CHAPTER 1: Impetus
Early Spring, 315 P.F.
Jensen had seen many things during his time manning the bar of the inn in his hometown of Ashford. Anything from visiting rowdy mercenaries looking for a place to drink away their coin, to clergy of the Church deciding to stop and spent the night while on their way to man the garrisons of the Ashgate. Hence, he had not been surprised when two, relatively well-dressed, men came before him asking to book a room. Whilst going through the established routine, he took a moment to analyze the two men.
The older one seemed a little more reserved, satisfied in waiting one step behind the younger one and leaving all the talking to him. The graying hair of his temples and moustache were the only two things betraying his age, with the rest of his body’s musculature being evident to the naked eye, even as it was hidden under the linen lining of his tunic. From his hard gaze that scanned the inn and its patrons, to his right hand resting on the pommel of his sheathed sword, Jensen assumed that the man had seen his fair share of battle in his lifetime.
On the other hand, the younger one seemed to be the more approachable of the two. His fair complexion, dirty blond hair and blue eyes gave him an air of nobility that he no doubt, in the innkeeper’s mind, was a part of. He wore an affable smile on his face throughout his interaction with the innkeeper, making small talk here and there as they were led to their room by him.
“There is a small fireplace for you to keep warm,” Jensen said as he pointed at the corner of the room. “I will also arrange for a tub of hot water to be brough to you later, should you want to wash away dirt and grime caught during your travels.”
“That would not be necessary.” The young man rejected his offer with surprising sharpness, catching the innkeeper off-guard. “We’ve travelled for some time and haven’t had a chance to rest, so we’ll be doing just that. Likewise, there is also no need to bring our breakfast over. We will be having it with the rest of the patrons in the dining room downstairs tomorrow morning.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Jensen assented. “Very well. I shall take my leave then,” he said with a slight bow and exited the room, closing the door behind him. With a deep sigh, he slowly made his way down the stairs whilst deep in thought.
“I beg you to reconsider. Your fa-” the older man’s gruff voice was stopped to a halt at the other’s gesture. Bringing his hands to his head, the younger man massaged his temples for a moment. With his eyes closed, he took a couple of deep breaths and gathered his thoughts in order to reply.
“My father has no say on what I will do with my life. He is a tired, old greybeard with no honor to his name. At least, not anymore. He wiped away any measure of that when he left my mother’s family get slaughtered like… like pigs by the Arcosi…”
“I am sorry for your loss; I understand your pai-”
“Do you now?” The young man swiftly left the chair he was sitting on and walked over to the older man, grabbing him by the collar of his vest. “Why are you really here, huh?! Did my father send you over to finish what his Arcosi friends couldn’t? Send you over to kill me?!”
At once he pushed the older man away and splayed open his arms, the expression on his face turning ferocious. “Come on now, do it! Do it, you coward. Kill me!”
Silence blanketed the room as the two men regarded each other. One huffing and puffing in his rage, whilst the other just stood there, his gaze leveled at the younger one. After what felt like an eternity, the younger man visibly deflated as he grew calmer. With slow steps, he moved over to the corner of the room in order to light up the fireplace. “If you are not here to kill me, get out. Take some coin from my pouch and rent yourself a room, but I do not want to see you wait for me downstairs tomorrow. Now, get out.”
The tiredness in his voice and the finality of his words gave no further leeway to the older man to talk. With a small sigh of his own, he turned around and walked to the closed door. He hesitated for a moment, turning to look one last time at the boy he had helped raise up into a man, in the absence of a doting father. For a man of his age and experience, the times he had cried could be counted with the fingers of just one hand, and yet he could feel his eyes tear up at that moment.
“I wish you best of luck, young master Alger. May the Exalted watch over you.” With that, he exited the room, leaving Alger alone to stew in his thoughts.
“Well, that certainly didn’t go as well as we expected…” An airy whisper echoed inside Alger’s mind after the older man had taken his leave.
