The heavy padlock seemed untouched by the ages, holding the armoire securely sealed with its Black Steel and enchanted silver ornaments. Gorm let out a sigh, a quiet lament to the destruction of so fine an object.
He hoisted the crowbar into both hands and set it in place.
The armoire swung open on well-oiled hinges, silently revealing the ancient armor within. The matte and mottled crimson metal gleamed in the light of the candelabrum, the black velvet highlights appearing all the darker because of it and the unreflecting Black Steel rivets breaking up the red enough to avoid becoming tawdry.
It had sharp edges and jagged spikes protruding from elbows, pauldrons, and greaves, making it cumbersome to wear yet fearsome to behold; befitting its primarily ceremonial design. Lifting up the gauntlets he admired the craftsmanship of the steel blades running along the wristguards. In the days of the Court, with powerful magic enhancing his already formidable strength, he had used them to shatter the weapons of his opponents during ritual combats.
Now, they might well prove more hindrance than help.
Sethian stood on the balcony of the main hall, looking down at the floor below. A few of the tiles were cracked, broken by the falling armors sent flying by his wards, marring the otherwise immaculately cared for chamber. Gorm had been quite the epitome of discipline and duty during his absence, even when it came to household chores.
Sethian’s wounds still ached with crippling pain, but he had siphoned enough life force that he would survive. As long as he did not strain himself with any arduous activity, reopening the barely fused flesh. He twirled a simple key of gilded metal in one hand, the other firmly gripping his cane as much to prop him up as to savour the current of energy connecting his soul to it.
He heard his bodyguard long before the knight emerged from the servants’ wing. The man’s armor looked as cruel and bulky now as it had in ages past. Gorm’s heavy blacksteel halberd was held in one hand and resting back against his shoulder, while the other carried what Sethian first thought a metal bucket only to then realize was the armor’s unadorned helm.
The silk tabard swirled around him, a black square lined with thick band red and emblazoned with the drop of blood motif of the Court. The crossed halberds of silver behind it marked him as a member of the Crimson Knights. By now the heraldry would be largely forgotten and even the armor itself would draw more attention for being unusual than any association with the Court; particularly outside the Empire.
Sethian hobbled his way down the stairs and along the hall to the great front doors. Through the windows flanking the doorway he could see the overgrown garden and the ruins of the low wall surrounding it. Gorm could do only so much, after all, and no one worthwhile had proven willing to work for a family whose status and fortune were the legacy of tyranny.
Sethian snorted derisively. Fame did not equal power any more than history equaled truth. Sethian had spent his captivity playing a masquerade with the rulers of the city. He had pretended to be his own descendants, skipping generations each time he needed to form a new simulacrum, for so long his part in the so-called ‘Court of Blood’ had started to be forgotten.
“Are we ready, my liege?” Gorm’s voice caught Sethian off-guard, so lost had he been staring out into the garden. He looked at the knight with a mix of surprise and admiration. Gorm flipped the helm around in his hand and put it on, the practical, squat piece looking out of place between the oversized pauldrons. Sethian could not imagine the strength required to wear that armor, let alone the stamina to use it throughout days spent marching in parades and standing in the honor guard during festivities.
Sethian offered a grim nod to his loyal henchman then moved over to the door and slipped the key inside. He paused just as he began to turn it. He had spent so long living outside of death, trapped in his cane or in a masterfully crafted doll, and here he stood on the verge of risking the very life he had do so much to safeguard. He felt the trepidation, the fear, heard the rattle as his hand shook the key in the lock, and took a deep breath.
He was Sethian the Dark Lord. He was the Blood Arbiter, the Tyrant of Arlath. He had built this city, forged it into an empire, and faced down assassins who would put the mythic Shadowblades of Harma Ithil to shame. He had thwarted death itself.
The key flipped in the lock and the doors swung open, revealing a sandy beach lined with lapping waves and caressed by a lazy breeze. A view in stark contrast to the dreary garden still visible on either side of the arch. Though simple and worn in appearance, the key was anything but.
Legends told of a place outside the world, in ways akin to yet different from the Astral of the mind or the Hinterlands of the fae. This place, dubbed by some unimaginative scholar the ‘Arcane Abode’, was accessible only through use of rare and mysterious keys.
Sethian stepped through the door, making sure to extract the key from the lock and let Gorm pass through before closing it. Just as the keys were the only way in, they were the only way out. If they had magic left in them. The door, on this side a rickety thing half the height of the mansion’s and lacking any mate, stood peacefully on the beach, looking like simple flotsam.
He looked at the blue ceiling with its painted-on sun and clouds. It always unnerved Sethian how even in rooms like this, where there walls were out of sight, the ceiling was right there as a constant reminder of what this place was. “Mark our direction, master Gorm. There will be neither stars nor landmarks to guide our way in here.”