Castle Logres was quite pleasant that evening; the air was softer and warmer than it had been in the past weeks, the sky blanketed by thick black clouds. Little enough light remained... and yet, the old man who stood on the battlements above the courtyard had found his way there with no difficulty. The shadowed halls were ridiculously direct; anyone could find their way around easily, too easily. This castle is too easy to navigate, he thought bitterly. An assassin could enter here, do his work, and be gone in an instant, especially with these oafs guarding the corridors. Damn the King and his hedonistic love of convenience!
Esclados, the aging Swordmaster of Almekia, went through his usual ritual of cursing the King as he stood to overlook the courtyard, hard eyes glinting in the dim light.
The sun was already out of sight, behind the mountains far to the west; only the pale glow of twilight remained to give light to the castle. The soldiers who patrolled the square were all carrying torches; he nodded with approval at the perfect marches that he saw outlined by the moving firelight. The men down there might not be able to compare to his skill and strength, but they were, at least, well disciplined; Admiral Zemeckis was to thank for that, to be sure. One of the last of the true fighting men, he thought with admiration. Not like King Heinguist. Hell, he wanted to replace those men down there with those dumb, mindless monsters, so that those men could go home to their families at night! That soft, indolent fool.
Esclados shook his head, gripping the hilt of his katana. Logres was too fat for a man who had lived on blade's edge for most of his life; the people there had no desire for anything but their civilian pleasures. He wanted to return to Karnabone; it was a rough place, but at least there people understood danger. Here, there were too many castles between them and the war. The people were growing soft; it sickened him. Gereint and Zemeckis were the only men left that understood the importance of strength, of keeping their guard up no matter how easy life became.
The King certainly didn't care. Next he'd have the entire kingdom relying on the Rune Knights and their monsters, and letting the common people huddle in their towns, instead of having them train to help protect themselves. That was no way to rule the most powerful country in Forsena!
The King is a fat, spoiled man who hasn't seen battle in years. The old Shogun spat onto the grey stones, feeling the familiar disgust rise. He has no right to give us policies about defense, let alone tactical advice.
That was why he was there. Word had traveled to him - as it always had - that there would be a change in the structure of power that night. He didn't know what form that change would take - revolution, assassination or perhaps simple murder - or whether he would favor it or oppose it. But he knew that he needed to be in the castle to do either.
Now he hoped that he had been wise to come there. He hadn't fought in years, except in play battles with incompetents. Heinguist had declared him too valuable as a teacher to risk spilling his blood on the snow, and even before that declaration, much of his time had been spent in the training halls, not the battlefield - honing his skills with a thousand teachers, and surpassing them all. While he couldn't deny that he missed the battlefield - he had felt more alive there in one second than he would have felt in a lifetime as an instructor - he would not defy the King. So he had complied, and had rotted for years as a trainer of young Knights; did he even have the reflexes to kill anymore?
Preposterous, he answered himself with a sigh. This is no time to weaken my resolve; there may be need of this blade tonight. I've killed before; I can kill again, no matter how many years it's been.
Comforted, he returned to his vigil. No one knew that the old swordsmaster was awake, except for the occasional ignorant servant or guard who walked by and wondered why he had chosen to take a walk so late at night. He had only spoken to two people while at the castle - Gereint, his oldest and most promising student, and King Heinguist himself. Both thought that he would be asleep; he had told them that he would be leaving at first light, and would be retiring early. There would be no one there to ask him what he was looking for.
It was just as well; he didn't know himself. But he did indeed sense something in the air, a... stirring among the men that marched below. Maybe they didn't know exactly what was about to happen themselves, but they knew that there was something; he was willing to bet his reputation on it. And so, he waited.
The wait was short.
One moment, Esclados had been quietly standing on the ramparts, wondering if perhaps he should go in for a drink to keep him alert; the next, his ears perked up to a familiar sound. Battle was in the air; he felt it, and he heard it, heard the clinking of arms held at the ready.
So, I haven't come all this way for nothing. He smiled a small, grim smile, letting one hand rest on the hilt of his sword. Now, what is going on...
