End of the Chill Season, 184 A.P.
Ean Sangrave sat on a new throne deep in the mines beneath Rottwealth Village. The throne was made entirely out of stone, built by a squad of small, brown imps. A cushion for his aching backside would be nice right about now, but imps didn’t seem to understand the concept of comfort. They weren’t very creative either, unless you considered the shapes their drool made as it hit the ground. Capable of understanding basic speech, and grasping simple concepts, the waist-high creatures were good to have around for manual labor, and that was about it.
Zin, however, was an exception. Clever and loyal, he was also Ean’s best friend. Before the beautiful red-eyed Yulari, Azalea, had come along, it had been Ean and Zin against the world. Now, they were a trio. At least, that’s how Ean saw it. But more often than not, it was Zin against Azalea, or vice versa. Ean didn’t know how much more of their bickering he could take.
Currently, Zin and Azalea stood on either side of him, with the monstrous Jaan taking the role of security guard at the bottom of the dais. Jaan’s job for the day was to look intimidating—-an effortless task for a Crux with his four massive arms capable of crushing a man’s bone to fine powder.
“This plan had better work.” Azalea said to Zin. “Of course, it would fun to see you fail as well. Darn, now I’m conflicted about what I want to happen.”
“You’re just jealous because I thought it up,” Zin retorted. “You wingless soul-sucker.”
Azalea’s proud shoulders suddenly slumped. Ean could practically see the fight drain out of her. The fact that Zin would remind her of that horrible day, when that butcher had torn the wings from her back, was low even for him. The imp had been warned before about bringing it up. Poor Azalea had been neurotically afraid of humans ever since.
“Zin!” Ean said sharply.
The imp lowered his head and scratched at his neck.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” the imp muttered. “Sorry, Azalea.”
Refusing to look at him, she stuck her nose in the air with a humph. Ean wondered if the two of them would ever get along, but they had better put their differences aside when it mattered—like now, when they were about to have the mayor of Rottwealth in their home.
“No more fighting until we get this meeting over with.”
Ean knew they could work together if they didn’t focus on how much they disliked each other. Azalea had ordered the imps to build the throne high, saying it would put Ean above anyone who came to see him, including the leader of Rottwealth. Zin agreed, saying Ean should get used to being in a position of authority. It was certainly a new experience. Less than a year ago, he had been a simple Healer's apprentice. It felt strange to be the leader of creatures that could rip him apart with ease.
Up until now, he hadn’t given much thought to his appearance. Now that he was vying for a little power, it occurred to him that he should look respectable. Clutching the front of his scratchy black tunic, he made a sour face. Ean wished the imp had stolen something nicer for him to wear. With all the wealthy merchants in town, why would anybody raid the clothesline of a peasant?
Glancing down at his bare feet, a sinking feeling filled the pit of his stomach. His dark hair had grown down to his shoulders. Ean raked it out of his eyes with his fingers, realizing he must look like a shaggy mess.
“Do I look like a leader?” he asked, trying to hide the anxiety running through him in waves.
“It’s too late to worry about that,” Zin replied.
“Just sit there and look proud,” Azalea ordered, “as if shoes, haircuts . . .”– she paused to sniff the air with a look of disgust–“ . . . and soap are beneath you.”
Finally, after three seasons of isolation in the deep, dark mines—as prisoners of Auz’s magic—the prospect of contact with the outside world filled him with excitement. And, if he was honest, a lot of trepidation. If it wasn’t for his companions-turned-advisors—Zin, Azalea, and now Jaan—he would have lost his mind. A long time ago. Then again, their arguing was starting to test his nerves. If he had to endure one more season of Zin and Azalea’s endless quarrelling, and Jaan’s talk of ransacking the town and enslaving the villagers, he’d run a sword through his own chest. He sometimes fantasized about sending them all back to where they came from—the Abyss—leaving him in peace. Of course he never would. They had become his only family.
