The radiant phoenix unfurled its red, gold, and orange wings, launching into the air from the wizard’s outstretched hand. Trailing a stream of glittering sparks from its long, fiery tail as it flew into the air, the magnificent creature circled the grand hall once before flying back to the centre, rising into the air, and disappearing in an explosion of colourful sparks that rained down upon the startled audience. Their shocked gasps quickly turned to loud applause as the sparks dissipated into harmless points of light.
The lord, slumped in his ornate chair on the dais and staring at the entertainment through bleary eyes, also roused himself enough to clap at the fantastic light show. The wizard—the lord’s chief advisor—bowed deeply to him, then inclined his head slightly at the woman who was to follow him that evening.
She rose from her chair, and once again her outfit provoked many a stare and even more mutters from the assembled guests, as it had all through the dinner and entertainment. It was, quite simply, a glorious riot of colour, the dark and lighter shades of green of her elegant dress contrasting with her dazzling blonde hair that hung long and loose down her back. The sleeveless dress stepped right up to the edge of proper courtly decorum; its underskirt a rich orange that faded to lustrous gold on its upper half. That wouldn’t have been a problem—if it hadn’t been slit all the way up her thigh, every step revealing flashes of strong, slender legs clad in matching green thigh-high stockings. The shorter outer skirt fell to the knee, but as with all she did, there was more to it than that. A half-dozen narrow strips of green cloth, each one ending in a large, bright dot of gold, blue, and green, hung off a silken belt at her waist and swirled around when she turned, making the dots seem like staring eyes scanning the crowd. Indeed, some of the elder attendees made subtle—and not so subtle—signs to ward off evil as she paced around the centre of the room with a dazzling smile, aware that every eye was upon her—and loving it.
She spread her arms, also clad in matching three-quarter length green silk gloves, and turned to the lord, who had snatched up another cup of roodwine and drained half of it in a gulp.
“Your lord does me a great honour, allowing me to perform for him and this esteemed court this evening,” she began. “Let us all toast him and his rule.” From out of nowhere, a gleaming golden chalice appeared in her hand. “Long may he reign!”
The toast was echoed by the attendees, and the lord quickly raised his glass, but the expression on his face was anything but pleased. He adjusted the heavy golden chain, a symbol of his rule, around his neck with a frown, then polished off the rest of his wine in two long swallows, handing the cup to his seneschal, who nearly dropped it while removing it from the man’s careless fingers.
The ardent had scarcely paused to drink down the contents of her chalice, and then made the magnificent cup disappear as effortlessly as it had appeared. “And to repay his kindness, I felt it appropriate to tell a story this night…one of deception and death.”
As she spoke, the torches on the walls dimmed until even her brilliance was somewhat muted, and her moving form cast a flitting shadow over anyone nearby.
The title of this fanciful tale is ‘The Three Hunters.’” The ardent didn’t stop to see what effect the title might have on the attendees, but it was not hard to notice the lord suddenly straightening up in his chair and blinking fast.
“Once, there was a just and fair king named Arceneaux, who ruled a land much like this one,” she continued, motioning with a green-clad hand to everyone around her. “The fields were lush and fertile, the rivers were choked with plump troefish, the orchards swelled with ripe fruit, and the people that lived there were content, and rejoiced in the wise and benevolent rule of their leader.”
As she spoke, the smoke from the torches coalesced overhead, forming a thick gray pall that was pierced by a bright light. The imagined land appeared in the centre of that smoky cloud, verdant and rich and ripe, just as she had described it.
“But…” the ardent paused as she stepped toward the lord, and the torches behind and around the uneasy man dimmed even further, almost cloaking him in darkness. “There was one who was not so pleased with the king. Senicheaux, his own brother, felt that he should be the one to wear the crown. And although he already had more than anyone had a right to ask for, it was not enough for him.”
The image of the kingdom was replaced by that of a man, clad in rich raiment, but with an arrogant, hungry look on his face. This picture brought forth a new round of murmurs from the audience, for although it wasn’t exact, there were enough similarities between the illusion and the man sitting in the lord’s chair that several nobles noticed.
The lord’s wizard also noticed, and half-rose from his chair, mouth opening to protest, when the lord’s raised hand stopped him where he stood. He sank back into his chair, muttering to himself.
“Now King Arceneaux was an ardent hunter, and seized any opportunity to send forth his hounds and roam the countryside in search of sport.”
The image of Senicheaux disappeared, and a wild hunt replaced it, with baying hounds and shouting men armed with bows and spears on galloping horses charging out of the smoke directly at the audience. Even though it was an illusion, the image, right down to the flying clods of dirt and foam from the horses’ mouths, looked so real that several audience members shied away just before it vanished into nothingness.
