From the Archives of Arasunia
Recorded by Vestigo in Ephemeris from Beyond the Verge
~3741, During The Queen’s Gift / Jeraziah’s Salvation
The six of us leave Adkarna before even the false dawn shows itself along the horizon. We travel south, four riders on horseback and two manning a small cart heaped with bundles of sackcloth. I say ‘we,’ but I am not one of these men. The King’s counselors deliberately chose the shortest, leanest Legionnaires from the elite ranks in the hope they would pass as unremarkable travelers, yet these men cannot help looking like what they are: killers.
One hopes the individuals we encounter on our journey do not get close enough to see the weapons beneath their cloaks or the indifference for life in their eyes. No one can know what we carry hidden beneath the bundles, and these Legionnaires would slit the throat of their own mothers to keep the secret safe.
We board ship in Blind Man’s Harbor—rarely a name of good omen, but blindness is welcome here—and sail across the Inner Sea. The dark waters are dangerous this time of year, and these times are bringing ever more mysterious creatures up from the depths, but it is far more treacherous to risk the road near Arasunia. Should our cargo be discovered by the Brothers and Sisters of Sol, we might all find ourselves standing judgement before the Creator.
After we land on the southern shore the Legionnaires insist on pushing away from the water at least a mile before making camp for the night. Even then we leave the road and find a spot of high ground with acceptable observation angles and a slight defilade in the center. I am kept apart from the cargo, as I am here to document, not cause trouble. The Legionnaires are unhappy about my presence no matter where I sit. The squad’s captain, who answers to Cutter, tells me if I record any true names or faces they’ll open up my belly and let the carrion eaters decide where my final resting place should be. The consequences of their participation in this mission, should the King find out, are not to be considered if one desires sleep any time soon. I curl beneath my woolen blanket and hope no one kills me during the night.
We push southwest with the sun on our backs. The air cools as we begin to climb the low hills leading into the Sang-La Mountains, shapes of jagged gray and green partially hidden by a constantly shifting mist. Every now and then a white peak slices through the shroud, seeming to pierce the very sky, and I am left breathless by the enormity of these legendary mountains. We follow a narrow path along the face of a slope that falls quickly and alarmingly away on our right, and every switchback overlooks an increasingly terrifying drop. I rush through a prayer of thanks to every god I can think of when the mist falls over us and I can no longer tell which direction is down.
The Legionnaires ride before and behind the cart, protecting it from any possible approach. I am with the trailing group, and I hear both of them curse when we emerge from a dense pool of mist and find a man sitting peacefully atop the bundles. He is bald and ageless, wearing an orange robe that seems woefully thin for the temperature.
The Legionnaires near me pull blades and war hatchets and spur forward, but the monk simply waves at them. The two soldiers manning the cart crane around, staring slack-jawed, then yank the reigns and scramble for their weapons.
Cutter, riding ahead and hearing the racket, wheels his horse and aims the blade of his ax at the man. “Get. Down.”
The monk smiles warmly. “But I am your protection. Welcome!”
“Protection?” Cutter says. “You’ve plopped yourself in the center of six of the Legion’s finest, my friend. If someone needs protection, it’s you.”
“Yes, you are all very impressive. Frightening, even! However, if I do not travel the rest of the way with you, you will not reach your destination.” He pats the bundles under him. “Though your parcel will, so you may be at ease about that, even if you are dead.”
Cutter shoots an uncertain glance at the cart. “We carry nothing of significance. And what do you know of our destination?”
The monk laughs and ignores Cutter’s questions. He points ahead. “Onward, brave Legionnaires! The Temple awaits!”
Cutter walks his horse onto the narrow strip of path between the cart and the cliff. Below him, the mist churns. He lays the flat of his ax on the man’s knee. “Get down or fall down. Last chance.”
The monk finds something fascinating in the steel of the blade. He bends over it and cups his hands around the barbed corners of the sharpened edge, then makes a small noise—”Hm.”—and bends the ax blade into a funnel.
