Chapter I

The Forest of Katash

At a canter, a motley crew of weary-eyed riders drew nigh to a desolate, windswept grove where a body of restless steeds and well-armed men lay in wait. The day before, a border patrol carrying the tattered black standard of House Ney had passed the selfsame wood and left it unexplored for fear of lurking threat of wayfarer bandits or covert poachers. Only a fool would hazard his life for little pay over a hapless pheasant or a knapsack of rabbits. Those who now approached were as scant in number and likely lighter in coin still.

Krypsis, having lost track of time, looked back at the rest of his men winding over the tussocky hill in single file and for any glimmer of sun beyond the gathering of threatening storm clouds. Strands of his dark red mane had intertwined with the burnished copper of his beard and his otherwise azure eyes held nothing but the overcast grey sky above, while within him grey musings pressed down upon his gaunt, broad shoulders and otherwise lithe frame. Approaching the lonely grove, some three-quarters of a mile away still, the riders drew to a halt amidst an eerie stillness bereft of even the chirrup of a single bird. He raised his arm and, clutching a sinuously wrought curved bow aloft, set off towards the wood alone. The thing was a gift from someone he loved, who had etched her name upon it; someone he had not seen in nigh upon a year. He wondered what she would look like now, what she might be garbed in, how her voice might sound. Although the memory of her voice eluded him, he now recalled her scent and could see where her name was engraved on the bow, a spot rubbed smooth and lustrous by his thumb’s touch.

“I might die soon, after everything. Cease to exist. A wave in a sea of waves about to crash onto rock and fade away, absorbed by grains of sand. Or I keep rolling on,” Krypsis reflected dramatically. He noticed himself thinking and counted his heart’s slow, heavy beats. One, two, three, four… Krypsis contemplated the utterings of his inner voice as though he had more care and love for his life now than ever before. Hearing his inner words and sensing the silences connecting them calmed him down.

“Name yourself!” it rang from within the mass of birch trees when he arrived within archer’s range. An unknown voice.

five… “Krypsis of the Tall Tower. Name yourself,” he replied with renewed conviction, bracing for an arrow in the chest… six, seven, eight, nine… “Krypsis!” he said... ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen. A single man came out on horse, head bowed and obscured by a leather hood, no distinguishing features… a deep breath… fourteen, fifteen, sixteen…

“Giscard,” the man finally shouted, “of that inn where we got drunk two months ago. You tit!”

seventeen… “You are a cock among cocks!” Krypsis said. He breathed a deep sigh of relief and lowered his bow.

The two met halfway, and as their horses smelled each other’s scent, rubbing their heads through each other’s manes, Giscard pulled back his leather hood, revealing a thin white scar running along his left cheek and a pair of thin, wide, mischievous eyes, mischievous eyes, below thick eyebrows sloping up sharply before making a sharp turn past the corner of those eyes. The bags under his eyes made it clear he’d slept as little as Krypsis had.  

“Made you feel alive, didn’t I?” Giscard said with his grainy, husky voice.

“Stop smiling, you bastard. I thought I’d had it!”

“I gave you a great gift. Now, do you have mine, you filthy ginger?” He watched Krypsis’ men come down a barren slope pocked with rocks and counted them.

“I’ll give you a great gift!”

“Now, now,” Giscard said. He smirked and counted again. Lightning forked through the sky at a distance. “You got them?”

“We have them both,” Krypsis assured him and pointed at his saddlebags. Thunder rumbled. “We were pursued, though. Six of ours headed east to throw them off,” he finished, stroking his horse’s neck and mane. Giscard frowned.

“This complicates matters,” he muttered, wary of being overheard.

“I am aware. It was the only way. We saw a great plume of dust leave the city when we reached the top of the Great Eastern Ridge overlooking it. Their fine horses are fresher and faster than ours, but they must follow the river until they reach the gravelly shallow crossing before returning to climb the ridge. We have a day on them, maybe more.” Rain began pouring down. Both men looked up at the bleak grey sky.

“Where are they headed?” Giscard asked.

“Coming round the long way, making trails and camping out along the marshes,” Krypsis said before pinching the bridge of his nose and yawning.

“And they know nothing?” Giscard asked. Blood left the gap in his front teeth and hit the rock he’d aimed for. Dark red.

“They know nothing. I didn’t use them for the ‘procurements’ nor do they know who our true allegiance lies with.”

