Chapter I – The Grimoire

Deep in the halls under the great castle of Artorius, one lowly clerk rifled through his projects. By order of King Rikard I, he was to copy all these assorted scrolls and tomes in as timely a manner as possible. Knowledge was to be preserved, and since he could actually read and write – a skill so rare it was almost a commodity in itself – he was the one about to do the preserving. It was a dull job, all things considered, but he didn’t mind it… not too much.

He certainly didn’t mind it to the point that he wanted to try and pass off the job to someone else.

Jon, this is a bad idea,” the clerk said, looking at his friend.

The man he turned to was one to stand out in the castle: he was very strong and quite handsome, with short and spiked, dark hair, and dark kohl around his light brown eyes. His bare, impressively muscular arms and one of his hands carried a few tattoos, and he had an earring in each ear. He looked like some sailor right off a ship, even if he didn’t have the same offending smell as one.

It’ll be fine. You deserve a day off,” replied Jon Carver, the king’s favorite bard, in his rasping but attractive voice as he sported his devilish grin. “I’ll just send ‘em to my buddy down at the Athenian Temple. Kingy-Wingy ain’t gonna know the difference.”

The clerk shook his head. “No – no, I should do it myself,” he replied promptly, glancing over the various books and scrolls again. Some of them looked incredibly old, and one fat tome in particular caught his eye.

Jon’s smile dropped. “You really sure? You’re always stuck down here, Zac. It’s not really very… nice. Or healthy, probably.”

For emphasis, the bard gestured around the stone room at the shelves of books and scrolls, many covered in dust that had settled there quite some time ago and almost formed a crust.

But the floor itself was clean, as were the desks, even though only one was occupied: Zac’s, which was piled high with quills, inkwells, and scrolls, along with two candles resting in carefully chosen locations. A huge, open book sat on a podium nearby, its lovingly illuminated pages shining in the light of the meager wooden chandelier hanging overhead.

The chair at the desk didn’t strike one as terribly comfortable, nor was it the proper size for someone of the clerk’s exceptional height. In fact, he nearly hit his head on the ceiling here in the lower levels of the castle.

Once his amber eyes were done wandering the room again, Zacynthos of Arcadia returned his gaze to Jon and shrugged. Zac stood six feet, four inches tall, towering over nearly everyone he met, though he lacked the impressive musculature of his friend. His dark hair was rather unkempt, medium-length and slightly curly, spiking or sticking up on the ends in odd shapes that always seemed to come back whenever he tried to get rid of them.

Even with his apparent lack of dedication to his hair compared to Jon, it did nothing to detract from his unique but strikingly dashing face, which he usually kept perfectly clean-shaven except for his rather short sideburns.

It’s not so bad,” Zac replied casually, absently readjusting the collar of his simple tunic.

Be better if you weren’t stuck in this back-end job. You could at least work on more engineering around the castle, as good as you are with that stuff – like helping with all those funny little devices in the keep’s temple. There are a lot worse people around here doing a lot better things, and half the castle knows it.”

Yeah, well, ‘half the castle’ doesn’t want to stick their necks out to agree with two commoners from the mainland,” Zac replied. “Especially— well, me. Can’t really blame them.”

Jon looked at him for a moment, glancing him up and down. “What, ‘cause you’re Arcadian?”

Zac shot his friend a look, but it took him a moment to force a weak, dismissive laugh. “No,” he answered unconvincingly. “We’ve been over that. Arcadia’s just a really really old, rural part of the Empire. No one cares about it anymore, at least the people in authority don’t. It’s just a bunch of silly old stories.”

Jon was about to drop a comment about some name-calling he’d heard involving things related to human sacrifice and cannibalism, but instead he said, “I only ever used to hear about Arcadia like it was some kinda pastoral paradise. Shouldn’t we all be jealous?”

Not really,” Zac muttered under his breath.

A moment of rather uncomfortable silence passed before Jon put on an encouraging grin and said, “Ah, who cares – at least you get to use your brains instead of tastin’ wine for poison like your buddy Roald. You’ll get something better someday.”

Jon reached up and gave Zac’s shoulder a hearty smack that made him wince. Zac had learned to brace himself whenever Jon lifted his hand, but he rarely managed to absorb all the shock.

I better get upstairs and make sure the King isn’t having some big important guests or something,” Jon said. “I’ll see ya around, Zac. Drinks on me tonight.”

See you,” replied Zac as Jon turned and marched out, carrying himself with the same air of confidence as always. The clerk, meanwhile, turned to his new assignment: a large order of books shipped from various places in the Empire abroad, all purchased by various important people somewhere in the castle – people Zac had probably never even met.

