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Caldera 8 – Eastgate

August 6, 2007

When Caden woke, Gustav was sitting at a small table near the window. It felt as though the blacksmith had been hammering his head. What happened? He remembered the fight in the street, and fragments of dreams of Tara, but that was it. Caden tried to give voice to his question, but all he got was a sort of rasping sound, his throat felt as though it had been scraped dry and salted. He turned to his left and looked up to find Tiernan standing next to him. The vision out of his left eye was blurry and when he raised his hand to his face he felt the hot, swollen flesh of his face where the man had hit him. Tiernan handed him a tumbler of water.

“Thanks,” Caden said in a scratchy voice after he had finished the water. “What in the three hells was that . . . last night?”

“That was two nights ago, actually. Fighting broke out between the Separatists and the Nationalists,” Gustav said, turning around to face Caden. “You were just lucky enough to get caught in the middle of it.”

“Who?” Caden asked.

“There are some in this city, the Nationalists, who think that we should be allied with Olec. The others, the Separatists, think that we should maintain our independent status,” Gustav said.

“And you? Which side do you favor?” Caden asked, knowing that either way, he had probably killed some of Gustav’s companions.

Gustav shrugged. “It wouldn’t change much for me either way.”

“I would think that you would prefer independence,” Caden said.

“But then Olec and Baden would fight over the city,” Tiernan countered. “It would be better to pick one and stick with it.”

“Its a complex situation, yeah, but either way my life doesn’t change very much,” Gustav said before changing the subject. “I’m surprised that you survived your encounter with the Nivencrest. Count yourself lucky, few would have.”

“I don’t feel so lucky,” Caden replied, although he knew that Gustav was right. “Nivencrest?” He had never heard the word before.

“A Nivencrest is a person who touches magic but fails to control it,” Gustav said. “The results vary, some are relatively untouched, managing to lead relatively normal lives, and some go insane. They’re always different, after, sometimes its the mind, sometimes the body, sometimes both. Alegor, the one who did that to you, I grew up with him. He always wanted to be the best warrior, and one day he discovered that he had an affinity for magic. What you saw was the consequence of his recklessness. His mind is gone now, and the Nationalists keep him like a dog.” Gustav’s face tightened as he spoke. They must have been close. “I would kill him myself, he deserves better than that, but he is too strong and too tough for me.”

“You mean he’s still alive?” Caden aksed. He couldn’t forget the sound of the hammer smashing into Alegor’s ribs, and the lack of reaction on his face, he couldn’t imagine someone surviving that.

“Yeah, I bet you could do it with that sword of yours,” Gustav said, gesturing at Caden’s sword, which was laying next to his pallet. “But short of that . . .”

How could I have not heard about this? Caden had heard of the Asennan berserkers, and seen enchanted weapons and armor, but never anything like the Nivencrest. They must be dismissed as mere stories as they make their way down South. The explanation made sense but brought up another disturbing question. Why aren’t there any in Kalmar?

“I had heard about them from some of the books back at the keep, but had dismissed them as tales that had grown too much in the telling, like the Dark Folk,” Tiernan said.

“The Dark Folk’re real, real as the Nivencrest, I’d bet my forge on in,” Gustav cut in.

“What?” Caden asked. He had grown up with stories of ghosts, demons, and merfolk, but he knew they were just that, stories. Now he was confronted with two new facets of his world at once. It was almost too much.

“I meant no offense,” Tiernan offered to Gustav before continuing. “The Dark Folk live up in the mountains and forests, away from the cities. Supposedly, they are nocturnal and live for centuries. I read one account that was saying that they don’t eat meat and were the rulers of the world before men, but I’m not sure how much truth there was to it. I don’t know much else about them, but then again, I don’t think that anyone does.”

“We should probably leave, let him rest,” Gustav said. Tiernan nodded, and the two of them went out after leaving some bread and water on the table next to Caden’s pallet. His neck ached from holding his head up during the conversation, and when he relaxed, he immediately started to drift off to sleep.

* * *

When he woke, Caden felt like there was room in his skull for him again. Gustav and Tiernan weren’t back yet, or they had come and gone, but it was still light out. When he tried to move, he found his body able, but not wholly compliant, and he knew the price he would pay if he pushed himself. He managed to roll over to where his bag was resting beside the pallet, and he dug through it until he found his copy of Cecil’s Tactics and Strategies. He had been meaning to read it ever since Justin had given it to him back in Elgen.

Flipping through it, he could see that the book was divided into an introduction, three sections, and a conclusion. He turned it over in his hands. It was a slim volume, being no more than a couple of finger widths thick and it lacked the embellishments of the other books that Caden had seen. The book itself felt old, but the leather binding had not cracked and the ink was still crisp on the cream-colored pages. It might have been magically preserved, somehow. After learning of the Nivencrest and the Dark Folk, the idea did not seem so alien to him. There was an inscription on the page opposite the start of the text.

