Dark age, p.1
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       Dark Age, p.1
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           Felix O. Hartmann
Dark Age


  To Mom and Dad

  Acts of the most unwavering love take longest to be understood. Thanks for all that you have done for me.

  Contents

  I: A Thief

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  II: The Grey Guard

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  III: The Inquisitor

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Epilogue

  Thank you for Reading Dark Age!

  About the Author

  I

  A Thief

  If I had known

  That day follows the night,

  That every shadow is cast by light,

  I would have understood

  The actions that he took.

  Chapter 1

  I sat atop the Mount, the rooftop of the city’s cathedral, engulfed in the calming silence of the night. All shops closed, all men retired, and the last candlelight vanished into the ever-darkening sky. Above me, the horizon seemed infinite, yet the stars and the moon appeared so close to grasp; like all those dreams that run out of our reach, yet stay close enough to keep us chasing along.

  I came here on special occasions. The view made my world look like a game, taken from a merchant boy’s toy collection. The guards stood idly, like tin knights scattered throughout the scene, stationed around houses that appeared to be nothing more than tiny boxes. The high outer wall separated the city from the rest of the world like a dark curtain, never to be lifted.

  Impatiently I turned my head to the bell tower that loomed over the city with an air of menace, ticking away our seconds. Thirty minutes to midnight were left on the clock-face. In half an hour, I would turn seventeen, leaving only one year until being forced to join the Grey Guard for the next ten years of my life.

  Far above the dark spire of the bell tower, Orion shone brightly, drawing my attention back to the present. I could not stop but smile. He was my protector, but also just another soldier never coming home.

  “What are you smiling at?” said a soft voice coming up behind me. Katrina.

  “You’re here,” I said, not sure whether I was relieved or surprised.

  “I knew you’d be here,” Katrina replied, tightening her dark green coat around her thin waist. “You always are, when there is something going on.”

  “Something going on? That’s a way to call it,” I said, flicking a pebble off the rooftop into the dark abyss.

  Gracefully, she stepped over the frosty tiles and sat down next to me. An innocent loving smile crossed her lips. “You didn’t show up to work today.”

  “I had other things on my mind,” I said.

  “You need to keep busy. Thinking day and night about the Guard won’t help.”

  “I just hate the unknown,” I said, “I don’t know what will happen once I leave those gates.”

  She pushed a strand of her auburn hair behind her ear. “But, there’s still plenty of time for you here. And for us…”

  “Please don’t make this any harder,” I said, looking into her hazel eyes, which were just as lost as mine. “Everything I have will be nothing but a memory a year from now.”

  She was tense. With crossed arms she looked away.

  “Let’s not fight. Not tonight,” I asked, and pulled her in closer, letting the tranquility of the quiet city absorb us.

  For a moment, I observed my breath as it hit the cold air and turned into fog. I noticed her shaking hands and took off my leather jacket. Carefully I put it over her slender shoulders.

  She pressed closer against me for warmth, “You didn’t answer me,” she said. “What were you staring at when I came up? The bell tower?”

  “The stars,” I answered, and pointed to the skies. “See the ones that look like a soldier? The three in a row make the belt, the shoulders are above. That is Orion.”

  “I know my stars,” she said teasingly.

  “My brother taught me to chart the night sky.”

  “Elias?” she asked.

  I nodded, “The night before his summoning to join the Grey Guard we were sitting right here. He said to me, ‘Whenever you feel alone, Orion will be watching over you. I told him to keep an eye on you.’” I smiled, knowing how silly it sounded, yet how true it was to me. I could feel his presence, although he was far away. “I was just a little boy at the time, running to his room every morning to see if he was back. I had no idea of what he had to face, nor could I have possibly imagined how long ten years would last.”

  “Adam,” Katrina said softly, “The valley… not everyone gets to come back.”

  “He will come back,” I hissed. Taking her hand, I dropped my voice, “And so will I, no matter how many of those demons I have to kill.”

  An uncomfortable smile crossed her lips. Squeezing my hand tighter, she reached into her pocket. “I got something for you.” Carefully she pulled out a silver chain. A little wooden eagle, with spread wings, hung in the middle of it.

  “It’s beautiful. This must have taken you ages to make,” I ran my finger over the fine details, from the beak to the feathers. “I wish eagles were still around.”

  “Kings of the skies, and symbol of many nations long gone… I doubt they were ever any more real than dragons,” she said.

  “Still…,” I looked at the small eagle in the palm of my hand, “there’s got to be more out there than just cattle. Some creatures that serve a purpose of their own”

  “Mhm.”

  “What’s wrong?”

  “I just…,” her voice broke off.

  “What?”

  “I just wanted to give you something to remember me by when you are out there,” she said softly.

  I pulled her closer into my arms. “I could never forget you. You know that.”

  She smiled at me with unease, and then looked away. There was an awful quiet. We both must have thought of things that we could not put into words.

