Ismark: The Golden Bond – Prologue

“That damn woman is still breathing!” Korm’s voice carried through the entire tunnel underneath The Imperial Keep. As a member of the imperial inquisition, Jun hunted down those who were enemies of the empire. He listened to the burly Southern Sorian, dark skinned as most members of the Barbari clan that had been conquered by the Sorian back when the Empire was in its glorious infancy.

The dark red robe that Jun wore, swept across the damp dungeon floor and Jun looked at the cobblestone floor as he walked. The Inquisitor had as a young initiate learned to pay close attention to where ever he walked. His sandals hit the puddles with force and caused his feet to get wet, but he walked as though he was not bothered by the dirt and filth of the lower levels, in the place where his Glorious Highness kept all the traitors to the Sun Throne.

Sounds of keys jingling ripped Jun from his thoughts and he looked up at the jailor as he struggled to find the right key. Korm smiled crookedly at the inquisitor. “I do apologize, my lord Inquisitor, I know I have the right key here somewhere.” The jailor nervously held up the right key. “Ah, there you are.” Korm was a type of creature Jun unfortunately had to deal with in his errands for the Imperial Inquisition, but he did not like it. The jailor was hunchbacked and missed several fingers on his left hand. He had probably paid for mistakes on several occasions.

The key was turned and the door slowly opened into a larger room. Jun let the hunchback lead him into the room. It was filled by torches on the walls between windows belonging to cells. Enemies of the Empire were held there awaiting questioning and they could often here the result of the questioning while they waited, often leading to confessions before Korm had even lifted the branding iron from the fire. This woman however was different.

She was hanging on the wall suspended from the ground on the wall above an exhaust vent from a fire in the levels below, where those with crimes so heinous to the Empire that they needed to be forgotten, were held. Even death was sometimes a too lenient punishment.

Jun could see her chest slowly moving as she hung there. A middle-aged woman that would usually walk with such authority, had ragged brown hair and was slightly built. No one expected her to last as long as she had. The Grand Inquisitor had in fact told Jun to go easy on her. “Let her first feel the velvet glove, Jun. She will soon give us what we need.” Damn woman had taken a week to even scream.

The last steps down to her level was wet from a mix of blood and vomit, so Jun carefully avoided it without losing his stride. No reason to look like a fool in front of prisoners, Jun thought. He leaned in to whisper into the female prisoner’s ear.

“Are you ready to confess your house’s part in the fall of Barkoth, Mistress of House Xen?” The woman inhaled slowly before she answered. “There is no house of Xen anymore.” Speaking seemed like a chore for the former noblewoman, but she gathered her strength. “That house died when my husband died. We had no children and he had no relatives.” Jun felt a smile creep across his face. “You know that is not how the Empire works, Mistress Xen. Every house has to pay for mistakes and crimes against the throne and right now it looks like this is both a crime and a mistake. The lord of the house Xen lost sight of what was important for the Empire and that lost him and the Empire his city.”

Jun stepped away from the older woman and grabbed a pair of tongs that had been resting in the fire at the center of the room. It felt hot in his hand, he did not want to show any weakness to the prisoner, or to the torturers in the room. You could never know what ambitious creature could be found in the deep depths of the imperial dungeons and they pounced at any flaw.

“Since your husband no longer is with us, if the reports from Barkoth are to be believed, someone has to pay for his mistakes or treason, whatever The Emperor, blessed by Sor, decides.” Jun moved the pair of tongs closer to the noblewoman’s face. The red glowing metal was clearly known to her and she winced as she saw them moving closer to her face, but there was still defiance in her voice. “My father is a powerful man at court. He will not let his oldest daughter fall prey to the Inquisitors.” Threats of authority was the last desperate tool of someone with something to hide, Jun’s father had always told him. The Inquisitor grinned wolfishly and he felt that vicious side of him rising up. That part of him he held secret for the rest of the world, that part that could get anyone to admit to anything.