He watched silently, hidden in a newly-found shadow, as men started to emerge from a thousand different places in the castle; most were still blank-faced with sleep, but with fire in their eyes. The guards did not challenge them; after all, they wore the same uniforms that they themselves did, and they made no moves to attack the King or his family. The Shogun frowned at the thought. Is he so confident that his men love him so much that none of them will ever be tempted to kill him? Or does he think that his guards can protect him from anything? The guards themselves, in fact, relaxed as the men drew near them, only to tense again when they passed. Doubtless they thought that the new men would be their relief for the night - and they probably were, Esclados realized with a start.
But they wore their armor and carried their weapons with more menace than the tired afternoon guard. He knew that they were expecting violence, and the others were expecting nothing. This is the rebellion? Not as spectacular as it could be, I suppose... but the old fool doesn't deserve a hero's death. He glanced away from the spot where the men were gathering, in the glare of the torchlight in the courtyard, and looked to the huge man who was marching into the courtyard. And gasped.
It was the Admiral himself, in full armor, leading another full company of armed men into the courtyard - as if he had just brought them back from training in the dark, and was returning them to their rest. Except that he had not been training; Esclados could see that as they approached, and so could even the greenest of soldiers. The men behind him were not sweating or panting; there was no exhaustion in their eyes, only an unstoppable menace.
"Zemeckis!" Men shouted and cried out in fear, instinctively knowing that death would come that night, it seemed. They clamored for an answer: what was he doing there that night, why were these armed men with him if not to train, why was he in full armor with his crossbow at the ready and his sword by his side? But the wiser ones saw the answer in his eyes; some of them tensed to meet it, others drew their swords to fight.
The Admiral ignored them for the moment; as Esclados watched, he climbed to the opposite battlements, close to the King's Chamber. There he turned, raising one arm; no battle-cry came from his lips to warn the King, but the men who stood beside him saw and whirled, weapons at the ready. The King's men were not so silent; they shouted, pulled clumsy weapons from sheaths and held them in their faltering poses.
"Admiral!" One man screamed, bolder - or stupider - than his fellows. "You can't disturb the King this evening! He's specifically-"
Zemeckis never spoke. A crossbow bolt whizzed from his weapon, drove itself into the skull of the loudest of the soldiers; he fell to the ground as if pushed, not dead, but critically wounded. At the moment he fell, the men that Zemeckis had chosen - enough to relieve the entire castle guard - started to hack into the other's guard, their swords clumsy despite their superior discipline.
Esclados frowned at the fumbling below, for a moment... but the frown quickly faded, in favor of something else. But what? It was something that he had never felt before, burning in his breast, as he watched Zemeckis's men charging the King's men; the feeling was not unpleasant, but rather exhilarating. Something in the air seemed to call to him, to twist his perceptions and thoughts aside in favor of a burning need to join the fight, to go down below and kill. The strange emotion was terrifying; he had never lusted after blood before, his desire had been in the art of swordplay, the grace and power of the weapon... but it was impossible to deny what he felt at that moment, or name it something besides what it was. Helpless in its grip, he looked around, searching for some kind of sign - and his gaze met the eyes of the Admiral. The two looked at each other for a split second, but the old Shogun would later swear that it had been longer. He had never felt that kind of... understanding with another before; even the camaraderie he had experienced with Gereint had not come close. But there was an unspoken challenge in those eyes that stirred the new awareness in his veins to a frenzy... .
His choice was suddenly made for him. He could not, or would not, turn back on it. His gnarled hand trembled on the hilt of his sword as he pulled it from its sheath, screaming a battle cry from his youth that he had long forgotten as an instructor; he charged, targeting the King's soldiers as those who rebelled cheered at seeing his blade enter the battle to aid them.