“And they’re all his?”

“All of them. Still bleeding?” Krypsis asked so he could ignore his friend’s hand.

“Good… good,” was all Captain Giscard said. He trusted those six even less than the ones currently in his presence and suspected Krypsis had sent them away as a decoy for that very reason. Good man. Hopefully, they’d end up fighting and die. The two watched thick, slanted columns of grey, heavy rain approach. “The mouth? Yeah. At least it came out whole,” Giscard said of the molar he’d lost in a fight.

“I still can’t believe this is happening. What it will put in motion, a war greater than the one it stopped. This will spiral out of control.”

“We’ve talked about this. It already has, and it might grind us down and swallow us whole. But we’re alive, something that seemed an improbable outcome not that long ago, and where there’s life, there’s-”

“Rope,” Krypsis said. Giscard spat once more.

“Trust me, had I known we were to steal these, I’d have told the wife to pack the night they issued the order to mount. Insanity.”

“Madness. What comes now?” Krypsis asked as he heard his men break their day-long silence. “That’s the last of them,” he added, standing in his stirrups with his legs straight.

“Orders await us at the Second of Fifth. We will take it from there.”

“A messenger?”

“This I do not know… yes, I suppose. All I know is that I will ‘know’ and that I shall act upon that knowledge.”

“How many?” Tharos interjected. Neither Giscard nor Krypsis heard him approach.

“Both, my lord!” Giscard said. He looked over his shoulder and watched Tharos’ weary eyes look into his like they were a pair of dead fish in a pond. He wasn’t supposed to call him ‘lord’ around the others. Giscard offered his apologies when he realised he had done it, again.

“Where are the other men?” Tharos asked, displeased as always. He always looked displeased.

“They will re-join us in the First of Fifth,” Krypsis assured him. Tharos rode off again, white clay pipe in mouth, without as much as a glance at either of them.

The two men gave each other a knowing look.

“That face, those black, wet, parted curtains for hair… I truly believe he could push a knife into a man’s chest and tell him he wanted to kiss him with his eyes, all at once… and leave him thinking he meant it,” Krypsis said and observed him walk back into the grove.

“Leave which of the two thinking it?” Both laughed.

The two captains of House Marron followed the prince of House Lox back to cover when rain began hammering down on them.

It has begun.

What did you do?

Nothing yet. But soon.

You have it?

No, men do. Men took it.

I sense his approach. Go.

Rustling and a stumble woke Krypsis in the dead of night. Snapping his fingers twice, the outline of a moonlit figure approached; Baerron.

“Last watch. We ride shortly. There’s hot food if you want it. Rabbit, more bloody rabbit, and some root,” Baerron said, sniffing his nose. He’d sniffed his nose since they left, so much so Cremor had threatened to cut it off. So, Baerron got sent off with Krypsis, while Cremor stayed with Giscard, as there was enough crazy in either of them to send a whale mad.

Making sure Krypsis’ ill-tempered mare couldn’t kick him, Baerron next made his way back to the orange glow of dying embers, all the while complaining they had no proper fat on them, the rabbits. They were all sick of it, the rabbits and Baerron’s constant complaints about them, and the sniffing. He could keep his face shut and eat the berries he liked, but he wouldn’t do that either. No, always first in line with his bowl, always making sure he got his fair share of the meat. Watched the others serving themselves and sniffed extra loud when Cremor did his bowl, hoping it would make Cremor think of snot, which it did.

Shrugging off the cold, misty air, Krypsis rolled up his damp woolen blanket, tied it to the back of his saddle and fed his horse the last of the barley. Roast soon. Chew the rind and fat, suck the marrow. Drink, get drunk and pass out warm he thought as he tightened his saddle straps and paused to listen to his horse piss before snapping out of it. He had to laugh. What a life.

“We continue along the road to Mor, but we’ll cut through and double back to Katash on the third day. There’s a narrow, well-hidden path I know of,” Giscard said, dipping a chunk of stale bread into the cast-iron pot some others sat around. The men finished off the last of the rabbit stew and let the fire the pot sat on slowly die. Krypsis stood motionless, leaning a shoulder against a trunk and watched their warm breaths rise from their mouths as they talked and took in Giscard’s instructions while the Lox watched and listened just as intently, as the lands they traveled weren’t his. Mind you, not for a lack of trying.