“You do realize that I hear that threat every time some noble upstart feels his house can outshine his Imperial Majesty?” The metal made her skin sear and she screamed out in pain. He felt aroused as the tips of the tongs dung deeper into her flesh. The smell reminded him of many nights spent at his father’s dungeon playing with the servants. His playmates seldom lasted as long as his desires at that age, but he had learned to prolong the pain. This one was just beginning to feel what he could do and she knew it. Jun could see desperation spread across her eyes as the smell of burned hair and flesh filled the room. Her screams died down as she slipped off into unconsciousness.

“She has some mettle to her.” Korm’s voice was filled with admiration. Jun had found him torturing young girls in a small village outside of the Eastern Cities, but his desires always outweighed his skill. “I have had younger and better.” The Inquisitor never lied to his underlings and he expected the same from them. Jun bulled the tongs out of her flesh and she jerked up and spit blood at his white robe. It did not seem like it was on purpose, but the jailor jumped at the chance of smacking the woman across the face, which in turn sprayed more blood in the direction of Jun. The jailor winced as he knew the temper of his overlord, but Jun let it pass as he already needed change his robes. “My apologies, my lord. I did not think.” Jun smiled. “You never do think, Korm.”

Jun truned around and walked up the stairs towards the torture chamber door and did not even look back at the hapless jailor trying to rouse the middle aged woman from her slumber. The Emperor would get his answers. He always got his answers.

***

Jun straightened his robe and the chain that indicated his rank and order in the Imperial court. He did like to show off to the other Imperial noblemen what he could do to them if they ever tried to cross him. The chain was made of gold and silver from Southern Sor and jewels from Wren. No one ever mistook him for some mere common nobleman and nor should they. An inquisitor was the imperial power incarnate and every member of the nobility from Syrenthal to the Southern city of Bern knew the power that they possessed.

The pristine robe of an Imperial Inquisitor showed the rest of the world the purity of Sorian blood and the power of the Emperor. Jun reminded himself that he needed to teach Korm that he soiled his frock at his peril, but all in good time. A man quick to anger is a man no one respect, his father always said and Jun knew it to be true. Anyone could strike out in anger, but fear like that was short-lived and not very well thought through. Better to wait and allow his victims to dream up all sort of things before he would strike, making the fear of him even greater. Everyone in the Inquisition knew this and they practiced it to the letter. Why bother with petty revenge when the victims could do that to themselves?

There was a short knock on the door. Jun walked across his well adorned quarters to the wooden door adorned with Crimson steel bars and large Obsidian steel bolts. He opened it and outside stood a small page boy with a piece of paper. The messengers did not speak to their superiors, nor could they read. This was to avoid secrets of the court to spread throughout the Empire, but this custom had died out in the rest of the Empire because lazy nobility and debauched houses.

Jun opened the piece of paper and shooed the boy off, but the boy would not move. The Inquisitor was about to strike him, but he read the note instead.

 

           Come to my quarters!

                                                 -signed Grand Inquisitor Tal

 

The old man did like his games and secrets. Why could he not just say what he wanted to save Jun time and guesswork? Of course, Jun knew the answer to this. No one ever demanded an answer from the Grand Inquisitor, aside from his Imperial Highness.

Jun walked through the hallways of the Durjaj, the Imperial Palace originally built by Sor the Fifth during the last years of his reign. He had expanded the Empire from a small kingdom with no influence to a realm that included seven tribes and two coastlines. That Emperor had, like the current Emperor, been an embodiment of the one true god, Sor the wrathful. No one stood in the way of that god and Jun was proud to be his servant.

The black stone walls were polished so that Jun could almost make out his face while walking past them. Only the white banners of the Inquisition broke up the walls into section. Crystals hanging from the ceiling guided sunlight from outside and lit the glorious hallways with a warm glow. Jun had enjoyed his childhood here, and the older he got the more he appreciated the power and awe this wonderous palace projected onto the Imperial capitol of Sor.

