Lukas reaches the outskirts of Bovinden and though he has never been here before it is clear that the defensive wall that rings the town is a recent addition. It’s clear because the wall is constructed out of lengths of thick wood that have been thrust about two metres into the clay infused dirt. The tips of the wooden spears that form the wall are sharp, high and pointed. There is no way anyone would be able to scale them. However, no one would make a defensive wall like this unless it was done hastily and as a temporary measure.
Before long Lukas spies the severed heads impaled on pikes to either side of a set of twin heavy wooden gates that he assumes must be the main entrance to the town beyond. They too are clearly a more recent addition. At most, he considers, they may have been present for a few years.
Lukas is also aware of the presence of three guards posted in twin connected towers over the gates. He pays them no mind as he continues to approach. He doubts they will fire upon him, if they have bows and arrows, without cause.
All of a sudden, now that Lukas is within a few metres of the gates, one of the guards, dressed in thick metal plate, bellows down at him, “What is your purpose here?”
It’s a very open question allowing Lukas the availability to give a great many different answers. However, he decides to keep it simple and so responds, “I seek only work and coin for that work”
“Truly?” The guard queries for some reason sounding more disbelieving than he meant to. In truth the guard believes this man a mercenary. He dresses like one and is armed like one. Plus, he carries the swagger of a hired killer. They posses few scruples and that is what the Grand Imperator is on the lookout for.
“Truly.” Lukas rumbles deeply in response.
“Open the gates.” The guard calls over his shoulder in the seconds before he disappears from sight, leaving the just two of his fellow colleagues, each stood in one the pair of towers to watch Lukas like a hawk. The wood of the towers is stained black by the damp air and peppered with bird guano.
The mercenary however pays no attention to the two guard’s intent stares while he waits for the twin water marked gates to swing open.
As they do, Lukas takes note of a muddy pathway beyond occupied by the same guard who had queried his approach and asked of his intentions. And in truth Lukas’ words were not a lie, at least completely. He is on the search for work, but this needs to be dealt with first.
“Follow me. But keep close. Wandering eyes cost a limb. Get my meaning?” The guard utters before turning, not quite on his heels, and marching off carefully up the muddy path that may once have been a road.
Lukas shrugs and then follows. He’s acutely aware that the pair are not alone and that to his rear are a couple guards armed with halberds. They too are also wrapped in heavy brightly gleaming mail and plate near identical to the man ahead of him.
The mercenary ignores the presence of the added security however and focuses instead on the details around him such as the fearful expressions on the citizens faces, the thick moss that covers the low walls meant to act as boundaries around properties and the ivy which has been allowed to run amuck to the such a degree that entire sections of buildings have become woven beneath is dark green mass.
Those same ivy infested buildings look abandoned with many of the windows boarded up. Yet, the gardens are pristinely groomed and the small lawns manicured. It’s an image at odds with itself.
Dark clouds fill the sky above the town threatening rain that has not yet fallen. Meanwhile, the Solar Moon looms low and unfettered by clouds. To Lukas it seems as though the clouds hang over only the town, unwilling to drift away. That explains why the dirt road he is trudging along is nothing but thick slippery mud, deep and sticky under foot. His boots shifting and forcing air out of the viscous matter creating a squelching sound with every step taken not just by him but the trio of guards that are serving as his retinue.
The mercenary feels sorry for the people he passes. Many of which withdraw into the relative safety of the structures which he can’t quite bring himself to call homes. Nothing about this town screams welcoming or inviting. Instead it screams oppression and fear. Lukas can taste it on the stale air that hangs over and around him. It would be suffocating if it weren’t for him having been in enough battles to have grown accustomed to it. And then Lukas catches sight of the severed rotting heads skewered on pikes at every street corner. That explains the smell, he thinks.
The mercenary had not always held the profession he does now. At one time, when he had been very young, he had served for a cause greater than himself. At least, that is how it had been sold to him. Like many things said by supposed betters, it had been a lie and once he’d deciphered that for himself he had made sure to depart and start a life of his choosing. One that existed outside of the limits others wished to oppose upon him. It’s why he likes travelling the continent taking on jobs others are unwilling or unable to do themselves.
Finally, after what feels like almost an hour, the road seems to be headed right toward the castle. It isn’t impressive or shambolic. Instead it seems to Lukas to occupy a space somewhere between the two, suggesting that it has seen better days, but that those days have long since past. It’s the same feeling the entire town has given him. Yet, the air and emotion that surrounds this place is nowhere near as bleak or rotten. Lukas wonders if he should count that as fortunate or as further proof of the man, the now dead woman he had tried to save on the road, called the Blood Tyrant. There is only one reason that moniker would have been doled out to who he believes is better known as Grand Imperator, a man apparently called Varsius. Even the name drips with venom and cruelty.