Well on their way into the early day with the rising sun warming their backs, Krypsis rode up to Giscard and asked how he knew the way.

“Father and I tended flocks of sheep in these very regions,” Giscard replied and pointed in the general direction of where their summer farm might still be.

“In these very regions?”

“Aye. I’ve missed this crisp, fresh air,” Giscard said and took in another deep breath. He never would have answered the question if he were not so exhausted.

“I’d never have taken you for a shepherd, squeezing teats, making cheese. Soft teats and cheese.” Both grinned. “How did that pasty little dairy face end up with a shield and sword?” Krypsis asked with a quizzical expression when he couldn’t get a rise out of Giscard.

Giscard shook his head. He was fine giving him one. “Twice! Twice I’ve told you the story now, you drunk. Not again.”

“Don’t be like that. You and that thick accent of yours are better than that!” Krypsis taunted.

“May I remind you I’m the one paying those fine specimens of thieves and murderers riding right behind us?”

“So much better,” Krypsis taunted again, this time pouting his lips. “I’ll bet I can get you to tell me a third time, too. Besides, they’re the ones that worry me the least.”

“I know. Him riding with us, it makes no sense,” Giscard replied, referring to the Lox.

They made it through the mountainous pass days earlier and as the horses grazed on the daylilies and swaying, wild, fragrant grasses, two of the men who’d chosen life over various quaint and gruesome deaths, came back carrying a buck from nearby woods.

“At least a hundred and fifty pounds,” smooth-faced Jorren said. He was the youngest and most skilled climber and archer of the lot and beamed with pride. Besides Krypsis and Tharos, he was also the only one with a full set of teeth left and left no opportunity wasted to show off those pearly whites. He was boyishly good-looking too. That good looking, Tharos had made threats so some wouldn’t try and have him, leaving those only with their songs and suggestive stares.

Tharos, otherwise the last to offer help, cast off his lethargic, vain demeanour, set aside his pipe and began digging a hole for the fire to sit in upon glimpsing the beast. Proper food, even if he hadn’t shot it himself. Marten, with the wandering eye and ash-coloured hair that grew no longer than an inch before falling out, gathered firewood while Cremor taught Jorren how to field dress his first kill with paternal dedication.

“The heart of one’s first is buried as an offering beneath the tallest tree within sight by the one who shot it, and that would be thee, As He Sleeps!” Cremor instructed and swore as Jorren cut the still warm clump of muscle from the beast’s chest with childlike enthusiasm.

“Me! Do I bury it now?” Jorren, barely able to hide his excitement and shining white teeth, asked.

“Aye, and deep. Then back here. You’re doing the entrails, and the ass!” Cremor warned him. “High praise. I’m not touching those.” Jorren, holding the bloody heart in the cup of his hands, ran to a tall tree far away.

Cremor looked over to Marten, who, shaking his head in disbelief, finally laughed out loud when the boy was beyond hearing range. “He is a cat on his feet, but he has a mind like a wet chunk of pumice, that one,” Cremor spoke as he continued the dressing. “But gifted with the blade.”

“That too. As He sleeps!” Marten said. He sighed as he watched the boy get on his knees to dig a hole with his bare hands.

Before Krypsis took his men down the Great Eastern Ridge, while sitting around a campfire getting drunk one last time, Marten had decided he wouldn’t be outdone by Cremor’s tale of brutality. The gruesome act had Cremor hunted, chained and awaiting gallows while stuck in a damp cell with a view of fat crows eyeing him patiently from a barren tree nearby. He was told he’d feed the crows when there was nothing left. “Tongue,” he said and stuck his out. “Eye,” he said and pointed at his. “Cock.” Cremor smiled the memory away and looked back into the fire the way he’d done before. He felt the urge creep up on him to share his tale and carried on. Marten twitched and moved about throughout the story but he let Cremor finish the tale of how he’d beaten a father and his two young sons to death over some petty disagreement and clapped slowly, then faster and faster once the tale had finally been brought to its sordid conclusion, until it caught up with the present.