“Robert is a loyal man. He is wasted in the employ of my father, but he would never bear to betray him as well. It is good that he left. I do not need, nor want, to drag him into my matters…”
After making sure that the fireplace had enough fuel to last him for some time, he walked over to the armchair and slumped down, sinking into it with a sigh.
“You should let me take over for a while. Sleep, it will do you good.” The voice was heard once again, ethereal and faint but ever clear to him. The spirit longed for freedom, he knew it, and so did it know he knew, for they been merged together for some time now. Through their unholy bond, Alger had come to realize a lot of things about the world around him, about magic and the unknown, as well as the wonders of alchemy. The spirit claimed to have been wise sage of old, that for some reason, had sealed himself in order to recuperate from an injury inflicted by a deadly enemy of his.
Back when he had first come in contact with the spirit, or Manzallu as he came to know it later, he had been almost certain he was going to perish. Yet the spirit appeared out of nowhere and made him an offer he could not refuse. Now he was bound to it, and it was bound to him. He largely remained in control of his body, but sometimes he would find himself in unfamiliar places upon awakening from his sleep. Evidently, the spirit had been taking liberties with his body while he was under a dream’s embrace, but Alger could do nothing to stop it from happening, short of not sleeping.
Now they had reached some sort of equilibrium, with Manzallu agreeing to always ask for permission before taking over Alger’s body, and him allowing the spirit freedom to act in “moments of crisis” as it had named them, without previous notice.
“Not yet…” Alger begrudgingly stood up from the armchair and walked towards the table where he had left his canvas rucksack. From within he pulled a thick, vellum-bound parchment book. This had been one of the most important things in his possession for a while, for he used it as a journal for both his travels and his forays in alchemy. He grabbed the rucksack and placed it on the ground next to the chair, emptying the table, and sat down. He caressed the book’s cover for a moment before opening it and turning to the day’s page.
Grabbing the nearby quill, courtesy of the inn’s clergy patronage, he dipped it into the ink and after some preparation, started writing.
“We entered the town of Ashford. It is a small, quaint town, perfect for settling in for the night. It is close to the Ashgate, but I will not be using that for my purposes. I dare not fall under Paterdormus’ gaze, for I fear the magical wards built upon the wall will pick up on the existence of the spirit. Despite their shortcomings, those dastardly smugglers will honor a deal built on the promise of coin, and that… that I have enough of.”
Alger took a moment for himself before continuing. “I told Robert to leave. I refused to hear his excuses, for I know that he could sway me if given enough time to do so. I wonder what my father’s reaction will be once his loyal housecarl returns empty-handed. I imagine that would be a riot if I ever saw one.”
“Lastly, I cannot lie to myself; the chances of surviving the journey to the lands of the orcs are not wholly in my favor. Nevertheless, it is something I must do, for it is only there that I can find what I need to continue. The plan must continue.”
Alger looked at his writing, and with a last tired sigh set down the quill and closed the book, placing it back into the rucksack. Across the room, faint moonlight shone through the opened wooden shutters of the window. The chill of the night crept into the room, but the warmth of the fireplace dispelled it. Alger stood up and walked over to the window, closing the shutters entirely.
He then took a moment to regard the room; hasty as they were to make the innkeeper scarce, Alger had not properly surveyed the lodgings he had been provided. It was a cozy little room, all in all, with all the comforts that one could hope to ask from an inn at a major crossing point such as Ashford. Of course, Alger knew that this had probably been the best room they could offer, but he rarely pondered on such things, though he would have to soon enough…
Feeling the tiredness finally taking a toll on him, he yawned deeply.
“Guess it’s time. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, understood?”
“Of course,” the voice of the spirit came in waves to him this time, the most annoying variation of the thing as he had found out.
Alger sat on the bed and, after one last look at the room, closed his bright, blue eyes.
A moment later he opened them again, but this time they were red.
The red of blood.