Prologue: In the Crimson Snow
The night was cold, the air crisp and raw as it entered the High King’s lungs. Although Corvine was almost always open to a brisk moonlit ride, doing so at such an hour, and in the heart of the winter season, was not in his usual habit. If he was to be honest with himself, he would rather be back in the castle, nestled by the fire with his faithful hounds and curled up with his favorite book. Fabian had called this meeting, though, and Corvine knew that whatever his cousin had to say to him had to be urgent. It was not like Fabian to call him out in the dead of night when there was fresh snow on the ground for nothing more than a simple chat.
As he rode, he held the bundle in his arm a little closer to his chest. It would be the end of everything if he lost it. He felt he knew exactly what Fabian wanted to talk to him about, and the little blanket-wrapped bundle was their only hope if it turned out he was right.
His horse snorted and pawed at the ground as he brought him to a halt and took a moment to get his bearings. A light flickered briefly in the trees to his left, and anyone who was not looking for it would have thought it a mere mistake of the eye. Corvine knew better, though; it was Fabian’s signal.
“My liege.” Fabian knelt as the High King dismounted.
“We’re alone, Fabian, there is no need for formalities” Corvine said gently. He joined his cousin on the log on which he had been sitting, pulling his fur-lined mantle a little tighter around his body and, more importantly, the small bundle in his arms. Even for the middle of winter, the night felt colder than usual. Then again, perhaps it wasn’t the weather, perhaps it was the chill of foreboding creeping through his veins. Fabian’s face was set in a grim frown, and that had never once boded well.
“Cor…” Fabian fell into using his childhood nickname. “Cor, the news I bring you is not good.”
“I suspected as much when you called me out here” he sighed. “Is Pierce once again planning to overthrow me?”
Fabian nodded. “I’m surprised you got to it so quickly.”
Corvine smiled ruefully. “He’s been after the my throne from the beginning, that he would finally decide to do something to get it is not difficult to predict. Am I correct in thinking that what he has planned is not something I can easily escape? It would not surprise me if he had found some way to contain me to make it easier for him to kill me.”
His cousin’s lips parted slightly in their shock. “Corvine, you can’t understand what you’re saying!” he cried. “If Pierce takes the throne, it will plunge our entire race into chaos. The Meisters have enough to deal with these days, and you know as well as I that keeping peace between us and the humans is no easy feat. The humans fear us, and they would have tried to do away with us centuries ago were it not for the Covenant of Shadows.”
“I am aware of the implications, Fabian” Corvine said evenly. The sacred pact stated that humans and Shades could inhabit the same lands and live in close proximity to one another, so long as no human blood was shed unwillingly. It was the Meisters who had founded the Covenant, and had become its honored keepers. The current head of the Meister Order, Elias Estris, was a personal friend of Corvine’s, someone he trusted implicitly. It pained him to force his friend to go along with his plans now, but he had no choice if he hoped to ensure the survival of his people.
It was Lord Ransom Pierce, Overseer of the Merridian Domain, who was the problem. He was known for his open dissent of the Covenant of Shadows and the Order of Meisters. It was only by Corvine’s constant intervening that Pierce had not made any attempt to eliminate the Covenant Keepers or organize any old-text Human Hunts. Fabian had not been exaggerating, the consequences of Pierce’s taking the throne would be devastating, but there seemed to be no way around it, not when he was judging by the way his cousin was looking at him.
“He’s feeding on humans, Cor” Fabian finally said. “It’s not just one or two, he has an entire slaves’ quarters hidden within his castle, and his soldiers are feasting on them too. Elias has tried to settle the matter in secret, but not one Meister has been able to put a stop to it, and all those who have tried have died. The power he’s accumulated through this is enormous, I just don’t know if you’ll be able to stand against him.”
As he had before, Corvine remained impassive. This was not news to him, his spies in Lord Pierce’s domain had told him as much; it was why he had made all his preparations. The letter challenging him to a duel was probably on its way as he and Fabian spoke, and his death would come swiftly thereafter. With this in mind, he let out a small sigh, then took out the bundle from his cloak. When he held it out to him, Fabian let out a small gasp, then, hesitantly, he took it in his arms and gently cradled it to his chest.
“You… you knew I would come to tell you all this, didn’t you?” he asked, his eyes never leaving his arms as he rocked them back and forth. “He’s so quiet… what did you do to him?”
“I suppressed his royal blood” Corvine said, reaching out to touch the child’s head softly. “He arrived this morning, but I never let Analiese see him. She may hate me for it, but this boy is the only hope our family has of survival. Fabian, I want you to raise him as your own, and make sure he keeps passing on the family bloodline. Five centuries from now, when Corvus and Aquarius are in alignment with Mars, the heir to the High Throne will be born. It will be the duty of the Guardian’s heir to lead him to Covenant’s Hollow.”
“You dragged Elias into this too?” Fabian asked incredulously. “That’s cruel, Cor, even more so than knowingly leaving your own people.”
“Fabian, will you agree to this or not?”
“Of course, I will, Cor, but-!”
“Then that’s all we need to say on the matter.” Corvine got to his feet, then took one last look at his son. “Take him, and go, I suspect Pierce’s men will be here within the next few hours. As far as anyone knows, my son died in a miscarriage, I have no heir.”
Fabian bowed. “I understand, your Majesty” he said, then mounted his horse. Just before he exited the clearing, he looked back and put his fist to his heart, making the official salute. It was a final display of absolute loyalty, and Corvine took comfort in it. Trusting Fabian was indeed the right decision, as was keeping the prophecy from Elias. Once Pierce took over, he would do everything in his power to obliterate the Meisters, then he would sever all connections with the humans. Hiding his plans from Elias would ensure the information would never reach unwanted ears, thus no one would ever hunt for his heir or the heir to the Meisters. His secrecy would lead to the preservation of both Meisters and Shades, he knew it was the right the thing to do, even if it hurt him to do it all.
He took one last look around the clearing, then mounted his horse and began the ride back. Already he could see the glare of the torches from Pierce’s army over the ridge of the nearest mountain. They would be here just before dawn, long after Fabian and his son were gone from the city.
The walls to his castle came down before the sun had even crested over the mountaintops. Instantly, the slaughter began, and Fabian had spoken true. The might of Pierce and his men had increased tenfold under the influence of human blood, and when Corvine went out to meet his adversary he stepped into a sea of crimson. Even as he gazed upon the carnage, Corvine was at peace. Analiese had slipped into the void hours before the onslaught due to childbirth complications, and his son had been spared from the bloodletting. Even as Pierce’s blade slid though his heart, no fear flowed through him, for he knew what Pierce did not. He knew his death would not be death in the normal sense, for his blood would rise again. And when it did, the Shades would be lead out from the shadow that Pierce was to bring over them.
“You’re finished, Corvine” Pierce sneered as he watched the monarch bleed.
He looked up at the ceiling as the sword was pulled from his chest, allowing his life to pool on the floor below him. Light was dancing off the stain glass dome for which his palace was famous. That light gave him hope, and he died with a smile on his face.
It was thus that the Golden Age of High King Corvine came to an end.