Before another had the chance, Marten, having pulled the skin of his weathered and wrinkled face back with the palms of his hands, making his eyes look thin and young again, started on his own tale by raising his hands high above the fire once he’d finished caressing the back of his neck now smoothed by the grease from his face. “These two here,” he said of his hands. “I don’t know what went through dear Cremor’s mind when he did what he did, but matters of the heart, of how he must have felt his core shift as he watched life ebb in another, that I understand a little something of.” Jorren refilled his cup before he continued. “They caught me for three, but these two here,” again raising his hands high into the air, “have felt the necks of more, mostly stealing whores, always denying it, of course,” he said with a chuckle and relived a fond memory. “Right? Also, a wife that fucked another and a girl or two, little innocent things, but on their way to becoming whores themselves. You can tell, there’s signs, tell-tale signs they’re on the path, on their journey.” Marten looked somewhat saddened when he said it and seemed to reflect on the matter a little, making eye contact with the other men as if wanting to connect.

Krypsis, disgusted with the fact he’d be handing Marten his pardon if all went well, stood up and stomped off to where Tharos and Giscard were sitting by themselves, overthinking the days ahead. Marten and Cremor gleefully watched the back of him and clearly deemed themselves untouchable.

“The last one… took my time with her,” he spoke, loud enough for Krypsis to hear. He slowly pushed his tongue out and licked both his lips at once. “So I could see her cry and lick up her tears.” He ran his tongue over the back of his hand and watched out for the men’s reactions. “Told me I didn’t have to do it, and then I squeezed her until she let out a soft ‘no’ before emptying out.” Some men, the plain thieves among them, avoided making eye contact with Marten, causing him to try even harder, like a cat, to gain their attention.

“What brings you to us?” Giscard inquired of Krypsis.

“Where’d you cut out that cancer?” Krypsis responded.

“Who?” Giscard looked past Krypsis and observed Marten raise his hands into the air again. “Marten?”

“That’s the one.”

“Lord Lox found that little jewel for us. Did you not?” Lord Lox, Tharos, released his clay pipe from between his slightly worn teeth and nodded.

“Did he tell you how he had his way with her too, the last one, afterwards?” Lox asked Krypsis. Krypsis, shocked anew, glanced over his shoulder.

“Why, why him?” he asked watching Marten holding a butchered deer’s velvet antlers above his head as he mocked and mimicked some pagan dance.

“He’s perfect,” Tharos proclaimed. “You know this, but your pride, your precious sense of morality, continues to lag behind the facts before us, to everything going on around us.” Tharos spoke with a demeaning, always lecturing, tone, as if he was in possession of some higher truth known only to those of his station.

“Getting more wood for the fire,” Giscard said. “While we can still have them. You’d better get back to them. Make sure they don’t gamble or run their mouths off at each other.”

It was dark, and they sat together again, cooking up game, when Harrad, the pale one, and Almain, the jester of the lot, returned from perimeter watch. Both of them notorious thieves, they could be trusted not to go for each other’s throat at a moment’s notice. Calmly, Harrad approached Giscard and whispered into his ear. Two large fires had been sighted in the valley below them. From there to where they were now had been an arduous trek, so Giscard nodded stoically. With many eyes on him, it gave him time to think without interruption.

Two large fires out in the open, they are confident about their numbers. We cannot remain in the First of Fifth overnight. Only two gates out to the Second. They could simply guard them with twice the men we have… The city is vast. By the time they knew, it would be too late. Could we make it? Krypsis saw Giscard’s lips move and decided to act.

“Sit and eat, we saved you marrow and fat,” Krypsis said. He shouted the words out to Harrad and Almain with a little song in his heart. Had to keep the mood merry. The sordid chore was about done now, but watching Giscard, Krypsis saw the seed of a growing sense of dismay in his eyes. Giscard felt the stare, but ignored it in every other way.

The men ate and shared their tales of the splendour of the First of Fifth and other cities that might rival it. With their faces lit up by their campfire and fiery wine, their captain looked down at the fire’s base, seized a burning stick from it and began drawing into the sand for the longest time.

“She might have given birth already,” Krypsis spoke as he settled down next to Giscard. “What’s your feeling, a son?”

Startled by the words spoken, Giscard hastily looked up at the nearest thing in life he had to a friend and muttered.

“As long as she lives,” he said and smiled, recalling his last memory of her.

“She’s a strong one, that woman of yours, and highborn. Still don’t know how you managed that, a mutt like you.”

“So her mother keeps reminding me, with words and glares. No, it’s the men, all of them,” Giscard said and paused to gather his thoughts.

“What about them?” Krypsis whispered, knowing something was bothering him deeply. With his heart and stomach sinking, a feeling that had grown stronger every day and mile, every hour closer to home, Giscard took a deep breath and gestured with his eyes towards the ground and what he’d drawn into it. A cross.