  The silence was broken when she grabbed my arm and pointed at the bell tower – it was a minute to midnight. The minute hand stood still, just inches from the center of the clock, uncertain to proceed to the next day, as if hoping it could still turn back. Then, it lashed to the right, setting off the bells.

  Katrina put her arms around me, pressing her head against my chest. With her touch, a warm feeling of comfort surged into my heart, taunting me, as I knew I would not be able to experience it again a year from this day. I already missed her, even though she was right there with me.

  “Happy Birthday, Adam,” she whispered and leaned in, while the loud brass bell struck for the fifth time, announcing the end of the day.

  Chapter 2

  Sun struck my eyes through the curtain, jolting me out of bed. It was late – almost too late. The light was blinding yet illuminating, wiping away the remnants of my dreams, and showing me the grey reality of my barren room. Quickly, I washed myself with a bucket of water that stood ready on my nightstand. To my good fortune, everything lay prepared on
the empty bed above mine: A fresh white shirt, dark pants with a belt, and a green vest with a matching beret. The buckle of my belt was shaped as an anvil. No matter how much carpentry work I did for Katrina’s father, I was a blacksmith by birth.

  I glanced into the old rectangular mirror in the corner of my room. A disgusted grimace crossed my face. I looked more like a snobby merchant child than a blacksmith. It was the finest set of clothes we owned. I recalled mocking Elias, Benet, and Colin, my older brothers, when they wore this same outfit to their celebrations. Now it was my turn.

  Before I left my room, I remembered the eagle. I put on the necklace Katrina gave me, and with it, a smile returned onto my lips.

  My parents sat in the kitchen, picking at a loaf of bread. They talked in hushed voices, drowned out by a pot of boiling water. The second they saw me, they got up onto their feet. My mother’s eyes fixated on me for several moments. A smile crossed her lips, but silent tears ran down her face.

  “Look at you,” she said. “My darling boy, all grown up. I hardly recognize you. You look just like your father did, a long time ago.” She put her arm around his side. “He was quite a looker back then.”

  “Let’s not get nostalgic,” Father said, interjecting.

  She ignored him. “I remember him standing in the square surrounded by all those boys. But he was a man – a head taller than all the rest, and composed like he knew it was his time.” She smiled at him, then at me. “And now it’s your turn. It’s going to be a big year for you.”

  A quick one, anyway, I thought.

  “Are you ready?” my father asked. He towered over me, a huge man carved from brawn and sinew. His full beard and iron expression made him difficult to read. Most people felt uneasy around him, as if a mountain were going to crash down on them.

  I nodded. “I’ll make it through. Unseen is unscathed, right?”

  He chuckled softly. “Unseen, huh? Sounds like something the old carpenter would say. Us blacksmith’s don’t hide. We fight.” He pressed his finger into my chest, “You may be doing his work… and daughter, but you are a blacksmith, forged in fire. Remember that son. Now go get them.”

  I pushed my shoulders back and repeated our motto, “Forged in fire.” With a satisfied nod, he let me go, and I was off to my ceremony.

  The streets were busy with traffic heading in the same direction. Generally the people moved quietly along their paths, like cattle, going from station to station, but today was different. Today bright smiles, light skips within their steps, and eased composures marked all citizens; except the veterans, who knew what lay ahead of those lucky boys turning seventeen. The first would greet me with excitement while the latter only gave me solemn nods.

  For most it was a time to rejoice. These celebrations were a tradition as old as the city itself and occurred only once every full moon. It was a rite of passage into adulthood, ridden by political and religious agendas, yet fancied up as a populist spectacle. No one was allowed to work on celebration days, making it the only day in the month where the entire city would come together and almost unite on the square. It was something unique, because we did not often mingle with the others. We were too different to mix as you could tell a man’s origin by his looks, clothing, walk, and sometimes even smell.

  The city split into three main districts. To the West lay the temple district, perfectly manicured and tranquil, ruled by the priests. While spacious, it was dominated by the monumental cathedral, whose spire rose as high as the heavens. The beautiful gothic monastery and convent stood apart from each other, deeper in the district. A lush garden, the only one in the entire city, was in between, only accessible to those of religious rank. At its southern edge was the Inquisitor’s mansion, a colossal structure taking up the entire length of the square, and reaching far behind, all the way into the mountains to which it was connected. When he stood at his balcony, the Inquisitor could survey the entire square… but even when he wasn’t there, his presence loomed.

  My family lived in the Works, the northern district, which made up the vast majority of the city’s population. But even in the Works we had a class system, differentiating another as craftsman and industrials, which sometimes were considered districts in their own. While we craftsmen had decent houses close to the square, the industrials lived in the outskirts of town. Be it as a result or by design, the living conditions fell as the distance to the city center rose. Those in the far end of the northern district lived in ramshackle huts, children appearing like rats in corners and darkened holes, parents hoping to hold on long enough to get another pair of hands on the production line. More hands meant more wages, meant more food. God be praised, even the worst of us had hope.