He approached the offices of the Grand Inquisitor. Sor is all, all is Sor. The word were emblazoned above the doors and two guards dressed in white stood at attention as he approached. “He is expecting me.” No more words were needed from Jun, as everyone knew within the Inquisition knew who he was.

The doors swung open and the splendor of the Inquisition newly regained power was revealed. Gold inlaid stone carvings along the walls told the stories of how Sor had defeated the false gods of the ancient lands of Denrodel, where all humans once had lived under the rule of Sor. Great vases with flowers from all over the Empire made sure of the foul smell of the city below the keep, never reached the nostrils of the Grand Inquisitor. Behind a stone desk with gold trimming, an elderly bald man sat writing on some document. He looked up as Jun approached.

“Ah, Inquisitor Jun. Just the man I wanted to see.” The old man carried a lot of authority in an otherwise gentle voice. Jun had never understood who Grand Inquisitor Tal had gained all that power with such a meek and gentle nature, but then again he had seen what Tal could do to those who crossed him. Fifty noble houses’ heads were on pikes on the battlements around the keep. The doors closed behind Jun.

“Father.” Jun watched for any hint in his father’s face of anger, but none showed. Tal had never been a bad father, but ever since Jun had joined the newly formed Inquisition, his father had made it clear that he would not allow any familiarity to favor his youngest son and Jun had shown himself worthy of his father’s admiration.

“I hear you are trying to get to the bottom of the Barkoth affair.” Tal stood up and started to walk around. Jun stood at attention waiting for his father’s command to be seated.

“I would hardly call it an affair, father. We lost a city to slaves and fighters.” Jun did not like it when his father tried to trivialize imperial matters, but he would not let his zeal get the best of him. The Grand Inquisitor smiled at his son. “We can hardly call it anything else, unless you would like the commoners to know that imperial might is not absolute.” Jun had never heard his father talk such heresy, but he simply filed it away for later. You never knew what small nugget of information might become useful, even against your own family.

“The Emperor has asked about you.” Tal seemed proud as he spoke and Jun could feel pride swelling in his chest as he heard the words. “I am glad to hear that my efforts has reached the ears of our god.” Jun felt excitement and zeal rise as he said those words. The Emperor asking for information could only mean one thing. A private audience with the exsolted one. “He wants to meet you to give you a special mission, one that could raise your star in court.” Jun did not care about status, but it would help him do the work of the God Emperor and Jun only worked to please his god. “When, my lord father?” Tal grinned at his son’s impatience and Jun felt a fool for allowing his zeal to show even further. Any passion is a vice, he had always said to his son, and any vice can be used against you.

“We will leave for the Imperial quarters at once.” Jun felt his heart race. The God Emperor Sor wanted to see him, a lowly mortal. Very few were given the honor to meet the Emperor, but even fewer had the opportunity to meet one that was the embodiment of the one true God.

***

  The two inquisitors entered the throne room. It was filled with the smell of sandal tree incense and burnt seeds of the Kiij fruit. At the end of the room stood a giant throne on top of a set of red stairs, said to have been stained red by the bodies of the false gods of Dwarves and other creatures that had once lived on the Sorian continent. The throne was white as the snow Jun had heard of from Ismark. He had never seen it, but the last embodiment of Sor had invaded Ismark because the bright white snow had fascinated him and Sor wanted all things pure to be included in his Empire, so he had taken it and that conquest had made it possible to become one with his god. Since then the Sorian Empire had laid dormant, waiting and watching for the next incarnation of the white god.

On the throne sat a boy of fifteen season and Jun was surprised at how young the Emperor was, but he could feel the presence of the glorious god of the Sorians. On his body the boy was covered with tattoos and spells written in white on the sunbaked skin. Jun did not know how the boy had gotten such a tan without leaving the throne room for the last five years, but he imagined that the boy’s contact with the one true god would be like standing in the sun all day. Around his body, the boy wore the bright white robes showing how he was free of sin and without marks of manual labor.