His gaze quickly returned to that one tome. Zac reached into the pile and carefully pulled out what looked to be one of the oldest books he had seen. It was thick, bound in dark leather, and had a strange symbol on its spine, but no markings otherwise. The pages were yellower than the teeth of the old woman who cleaned the castle halls…

But before he could open it, he heard someone storming down the stairs behind him, and an all too familiar voice called, “Zacynthos!”

Turning, he faced Eustace, the castle supervisor. Eustace was, much to his own chagrin, much shorter than Zac, with pinched up features and a balding head of brown hair. He wore extremely fancy clothes and too many rings, as if trying to compensate for his otherwise unavoidably ugly appearance.

Hey, Eustace,” Zac replied, refusing to get short-tempered.

I’ve been calling your ridiculous name for hours, Zacynthos,” Eustace snapped, pacing toward him so deliberately that it looked like something out of a stage play, Zac thought.

Not a big fan of our Empire’s Old Achaean heritage, Eustace?” the clerk said casually, his tone only faintly biting.

Oh please, don’t act smart. I have another assignment for you. And don’t try to pass it off to one of your little cronies, since everyone around here seems to act like you’re their leader. I need someone who can actually write.”

Zac got to his feet, careful not to hit his head on the low ceiling, and said, “What is it?”

Someone far above your station has said they want all the inscriptions in the catacombs below the temple of Zeus copied into a book.”

Slowly, Zac’s face went blank. “Those catacombs are ancient,” he protested weakly.

Yes yes, there are a lot of tombs and many of them may be hard to read, but unfortunately we’re short on anyone actually qualified. All these books will still be here when you get back,” he gestured around at the various scrolls and tomes. “So get together whatever you need and go there. Tomorrow. No excuses. I want to see those copies in three days at the least.”

With that, Eustace turned on his heel and marched out. Zac groaned, rolling his eyes and hanging his shoulders. But he turned back to his desk, knowing there was no use protesting…

Until he saw that tome again. Glancing over his shoulder to make sure Eustace was gone, he sat down in his chair again, opening the book.

The entire thing was written in High Imperial, but Zac moved the piles of work off his desk to eagerly flip through the tome. Much of the text was faded from age, and it looked like several pages were missing.

And then he saw a little piece of parchment stuck between two pages. Frowning, Zac pulled it out, unfolding it. Written on it in dark ink were symbols unlike any he’d ever seen. They did not look like the runes of legend, the type he’d read about in various old books. It also wasn’t any Nordic language he was familiar with, nor was it any forms of Old Achaean or any Southron language he recognized.

Scooting his entirely too small chair closer to the desk, Zac hunched over the parchment, staring at the symbols. Perhaps it was some kind of code, but whatever it was, it had to be at least relatively ancient. In fact, he was surprised it wasn’t turning to dust in his hands. It was hardly made from high-quality materials meant to last, like the tome was.

As he began to read the thick book, he kept the strange parchment nearby, glancing at it occasionally. Flipping past another illumination, he almost thought something about the sheet was starting to make sense…

It was only after he heard another commotion coming from the stairs at the back of the room that Zac realized just how far down his candles had burned. For several hours now, he’d been doing nothing but reading the tome and turning the parchment over in his hands. The book seemed to be simple enough: it was some kind of old history book, talking about all kinds of population statistics at one of the Empire’s most turbulent moments.

Everything in the tome was fascinating to him, although it would probably be incredibly dry to most anyone else – but he already knew most of the history it had to tell. And yet, somehow, Zac felt there was something strange about it. As he turned another leaf, he found – in the very center of the tome – a blank page. Zac paused, staring at it, and he snatched up the parchment again.

Footsteps approached him from behind, and Zac quickly shoved the parchment into the book at the blank page, slamming the whole thing shut as he turned to face whoever had ambled up behind him.

Standing there was a little old lady with stark white hair. She wore fine noblewoman attire colored bright red and gold, bearing the lion of Artorious, along with an almost motherly smile on her gracefully aged face. Her blue eyes sparkled in the dim candlelight.

Flora!” Zac blurted immediately in surprise, blinking but managing a smile of his own. “What’re, uh, what’re you doing down here?”

The old butler, Flora, shrugged lightly. “I was coming to check on you, dear. Eustace has been fussing endlessly over that job he wants you to do tomorrow, and I didn’t think I’d even seen you leave the castle after nightfall.”

Oh…” he glanced at the candles. “Oh. Wow, what is the hour, anyway?”

Flora gave a knowing smile. “Late,” she said sweetly. “You should really get home. Let Eustace broil until morning,” she suggested almost malevolently, though she gave a kindly smile as she offered it.