"Maybe this isn't a good idea," he said, leaning towards Zin. "We didn’t prepare enough. Let’s put it off until I’m better dressed and we’re more established.”
"What? We waited long enough as it is!" Zin smirked at him. "Anyway, it’s too late now. Mayor Erikson is already here."
Azalea stepped closer and placed an arm around his shoulder. She seemed to do that a lot lately. He felt encouragement coming from her through the magical bond they shared. Other times, though, when she touched him, she gave up a mixture of emotions that were too chaotic to understand. In general, the Yulari was difficult to understand sometimes.
"It will be alright," she purred in his ear. "You have everyone you need at your side. Don't let the fatso loudmouth mayor intimidate you. Zin and I will make sure you don't make any mistakes."
"I'm not worried about making mistakes. This is just a big step for us. What if things go wrong? The mayor never really liked me to begin with, and I don't want to start our new relationship with the village off on the wrong foot."
"Don't worry about that. You’ve grown up a lot since you left Rottwealth. There’s a chance he won’t even realize it’s you. And even if he does, he will take one look at all of your tattoos, myself, and Jaan, and know you’re not the young man everyone used to push around.”
“Hey,” the imp said. “What about me?”
“Your kind isn’t very intimidating,” she retorted. “Why don’t you do what you do best and turn yourself invisible.”
“Both of you!” Jaan growled in his own language. The mixture of the harsh sounds and the Crux’s voice sounded like an avalanche. “The Zekar ordered your fighting to stop.”
Both Azalea’s and Zin’s mouths snapped shut. The silence didn’t last long, however.
“By the way,” Azalea said, “I signed the invitation to the mayor in your more formal name–Zekar, Overlord of Rottwealth Mines.”
“I thought it sounded more intimidating. Zekar is the Crux word for ‘battle leader’ after all. Plain old ‘Ean’ just sounds so…boring.”
“She’s got a point,” Zin said.
“Now you decide to agree with her?” Ean took a moment to rub at his eyes. “Overlord makes me sound like a tyrant.”
“That’s the whole point, silly.” She pulled away and returned to standing at his side. “Now hush, I think our guest is finally here.”
Ean locked the 'overlord' comment away to discuss with Azalea later. He was locking away a lot of things he needed to discuss with his friends.
Unfortunately, he never seemed to find the time to talk to them about anything. For a small mine, they were good at avoiding him when they wanted.
Lotrug, one of Ean’s six Cruxes, entered first. This particular four-armed brute had shown a surprising interest in speaking the human language. While the others had scoffed at the idea of speaking anything but their native tongue, Lotrug was different and didn’t seem to care what his fellow Crux thought about him. Ean had gotten Zin to work with him right away, and after three seasons, the Crux had a rudimentary understanding and could speak coherent sentences. He was the perfect guard to escort the mayor to him.
Except the man walking in with Lotrug was not the mayor. It was his oldest son, Bran.
It was Bran.
Only three seasons had passed since Ean last saw the young man, but he looked like he had aged ten. Dark circles had formed beneath his eyes. He looked as if he hadn’t slept in days. Bran had traded his shaggy youthful haircut, for a short one like a soldier’s. A few days’ worth of stubble grazed his chiseled chin. His shoulders were slumped like a careworn old man’s, but his stride was long and determined. Noticing Bran’s wrinkled and stained clothes, Ean instantly felt better about his own inadequate wardrobe. But, whoa. This slovenly figure wasn’t anything like the Bran Ean used to know. What in the Abyss had happened?
Bran had been watching his Crux escort warily as he entered, but as he walked into the room, his gaze was drawn to Auz like a moth to a flame. Little surprise there.
A sphere radiating light, Auz had grown from the size of a small stone to the size of a large wagon wheel since they had taken up residence in the mines of Rottwealth. Made from a white material similar to the stone around it, life flowed just beneath its translucent surface. The light swirled about like a lightning storm caught in a bottle, never settling or keeping the same pattern of movement. At the moment, Auz seemed calm, the flows of light swam around lazily.