“What do your gods say?” Giscard asked, recalling the lonely circle of black, sunken stones they’d passed earlier that day, silent witnesses to some long-forgotten ill-fated religion. “Do they say we get out of this?”

“You know well enough it doesn’t work that way.”

“No, remind me again then. How does it work?” the captain asked with pleading eyes. Krypsis looked into the fire, holding his cup out for a refill from Jorren.

“As I’ve said,” he started, “they reside in everything. Take this cup… the clay came from one of many rivers, in which one of many goddesses dwells. The fire in which it baked, made with wood from a forest where Marroman the Many resides. The fire itself? Taken from Them by the first of us. The seed of the thought that gave birth to the cup… planted by Dia. The wine the cup contains… a gift from Cornu, the horned one. The Gods reside in everything, but we have to listen and watch out for them, and know to feel when they touch to move us.”

The two sat in silence, gazing into the fire and those sitting around it. Some made offerings to their gods, throwing red wine and strips of fatty meat into the fire, for lack of an altar or humble home-made shrine. “That’s a lot of gods for a cup, yet only one for war,” Giscard finally remarked, his voice low and sombre.

“That you recall?”

“That I recall,” Giscard confirmed, “and where does he reside? Where is his temple?”

“In you, me, them,” Krypsis said, pointing a disgusted finger in the general direction of the men. “All of us.”

Giscard tossed the remainder of his cheap wine into the fire, causing it to hiss and flare, and stood up to signal the end of the night’s merriment with terse words.

“We ride before dawn,” he said and without another word, he strode off to rest.

As Harrad and Almain spoke of the fires they had seen below, Krypsis and Tharos rose to their feet and ordered the men to shut it if they knew what was good for them. All were forbidden from speaking of their recent exploits under punishment of death by strangulation and that man’s share divided among those who remained. The last light reaching the doomed man’s eyes would carry Marten’s wandering eye upon it, the touch of his cold, calloused hands around his throat, the sound of his thumbs crushing his windpipe his last sensations. Tharos had informed the men of this particular ending before they all rode off. Why he had entrusted Marten with the task none knew, not until Marten shared his tale. The men fell quiet and, in solemn silence, finished their meals and wine with silver and pardons on their minds before wandering off to a short sleep and another long day in the saddle.

The Great Tower of the First of Fifth loomed large. Its construction spanned eleven generations of men and on a clear day she could be seen from over thirty miles away. All morning it had poured and when the men came upon her clouds still heavy with rain obscured most of her height from view. Giscard, having ridden ahead of the others, saw her first and slowed down to take in the mist-shrouded sight once more. Waiting for Krypsis to catch up to him, he watched many a cart laden with oils leave the great arch beyond which the lower city lay, while even more heavy carts arrived from near and far. The Great Tower boasted three gates. The first granted access to the other two, the second led to the lower city, and the third opened onto the Forest of Katash. Three legs, each an easy seven hundred feet wide, the upper city stood on. From there, all they had to do was ride west to return to Brunne.

Giscard waited under the cover of the second gate for the others to arrive, and told Krypsis to stay in his saddle when he had caught up to him. Krypsis didn’t have to read Giscard’s mind to know what was up. After the men had retreated to their horses to lay their heads down on their saddles the night before, Krypsis had sought Giscard out when he knew Lox was asleep and let his friend speak as he knew he would.

“It makes no sense,” Giscard said. “Our pursuers close on our heels, and he decides to stay the night in the First and ride on for the Second the day after.” When Lox first told him of his plan, Giscard didn’t argue, not with Lox, not with the others as witnesses. Instead, he gave Krypsis a familiar look and waited for him to join him. “It makes no sense,” he repeated.

“We’re doing this then?” Krypsis asked.


“Say the word,” Krypsis said, looking back past carts leaving the lower city.

“When they can see us leave for the forest,” Giscard said, his horse circling restlessly. “Now!” he exclaimed, spurring his horse on as he saw the others approach. Krypsis lashed his mare and the others, with Lox bringing up the rear, watched their silver, pardons and a good number of stolen texts ride off into the wooded distance. Cremor gave chase first. After him, the others saw no choice but to follow, including Tharos. Krypsis they overtook soon enough, but Giscard had the fastest horse. When they did catch up to him, it was because he’d let them. There was no turning back now and The Shadows awaited.