Cutter eases the weapon away from the monk, who releases it willingly, and inspects the warped blade. From the nicks and dents, the weapon has seen dozens if not hundreds of clashes without failing. Cutter tosses it into the space behind the cart’s seat with a grunt of disgust. He nudges his horse forward, turns him around without a word, and retakes his place at the front of the group. “Onward.”
No one speaks for the rest of the trip. The monk hums to himself and laughs occasionally, but he does not share the joke with anyone. The path grows steeper, then levels off in a cloud of vapor so thick I cannot see my horse’s ears. Pinpricks of orange light appear ahead. I again hear weapons drawn, and the monk’s laughter echoes in the mist. The orange lights become torches, and as we pass between them the enveloping cloud falls away to reveal a clear blue sky and thick green grass bordered by graceful lotus trees, their petals dancing in the gentle breeze. A swept stone walkway leads to wide stairs that lead further up the mountain to an elaborate, glorious temple sprawling beneath two towering peaks. It is the Shào Temple of the Sang-La Mountains, the Monastery of the Way.
Another monk waits at the foot of the stairs. He is dressed the same as our protective friend but seems older. By centuries, if that is possible.
Cutter leads the cart to the man and dismounts. He seems uneasy. “Am I supposed to bow?”
“If you like,” the monk says, his voice brimming with mirth. He then bows to Cutter. “Yes, very nice indeed. Your trip was uneventful?”
“Relatively.” Cutter jerks a thumb at the cart. “Other than this troublemaker.”
But our friend is gone. The cart stands alone.
The old monk smiles. “Then we shall take over from here.”
Cutter is at his end. He nods at the men, who pull bundles off the cart and toss them aside, revealing a strongbox bolted to the center of the cart made of thick planks bound with wrought iron. Air holes are drilled just below the top. Cutter produces the only key to the fist-sized lock and cranks it open, swings the door out and steps back.
When the figure inside emerges, small, blinking and confused, Cutter and the other Legionnaires kneel and bow their heads. I do the same, but cheat. I cannot document if I do not see.
Prince Jeraziah steps down from the cart on unsteady legs. He is only seven, yet already shows the physical size and strength of his father. His mentality, however, could not be more different. He is caring when his father is cruel, and curious about all things while his father knows only his own thoughts. And even though King Maliken barely speaks to the boy, barely acknowledges his existence, the first thing Jeraziah says is, “Is my father okay?”
“He is, m’lord,” Cutter says from his knee. His voice is soft. “He is concerned for your safety and ordered us to bring you here.”
This, of course, is a lie. Maliken’s second wife, Queen Sylvia, is the reason for this mission. She grows large with child, and those closest to the royal couple fear she will have the prince killed to make her own progeny the heir. Cutter and his men left behind the body of a peasant boy, made to look like the prince through magics bordering on sinful. So as we traveled across the Inner Sea, Jeraziah’s father mourned a dead son. The prince’s fragile sensibilities could not process such a thing, so Cutter’s lie is wise.
“These monks will take care of you,” Cutter says. Something is lodged in his throat, making his voice thick. “And we’ll come back for you when it’s safe.”
Jeraziah seems on the verge of tears.
The old monk steps next to him holding a book the size of a tombstone. “I hear you are a voracious learner,” he says, opening the book to a spread full of intricate sketches, maps, and blocks of text denser than the Rulian Marsh.
Jeraziah’s eyes pop with glee. His sadness is forgotten and he drops cross-legged into the grass with the tome in his lap. He will be gone from this world for hours.
Cutter stands next to the old monk. “He is safe?”
It is a question and a threat.
“No one enters the Shào Temple without permission,” the monk says. “He will be safe until you need him. And we will make him ready for when you do.”
We ride out between the torches. The mist surrounds us again, and after ten steps I look back.
The torches are gone.
Only the swirling mist remains.
Prince Jeraziah is safe.