“By the gods,” he gasped. “What is that?”
“It’s not a that, it’s a whom,” Azalea said. “The orb is a sentient being who prefers to be addressed as Auz,”
“Auz,” Bran repeated, looking frazzled around the edges.
“Bran!” Ean exclaimed. Rising from the chair, he strode down the steps and walked up to shake his hand. “I can’t believe it’s really you. After losing you and Jaslyn in Rensen Forest, I didn’t know if I’d ever see you again.”
Bran looked Ean up and down, eyes lingering on the glowing runes tattooed over his forearms and climbing up his neck.
“Ean Sangrave . . . I can’t believe it. Is it really you?”
“Of course,” Ean said it so warmly, it seemed out-of-character, even to him. Maybe it was just because the unexpected meeting with Bran was a reminder of days gone by, when Bran and Jaslen had been the only people in the village to support him. “My flesh might look a little different, but underneath it’s the same old me.”
Bran's gaze drifted over Ean's head. A wave of amusement drifted through Ean's bond with Azalea as Bran's mouth tightened into a frown. When the man returned his gaze to Ean, he looked him up and down again, his eyes resting on the glowing runes.
"Ean . . . is it really you?"
"It's me, Bran. I'm a little different, but it’s still me."
"A little? You look like an entirely new person, although I can see bits and pieces of the old you in your features. Last time I saw you, you were fighting with that creature behind you. And you were losing. I thought you had died trying to save us from that monster. After you had been the one to summon it."
"You know," Azalea said, "I'm standing right here. There is no need to keep calling me a monster. It’s rude."
Ean shot her a look. "Azalea, quiet."
"She follows your orders now?" Bran didn't look like he believed it. "How do I know she isn't the one in charge and you're just her puppet?"
"It's me, Bran, I swear. Azalea and I . . . came to an arrangement after you and Jaslen got away. She has been following me ever since."
Something in Bran's expression changed for an instant, a look of pain crossing his face as his features tightened, and then was gone. Had it been something Ean had said?
"Well, it’s good you are alive, although I'm slightly confused as to what’s going on. Has it been you down here this entire time, scaring off our miners?"
"Yes, sorry about that. I couldn't have anyone poking around down here until everything was set."
"Set? You mean until you had fortified your position here?" He glanced meaningfully at the Crux standing guard in the room.
"That’s not what I was doing. I didn't want there to be any misunderstandings if someone from our village ran into one of . . . them." He gestured back towards Jaan and Azalea. "I want us all to live here together without any problems."
"Without problems? Ean, you've taken our mine away from us. That's a pretty big problem. The mine had barely been opened a short time before that beast made its lair here. And then, after I go out and find a way to kill it, everyone starts worrying that some dark spirits had taken over the mine. You mean to tell me it’s been you and your…your…” Bran paused to cast a wary eye on the Crux and Yulari, ”your cohorts the whole time?”
“Yes.” Even though a touch of guilt started to form in his mind, Ean kept the man’s gaze.
“The villagers broke their backs and the village itself spent a fortune trying to establish this mine. But thanks to you, they have yet to benefit from it.”
"Which is why I invited your father here. I wanted to figure things out, get the men back in here to mine. I've already found a healthy iron vein a little deeper in. We could share--"
"Share? Ean, the mine belongs to Rottwealth. Just because you're squatting here, doesn't mean you have any right to it."
"I understand what you are saying, but this is our home now.” The man had a point, but Ean wasn’t about to tell him that he was tied to Auz and the giant sphere couldn’t be moved. “I want us all to get along, and we, of course, could help in more ways than just mining material. The Cruxlum are excellent builders, and I have other creatures called Maruks that are experts at forging and repairing tools and weapons. We could easily work together for the good of Rottwealth."
"You mean for the good of your own pockets. I would bet that if you have all of these creatures under your control, you are going to be the only one benefitting from any arrangement you make with my village."
