The Province of Ducasia, 15 years ago…

“And stay out!”

The tavern keeper’s hands were rough and his arms brawny, and the slim figure he propelled from his establishment flew a surprising distance.

Mud splashed on fine robes as he fell into the muck of the innyard, but the lad was far beyond caring. He had spent a hefty portion of the coin in his purse on drinks the previos night, and he was left with little to pay the bar tab he had racked up ordering rounds of ale and wine all night long. Finally, the tavern keeper had ejected him—less than gracefully—and the lad had little choice but to stumble over to where his horse stood placidly.

Mounting was only accomplished by a supreme effort of will, as the young man was seeing in triplicate after the wide variety of alcohol that he had consumed. He tottered as he rode, barely managing to stay upright in the saddle.

Swaying down the road, he was oblivious to the world around him. He hardly noticed when, a few miles from the inn, a group of rough-looking brigands barred his way.

“What…what…whatsh going on?”

His words were slurred and barely coherent.

“Look at the little lad, Trosco. So drunk he can barely sit up straight.”

“Seems almost a shame to relieve him of his val-yoo-bulls, don’t it Fragg?”

“Aye, but better he starve than us, eh?”

The larger thug—named Fragg by his comrade—had barely stepped forward to loosen the straps of the inebriated youth’s saddle when the thunder of hooves sounded nearby.

Down the road charged another youth, sword drawn and yelling loudly. So startled were the brigands by the sight that they actually took to their heels, scattering into the brush alongside the road.

“Well, that’s done and ended. I say there, are you alright?”

The concern on the second youth’s face was lost on the inebriated rider, who barely managed to cough out a few words.

“Shiny…sword…”

It was with a very dull “Thud” that the first youth hit the hard paving stones of the highway.

“Ouch. That’s going to leave a mark…”

 

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The pounding in Deucalion’s head was terrible—reminding him of the Norse war drums he had heard as a child.

“Ohh… gods be damned, my head.”

The second youth—the one who had saved him—stood up from where he sat tending the fire.

“You might not want to move too much, friend. That hangover is going to be a nasty one. What did you drink?”

“What didn’t I drink? Oh gods, turn off the light!” The standing youth smiled as he saw the prone figure, trying desperately to block the firelight from his eyes.

“We need the fire to keep away the night’s chill. Just turn away from it if it hurts your eyes.”

He carried a small clay cup over to the prone form of the moaning lad.

“Here, drink this. Tastes like donkey balls, but it should help with the head.”

The drink was even fouler than the youth had described, and the quickly-sobering lad barely managed to avoid retching. “By the gods, this is worse than the swill that inn pretended was ale. What is it?”

“Azalea tubers, oak bark, a few other plants. It works wonders for hangovers. I’ve had a good many of them myself, and that poison is the only thing that cures a pounding head.” The second youth smiled as he watched his companion wipe the taste of the concoction from his tongue with muddy shirtsleeves.

“Thanks, I guess.”

“Any time. What’s your name?”

“Deucalion. Yours?”

“I’m Phoris. Your clothes mark you as a stranger. Where are you from?”

“The capital. You?”

The odd clothes worn by the youth named Phoris were tailored in a style foreign to the young Deucalion, his skin darker than those native to Atateide.

“I’m from Iqbal, the capital of Ducasia.”

“That’s where I’m headed. Got a message to deliver for my mother.”

“The road takes me home as well. Want me to accompany you? Looks like you might need it—at least until you recover from that pounding in your head.”

“I’d welcome a traveling companion. I’m tired of drinking alone anyways.”

“Well then, Deucalion, come morning, we ride to Iqbal!”

In the way of youth, a friendship was formed on the spot.

 

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True to his word, Phoris’ remedy worked wonders for hangovers, and the two resumed their journey at the break of dawn.

Scarcely had they traveled half a league when the brigands from the night before accosted them once again.

“Looks like we’ve got ourselves some repeat customers, eh boys?”

Phoris looked unconcerend as the bandits moved towards him. The leader waved a rusty sword threateningly, while the rest hefted a ragged assortment of knives and cleavers.

“Give us your money, horses, and valuables boys, and we’ll let you run back to mommy unbuggered and unharmed.”

A smile grew on Phoris’ face.

“As pleasant as that sounds, friend, I too have an offer to make you fine gentlemen. Turn around and run back into that forest there, and I will let you off with nothing more than the beating your wives will give you for turning up with empty hands.”

The leader seemed puzzled for a minute at the steady stream of words spilling from the youth’s mouth. Phoris guessed he wasn’t the brightest of the bunch, nor the one with the most teeth. What few he had were crooked and rotting, making it easy for him to spit through them as he finally responded.

“The whelp wants a lesson, eh boys? Let’s give him something to cry to mama about.”

They advanced menacingly on Phoris, who remained calmly seated on his horse.

“Gentlemen, please don’t force the issue. I would have no choice but to use the flat of my blade on you—staining it with blood would dishonor the noble steel.”

“Be careful how you speak with your elders, lad. We may have to give you a good hiding before we’re done with you.”

“Well then, fine brigands, if you will permit me but a moment to dismount…”

He removed his coat once he had jumped from his horse, drawing his sword with a flourish.

“At your leave, gentlemen.” The genteel bow and salute of his sword mocked the snaggle-toothed leader, who responded with a vicious cut with his rusted sword.

Deucalion’s mouth dropped open as he witnessed the marvelous swordplay that followed. Phoris certainly had earned a right to his confident attitude.

The bandit’s rusted blade clanged loudly against Phoris’ weapon, and a flick of the young man’s hand sent the brigand staggering off to one side clutching at his wrenched wrist. The blade slapped against the back of the man’s legs with a resounding “thwack”, and the man yelped as he felt the sharp pain above his knees.

