The Heartless Dead: Chapter Six

Chapter Six
Checkmate

To say Kelestair’s manor was opulent would have been a gross understatement. It numbered among the largest, most richly decorated residences Bree had seen in her entire life. Though it was built entirely of local red sandstone, its outer facade was designed in the gothic style of Kelestair’s native country, Cheliax. The manor featured an abundance of spires, towers, pinnacles, clustered columns, pointed arches, and elaborate carvings and tracery. Stone statues graced the roofline and drain spouts, though they were carved to depict the goddess Sarenrae and her servants rather than the devils which would have leered over similar structures to the north.

The interior featured ridiculously high, ribbed vaulted ceilings and flying buttresses which gave the building both an immense verticality, and dominance. The windows were all either slim, tall pointed arches or massive circles, many of which were filled with stained glass representations of the sun, or Sarenrae. The entirety of the manor was decorated in shades of gold, red, orange, yellow, and cream – colours holy to the faith of the Dawnflower.

It was majestic.

Bree smiled as she strode up the front steps and stood before the large, pointed arch, wooden doors. She knocked loudly, but didn’t bother to wait for an answer before entering. Kelestair kept no servants and employed no housekeepers, so she often had to let herself in. How he kept a building this size so clean by himself was a mystery, although Bree imagined it to be a spell of some sort.

Husk waited for her just inside the front entryway. He squawked as she approached.

“Hey, birdbrain,” Bree replied. “It’s nice to see you, too.”

Husk’s strange, yellow eyes narrowed. He squawked again, louder this time.

“Oh, stop your whining. Just take me to Kelestair.”

The cantankerous vulture’s scowl never wavered as he turned and loped off down the hallway, leading the way to the West Wing.

Bree followed the bird without surprise. She had expected as much. It was dusk, and the West Wing was situated to catch the sunset. If it had been morning he would likely have been in the East Wing to view the sunrise.

Husk pushed open the door to the west drawing room with his beak. At the far end of the room, pressed up against the glass windows, sat Kelestair and Zym. They leaned over an elaborate red and yellow chess set.

Kelestair raised his head as she entered. The corners of his lips turned up, into the smallest of smiles. “Bree,” he greeted. “I see Husk performed his task admirably.”

“Performed?” Bree chuckled. “Yes. Enjoyed? Definitely not. Your bird hates me.” She crossed the room and leaned over the chess set.

Kelestair’s smile widened. “He will learn to enjoy your company.”

Bree scoffed. “Sure he will. Just as soon as Dashki does.”

Kelestair’s lips returned to a neutral line. He rose and offered her his chair. “Sit, Bree. Take over while I retrieve your shield.”

Bree shook her head. “I’m fine. Feel free to finish your game.”

“I insist.”

“I’m no good at chess.”

“Zym would benefit from a…” he paused, searching for the right word. “Less practiced opponent.”

Bree laughed. “She could use an easy win, you mean!”

A slight reddening occurred in Kelestair’s cheeks. “Nonsense.”

“It’s alright, Kelestair. No one insults me quite as nicely you do.”

Kelestair pursed his lips together tightly. He gestured at the board. “You have a strong position. Simply take your time and think out your actions before putting them into play. You will do fine.”

Across the board Zym glared daggers at Bree. Her eyes were dark as pitch, and glassy. Bree frowned, but sat in Kelestair’s seat. She looked down at the board arrayed before her. Zym had few pieces left, but they were powerful. An angelic looking King and Queen, a bishop, three pawns and two knights. Bree had nearly all of her pieces still on the board. She smiled. No wonder Zym was so upset! Kelestair had been mopping the floor with her!

“It is your turn,” Zym said through tightly pursed lips.

Bree nodded. She reached across the board and picked her red queen up off the board. It was made of a highly polished stone and was rather heavy. She moved the Queen in line with Zym’s King. Zym’s lip quivered. She moved one of her knights in a backwards L-shape and removed Bree’s Queen from the board.

Bree frowned. She slid her rook sideways, lining it up with Zym’s King again, but Zym countered by sliding her bishop back to capture the rook.

Bree furrowed her brow. Zym smirked. The brat!

Bree moved a pawn forward cautiously. No sense losing another important piece.

Zym moved one of her knights over to capture Bree’s final rook.

Froth and foam, this kid was good! Bree eyed the board suspiciously. She needed to focus on the other pieces before going for Zym’s King… Bree chose a tempting looking piece, one of her bishops, and placed it near Zym’s Queen, but within reach of her other bishop.

