The Gods were angry. Their anger filled the sky and pulled at the sea. Storms like the one that beset the coastal city of Artella were rare, and the people believed they only happened when the Gods saw fit to set their fury down upon them. Powerful winds caught the rain and carried it across the surface of the sea, up and over the walls of the city. The clouds lit up as lightning rolled from one horizon to another, occasionally lashing down at the surface. The harbour walls of Artella, built thick and tall centuries ago, defied the power of the ocean as the mighty waves crashed against them. They hugged the harbour, leaving a small channel between them through which the ships could pass. The waves forced their way through, losing much of their power until they broke more gently against the docks. The city had weathered worse storms than this, but there was an air of ferocity about this weather that had everyone on edge.
A single raindrop fell above the bay along with millions of its brothers. A flash of lightning refracted and reflected within the minuscule sphere of water as it raced down to the great rolling ocean, ready to be swallowed up and cease to exist. It almost reached the ocean surface when a torrent of wind hurtled in from the open sea, rose from the waves and caught the droplet. It stopped falling and began to fly. It rose over the wall, fell towards the harbour and was caught again as the wind hit the ground and rose up from it. It sailed past wooden houses, shuttered windows rattling as the wind that bore it tried to pull them open. Glints of fire and candle light danced within it as it again rose above the rooftops and narrowly avoided a wooden plank that had broken free. The wind followed the contours of the city, rushing up the hill, carrying the droplet with it. The buildings here were stone, the shutters held in place by iron bars and hinges. Up and up the wind curved, carrying the droplet higher and higher, until the great shadow of the Castle of Artella, standing high above the city loomed before it. A great wall of solid stone, pocked with dim firelight reaching out from narrow slits. One of those illuminated slits grew in size, coming closer and closer as the droplet charged towards it. In the last moments of its short life, the droplet sailed through the narrow gap in the wall, past two pairs of hardened eyes, and buried itself in the fire of a burning torch, where it turned to steam and drifted into the air, accompanied by sooty smoke as the torch went out.
“Light it again, Harold, please.” Said an old, gravelled voice.
Harold heaved his leather and furs from the stone bench he had been sitting on and grabbed a small iron case from one of his pockets. He rested his longbow next to the quiver of arrows resting against the wall and plodded over to the smouldering torch. Another gust of wind clawed at his back as he picked the flint and steel from the iron case with frozen fingers and set about relighting the torch.
“Don’t know why we have to be down here.” Harold began. “Ain’t nobody’s going to attack the castle in this. Not that they ever do.”
“Oi.” The older voice snapped at him. “We have a duty, as does everyone else manning this wall. I won’t have any more words out of you.”
The owner of the older voice, a short man with greying black hair and wearing similar leathers and furs to Harold, tightened his grip on his own longbow and turned his attention back to peering out over the city. After a few attempts the fire reluctantly caught on the torch and Harold sat back down, picking up his bow as he did so.
“It’s not right, anyway. Being up here on a night like this.”
“Someone’s got to do it, lad.”
“But I mean, big castle like this, on a night like tonight. Things happen, don’t they?”
“Oh really, what things?”
“You know, bad things. Omens and that.”
“You’ve been listening to too many of your mother’s stories.”
“My grandmother’s, actually.”
“Ha! Stories of dark rituals and groblins and orcs that come and steal bad little children away in the dead of night?”
“You actually believe that? Gods help us, we’ve got babes guarding the castle now!”
“I know they’re just stories.” Harold replied, indignant. “But they’ve got to have some truth to them, else how would they get told?”
“Heh, you’re in the wrong line of work. You should have been a priest.”
“All I’m saying is that, if there’s a big castle like this, then stuff what’s bad has got to happen here sometimes, right?”
“And, what I’m saying, is that this would be the perfect night for those bad things to, you know, happen.”
“We’ve had worse storms than this.”
“But this storm’s different.”
“It doesn’t feel right.”
“What in the hells do you mean, ‘Doesn’t feel right’?”
“I get… bad feelings… sometimes, like something bad’s going to happen.”