Right – sure, I’ll do that, actually. I mean, if I can sneak out without him noticing…”

Standing – and almost hitting his head again – Zac glanced over his work. The tome lay there, slammed shut, its black leather covering still speckled with some dust that just wouldn’t come off. Flora hardly seemed to notice, but she gave Zac a gentle pat on the hand, since she couldn’t reach up to his shoulder.

Go home and get some rest,” she encouraged as she turned and headed out.

I will – thanks,” Zac replied quickly as Flora disappeared up the stairs.

The clerk returned his gaze to the tome, staring at it for several more seconds… before he snatched it up and shoved it in his bag, slinging the strap to it over his chest – and nearly falling over. The book had to weigh a good several pounds.

With that, he turned and strode out, ducking under the low archway to the stairs.

Silence lay thick over the entire castle as Zac ascended into the halls, winding through them as quickly and quietly as he could and glancing around perhaps a bit too self-consciously. The only people he met were night watchmen standing their posts or patrolling. They all recognized him and offered blunt nods of acknowledgment or else a stony glance. None of them were terribly chipper… not that Zac minded. He always gave them a friendly smile and a cheerful greeting, anyway.

Rounding the last corner out into the empty and eerily still great hall, Zac finally saw his portal to freedom. The portcullis was still up and the doors wide open, and he found himself picking up the pace.

There was, after all, one thing he didn’t want to meet – and he’d seen him around sometimes this late at night. Zac shuddered at the thought.

A berserker sometimes hung around the castle, and he had become almost a legend to the workers in the keep. He was supposedly a friend of the King’s – but only discreetly. They met in private, often late – around this hour – and Zac had, once or twice, run into him.

The berserker was like some kind of half-giant bear-monster stalking the halls and ignoring everyone and everything in his path. Zac still couldn’t be sure the man-monster had noticed him yet… not that he wanted it to.

Thankfully, he didn’t seem to be around. With a small sigh, Zac strode out into the night.

Although a large part of him simply wanted to go home and resume inspecting the tome in his bag, tonight was the night he, Jon, and a few other workers from the castle typically shared a few drinks at Jon’s favorite local tavern with the very unappetizing name, the Gutted Gorgon.

Artorius was quiet enough tonight, especially considering most people had already gone home and closed up. Zac was left practically alone as he trudged down the streets under the light of the assorted lanterns, which went largely unneeded thanks to the moon and stars. What wasn’t set to a warm orange light from lamps was cast in the deep blue glow of the night sky.

He took a deep breath, savoring the fresh air. Staying under the castle for so long could certainly get stuffy, and despite how humid tonight felt, it was nice to breathe in air that didn’t just smell like dust… even if the scents of the slightly lower-class region of the city he now entered included tanneries and butchers, not to mention the pungent odors coming from some nearby sewer grates.

At length, he reached the Gutted Gorgon tavern, the title of which most people couldn’t even read. The lettering on the sign out front was far smaller than the cartoonish but revolting image of a dead, nondescript monster – the gorgon – with a large knife in its abdomen.

Zac stepped inside and quickly found a familiar face waiting for him at a table in the corner. Moving through the somewhat cramped interior of the packed little tavern – which was rather dismal due to lack of proper illumination, and loud thanks to all the drunk patrons trying to wash away their worries – Zac found a seat next to Jon.

Hey, Zac,” the bard said, pushing a tankard in front of him. “All yours.”

Thanks,” he replied, promptly taking a swig.

Nobody else is around tonight. Roald left a while ago, but I waited up. What took you so long? It’s later than usual, ya know.”

Yeah, sorry, I got kinda distracted by one of the books – it’s bound in all this unmarked black leather, and I found this…”

He drifted off as Jon kept glancing at something elsewhere in the room, which made Zac follow his gaze. A few ladies had stepped into the tavern and found themselves seats at the bar. They looked a little too upper-class to drink in the Gorgon, but maybe they were new and didn’t know their way around; that seemed the most logical deduction, given the way they were turning their noses up at everything in the place.

They look lost,” Jon said sympathetically but teasingly. He elbowed Zac in the ribs, but Zac had already returned his gaze to the wall in front of him. Jon could tell from the look on his face what he was thinking about again.

C’mon,” the bard prompted encouragingly, “there’s four girls waiting for directions. Go for it.”

Zac slowly lowered his tankard enough to speak. “I appreciate the thought, but I really don’t want to go through this again, Jon,” he said a bit morosely.

You sure?” Jon hesitated, looking tempted to go over there, himself.

The clerk glanced at the women again. He couldn’t actually tell if they were lost, and he frowned – but he thought better of it.