His words stung, but Ean tried to place himself in Bran's boots. Of course it could look like Ean was doing all of this for his own personal gain, but it wasn't like that. The creatures he freed from the Abyss were tied to him, that was true, but he was also providing them a better life as well. An average imp's lifespan was only a few days down in the Abyss, and the Crux were used to fighting the wars of stronger creatures or forced to fight to the death for simple entertainment. And the Maruks . . . well, all the Maruks cared about were working forges and creating things, but it was still better for them to do it here in this world. If only Bran could understand that.
"I want Rottwealth to prosper. Why would I hold anything back from the people here?
"I don't know, but then again, I don't know why Cleff had a deal with the temples to keep most of the world from coming here. I'm sure your foster father told you nothing about that."
Bran was correct about that much. Old Cleff had been a strict disciplinarian towards Ean, but the man had never been very talkative. That was a huge secret, however, for Cleff to hold onto all those years.
"What are you saying?" Ean stuttered. "The whole reason people acted strange whenever we brought up our village is because of something Cleff did?"
"Yes. After Cleff was killed, my father told me everything. How Cleff had used his influence and monopoly of the Rottwealth plant to keep people away from our village. Father said Cleff practically held the temples hostage, saying he knew how to destroy the plants unless everyone stayed away from us."
"I can't believe he would do that . . . "
"And yet it’s true. My father sent out a message to the temples saying that whatever deal Cleff had with them was over. Trade caravans started coming soon after. Everyone has been enjoying the variety of new goods coming in. They have also profited by being able to sell their crafts during more than the once a year when the trader used to come. We've also received very generous offers from some of those Hawkpurse families about giving them exclusive rights to trade with us. No one here needs to be a slave to you and work the mines like the monsters that you control."
"They aren't my slaves, Bran." Ean was struggling with all of the new information and trying to keep their talk under control. "They follow me because I freed them from the Abyss . . .”
"Yes, you free monsters into our world. Dangerous monsters. I've seen what a Cruxlum can do first-hand, remember? What if one of your big friends gets angry and decides to take it out on the village?"
"Cruxlum do not attack unless told," Lotrug said in his broken human. "No glory in attacking little humans. Like kicking imps. Pointless."
"Lotrug," Ean said, barely able to keep a sigh of annoyance from escaping his mouth. "Why don't you go back to training. Bran isn’t a threat.”
Without a word, the Crux nodded and left.
"So, they follow your orders," Bran continued. "If I remember correctly, a lot of people in Rottwealth weren't exactly nice to you. What's to stop you from taking your revenge on–"
”You've known me for most of my life. Out of everyone in Rottwealth, you were one of the few to stick up for me. Do you honestly think I would do something like that?"
"I didn't know about your connection to the Abyss until we started traveling together. What else don't I know?"
"Bran, you and Jaslen--"
"Don't say her name! You don't get to ever say her name!"
The force of his words caught Ean off guard, and he instinctively tensed. Bran's face had gone beet red, and his fists were clenched in front of his body. Ean did his best not to tense up as well. They wouldn't accomplish anything if Bran and he came to blows.
"Bran, did something happen to . . . her?"
"I've lost her."
Ean felt like the breath had been sucked out of his body. Jaslen was dead? How? Ean had long since gotten over his crush on the girl, but she had always been a friend. Even though they had parted on bad terms, he had hoped that both Bran and she had made it out of Rensen Forest.
"I had no idea. How did she die?"
"Die? She isn't dead. She's gone. Left me in Lurthalan. She changed after we fled from you. Probably something your magic did to her."
"Bran, there is no way that is true." Well, it was true the energy of the Abyss could change things, including people, but Jaslen hadn't been changed by anything he had done. "I didn't let the energy of the Abyss touch her. I made sure of it.”
“If it wasn’t your energy, it was just as sure your talk about the Abyss. Always a curious girl, she couldn’t get enough of it. Then, after she saw the dark magic working its way within you, it became her obsession. Things were great between us until we left Rottwealth together. I don’t know why I’m wasting
my time telling you this. I ought to just send for the Seekers and let them clear you out of the mine. And, out of my life, for good.”