The older man raised a sceptical eyebrow.
“Of all the people to bestow the Sight on, Harold, I don’t think you rank highly on the Gods’ list.”
“But last time I had bad feelings was back when Carrow Rill fell of the wall.”
“Should have been a priest. You’d have been more useful in a temple than here.”
“Shut it! We’re staying here until our Lord has no further need of us, is that understood?”
“Yes Sir.” Harold replied, shrinking into his warm clothing.
The three knocks echoed through the corridors and halls of the castle with a far deeper resonance than either of the men could ever recall. Outside a fork of lightning accompanied another gust of wind, and the torch once again went out.
“What was that?”
Lord Miteus Wetherhall, Noble Lord and Protector of the Realm of Artellathwaine rose from the wooden throne as the knocks echoed between the towering walls of the ruling chamber of Castle Artella. His black bearskin cloak fell to his ankles as he placed his hand on the hilt of his sheathed sword. To his left, his wife Lady Jalice clutched their infant son to her breast. To his right his younger brother Viscarus straightened his stance, the steel plating of his armour chinking together as he placed both hands in a tight grip around the hilt of his greatsword. Around them the castle guard did likewise, unsheathing their blades and drawing back their bows. The great oak doors at the end of the ruling chamber opened slowly with their characteristic resonant thud. From the narrow gap between the doors a small old man hobbled as fast as his weary legs could carry him. He wore deep green robes and a pointed hat, and his face was hidden behind a long mess of white beard. The wizard seemed exhausted, and he was soaked from head to toe.
“Lord Vigard Wetherhall! I must speak with you!” The wizard shouted between gasps of breath as he knelt down before Miteus.
“What is the meaning of this?” Miteus demanded. “There is no Lord Vigard here.”
The wizard looked up at the Lord stood above him, the expression on his face turning to sudden realised horror. He mouthed something to himself before he spoke again.
“Lord Miteus, I beg an audience with your son.”
“My only son is here, Wizard, and he is an infant. If you have something to say, you will say it to me, and be gone from my lands before I have you thrown in the dungeons.”
“With respect, my Lord, what words I have are for your son and him alone.”
“I will not tolerate this any further. Your words are not welcome here, nor is your kind. Go now, whilst my patience lasts.”
The wizard rose from his feet.
“My Lord, you do not understand! I bear grave warnings about his future.”
“Enough!” Miteus screamed. “My Lady, take Micharus and leave here, I will not have this mageblood’s lies poison your ears.”
The Lady stood and began to carry their son towards the rear entrance to the hall. The wizard took a step forwards.
“No, you must listen to me!”
Viscarus hefted his blade and stepped between the wizard and his lord.
“Step back, mageblood, or I’ll take your…”
The wizard’s hand had reached out towards him, and the armoured man became surrounded in a shimmering green light. He did not have time to finish his sentence before there was a blinding green flash and he was gone. The wizard looked at his open hand and muttered under his breath.
The tension in the hall shattered as the next seconds became flooded with commotion. The Lady clutched her infant child more tightly and began to run. The Lord unsheathed the ancestral blade and screamed.
The castle guard broke from their posts and came towards the wizard, their weapons rising to strike. The Lord raised his own sword and pointed it towards the wizard.
“Bring him back!” His voice ripped out, carrying both anger and pain.
“I don’t…” The wizard spoke the first words before he felt the pain explode from his back through his whole body. He collapsed down onto his hands and knees. He tried to speak, but he choked and coughed, fresh blood splattering on the newly-laid floor. He managed to drag himself to his feet and looked around.
He was alone, the commotion around him having never seemed to have happened. The torches were unlit, the ruling chamber dimly illuminated by moonlight. The two seats in front of him on the raised platform had been replaced by a single golden throne. The tiled floor around him was free of imperfection, unspoiled and new. Behind him there were rows of wooden benches and seats, arranged to look up to where the throne was placed. He heard the large oak doors behind him open, and he turned to see two guards running down the isles between the seats.