Lukas wonders whether the owner of the name knows it’s meaning in the old tongue. The mercenary has to assume he does, but whether that name too is a moniker he has adopted or whether it was simply bestowed upon him, he cannot say or hazard a guess.
Still, Lukas slinks through the towering opening of the castle and steps into the meagre hallway that ends in a pair of closed arch shaped doors. To his left and right are intersecting hallways, but the mercenary pays no mind to them as he continues to follow his vanguard all the way up to the closed doors that are guarded by a total of six equally well armoured guards. Each of them too brandishes halberds as their plated armour shines so brilliantly that it could be used as a set of curved mirrors.
Lukas cannot see the eyes that belong to the suits of armour before him, but he can feel them. They judge and probe at him seeking answers even as the guard that led him here announces, “This man here is looking for work and coin. May we enter so he can seek an audience with his eminence for consideration?”
“Granted. But the Grand Imperator is in court so make sure to keep quiet and resist any urges you may be inflicted by that might lead to interruption.” One of the faceless suits of armour announces before peeling off a salute for a reason Lukas cannot fathom.
There is no doubt that the warning delivered from the faceless guard was aimed squarely toward Lukas, even though he had no way of knowing if the suit was looking his way or not. He considers that he must have been as the towering heavy wooden doors creak open, propelled by two of the six guards, until they are just far enough apart to permit Lukas, and the guard ahead of him, entry. The two rear additions do not follow as Lukas steps over the threshold and into a dark, dimly lit throne room illuminated with only a single candle every couple of metres. They are spaced further apart than is necessary and occupy a space midway between the towering columns that hold the ceiling in place and the narrow black strip of cloth that is arrow straight down the middle of the vast but otherwise shockingly empty space only frequented by a decent number of guards who are all stood at attention.
Lukas would have expected finery, tapestries, paintings, statues, carvings and perhaps some furniture, but there is none of that. Instead the only piece of furniture seems to be the throne at the far end. It’s a misshapen wooden structure that appears to have been fashioned out of driftwood that is still rotting and turning to dust. Again it is a far cry from what the mercenary would have imagined. Yet, around the throne is where the vast majority of the rooms light can be found.
Though there is a stained glass window high up in the wall behind the throne, little light is able to permeate the dirt smeared surface. Instead the light is cast by hundreds of near extinct candles, the wax of which has melted and formed into puddles and odd shapes all around the raised plinth upon which the throne resides. And on that throne sits a grey shrivelled old man with a pointed nose, cruel eyes, fine silken robes and a gaunt face upon which rests a wicked smile.
The guard ahead of Lukas raises his hand to signify halt. The mercenary obeys and then watches as this grey evil looking old crone of a man delivers a wave of his hand. The wave is followed by pleas of mercy and then screams of pain as the five men and three women knelt before him have their throats slit and their eyes gouged. In response the grey man cackles in a higher-pitched tone than Lukas would never have considered able to belong to a man of his size, which is more than his own one hundred and ninety centimetres.
However, the grey man on the throne says nothing as he throws his arms wide and raises his head toward the vaulted ceiling still cackling. This grey shell is clearly enamoured with the suffering, pain and death he has inflicted on these poor defenceless people, who had all been shackled.
Lukas follows the direction of the grey man’s gaze eventually, only to find bodies strung from chains suspended from the high stone ceiling above their heads. It’s a sickening sight but Lukas isn’t affected by it in a physical sense. Though, there can be no doubt that he has found the man he was looking for. That is why when the guard gestures for him to follow again so he can be presented to Varsius, he prepares himself.
This won’t be the first time Lukas will have met a tyrant or sadist. Yet, he knows exactly how this will play out. He doubts this old man of cruelty does. He probably thinks himself untouchable. His kind always does. Pity they don’t realise just how much they have to lose until it slips right through their fingers. Still, Lukas gives away nothing as he keeps his expression blank and stops exactly where the guard points.
In response Grand Imperator Varsius, or the Blood Tyrant as he is now more commonly known by the people of Bovinden, smiles. It isn’t the same sick smile he had carved across his gaunt face previous, but a welcoming one, or at least an approximation of what should be welcoming smile. It is clearly forced and insincere.
“Ah, a visitor. Welcome.” Varsius manages in the moments after the guard that led Lukas here whispers into the Grand Imperators ear that this man is seeking work and coin for said work.