As it vanished, the ardent took another step toward the king. “Meanwhile, Senicheaux’s greed and desire grew stronger, eating away at the good person he might have been, until at last, he plotted to seize what he felt was rightfully his.
“One day, word reached the king of a gigantic boar that was ravaging the countryside, destroying crops and killing any who dared to face it, including the kingdom’s most skilled hunters. Arceneaux himself swore to slay the beast, and led his best men in pursuit of it.
“Seeing his chance, Senicheaux went ahead of the hunting party that day, and lay in wait until he saw his own brother stalking the boar they had been chasing.”
The smoke swirled again, and now everyone saw the king on horseback, spear in hand, facing off against an enormous boar the hounds had cornered. And hidden behind a tree was Senicheaux—aiming a drawn bow and arrow at his own brother!
As everyone in the room watched in frozen fascination, the grim tableau played out:
Senicheaux released the bowstring.
The arrow flew straight and true, right into the king’s chest.
He toppled from his horse, the hounds milling around him as the rest of the hunting party arrived at the ghastly scene.
Meanwhile, Senicheaux and the huge boar both slipped away into the woods.
Now the conversation among the audience wasn’t just murmurs, but full-throated outrage. Cries of “How dare she?” and “Does she truly have no idea?” and “She should be run out of the city!” all rose into a crescendo that might have been deafening if not for the ardent, who stood steadfast in the eye of the storm, impervious to all the outrage and incredulity roiling around her.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said, her voice rolling like thunder over the assembly, silencing all naysayers. “My tale is not yet complete. Kindly do me the honour of listening to the whole of it, and then you may decide what you wish to do.”
Sweeping all of them with her imperious gaze again, she continued. “Having escaped detection, Senicheaux ascended to the throne and took the crown from his deceased brother.”
Senicheaux’s image appeared in the smoke again, this time wearing a golden crown. The lord stared in horrified fascination at his near-doppelgänger, then at the ardent, who by now was only a few steps away, but still didn’t speak a word. Didn’t call for his guards. Didn’t denounce her tale for slander. Didn’t do anything but watch.
His wizard, however, had apparently had enough, for he rose and cast a spell that manifested as a glowing golden band that flew at the ardent’s face.
Before it could reach her, however, she held up a green-gloved hand, and a shimmering circle of solid ice appeared in front of the golden band. It flew into the ice sheet and immediately flew back out again—heading straight back at the wizard. Before he could dispel his own enchantment, the band wrapped around his mouth, silencing him.
“It is quite rude to interrupt a storyteller, you know,” the ardent admonished him, then returned to her tale. “However, the new king’s sleep was uneasy, broken by the same dream each night. Not of his slain brother…but of the boar that got away.”
The smoky image changed to one of Senicheaux asleep in his bed, tossing and turning restlessly. Above his head, the giant boar’s image appeared again, snorting and pawing the ground.
“Every night he was hunted by that same apparition until he could scarcely close his eyes without seeing the boar charging at him—”
While she spoke, the boar in the smoke-dream had grown larger and larger, until it filled the entire cloud. The lord cowered in his chair, paralyzed with terror. Everyone was fearful of the giant beast that seemed to be taking over the room.
“—Until one night, a terrible scream was heard from Senicheaux’s bedchamber.”
The ardent stretched forth a finger, pointing at the lord. The gigantic boar lunged out of the smoke and charged straight at him, spittle flying from its mouth, it’s red-rimmed eyes burning with rage.
The lord shrieked and threw himself over the arm of his chair, scrambling to hide behind it. At the same time, three of his guards rushed at the ardent, who threw out her other arm to catch the trio in a sweeping gesture. Small darts of light flew from her hand to strike each one in the chest or head. Immediately after, the woman brought her other hand down, and the three guards followed the motion, their unconscious bodies sinking to the ground around her.
“When his servants rushed in to see what had happened,” she continued as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. “They found him lying in bed…with large hoof prints all over his body. There was no sign of any disturbance in the rest of the room…but still, the false king was dead.”
She turned back to the lord, who was still cowering behind his chair. “I wonder…what is it you dream of every night, my lord?”
With a turn and a flourish, she bowed to the rest of the assembled court and swept out of the hall, leaving the trembling, stammering lord facing his vassals, many of whom were staring at him with new steel in their eyes. As she left, a glance over her shoulder revealed the lord surrounded by his nobles, holding his hands out in entreaty as they closed in on him.
“Best to let them work this out in private,” she said as she closed the massive double doors behind her, then strolled off into the night, her work complete.
* * *
This week’s Archive story was written by John Helfers, the lead editor of EMBERWIND: The Skies of Axia. John has published more than fifty original short stories in anthologies such as If I Were An Evil Overlord, Time Twisters, and Shattered Shields, and universes like Dragonlance™, Transformers™, Golem Arcana™, BattleTech™, and Shadowrun™.