THE CALLOUS ONES

There will be blood.

Roren stared up at his master, the Great Sage, Althar. They were in the Grand Hall of the Imperial Palace, and many, many people were gathered here. It was due to the fact that Emperor Thardon was dead, assassinated in his bed while he lay asleep.

His master had already warned Roren that there would be blood, as the rulers of various city-states and provinces were all gathered in one room, and that was always a recipe for disaster.

“Stay close to me, boy,” warned Althar as he gave Roren a knowing gaze. “You will not want to be away from my protection once the fighting starts.”

“Yes, Master,” replied Roren.

He was a good and studious apprentice, and he was not stupid, so he would do as his master commanded.

Roren’s master had taken him under his wing two cycles ago, as Althar was getting old, his long white beard and wrinkled face a testament to the old man’s age.

Althar was not titled the Great Sage for nothing, for he held much knowledge within his wizened mind, from the lost tomes of Atalantia to the ethereal texts of the Astral Expanse, so he knew things that others did not, hidden, arcane secrets locked away by time and ruin. He had advised many kings before there was an emperor, and he had even advised the previous emperor, Emperor Thardon’s father.

With all of his master’s knowledge and accomplishments, Roren was proud to be Althar’s apprentice.

But Roren did not have long to ponder his master’s significance before he was forced to follow the Great Sage to the bottom of the steps at the base of the empty Imperial Throne.

Master Althar tapped his knotted oak staff upon the white marble of the palace floor. His knocking attracted everyone’s attention, and suddenly, all eyes were upon the Great Sage and his young apprentice.

“If you know anything of our glorious empire,” stated Althar, “then you know who I am. As the Emperor’s most trusted advisor, he warned me that there would be an attempt on his life. Unfortunately, he was correct. Emperor Thardon has been slain.”

There came an immediate uproar as nobles and knights alike vied for attention. It did not take long, however, for Roren’s master to quell their panic and anger.

The old sage thumped his staff once upon the white marble, the stone plate beneath that wooden rod cracked, and a blast of wind blew through and over the gathered crowd.

“Silence!” cried Althar. “There is more to this than I have yet stated!”

Roren was in awe at how the crowd hushed in response to his master’s powerful presence. He knew now more than ever that he wanted to follow in Althar’s great footsteps. There was no doubt about this in his young mind, nor would there ever be.

“Each of you seeks to take the throne,” said Althar in a warning tone, “yet none of you seeks the responsibility of such a position of power. There will be a reckoning for the murder of the emperor, but the assassin is still among us…Yes…the Callous Ones have returned.”

There was an immediate uptake in angst amongst the crowd, but at a lower decibel than their previous uproar. Roren was only ten cycles old, but he could sense their nervousness and fear as if it were a shroud worn upon them all.

“As you know,” stated Althar, “the Callous Ones brought despair and ruin to the land one thousand years ago, and it was not until the last of them was driven out did we finally have some sense of peace.”

Roren knew the story of the Callous Ones. They were the old sorcerers that had made a pact with the Old Gods, and they had been stripped of their emotions, stripped of any sense of mercy, charity, or goodwill for their bargain, but they had been given power, real power, and that power was not something anyone could ignore.

“How is it that you have proof of this!” called out the beautiful blonde regent of Larmond.

“He has no proof!” cried Red Saber, the pirate lord.

“When was the last time anyone heard of the Callous Ones!” yelled the knight captain of the Order of Wander.

“The Callous Ones are a myth!” yelled the fat king of Aranol. “Such things do not exist!”

“They do exist!” shouted Althar in return. “And you shall listen!”

His visible rage silenced every leader without further warning. Roren was impressed at how his master could discipline both nobles and commoners alike with but one warning look. The Great Sage was truly great.

“The Callous Ones have returned!” yelled Althar. “You are all in danger as long as they defile our land!…But that is not the worst of it! The worst of it is something that no one wishes to believe!…Their leader, the Evil One, has returned!”

The gathered nobility exploded in angry shouts and verbal rage at this development, but Roren knew his master could, and would, handle them. These people were like scared sheep, but his master was the shepherd, and he would bring them to bay.

“Silence!” shouted Althor as he slammed his staff upon the marble floor.

The nobility, the kings and queens and knights and gentry of their land, settled into a reluctant silence once more.

