The Gathering of Shadows

Castle Darkwall, Gladius

"I left my home of twenty years to find my past. As I walked through that lonely forest, I had no idea what lay in store for me. Fear, pain, grief, regret... Even so, I believe I made the right choice and I would do it again without hesitation."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Of the five towers along the castle's outer wall, the easternmost tower rose higher than the rest and possessed a shape and character far more menacing than that of its peers. Creeping vines were wont to climb the walls elsewhere in the castle, but no living thing dared to touch that tower. Rumor held that the tower would take on an unnatural glow during moonless nights and it stirred fear among the men of the castle. Within this dreaded tower, the warlock Shadowblight worked his twisted magics in the highest chamber, flanked by jars and vials of reagents, ancient scrolls and tomes, and various other implements of the magical arts.
Little more than a skeleton wrapped in ill-fitting skin, the warlock was a frightful figure to be sure. The deep sockets that once held his eyes were like dark cavernous mouths. His long grey hair hung thin and ragged off his chin and the sides of his head. Clutched in his bony fingers was a short wooden staff capped with a polished human skull.
Muttering an incantation in a low voice, he lurched over the steaming pool at his feet. With a wave of his staff, the smoke cleared and an image began to form in the water, a young man traveling through the forest to the east. Seeing the old vision realized before him, the warlock furrowed his brow.
"The time has come," he hissed. "All will be decided now."
The image dissipated with another wave of the warlock's staff. Donning his threadbare cloak, Shadowblight turned to leave. The King awaited his findings. He would not be pleased.

* * *

The throne room of Castle Darkwall was a spartan chamber with four thick pillars supporting the ponderous weight of the ceiling. A few simple tapestries adorned the otherwise bare walls. On a dais of solid obsidian sat an iron throne. From this vantage, Randwulf the Conqueror, King of Gladius, looked down upon the assembly gathered before him.
Like the wolf whose image decorated those few tapestries, the King had the eyes of a predator and a thick mane dark grey hair. He wore a fur-lined cloak over the ancestral armor of his house, but did not deign to bear a crown or circlet upon his brow. He enforced his kingship through the force of his personality and strength of arms. The only symbol of his station he carried was a finely crafted scepter crowned with an orb of black crystal.
Two men knelt closest to the throne. One was Terentius, Captain of the Gladian Guard, charged with keeping peace and order in the kingdom. Little more than a common peasant by the looks of him, he was a simple man with coarse, close-cut black hair whose only distinguishing feature was a crooked nose that had been broken many years ago. The other was Cadmus Martial, the commander of Randwulf's elite standing army, the Marauders. Unlike his counterpart, Cadmus was a striking figure with the proud bearing of noble blood and a surprisingly muscular physique for someone his age. A long scar ran across his bald pate, an injury from his days as a cavalry officer. As if to compensate for the absence of hair from the top of his head, he allowed it to grow long on the sides, tied back in a ponytail that extended down to his waist. His sword was particular to him, its wide blade distinguished by a harpoon-like hook at its point.
Behind them were the five division commanders of the Marauders and farthest from the throne was a gang of special agents who went beyond the call of Randwulf's conventional forces. There could scarcely be more difference between those two ranks. The five commanders were uniformly clad in identical suits of armor and displayed the strict military bearing of professional soldiers. The others, for the most part, showed a slacker discipline and were as varied an assortment as could ever be gathered in one place. The one thing that bound them all together was Randwulf's authority and not a single man in the room dared to challenge it.
"The time has come to strike at the East," Randwulf declared. "Are the Marauders ready?"
"They are ready, sire," Cadmus replied.
Randwulf's eyes swept across the assembly. "We shall move at daybreak." He fixed his gaze on his Captain of the Guard. "Terentius, I leave the kingdom in your hands. Do not fail me." He was pleased to see his words weighing heavily on the Captain.
"Should Your Majesty trust such an incompetent?"
The sardonic remark came from the back. The Dark Knight Vincentian usual stoicism was betrayed by a faint, scornful grin at the discomfort of the dumbstruck Captain. Vincentian was a young man with long black hair and an almost deathly pallor, clad in dark armor and a pitch-black cape. The visor of his long-horned helmet was like a blank mask that largely hid his face even when upraised.
"Silence, boy!" Cadmus roared in swift anger. "You'll not speak unless spoken to!"
The Dark Knight scowled at Cadmus but said nothing more. Randwulf forced himself not to roll his eyes or give any other sign of his aggravation. The squabbling between father and son was both frequent and tiresome. Any attempt to rebuke them would only stoke the coals. It was not worth the effort.
Before the King could give further directions, the doors to the throne room swung open. The cloaked figures of the warlock Shadowblight encircled by his six apprentices glided soundlessly toward the throne. The assembly hastily parted for the entourage, their eyes held captive by the enigmatic residents of the Warlock's Tower. Although most were gripped with fear or at very least unease at the sight of the warlock and his retinue, there was one marked exception. Bitter hatred smoldered in the steely gaze of the Dark Knight, his fists clenched tightly and quivering in barely contained anger. More than anyone else, he knew the depths of the warlock's cruelty and the dread cost of his experiments in the dark arts.
The warlock's empty sockets were fixed on Randwulf as if they still possessed eyes. He raised his thin arms and fire seemed to erupt from the walls. Several members of the assembly jumped in surprise, but many of them could see through such petty illusions and were unmoved. Opening his mouth to speak, the warlock's voice seemed to emanate from all directions at once.
"The Eagle in the East has grown," the warlock's disembodied voice droned. "He flies westward as I speak. He will seek you out with talons bared. He will move the mountain and wake the Sleeping Lion. The dove will guide him and a great horde will flock to his side. They will descend on this place and rain destruction. The wolf will be crushed and broken. It is the beginning of the end."
The warlock lowered his arms and the false fire faded away. He turned and left, his apprentices following in unison. Silence gripped the throne room. Time seemed to stop. Absently realizing he was not alone, Randwulf waved for the assembly's dismissal and they quietly filed out of the throne room.
When they had left, Randwulf granted himself the leisure to ponder the warlock's words, words that echoed the prophecy given to him when he first took the throne twenty years ago. He longed to storm the East from the day he first heard the ill oracle, but his grip on the land was not stable enough to permit any such campaign. More importantly, he had a grand scheme in mind and his power had not yet developed enough to fulfill his greatest ambition. He could only hope he was not too late, but he feared the window of opportunity had closed. At the very least, his enemies would have one less ally.
He rose and drew his sword, the hallowed heirloom of his family. Resting the enchanted blade in his open palm, he looked at his grim-faced reflection.
"Even if the prophecy is fulfilled, they will not take my throne easily."