Thrusts, hacks, and parries, the tedious business of tutoring those bumbling idiots who dared to call themselves his students, all faded away as Esclados fought. All conscious thought was gone as his body, strong and skillful from years of blistering practice, glided across the gray stone, revealing the glittering red blood of an endless stream of soldiers as his sword flickered out to take them, blood that reflected the orange light of the blaze set by a soldier's fallen torch. Flesh split apart before his slashes as if it were silk; blood shot from opened arteries in fountains, with no wind to scatter it to mist. Soldier and sword were one and the same as they leapt across the smoldering ramparts; the soldiers continued to challenge them only to meet their deaths. They were so slow, so pathetic as they screamed, overcome by the skill he had fought to attain for most of his life. How like his foolish students they were! So few had even attained even a tiny fraction of his skill, and these men did not even possess that. They were all useless, whimpering curs to one such as him!
He killed so many of the soldiers that night, many of them men he had once taught. But who they were meant nothing to him then - there was only the flash of the blade and the cries of the wounded. He had the power to kill them, and they were powerless to do more than scratch him. It was exhilarating beyond belief, a rush of power and enlightenment that he had never imagined, and yet had somehow been searching for all of his life - the kind of feeling that a man might give his life to experience even once -
- and suddenly, it was over. Suddenly he saw the figure of the Admiral, in his black armor, holding the blood-smeared crown of Heinguist over his head. An enormous cheer rose up from the men who stood below them, the ones who had chosen to fight for Zemeckis. Esclados searched frantically for more men, wanting the strange vision to continue... but there was no one left to fight. Something sad and cold slowly grew in his chest as he realized that it truly was over, at least for the battle. They had won the day; the emptiness that grew inside him felt painfully out of place. But the usual thrill of a victory paled in comparison to what he had just experienced.
A cold voice spoke over his shoulder, seemingly from nowhere. "So you've chosen Esgares."
It wasn't a question. Esclados did not jump, to his credit; he had been too preoccupied to notice Zemeckis' approach, but he made no indication that he was surprised. He only turned and looked up at the demonic figure who stood before him, his face and wild hair splattered with blood. "Yes, Emperor."
A small smile flickered across Zemeckis' face. "Excellent, old man. Your skills will be a credit to the Empire." Inwardly Esclados chafed at the unintended insult - how dare he call him an old man! But he held his tongue easily, using the control that he had mastered for other purposes, and simply bowed his head. In another time it would have surprised him, how easily Zemeckis accepted him... but it didn't, not then. Something had happened between them. Perhaps they even understood something together.
"I will speak with you later, Swordmaster. See to yourself." With that, the newly-risen Emperor turned to walk away. Esclados glanced down at himself, noticed the smears and splatters on his own armor and hands; there could be little doubt that there were splashes of blood on his face and in his hair, as well. He clearly remembered gliding and slashing through jets of blood and smoke, but he hadn't realized just how much of that blood had covered him until then. Little of it, if any at all, was his, but that only made him feel dirtier; he had been a soldier long enough to know what might happen to him if he let it remain for too long.
Still ... he found that he was reluctant to leave and wash himself off. The blood was a visible reminder of what had happened to him, and whatever it had been, he wanted to remember it. How can I remember it if I don't even know what the blasted thing was? All my life... I've never felt that before. I need to know if I'll ever feel it again, damn it all! What was that? Frustrated by the vision, he leaned against the wall near him, giving in to the temptation to close his eyes. Men swarmed around him and over him, putting out fires, picking up dead bodies and finishing the living ones, starting the rebuilding that Logres would need.
He was all but oblivious to them as he stood brooding, feeling the waves of heat from the small fires slowly fade away. What had he just experienced? Was that the reason he had worked so many years to master the sword? He had felt like a god... lifted beyond all human bonds, and in control of this fantastic power that none of his attackers had been able to match. He had been asking himself that question for years, now, and the answer had always eluded him ... but he was certain that he had glimpsed it that night, in the billowing smoke and the screams of the dying around him.
What if he kept fighting? Would he experience it again? He was somehow sure that he would. Now it was clear why he had decided to join the Empire, almost before his conscious mind had become aware of it; something deep inside of him had known what he sought, and had acted to ensure that he would find it. It would not elude him. He could see the world now, an endless stream of fools, all waiting for their death to come to them. They would only add to the blood on his sword, mouths and wounds gaping as they fell... He grinned, yellowed teeth glinting between a yellowed beard.
Moments after the first battle... and already he ached for the second.