Now that was going too far.
"You would threaten me with the Seekers? You've seen what they are capable of, their ruthlessness. The one that almost captured us made it clear he would have just as happily killed you and Jaslen as he would me. You would be putting our village in just as much danger. Now who is the one being selfish?"
"Don't you dare question my loyalty to Rottwealth. I'm the one that followed through with the mission. I killed the beast. What did you do? You came in and took over the mines after I saved the village."
"It wasn't my choice. This was where I was brought back. You have no idea what I went through."
"And to be honest, I don't care."
And that was it. That summed up their whole relationship. Bran had been kind, one of the few in the village that ever showed him compassion and friendship. But it was all a show—for Jaslen, for the town, maybe even for the gods. In Ean’s eyes, Bran was just as bad as anyone else in the village. Which made things that much easier.
"Then let's lay everything out, Bran. The creature that you killed, although horrible, was nothing compared to the strength and ferocity of one Crux. And at the moment, I have six of them living here. This mine is now my home. If the people of Rottwealth want to mine from it, it will be on my terms and mine alone."
Bran’s face flushed and he looked on the verge of lunging towards Ean. All Ean felt was indifference. This one man couldn’t intimidate him. After a few moments, Bran’s scowl turned to uncertainty, as if he realized the situation he was in.
"And what are your terms?"
"Simple." Despite Bran's hostility, Ean decided to stick to the original plan. "Any villager that wants to work the mines is welcome here. As long as they stick to designated areas and do not wander about, we’ll get along splendidly. Anyone caught where they shouldn't be will be banned from the mine. No exceptions. Understand, this is for their safety more than any fear I have that they might steal something. You might want to also mention how dangerous it could be for curious folks to surprise one of the creatures that live here now."
"Understood. What else?"
"That's it, Bran. That's all I really wanted. I'm not charging any kind of tax or trying to take anything from the people of Rottwealth. The only thing I need from you is to trade the material I dig up and create as well. I don't exactly have anyone here that wouldn't frighten off a trader."
"And I suppose you want to have some control over the Rottwealth as well?"
"I know Cleff had ownership of the marsh, but he's gone . . . " That pain was still fresh in Ean's heart. The man had been his guardian, but even with his harsh upbringing, Ean had always respected him and looked to him as a father figure. The fact that Cleff had been killed by the beast while Ean was away still weighed heavily on him. "If Cleff had no will, then the marsh belongs to the village now. I expect to have just as much of a right to it as everyone else; no more, no less."
"Yes, well, that all doesn't sound as bad as I expected."
"I'm not here to take over anything, Bran. I'm just working with what fate has thrust upon me. Believe me, all I want is a peaceful life."
"Yes, well, I guess we don't have much choice but to wait and see if that’s the truth. I'll take your terms back to my father. Expect to hear from us soon."
Without even a nod, Bran turned and walked out of the room. Ean waited until he was gone before letting out a sigh of relief.
"You handled that well," Zin said, moving to his side.
"I agree," Azalea said from his other side. "Throughout your exchange, the whiskey taste of rage wafted off of him towards you . . . very tasty. Then it changed to bitter resignation slightly seasoned with curiosity. The whole exchange was delicious."
"That's good, I suppose. It’s obvious he holds whatever happened between him and Jaslen against me, though. That could be a problem."
"Oh yes," Azalea laughed. "Most of that rage spiked whenever she was mentioned. I was surprised he didn't at least try to hit you."
"Wonderful. I'm sure he will sing my praises, then, when he explains things to his father, who will then twist things and make them even worse with the rest of the village."
"We could always go with Jaan's plan and enslave everyone. That would simplify things."
"I think you're missing the big picture," Zin chimed in. "Jaslen is single now, so you could always try to pursue that hopeless cause if this whole 'overlord of the mine' thing gets too difficult."
Ean wanted to throttle them both.