Chapter 0 – Prologue

Loathe was he to follow the counsel of his feral guide from that savage land in the east.

No, he would return to his home in the west bearing at least something to justify his troubles on this ill-fated adventure. He would return as Serpendis Endium, proud and great Master Merchant of the Kingdom of Mankind; a pillar of Kannonian mercantile supremacy and intellectual fortitude, loved by so many. But for now, he had nothing. His robes, soiled from weeks of hard travel, hung limply on his haggard frame and were all that remained of his traveling gear. They smelled like wet muslin and reminded him of his servants back home. He was alone in these wild and untamed lands — alone except for his guide, whom he despised.

The emeralds before him gleamed in the darkness of the muddy cave like tiny stars drowning in a murky night sky. He quietly muttered to himself as he gathered them hungrily into the folds and hidden pockets of his once-fine robes. He felt lightheaded, intoxicated, as if this were all a dream, and his hands seemed to move hazily on their own before him.

“I commend thee on thy vision, good sir,” he slurred in High Kannonian through sweaty, bearded lips as his hands sank deep into the mud. “Only you could have found such a prize hidden beneath this muck, in such a dark place as this, in the wildest of places in this unruly world.” His eyes squinted into shadow as his mind raced to gather his thoughts.

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“‘Stay away from those nearby mountains,’ she lectured me ceaselessly for days,” he whined, rolling his eyes. “Poor savage. What does such a girl know? One cannot blame her, I guess. ‘The Sienjan Guide’ they call her in Coast Haven. Being lucky enough to survive the trip a few times back and forth — enough to make a name for herself, I guess. Enough to be called a “guide.” I suppose she feels a certain entitlement by now to be so… so untoward.”

“But wasn’t it I who escaped unscathed and alone from the slaughter that the unruly Banwar visited upon my caravan on that fateful night while we slept? Barbaric Fae of the grasslands, wandering and nomadic, these primitive Elvenkind of the steppes, covered in their black markings from head to toe, maybe to hide themselves among the reeds — all heathens less civilized than even the Sienjans, they are. Make the slightest eye contact and the entire tribe descends on you with knives and spears. None survived. NONE!” he shouted, stopping to listen to his own voice echo through the cave’s moist walls. For moments he sat still, unbreathing, until his shout subsided. Then, exhaling, he gazed closely at one of the burning emeralds in his hand.

Only allowed on

“None, save I, good sir. I, alone, escaped,” he murmured with satisfaction to the emerald, his head swimming. “Let that teach you the difference, savage, between he who commands his own fate through instinct and vision, and she who stumbles through the fog of her own superstition.”

Something moved behind him in the darkness, and he sighed while turning to look. He expected to see the light of his Sienjan guide’s torch coming to harass his good fortune. But he saw only the darkness. Briefly he swayed, but then caught himself, blinking himself awake.

“If you are coming in here to scold me you might as well be useful and bring some light,” his unsteady voice rang in the cave. “I am not leaving until I have taken what I deserve after all the troubles I’ve endured on this hell-rotten journey. And no thanks to you, either.”

He turned quickly back to his work and met the eyes of that which froze his blood and plunged his soul into an icy mire of paralyzing fear. He could not move, but his gut shook uncontrollably. A primitive fear gripped him, strangling his very will to breathe, and beads of sweat speckled his face like morning dew on a frozen corpse.

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