The boy’s eyes were closed, but as Jun and his father came closer to the steps up to the throne, they opened and they were bright white, almost lighting up the hall in its brilliance. Jun fell to his knees with his father at the stairs and his father spoke.

“O Sor, I have brought you Jun, son of Tal, member of the house of Tal and the Holy Imperial Inquisition, as you requested.” His father spoke in a very formal manner, more than Jun was used too.

“You please me, servant Tal, son of Jan, member of the house Tal and Grand Iquisitor.” The Emperor’s voice boomed with a power beyond his years and even beyond the years of any human. Jun felt himself quiver from the power of it. So this is what a god sounds like, the younger Inquisitor thought. He had never felt such awe, not since he first set foot in the temple of the White God and he had seen the graves of the old embodiments of the glorious god.

“Have your father informed you of your assignment, young Jun?” The voice hit Jun’s chest, almost taking his breath away. The young Inquisitor tried gathering his strength and answered his Emperor.

“No, my Emperor, but I, Jun, son of Tal, stand ready to serve my God and my Emperor.” Jun’s voice sounded like that of a scared child next to the authority of the God.

“I am sure that you are.” The Emperor sounded pleased and it sounded as though he smiled as he spoke, but Jun did not dare to check. “Your father and superior speaks very highly of you. He has even suggested that you be given your own house at some time. At least if you continue to please me.” Jun did not dare to think of what he would be given if he did not please the living god.

“I am glad that I please my god by my actions thus far.” Jun managed to gather some authority in this answer, but not as much as he would have if he was talking to one of his prisoners.

“The loss of Barkoth does bother me and the Empire.” Jun could hear the young boy’s body arise from his throne and started to pace at the top of the podium where his throne was.

“I have tried…” Jun started, but was interrupted by his God screaming at him. “Do not speak unless spoken to, young one!” The power hit him hard and he felt as a small child being chided by his father. He felt like crying, but kept his composure. The living god continued to walk back and forth in front of his throne.

“I have walked this land in a dozen bodies, but never before have I been so close to rule all known lands as was prophesized by the oracles of old.” He did not seem to be addressing Jun or Tal, so Jun kept his mouth shut. No need to tempt the god for a second time. Few people had the honor of meeting a living god and Jun meant to live to tell the tale to his grandchildren one day.

“But something is stirring. Something I have not felt for an age.” The god seemed to be talking to someone, but there were only Jun, his father, the guards and a small servant boy in the throne room. Jun dared to look over at his father and he was still kneeling obediently. He could see Sor looking in his direction and he quickly moved his gaze to the floor again.

“Arise, Jun, son of Tal, and look upon your god.” Jun did as the Emperor requested. He now saw the full stature of what he had thought was a young boy. He seemed to stretch to the ceiling and was about the height of five men as he stood in front of his throne. Jun felt the urge to look away or to kneel again. He was awestruck by this tremendous god standing before him. How could he have thought this was but a mere boy? He gathered his strength and steeled himself for whatever came next. His god was just and wise, so if he was with flaw, Sor would strike him down.

“Inquisitor, I would like you to travel to the city of Syrenthal and dig deeper into what happened when that fool of a man, Xen, lost our great city.” Jun bowed and answered with as much power as he could muster. “Yes, my Emperor.”

“I want you to look for two men, one of my age named Eirick and one of the age of forty seasons named Glenn.” The voice of the Emperor seemed almost frightened when speaking the names, but Jun thought this must have been the fear in his own mind coloring the words.

“Bring them to me alive for I will make of them tools to invade the rebels’ dominion in Ismark.” Jun felt like answering, but there was no demand for acknowledgement, just information for his assignment. “I do not think I need to remind you that Syrenthal is a den of thieves and whores, so keep your soul pure and white.” The Emperor sat down on his throne. “You may both leave me now.” The boy Emperor closed his eyes and Tal got on his feet. The two Inquisitors left the throne room and once outside Jun collapsed in tears at the splendor and power of his god.

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