“I have warned you that a reckoning is coming!” cried Althor. “Only the strongest amongst us may take the throne!…The Evil One has returned and is one of us! The Evil One has slain the emperor and is here right now, within these very walls!”

Althor switched his staff from his left hand to his right and laid his left hand upon Roren’s right shoulder, pulling Roren backwards and closer to him. Roren knew right then that things were about to get bad.

“What are you speaking of?” asked the knight captain of the Order of Wander. “What would you have us believe?”

“He’s saying that one of you is the Evil One, you self-righteous fool!” yelled the fat king of Aranol. “Tis clear your order is a shallow front for your own thievery! You’ve gathered far too much coin for ones so dedicated to justice and honor. Everyone knows your ilk charge for your so-called ‘protection.’ You count one coin after the next for deeds that should be done in good faith…Your swords are only drawn if you hear the clink of a jangling purse!”

The knights of the Order of Wander drew their blades, as did their captain.

“Tis a bold statement from a little man with too much meat,” growled the knight-captain. “You plunder your own kingdom for vanity’s sake, yet you offer nothing to your people but cruelty and starvation. They cry to you for mercy while they cry to us for justice! Our kingdom’s border is overwhelmed with the scabs fallen from your wounds…Dying refugees lace our walls, yet we cannot grant them sanctuary because of the plagues they bring with them, plagues you should have contained and healed, plagues caused by the breadth of your noxious opulence! You disgust me, you overstuffed pig!”

The king of Aranol’s guards drew their blades in response to this unrestrained insult, but it was the noblewoman of Larmond that briefly prevented them from shedding blood, though her response did not help or resolve their row in the slightest.

“How can you fight amongst yourselves!” cried the regent of Larmond.

The tall, nobly-dressed woman raised her bejeweled staff high and then pointed it at the pirate lord, Red Saber.

“Can you not see a villain when one stands before you!” she called out. “This dog has raided our coasts for years, and yet nothing has been done to put him down! He has plundered our villages and ravished our women with impunity, yet our cries for justice have always fallen upon deaf ears…We have no navy to bring him to his knees! The emperor did nothing as this dog led a pack of vicious hounds into our borders to maul and defile my people, young men slaughtered like lambs in the streets, young women dragged away by their hair…This beast is the Evil One! He should be executed immediately, and if no one will do this justice, then I will!”

The pirate lord brandished his saber as six of his most trusted men pulled forth their swords and knives.

“You’ll be taking that back, you speckled harlot!” he shouted. “We all know the tales of your debauchery and murder! Seven young lads and seven young maids from across your holds comes to your chamber on the Eve of Old Hallow, and seven young lads and seven young maids disappear with nary a trace by the next day, never to be seen again…Oh, yes, old hag. We all know the secret of your youth…Sacrifice and blood be your reign. Even the most practiced knave looks like a saint compared to the likes of you!…It be clear who had a grief against the emperor, and it be clear who the Evil One truly be!”

“Dog!” screeched the regent of Larmond in unbridled rage. “You’ll die for that!”

“Yes!” shouted the king of Aranol. “Death is on the table tonight!”

“So be it, tyrant!” shouted back the captain of the Order of Wander.

“Death it is, then,” said Red Saber with a cold grin.

Roren was shoved even further backwards by his master as the room erupted in blood and violence.

The fat king of Aranol drew his ceremonial blade as his guards and the knights of the Order of Wander commenced in battle. The royal guards of Aranol, however, were far from ceremonial, deadly in their prowess, so the battle between the two groups was by no means uneven.

On the other side of the room, a different battle was waging. The regent of Lardon waved her staff once, and two pirates of the Broken Sea burst into flames, screaming as they staggered and fell as living pyres. The regent’s guards took advantage of this momentary horror, and they engaged the remaining pirates, including Red Saber.

Roren clutched Master Althor’s white robe in temporary shock, but this would not be the last horrific scene to be set before him.

Noble lords and ladies alike, unaffiliated with the four groups, ran in desperate cries and panicked screams as they trampled one another to reach the exit doors to the Grand Hall of the Imperial Palace.

Roren watched in stunned silence as an aged noblewoman had her skull crushed into bloody mush under the stamping boots of four different people.

Roren could not move as he viewed the terrifying, bloody scene playing out before him. He had known it was going to get bad, but the reality of it was far more than he could handle.