  It only took me a few minutes to get to the square as we lived in the better part of the Works. Usually I could hear the ringing sound of iron on steel several blocks down, like a ticking clock reminding me of home. I had the urge to slip away right now, sick of all the false attention, but with everyone’s eyes glued to me, there was nowhere to go. Instead I merged into the sea of humanity pouring towards the square.

  The square itself was the heart of the city, literally and otherwise. It connected all the districts, forming the city’s single thoroughfare. In the square the residents of each district would congregate, interact, and almost unite. On regular days, the square served as a place for markets and public addresses. At this time it would already be bustling. Merchants operated their stalls, while countless workers spent their breaks to look around and meet friends. Various artists used the crowds to earn a few extra coins, thereby creating the entertainment that made it such a lively place.

  Today, its vast space was decorated with flags and banners, giving a sparkle of color to the grey expanse. With only a few stands operating in the back, thousands formed a seemingly impenetrable crowd. A thin path was kept clear by a group of city guards in full armor.

  Almost naturally, the districts segregated. At the very front sat the leaders of the Temple District. Priests, monks, and the Mother Superior sat comfortably on hand-carved benches, while everyone else stood. God bless the other nuns, who were never even allowed to see the daylight beyond their convent and gardens. Only the helplessly poor and lost souls of the city chose such a life to escape their misery. Female criminals were often offered to join the convent over execution. Some found the latter to be the lesser evil.

  Behind the Temple District’s rows stood the families of the Works, with the properly dressed craftsmen in the front and the rather unwashed industrials in the back. We craftsmen were well off compared to those unlucky many, making it to adulthood while they often died young. But even we were poor compared to the merchants.

  The Merchant district was conspicuously different from the rest of the city. It sat secluded behind its own gated walls. Besides residents, only invited guests and priests were allowed inside the district walls. Their families were small with two children at most, just enough to bring forth one male heir. Those children left the district sparingly, preferring the rarified company of their peers. I made sure to spit in their general direction whenever our paths would cross.

  There was a saying amongst the craftsmen: the gold flows uphill. I stared up the hill to my left, watching the main boulevard rise away from the square. At its far end, glorious mansions towered above their neighbors.

  If the Inquisitor was the voice of God, the merchants were God’s dirty fingers. They paid the Inquisition well, and in turn owned most of the Works. While they provided protection and materials to the craftsmen in their employ, the proceeds from the exchange left us barely holding on. Still, as much as I’d have liked to, it’s hard to bite the hand that feeds you.

  Off to my left, atop their wall they stood now, gazing down as I approached the front of the square. Stares from all sides pierced through me. Some saw Adam. Some saw the blacksmith’s boy. Some saw a dead boy.

  “My blessings to you, son.” An old priest pulled me by the sleeve as I passed him. “You are th
e only Celebratorio this moon! I have never witnessed such a thing in my long life.”

  “What do you mean, father,” I asked the high temple-man.

  With a tranquil nod he pointed towards a single, high-backed wooden throne that stood by itself between the people and the Inquisitor’s mansion. It was blackened by age, but hints of the inlaid gold still glinted in the sunlight. Typically, there were a score of thrones set up in the expanse. Sometimes as few as half a dozen. But not today. Today there was only one, and it was for me. Every eye in the entire city would be on me.

  “The plague,” another said. “I remember countless mothers and newborn children dying many years ago around this time of year. You must have been the only one that made it.”

  It was odd news to congratulate someone for, I thought, but thanked them for their attention. I stepped towards the throne and let my fingers run over the century old mahogany. Following tradition it was placed in the very front with no one in between the Inquisitor and the boys. No one was there to hide behind. Growing increasingly nervous under the notion of being the only Celebratorio, and with that, the center of attention, I immediately sat down.

  I tilted my head slightly and enjoyed an unhindered view onto the Inquisitor’s grand balcony. Impressive ornaments of pure gold decorated both corners. I had seen them so many times before, but now they meant something. Today they were dedicated to me.

  While the crowd was busy chattering, the Inquisitor’s council quietly came through a side door and took seat on the right of the balcony. The Inquisitor’s ward, a girl of maybe sixteen, followed closely and took a seat on the left. Blankly, she stared off into the distance, bored and bothered at once.

  When they were all settled, the trumpets sounded. The crowd quit their talk and applauded on cue. Upon this signal, the Inquisitor’s herald knocked on the marble ground thrice with a big wooden stick. With a booming voice he exclaimed, “Citizens! The Inquisitor!” Upon his name, the crowd turned their applause into a roar. It had begun.

  The red curtains behind the balcony flushed to the sides. With arms spread as if embracing us all, the Inquisitor stepped onto the balcony towards the banister. His burgundy robe dragged over the smooth marble surface, while his slow steps rang in beat with the noise of the crowd. His face looked determined, stern almost, radiating both terror and power. But those were mostly the same.

 
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