He rounded on the men watching the scene, their mouths agape.

“Well, what are you waiting for, you idiots? Get him!”

None of them moved until the bandit leader growled at them—rubbing the backs of his legs while yelling curses that would blister a sailor’s ears.

“Gentlemen, if you please, I don’t have all day. I do have quite a way to travel this day, so if you’d please hurry up with the lesson.”

Phoris’ mocking tone was too much for one bull-necked ruffian, who waded into the fray swinging a hefty meat cleaver. A few deft strokes of Phoris’ blade, and the man staggered away—wiping tears from his eyes at the painful stinging in his legs.

“You little cunt…”

The bandit leader had evidently regained his composure and fought off the pain, for he lunged forward with the rusty sword.

It was obvious to Deucalion that he had hoping to impale Phoris on the dull blade, but the lad simply flicked it away. The slap he dealt to the man’s face was hard, the flat of his sword causing the florid face to redden further.

“Please, gentlemen, I implore you to let us be on our way before things turn nasty.”

Phoris took a quick step towards one of the bandits standing a few paces away, but the little man dropped his short knife with a screech. Soon, nothing could be seen of him but the back of his cloak disappearing into the woods.

“What an excellent choice your friend has made! I wonder if anyone else would like to heed his wise advice and join him in the forest?”

Two of the more timid bandits scurried off in pursuit of their fellow, leaving three of their dim-witted comrades standing there gawping at the young man with the bright sword.

“Very well, then. Let’s finish this.”

Three quick dancing steps took him within reach of the nearest bandit, who received a hard slap across the jaw with the flat of Phoris’ blade. The large man who had rushed Phoris with a cleaver was dealt a blow on the nose. It set his eyes watering, breaking the already-crooked part in the process. The third man simply dropped his blade and ran when he saw Phoris coming.

“And then there was one.”

Phoris turned his attention on the remaining brigand, holding his sword like a severe schoolmaster preparing to give an offending pupil a switching.

The bandit leader approached cautiously, wary of the flashing sword that had dealt such stinging pain in the past. He knew the lad was toying with him, but there was nothing he could do that would enable him to escape now with his dignity intact—much less with anything of value.

Still, he thought, there’s always a chance I can get a lucky blow in and put an end to this stupid youth and his damned sword.

He renewed his attack, which lasted all of three sword strokes before he found himself lying on his back. The blade pointing at his neck was long and sharp, and it was held with casual ease by the young man with the menacing smile.

“Now, if I was you, I would start running, fast. I would keep running until I couldn’t run any more, and then I’d keep right on running. Let’s hope I never see your face again, friend”—the word was a threat in itself—”or else I might forget how to avoid spilling blood.”

The point of the sword dug into the bandit’s shoulder.

“Up you get. Nice and easy. And you’re off!” A swat to the back of the bandit’s legs sent him scurrying, stopping only for the moment required to gather up his friend with the broken nose.

Phoris and Deucalion had a hard time quelling their laughter until long after the bandit was well out of sight.

“I haven’t had this much fun since the last time I traveled through this region. There was a different idiot leading the bandits back then. I wonder what happened to him? All I did was take part of an ear—nothing too permanent.”

“So you travel through here often?”

“Oh yes, all the time. My father is the Duke of Ducasia, and he has me traveling around the province frequently to check on his holdings.”

“You mean you’re the son of Duke Eidus?”

“Did I forget to mention that? Sorry. Must have slipped my mind. Anyways, we must be off. Father is expecting me home within a few days, so we’ve only got enough time to stop at a few inns on the way there. Let me tell you about this one in Eredos. My friend, you will love the pies they have there…”

 

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The trip to Iqbal was all too short for the young men, who were forced to bid farewell to each other at the city gates. Each had their own lives to lead, and their paths would take them in different directions. At least for the next few years.

Phoris continued serving his father, becoming a Captain in the Ducasian Imperial Guard. Upon his father’s death, he inherited the title of Duke of Ducasia—a title he adopted with little relish.

The lad Deucalion—me—had returned home upon delivery of my mother’s message, and began training with the finest swordsmen Atateide had to offer. My education in the martial arts was soon to end, as I was sent off to travel the world.

The day came when the old Emperor Tathiros died, his loyal Chancellor and my mentor Lord Adret following him soon after. Whispers around the city hinted at a poison that had led to the madness of the Emperor and the death of my mentor.

The daughter of the old Emperor took the Imperial throne, raising me to serve by her side. The fact that I had no interest in politics made me the perfect person to serve the strong-willed, self-assured young woman.

When I was made Chancellor to the Immortal Empress Tatho, I was to discover that my old friend had been made Captain-General of the Imperial Guard. He was my immediate choice when I was tasked with creating a new unit to act as bodyguard to Her Imperial Highness, and his training has made the Imperial Guard the envy of the known world.

The thirty men comprising the Empress’ bodyguard were the finest men from around the world, each handpicked and trained by Phoris—the finest warrior on the continent. It was said that few in the world could best him with a sword, and none had tried in nearly a decade. His talents had been invaluable in training the thirty Imperial Guards, turning them into a band of professional of killers unrivaled skill.

The Legion of the Night was the name given to them by the Protectors of the Imperial Body—the guards that held the Imperial Palace. The name had been meant as a mockery, for the handful of men in the Legion spent their nights roaming the city on missions for their Captain-General. It soon became a name to inspire fear, for the men in the Legion were some of the deadliest warriors the world could offer.

Amongst themselves, however, they were called the Nightstalkers.