The knights of the Order of Wander fell one by one as the royal guards of Aranol fell with them, a bloody battle of slashing blades and no mercy, but Roren could not look away. He was transfixed by the gory violence, a paralysis of shaking hands and widened eyes.

All of the knights of the Order of Wander were dead moments later, save for the knight captain, and all of the royal guards of Aranol were dead, save one, but he was gravely injured with a stab wound to his chest. All of the dead within the two groups had limbs missing, mortal stab wounds, or heads rolling on the marbled floor.

The knight captain ran through the fat king of Aranol, ran him through his fat belly with a keen-edged longsword, and then the last of the Order was stabbed in the back by the dying royal guard, the sharp blade puncturing through both sides of the captain’s breastplate to protrude from his chest, the deadly tip soaked in gore.

All of them were dead now, unmoving, never to breathe again, but Roren had no time to process this. No, he could only turn his head to view the last remnants of the other battle.

The pirates were all dead, as were the regent’s two guards, and it was just Red Saber and the regent left, though the pirate lord held his bloody left side with his left hand as he dueled the regent, saber to staff, in a whirlwind of brutal fury.

Their weapons connected several times before the duel abruptly ended. The regent of Lardon swung her staff in a wide arc, the bejeweled tip crackling with orange magical energies, but the terrible weapon never connected. Red Saber ducked under her overswing and stabbed her through the stomach. She bent over as her mouth opened in surprise to spit out a line of blood, and then the pirate lord withdrew his blade from her guts and cut off the noblewoman’s head with one swing.

The head of the regent of Lardon rolled across the marble floor to land at Roren’s feet, and he stared down at the beautiful face of the older woman, that face resting between his leather shoes. He picked up her head without thinking, his young mind far and away from the brutal reality around him.

She held a permanent look of surprise upon her beautiful face, her ruby lips parted in an ‘O,’ her blue eyes wide with shock. Her long blonde hair trailed behind her head in a ponytail held up by her bejeweled silver tiara, the tip of her golden locks just brushing the floor below.

Roren let out a low gasp as the head he held in his hands withered and pitted into a grey, mottled husk, its shape aging in rapid succession of year after year, deteriorating in a span of seconds until it slipped through his small fingers as ashen dust. That dust spilled around the hem of his robe and his leather shoes, the silver tiara clanking to the marble beneath him as it rolled away across the slick floor.

The room reeked of blood, offal, and corpse dust as Roren tried not to gag in both disgust and horror. The nobility had all fled, and only Althor, Roren, and Red Saber remained, the dead their only company in the opulent Grand Hall.

The pirate lord stared up at them as he staggered forward, his pocked and weathered face spiraling out with black lines, a sure sign of some virulent poison or foul curse that had afflicted him.

“The witch…got me…” he choked out as he fell to his knees.

His dark eyes locked upon Roren and his master, and then those two hardened orbs stared directly into the face of the Great Sage. The pirate lord nodded once and put forth one last grim smile as he leaned upon his bloody saber for support.

“I see now…” he said, bloody spittle running down his bearded chin. “Well played…”

He fell dead to the white marble after that, and Roren allowed himself to take in one shaky breath upon watching him fall.

Roren released his breath and then addressed his master. The bloody fighting had shaken him to his knees, but he still had his master, and Althor was all the protection he would ever need.

Roren gathered his wits, but his little hands still shook as he tugged upon the Great Sage’s white robe.

Althor turned and stared down at him, a look of unusual calm upon the old sage’s face.

“Is the Evil One dead now?” asked Roren. “Some of the people ran. Did the Evil One get away?”

“No, child,” said Althor in odd serenity. “The Evil One is not dead, though some obnoxious and ambitious threats were disposed of.”

Roren’s heart skipped a beat as he tried to process this.

“The Evil One got away?” he asked.

Althor shook his head no and gave him a strange, unnerving smile.

“No, my little apprentice,” he said firmly. “The emperor died a natural death in his sleep, and his heir is yet to be chosen. With no heir, the land will fall into chaos, and it is my duty to see that it does not. You see, my child, the Callous Ones are long dead. They’ve returned only in the story I have told. In the same respect, the Evil One is not dead, because the Evil One is only a story. There was never any Evil One.”

The Callous Ones Copyright © 2021 Matthew L. Marlott

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