Zym furrowed her brow. She eyed the board. A minute passed. Another.

Bree smiled.

Zym fell for Bree’s trap and took the bishop with her Queen. Bree chuckled as she dashed in with her other bishop, removing Zym’s most powerful piece – the Queen – from the board.

“You should be more careful with your pieces, Zym. What are you going to do without your Queen?”

Zym moved one of her knights over and removed Bree’s second bishop from the game. Bree shrugged. It was a small price to pay to get rid of Zym’s power piece. She moved a knight over. In another turn it would line up with Zym’s.

Zym quirked an eyebrow. “That’s it?”

Bree smiled. The kid didn’t see the danger her piece was in.

Zym shook her head. “There are things more important than the Queen in chess.” She slid her bishop across the board, into the space opened up by Bree’s baiting of the Queen. “Checkmate.”

Bree frowned. “Tipped tankard!” she cursed. The kid had her.

Kelestair strode into the room and placed a few items onto a large table. “Did Zym capture a piece?”

“Yeah,” Bree scoffed. “My king.”

Kelestair raised an eyebrow. “You were two moves away from forcing her into checkmate.”

“I told you I was no good at chess!”

Zym nodded. “In this, at least, you were right.”

“Zym,” Kelestair reprimanded. “What have I said about modesty?”

Zym frowned slightly, but caught herself. Her lips returned to a solemn line and she held out her hand. “Fair game, Knight Protector Bree. I thank you for giving me the opportunity to pound you into dust. It was cathartic.”

Bree scowled. “Look, kid, I don’t know who you think you are – “

Zym’s eyes flashed dangerously.

“Ladies,” Kelestair warned.

Bree turned to the fuming little child before her. “What’d I do to you, anyway? You’re the one who won.”

“You treat me as beneath you.”

“I do not!”

“You do.”

Bree sighed. “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings this afternoon, okay? But you shouldn’t have been in that hunt meeting.”

“I was invited in order to offer my insights.”

Bree scoffed. “You were invited because you’re Kelestair’s new pet.”

Kelestair rose his voice. “Ladies!”

Zym threw a glare at her mentor before turning back to Bree. “I accept your apology and will take your continued mistreatment of me as a sign of your ignorance.”

Bree scowled. “Excuse me?”

Zym crossed her arms. “I spoke in the common tongue. Surely you understood?”

“Broken tankard, Kelestair! Teach your new pet some manners!”

Husk hopped up onto the chess board, flapped his wings in their faces and squawked at the top of his lungs.

Bree and Zym stumbled back from the vulture.

“Alright!” Bree growled. “You made your point, birdbrain!”

“No,” Kelestair said tightly. “He made mine. Now cease your childish bickering or I will send both of you to your rooms without supper.”

Bree scoffed. “I’m not a kid. You can’t tell – “

“Then grow up.”

Bree rolled her eyes, but turned back to Zym. “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, and called you a pet. It was rude.”

Zym nodded. “I am sorry I informed your of your ignorance. I will endeavour to be exceptionally convoluted in the future.”

“Enough,” Kelestair interrupted. “Reset the board Zym.”

Zym scowled but did as she was told. Kelestair nodded at Bree.

She joined him at the table. “Tipped tankard! What did you do to the Dawn of Freedom?”

“I made her larger, but – “

“I can see that! I fight with a buckler, Kelestair. How do you expect me to strap that to my arm?”

“I assure you, you can. Though I made it larger you’ll find it no heavier than previously.”

“And the balance?”

“The same.”

Bree raised an eyebrow. “You’re sure?”

“I would not have modified her if I wasn’t. Besides, I saw the teeth marks around her edges. You’ve used her for bashing and likely injured yourself in the process.”

“So?”

“So,” Kelestair sighed. “You’ll find her much better suited to all kinds of maneuvers, including bashing in hyena skulls without injuring yourself. Also, there was not enough room for all the canines you brought me.”

Bree laughed. “Fair enough.” She glanced at the other bits of clothing on the table. “What’s all this?”

Kelestair handed her a fine looking pair of boots. They were rich brown in colour and had golden embroidery all along their outer surface. “Try these on.”

Bree raised an eyebrow, but did so. They were comfortable and warm. “They’re nice, but I’ll roast during the day. I can’t take these.”

The corners of his lips tilted up slightly. “I think you’ll find that is not the case. They will keep your feel cool during the day, warm at night, and will quiet your steps.”

Bree raised an eyebrow. “Did you seriously make me magic shoes?”