The Grand Imperator licks his lips greedily. It is clear this man is a mercenary and he does enjoy new prospective additions to his little empire of pain. It’s not as large as he would have wished, but it is enough for him to have secured his borders against the heretical philosophies of the neighbouring free city states that border them. These are the same free states that, from what Varsius has gathered, continue to multiply with every passing day, and as they do so they further the corrupted and diseased lie that is freedom.
Varsius is sure that they will fall to their own hubris before long and when they do he will burn them to ash, using the Sacred Flame, and claim what remains for himself. No one will stop him. The larger kingdoms will not care about the bloodletting of their small and, in their eyes, inconsequential neighbours. They never have and never will. And that is how Varsius, Grand Imperator of the Order of Sacred Flame and ruler of Bovinden, will grow his power base. Yet, he doesn’t wish to challenge those same large nations. No. He simply wants a seat at their table of power and he’ll get it. But first, to converse with this black clad man with shoulder length blond hair who has a bow and quiver across his back.
The contradiction of the man before him is enough to peak the Blood Tyrants curiosity and raise one of his now bushy grey eyebrows in the moments before he declares, “I am Grand Imperator Varsius, ruler of Bovinden. But who may I ask are you and from where do you hail?”
Varsius still speaks as slowly as he ever has, and his emphasis continues to be on the s in every word. Yet, it seems even more pronounced as he says his own name during his introduction.
Lukas however is unaffected by the voice that perfectly mirrors the cruelty in this man’s face. It’s why he answers, “I am Lukas, I hail from nowhere and I am but a simple Wayfarer.”
The mercenaries’ voice is deep and low but perfectly audible to the old crone of a self-appointed monarch.
Varsius scoffs. He does not believe the man’s words which is why he rebuts with, “No. You are no simple wayfarer. YOU are a killer for hire. YOU sow chaos and pain wherever it is you dare to walk. But you will not do so in MY kingdom.”
The Grand Imperator is convinced the arrival of this blond haired man is too perfect to be anything other than a ploy. He has to have been hired and sent here. The Grand Imperator is sure he wishes to take his head. The tyrant would even wager all the blood he has spilt on this blond haired man having been hired by that whore Lucia Van Delane. But the Grand Imperator does not know that she is dead. That after having been raped in the woods she took an arrow to her throat and that Lukas bore witness to it all. In fact, it is the reason he is here.
“I am here for no such thing. Though, I am curious how you ascended to the throne, Grand Imperator. I had heard that Bovinden was ruled by a King.” Lukas retorts directly. He isn’t afraid of this tyrant and makes such a fact as clear as day to the tyrant before him. The same man who has thousands of executions and murders to his name, including that of the former king, Jakob Porrison.
“Listen, mercenary.” Varsius replies, keeping his hand ready to give the order for his guards, of which there are more than two dozen, to attack and slaughter this man without a seconds thought.
“I got here through blood and pain. I killed King Porrison, the stupid, pompous, party loving, gaudy obsessed fool. That is how I came to be sat here on MY throne in MY kingdom.” Varsius continues, spittle flying from his lips as he speaks.
Lukas however is one step ahead of the Grand Imperator. He knows this Varsius intends to have him cut down where he stands. In fact, that likely had been the plan as soon as he’d set foot in the town. But Lukas has learned all he needs to and so as fast as lightning pulls the bow from across his back, draws two arrows, notches them, draws his bowstring and then lets them fly.
The mercenary manages all that before Varsius even has a chance to say a word or so much as twitch his hand. That is why the two arrows several seconds later punch through the Grand Imperator’s eyes, claiming his sight and his life. A short cry escaping the old dictators lips before death cuts off his voice.
The guards gasp in horror but hold their positions as the thrown back head of Varsius finally comes down and drops so low that his lifeless pointed chin is almost pressed against his bony chest. Meanwhile, his arms have slipped off the armrests of the throne and hang limp and motionless in the air.
“Anyone like to stand alongside the Blood Tyrant and pay the same price?” Lukas rumbles as his eyes question each of the guards before him.
Though he can’t see their faces, he can feel the fear dripping off them. If he were a man like Varsius had been then he’d find it intoxicating. Instead, the mercenary finds it nauseating. Yet, after a two minute silence no one has dared to make a move. That is when Lukas’ expression breaks into a broad smile and just as it does the red hue of the Solar Moon shifts and begins to transition back to a warm yellow glow. Today at this time, marks, to the date, the end of the Solar Moon’s nine years. The event will not be seen again for a millennia.
It also marks the end of the violent and barbaric reign of Grand Imperator Varsius, better known for the last nine years as the Blood Tyrant who ruled Bovinden.