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     Benedict's tunic felt like he'd just used it to pull a meat pie from the oven instead of daring to be outside at the tail end of July. It had been a brutal summer, and if not for the hard breeze sweeping down from the Violet Mountains utterly uncomfortable. As it was the air carried with it a heady scent of summer crops and the faintest reminder of winter's chill. He cut through the fields, using a haphazard and dilapidated stone fence as a guide. Soon enough he would reach the Black Tree where most people would stop following this shortcut, return to the road. Not Benedict. Whether he was a young man prone to rash action or unfazed by fear was yet to be fully judged. He just didn't want to be late for the festival. Which was an odd thing, in and of itself because High Summer would stretch far past tomorrow's dawn.

     Likewise, his blood did not run blue. Benedict would spend most of it waiting hand and foot on the Earl and his brood. He would merely taste the scraps of their excess, but it was better than being a serf having to work these fields. That was not to say the common folk had anything but a gay time on this holiday. The joyous strains of fiddle music danced faint in time with drunken laughter. There were times the ash-haired youth wished he could enjoy the life of the simple laborer, this too was denied to him. Such was the life of an orphan owned by Earl, just like the tapestries, statues, suits of armor, and wardogs. The Earl, bastard he was, never let him forget it either. Benedict paused under the shadow of the blasted tree and glanced up at its savaged branches. It was said that the last of the Sundered Kings met his end here at the hand of the Magisters. There was little doubt that the plant was dead, but it did not rot. It stood as a reminder to generations that hubris and barbarism would not be tolerated.

     Benedict's lips twisted to something akin to a smile. If only anyone had ever told that the Earl Kirkland D'Lione. Really, as far as tyrants went the usurper wasn't that bad of a man to most, at the very least not to the point to draw the Magister's attention. Perhaps it was better to say Kirkland was subtle in his cruelty, too boorish to have any greater plans than to take another man's wife and lands.  Benedict spat on scorched roots. "The devils take him."

     The castle-thrall carefully set his basket of olives on the other side of crumbling wall, and then took a moment to breathe as he straddled stone. As reviled as the Black Tree its bough provided fantastic relief from uncaring sun. Of course, that might have to do with the perpetual cold of the grave which haunted the land just beyond it. The last of the Sundered Kings, his diabolist retainers, and honor guard had been interned in monolithic cairns on what was now blighted land. This patch of fallow soil stood stark in the middle of so much bounty, a scar which would never heal. Superstition held that anyone that entered this cursed place risked their very soul would be devoured by ancient villains. Benedict's sour expression softened to a smirk. He'd traversed it more times than he could count, and as far as he knew still had a soul.

"No use wasting more time." He muttered to no one at all and swung his legs onto the other side. The basket of fine goods he was sent out for was lifted and he moved fearlessly into the stretch of blasphemous stone. Every primitive mausoleum had been built from sickly green rock, burned deep with sigils of sealing which were immune to the ravages of time. At least, they were supposed to be.

Benedict stopped so quickly that he very nearly stumbled over his own feet. When he was still a child he had mapped the quickest route through the maze-like graveyard. It was always the same, never changing. Not so this High Summer. One of the free standing obelisks was toppled over. Benedict slowly canted his head to the left. His tall leather boots creaked as he tried to start walking again, but fear had paralyzed his legs. The monument was most certainly out of place now. He skimmed his gaze across its verdant surface for any sort of crack. Thankfully the ancient stone looked intact. Its base was torn out of the earth, much like a tree uprooted by violent wind. Also akin to a plant it had a tangle of what looked like roots jutting from its foundation. All he managed to get out was a confused sound. The dread which had deadened his legs spread upwards, winding about his heart. He managed to shudder, breath, and blink. In those moments all other manners of motor control were denied to him.

"Hah."

The explosion of sound startled Benedict, until his brain realized he'd been the one that made it. He snorted and chuckled to himself. Perhaps the ground had finally grown too soft after hundreds of years of rain, or gophers got under the obelisk, or there was just a really strong wind that came through, or vandals, yes vandals. As far as the bounded man could tell there were no gore-hounds or risen dead about. He laughed to calm the rest of his fear, chided himself. If he lingered here, he'd be late for the festivities or worse late tardy with his delivery.  Benedict swallowed and pressed on.

There wasn't any other way around the toppled monument with the way he fell but to brave the stone 'roots'. He did his best not to look at them, as if to do so might grant them the power to animate like adders and strike him down. He paused at the precipice of the hole that had been torn up. After a moment he slipped down the two feet or so into the depression full of loose dirt. The chill that which had held him fast moments before threatened to return, so Benedict foolhardily dashed to the other side, intent to get back up onto level ground instead of freezing in place. Who knows what might snatch his legs and drag him into stygian depths? He shrieked at the top of his lungs when something snagged his boot. Pain shot through the side of his foot, and he staggered. Just before the young man lost his footing he managed to slap down the basket of fine olives on the other side of the gap. A few of the precious fruits rolled over the lip, but he managed to avert total disaster. That was of course as long as a restless dead thing wasn't about to eat him.

Benedict was as white as a summer cloud as he turned and looked down. It wasn't the hand of a petrified corpse that had tripped him up, just the other half of a shattered length of curled rock. He stared disbelieving at the mundane answer for several long seconds while drops of cold sweat tricked down his well-cast features. He glanced sideways as the twisted roots, noting most of them had clear breakage and distress. It seemed odd to him that support struts for the obelisk had been cast in such crazy shapes. Apparently the real foundation was still buried. Either way his boot was torn, and fresh blood trickled onto dirt and ancient stone. He would just have to patch the side of the leather with heavy thread, which he'd already done many times before. It was a marvel that the boots were still even serviceable. He couldn't remember why he cherished the old leather so; there was a vague connection to his father.

Several more minutes passed before the ash-haired man managed to pull himself out of the hole. He hissed as he put pressure on his foot. From here, though, he had a straight shot back to the keep. The royal home, which was also his prison, was stark against the horizon. Even with fresh banners hung of the brightest colors it still gathered an oppressive air to all of its severe edges that came together at near-perfect right angles. It was said that the Keep d'Lione could keep any army in the world at bay until they gave up out of boredom. Benedict grimaced and jogged the rest of the way, made his way over a fence, and had never been so happy to be on the Earl's green. It was long before banners bearing a golden lion rearing on a field of black fluttered above him. Benedict slipped through the side gate like other castle-thralls. He went for the kitchens first; to drop off the olives and have his foot looked at. The last thing he wanted to do was worry the Countess on a day such like this. The woman had too good of a heart to be married to the brute she was.

Such was the lot of life when it came to being noble in the Schism Realm of Ardent. The poor woman had to bear so much when the usurper killed her first husband, butchered her child, and claimed her for royal legitimacy. Benedict often wondered if being bounded and being peerage were not that different after all. At the moment, though, he focused on finding someone to tend to his wound. It wouldn't be long before the feasting began!

The green roots greedily slurped the drops of precious red below.
Chapter One of this years Nano Project
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