“Tell me.” The wizard asked. “What day is this?”
The guards did not answer him.
“Who is he?” One of the guards asked.
“Don’t know.” The other replied.
“Where did he come from?”
“Please, I must know the date!” The wizard asked again.
“Get the apothecary, now!” The second guard instructed the first, who obeyed and ran off.
The wizard noticed then that the guards had not been looking at him, but rather at his feet. He looked down and saw, sprawled before him, his own body, with three arrows stuck in his back. He took a step backwards in horror, and looked at his own hands. They seemed solid to him, but he knew they were only a memory of his hands now. He staggered back and sat down in one of the seats as his whole self became numb.
Minutes went by and he eventually saw the apothecary, a small man dressed in plain white robes, come running down the isle towards his corpse. The apothecary knelt down and ran his hands over the body, a faint green glow emanating from them.
“He is beyond my power to heal.” The apothecary said. “He’s gone.”
“Who is he?” The first guard asked again.
“I do not know. You say he did not come in through the doors?”
“No, he just appeared out of thin air. We checked the chamber a few minutes before.”
“He may be a mage.” The apothecary said, before watching the hairs on the back of his hand stand on end. “It is a bad omen, that is to be sure. Awaken the King at once!”
The guards ran for the entrance as the wizard, still sat staring at his body across the room, heard the toll of a single bell. The sound carried a feeling of inevitability, and brought the wizard’s attention to the golden throne. Sat upon the throne was a being of silent terror, a skeletal form wrapped in a tattered cloak that seemed to be made of shadows. Beneath its cowl the bleached bone of a skull almost shone, one skeletal hand raked its fingers across the gilded arm of the throne, whilst the other clutched the blackened branch of a long-dead tree, at the top of which hung a single bell formed of pitch black metal. It drew breath slowly before speaking with a voice that sounded as if it had been formed in deep and long forgotten tombs.
Micharus’ spirit rose to his feet as the form of Death made itself known to him.
“I didn’t expect this day to be my last.” Micharus said with a strange calm.
“Is my death the price for delivering my warning?”
“No. Your warning will never be known to living men.”
“Then all this was in vain?”
“You cast your dice against Fate, and he seldom takes prisoners.”
“Are you… him, then?”
“I work for him.”
“So you’re a Shade, then?”
The Shade of Death rose from the throne. “My master did intend to be here himself, but he was unavoidably detained.”
Around the two spirits the world of the living moved on. The King, still in his night robes and accompanied by more guards, strode quickly yet gracefully into the ruling chamber. Micharus recognised the face of the King.
“King Scothrin the Third?” He said, before he burst out in laughter.
“What could possibly be so funny?” The Shade of Death asked as he stepped forwards, the bell that rang only for the dead letting out another hollowing ring.
“I suppose you were right.” Micharus said from between bouts of dying laughter. “I couldn’t best Fate.”
“I don’t suppose I could hang around for a bit, haunt the castle for a few hundred years?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“I didn’t think so. What happens now?”
The bony hand of the Shade reached below his robes and brought forth a key black as the sky between the stars. He walked over to the side of the chamber and knelt down, inserting the key into a non-existent lock. A door of impossibly black obsidian ripped into the world like a wound, light refusing to touch its surface. The air chilled and ice formed around it, and in its centre a single eye spun to look at Micharus’ soul. The Shade turned the key and the door swung inwards, revealing a different, dark place behind it. A single hand gestured Micharus to go through the door, and he felt powerless to resist. He stepped out of the living world, and the Shade of Death followed him. At last the door of Death closed and disappeared from the world.
The chill that had run down the spine of the apothecary finally subsided as he listened to his King’s command.
“Prepare him for burial. Have the stonemasons prepare a tomb in the castle gardens, we will bury him properly.”
“We do not even know his name, my Liege.”
“Then the tomb shall be unmarked until we find his name.”
“As you command, my Liege.”
The King said a silent prayer and turned to return to his chambers.
Below the castle the town slept as the gentle waves of the ocean crashed against the freshly laid foundations of the harbour wall.