“I… suppose you could say that. Yes.”

Bree held up a cloak weaved in beige and brown tones. “And this?”

“Camouflage.”

“Mundane?”

Kelestair pursed his lips. “Magically enhanced.”

Bree smiled and held up a brown, leather vest. An image of the Dawn of Freedom was stitched onto its back with golden thread. “And this?”

Kelestair smirked. “It will make you look terribly attractive.”

Bree burst out laughing. “See? You can be funny when you put your mind to it.”

“Perhaps.”

She held out the last item, a delicate ring made of interlocking golden and silver bands. “And I suppose this it just to remember you by?”

“Of course.”

Bree laughed. “Seriously, though. What do they do?”

“The vest bears your symbol. It will strike fear into the hearts of the gnolls, so be sure to wear it over top of your chain shirt. The ring will help sustain you.”

“Sustain me?”

“While worn it will provide your body with nourishment. You will eat, drink and sleep less, without any ill effects.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Now that will be useful.”

Kelestair’s lips twitched, but rose into a smile despite his best efforts to suppress it. “I am glad. Now, it is about to start. Would you mind if I joined you?”

Bree furrowed her brow. “What’s about to start?”

“The nightly howls of the Carrion King. You still listen to their cries, do you not?”

“I try, but it’s hard to hear in town.”

“Down in the Shades, perhaps, but here on the Pinnacle the howls are as clear as they used to be.”

“Really?”

He nodded. “Come.”

Bree collected her new gear and followed Kelestair through the manor to the Eastern Tower. The topmost room proved to be an observatory of some kind. It had no walls, but plenty of slim pointed arches which formed into an open air flying buttress. A circular stone bench was built into the center of the floor, with a large spyglass mounted in it’s middle. It spun lazily in the wind.

Bree smiled. “Froth and foam! This is amazing. Do you watch the sunrise from here?”

Kelestair nodded. “Among other things.” He walked around the bench and sat, positioning himself to face north.

Bree sat down beside him. She eyed the distant horizon. Well past Kelmarane’s edges began the Brazen Peaks and, at its heart, sat the infamous Pale Mountain, home of the Carrion King. That was where the howls would begin.

The sun finished its slow plunge into the earth and, over the course of a few minutes, Bree and Kelestair watched the last of Sarenrae’s light fade. The sky turned dark. The stars shone.

It was beautiful.

The sounds of the town below were muted. Nothing more than a few voices drifting on the wind. Bree listened to the sound of her own breathing. It was faster than Kelestair’s. His was slow, calm. Relaxing. She listened, matching her breathing to his own in order to ease her nerves. Froth and foam, they were high!

A sharp howl cut through the night like a blade, drawing Bree out of her reverie. It was fierce. Loud. Powerful.

“The Carrion King,” Kelestair rasped.

Bree nodded.

She tensed, waiting for the howls of his followers to join his own.

A second howl broke the silence, this one quick and aggressive.

“The Three Jaws,” Bree explained.

A third howl joined in a moment later. It was longer than the others, but softer. A sort of long hiss, more than a true howl.

“Then that is the Al’Chorhaiv?” Kelestair asked.

Bree nodded.

They waited in tense silence. The howls continued for a few minutes, but no new voices joined them. Bree smiled.

When she had first come to the region the howls had continued on for hours each night. There had been over thirty tribes and bands under the Carrion King’s control. And now, only a year later, there were three tribes left. Three!

Kelestair raised his lips into a large smile. “You have done well, Bree.”

Bree smiled. “I didn’t do it alone.” She raised her wineskin to the sky. “Here’s to you, my Lord Cailean! May my blade be ever sharp, my shield ever strong and my tankard ever full!” Bree took a few deep gulps of red wine.

“I believe I can help you in that endeavour,” Kelestair replied with a smirk. He produced two bottles of wine from his robes and held one out to her. “Though this is not the finest brew to be had in the country, I believe it will be the best suited to your tastes.”

Bree took the bottle and smiled. “Andoran Reisling?”

“One bottle to bless your coming trip, and the other to celebrate your victorious return.”

“And to think you only started drinking yesterday!” Bree deftly opened the bottle of white wine. It smelt earthy. She offered Kelestair the first sip, but he shook his head.

“After you.”

“I’ll make a drunk out of you, yet.” She took a deep gulp from the bottle. It was sweet and crisp, with plenty of floral notes. She handed it to Kelestair who took a tentative sip.

“Is it satisfactory?” he asked.

“It’s perfect,” she sighed. “Tastes like home.”

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