You can help them out, you know this city better than I do,” Zac said as casually as he could, looking away again.

Jon lifted a brow. “Not really; you’re the one studying maps and stuff all the time. You could give them a history tour while you’re at it.”

I think I’m just going home and going to bed. Looks like they’re getting rooms here, anyway.”

Again the bard hesitated, but after a moment longer he shrugged and said, “Alright. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Then, he promptly got to his feet and approached the ladies. He immediately struck up a friendly conversation, getting the attention of all four women. Zac didn’t bother paying much heed to all the small talk, but he knew it would evolve into Jon talking about just how great he was.

Which he was, Zac thought. He was a bard, he’d sailed to a lot of places, and he was from the Plains of Illikon, which was almost as good as being from Illikon itself… The latter was often seen as a bad thing by people deeper in the Empire, but not necessarily so in Artorius.

Whatever the case, Zac had none of it. He was a boring clerk who worked alone in the dustiest and least interesting rooms under a castle, and he was from Arcadia – a secluded place renowned for its strange ancient rituals that people just wouldn’t forget. Plus he had no family around here, or many friends here or anywhere else, and certainly not any interesting ones.

Zac got to his feet and headed for the door, glancing at Jon one more time. Jon saw him leaving and gave a wave, though he looked more than a little sheepish about it. As Zac stepped back out into the warm night air that was starting to smell of rain, he contemplated why his family had sent him to work in Artorius in the first place. He knew Jon didn’t really mean anything – he was right.

He continued to lose himself in thought as he trudged onward.

Making his way down the quiet night streets, Zac eventually found his way home. For someone who worked in the castle, he lived pretty far away from it. He wasn’t living in the slums, but it was certainly not the richest part of town. His house sat squeezed between several others on a narrow street, almost an alley, but he had a nice balcony where he could get some air. The interior was nothing to get too excited about, with a few sparse furnishings – most of which were just tools for writing, more books, some scrolls…

Shutting the door and locking it, Zac cast his bag aside on a nearby chair and snatched the tome out of it, immediately heading over to a large desk against the wall –the best piece of furniture in the building – and taking a seat, cracking the enormous book open again where he had left off.

The blank page stared him in the face like a new enemy. For a moment or two, Zac stared right back at it, before he finally picked up the loose parchment again and turned it over in his hands.

Although the book contained more facts and figures than anything, it nonetheless told a good deal of Achaean history, with some accompanying illuminations. As Zac turned the parchment over in his hands, he had a strange thought…

Leafing through the book again, he noticed some symbols subtly hidden in the illuminations. The pages seemed to correspond somehow. The first was history regarding an age in which kings often had mage advisers. The second page on which a symbol appeared referenced the rise of Mage-Emperor Ildrius. And the third…

Zac sat there for hours pouring over each page. Using another blank piece of parchment, he copied down each symbol that appeared in an illumination. Fitting them together was quite a puzzle, and they were out of order on whatever kind of guide the old parchment in the book was meant to be. Whoever had hid the symbols in the illuminations hadn’t wanted the parchment to be too easy to decipher, even for someone who found the symbols in the illuminations.

Eventually, Zac found himself staring at a jumble of rearranged symbols, redrawn in his own hand. They were Old Achaean letters – a language now long dead and no longer used except in ceremony. Strangely enough, however, they spelled nothing in Old Achaean, instead spelling several words in the slightly later language of High Imperial – a language also no longer used except by scholars.

The High Imperial phrase read, “Vide arcanum.”

Zac lifted the parchment up, staring at it. Thoughtfully, he murmured the phrase aloud, leaning back in his chair.

It all seemed very odd, and he made a mental note to himself to tell someone about it tomorrow. Who, he wasn’t entirely sure, though – Eustace probably wouldn’t even care, and he wasn’t sure Flora had the authority to actually do anything about it, but maybe she could at least get the word to someone else…

Or maybe it was unimportant altogether, and it was just some old puzzle in an even older book. Maybe it was some joke inserted there by a bored monk who had copied it. After all, he’d once seen a monk draw and illustrate an entire heartwarming story about a family of field mice in the margins of a tome.

But the phrase itself implied otherwise – it implied this was something far more important…

Zac shook his head, turning and looking out the windows. It was still dark. He knew it would be morning all too soon, and he hadn’t slept a wink. If he was going to go copy those inscriptions tomorrow, he needed at least a little rest. For several seconds longer, he sat there pondering and staring into space.

Finally, Zacynthos shut the tome again. He stuck it between some books on a shelf for the time being. Whatever the strange cipher and message were, it had been kept safe and secret for several thousand years… It could at least keep until tomorrow.