach, but that day...on that day, a different sun rose, one bent by the arts of the lost souls of the Umbrein. Randam and his agents were already at work, preparing the artifices that will unleash the ghosts upon my old land. Meanwhile, far above the fray, I stood with those who had once been my peers - nobles and knights discarded along with their honor during times of disorder - and Esha, whose own magnificence rivaled that of the new sun.
The poisoned blade still hangs above the Teyach throne, but we have yet to deliver the fatal thrust. There is much to do before the dawn comes. It is a strange fate that I've realized, from honorable warrior to assassin of empires, but perhaps I've merely changed my armaments - the shadows of Teyach to replace my armor, and darkest fear for my blade.