Dear friend,

I am sorry that you were not by my side on that glorious day. You would have been proud to be among us, and I am sorry that it was not meant to be so. I feel that my whole life cumulated in that moment, when their forces were routed and caught between us and the river. It was a glorious day for the Empire, and indeed all mankind. I am writing this at the place where I will build a castle that will stand watch over our Eastern border.

-Cecil-

The signature was simple but elegant. This must have been the original copy that he wrote, right after the Battle of Evergate. The realization hit Caden hard, in the Dragoons, some of the officers had spoken of the book as of a holy text and he was holding the original copy. What was more, he had traveled through the city of Evergate without ever giving the castle a second glance. How many opportunities do we pass by every day simply because they do not present themselves to us as opportunities?

The Battle of Evergate had been the decisive battle against the barbaric Southern tribes that marked the end of the Asennan Empire’s expansionist phase. Cecil himself had led an army against a mass three times their size, but had come out victorious, marking the beginning of the Asennan golden age. The Empire had fallen into ruin several hundred years later, and the kingdom of Baden had been born, which would eventually lead to the founding of Kalmar. Caden started to read the introduction.

War exists as a necessary facet of civilization, for as societies grow, so do the conflicts between them. Although some may decry war, calling it evil, they do not understand the true nature of war. Conflicts between societies are much the same as conflicts between individuals, arising out of differing interests. When possible, it is best to arbiter these different interests so that both parties are appeased. This is not always possible, if one of the parties is unreasonable, then the issue must be resolved through force. The alternative to the use of force is a protracted struggle in which neither side wins and both sides suffer. It is always desirable that a quick resolution be found, even if the cost must be paid in blood.

The science of war has three aspects, and these facets comprise the fundamentals of strategy. An understanding of strategy alone cannot guarantee victory, but the mastery of its elements will allow one to avoid situations where victory is a mere phantom. The first thing that one must understand is the nature of victory and defeat, for this will determine all actions pertaining to the conflict. The second area of study is the study of tactics, for tactics are what determine the outcome of the battles. The final issue is that of morale and logistics, for if your troops are not fed or they flee before the battle even begins, loss is inevitable. Some will be tempted to focus on just one of the aspects, but just as a stool needs three legs, a leader needs a comprehensive understanding of war or he will fail.

Caden had only seen a handful of books, aside from ledgers, and all of them had been printed, covered in vast plots of uniform letters, but this was different. Cecil’s handwriting was consistent and legible, but Caden could see that there were areas where he pressed down harder than in others, and in other places, words had been scratched out and replaced. What sort of man would it take to write something like this while he was on a campaign?

The phrase ‘the mastery of its elements will allow one to avoid situations where victory is a mere phantom’ caught Caden’s eye. It seemed so obvious and at the same time profound, making Caden wonder at all the times he had chased after some goal only to fail. How many times have I been attempting to attain the unattainable?

* * *

Caden hadn’t ridden Akati since he had taken the beating from the Nivencrest almost three weeks previous and his legs started to ache before he had ridden a block. Looking back, he could see the city rising with the arch of the bridge and again felt the sense of wonder that had filled him when he had first arrived. He and Gustav had grown close in the weeks that he was recuperating, playing games of Atrici in the evenings and talking on all manner of things. Gustav is a better friend than most people I’ve known all my life.

“So, it looks like this is it,” Caden said. He was sitting at a table in a small tavern at the edge of the city with Gustav and Tiernan.

“I imagine we’ll meet again, you and I,” Gustav said. “If you ever need anything . . .”

“I’ll make sure to stop by on my way back,” Caden said.

“Where are you going, anyway?” Gustav asked.

“Don’t bother, he won’t say a word about it,” Tiernan said, and although he smiled, Caden could hear bitterness in his voice.

“Really?” Gustav said, arching an eyebrow.

I’ll be forced to tell Tiernan sooner or later. “Actually, its personal. My wife, Tara, died while I was on a campaign last winter, and I– I couldn’t stay in Helena. So it was either continue with the Dragoons, or do something else. I’ve seen enough war, so I decided that I would travel up to Land’s End in Ravos and figure out what to do when I got there.” Caden hadn’t meant to lie, but once the words had slipped out of his lips, it was too late to go back. Gustav looked like he was satisfied with the answer but Tiernan was looking at him very intently, so he continued. “I’ll probably head back to Kalmar, maybe even all the way to Asennos. I think that’s what Tara would have wanted.” Caden started to choke up with the last of the words.

“What’s with the temples, then?” Tiernan asked. Caden hadn’t explained why he had needed to go to the temple in Evergate, or why he had gone to the temple in Afon a week ago, where they had him help care for the wounded of another fight between the city’s two factions.

“I just want to feel like I’m doing something useful, like I’m making things better,” Caden said.

Chapter 9 is up.

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