With sunset approaching, light cast a web of branching shadows upon the damp ground far below. Hooves churned the earth, their thuds echoed through the gnarled and impenetrable undergrowth of giant ferns, gentle saxifrages, stranglewood and deadnettles, and the most tangled of brambles, passing by the majestic moss-covered trunks of red oak. Seventeen sweat-drenched black manes flailed and whipped foam-covered necks, as the sound of neighing horses and shouting men filled the narrow path through the forest and the unknown beyond with terror… there was no other sound, not that of bird or the rustle of wind through leaves. No other sound.

Deep down from Captain Giscard’s throat, a forceful “Hada, hada, hada!” came, as blood and sweat ran down his lashed brow into eyes and mouth and down his wet, blond-haired cradled neck. “Faster, faster!” he shouted in the common tongue. The words boomed.

Giscard stabbed his floundering horse near the heart with a signet ring, causing the pace to pick up dramatically; poison coursing through the poor animal’s veins. The others followed suit and closed the gap. Bolts of black lightning emerged, slicing through what little remained of the day, growing numerous as the sun bowed in surrender to the night.

On the Straight Twilight, the final and most arduous stretch of rugged earth before the refuge of safety, the weary men beheld the distant lights of the Second of Fifth. With the strain of many a day’s hardship written across his face, Tharos cried out to Giscard, his voice filled with urgency.

“The signal, now?”

Giscard, exhausted to the point of disbelief, strained to distinguish the words amidst the clamour of his companions and the ominous dimming of their voices and neighing that had grown eerily dark in timbre and muffled. Casting a sidelong glance, his gaze passed beyond Krypsis and two other stalwart riders, finally meeting the eyes of Tharos, silently affirming his assent. Tharos, winding his reins around the pommel of his saddle, reached for his horn and commanded Krypsis and all the men to tighten their reins likewise. They drew forth their blades, as instructed by Giscard, and sliced open the skins filled with the viscous black liquid they had discovered bubbling forth an hour’s ride distant from the First of Fifth.

Haaaooorrrrrrrouuuuuuumph, it resounded.

Menos, the rearmost rider, struck flint against the hilt of his sword, igniting a rag soaked in oil. Swiftly plucking it from between his legs, he cast it onto the ground behind him. As it landed, the forest floor seemed to part, giving birth to twin serpents of golden hue, their edges kissed by a faint blue shimmer. Slithering forth from the shadows, they advanced toward the head of the cavalcade, their many heads snapping at the heels of the horses, illuminating the path with their radiant visage. Gradually, other sounds pierced the air, shrieks and hisses growing in intensity, unsettling both man and steed further still.

Haaoorrrrrrouuuuumph, it bellowed once more.

Mild rain as fine as mist descended upon the men. Rocky outcrops became more frequent and a plain unfolded itself before them, cradled by the trees of the Forest of Katash, mighty arboreal behemoths resembling dark green horns. The contours of these towering trees were revealed by the glow of civilisation from the Second of Fifth beckoning from afar. The men, their skins drained empty, took hold of their reins anew and blood-whipped their horses with the last vestiges of their waning strength.


“Why in the depths haven’t they responded yet? The gate remains sealed.” Harrad’s words quivered, fractured by the strain of ceaseless days in the saddle and unyielding trepidation. Amidst his companions, he beheld, amidst the gentle mist, a vast multitude of oak leaves, descending gracefully from the verdant canopy above. And the rustle of foliage and the creaking of branches grew steadily louder, as acorns joined the dance, showering upon the men.

“They are directly above us, just above!” Marcuus exclaimed, and then the screams began. Casting a backward glance, only the sight of Menos’ panicked steed, ablaze with flames devouring its saddle and mane, remained. In quick succession, two more cries of anguish pierced the air, followed by the thunderous crash of a horse into the dense undergrowth.

Haaroooouuuuuuuuw, it echoed from the distance. Moments later, a slender, vertical sliver of light materialized before the men. Expanding in brilliance and width, they realized it to be one of the gates of the Second of Fifth, opening before them. Yet, amidst hearts throbbing on the precipice of bursting, no sense of relief touched their souls. The surrounding sounds grew muffled, their essence resonating with a primal timbre, while their minds became untethered, adrift in vast oceans of time. Further screams ensued as two horses collided, followed by a chilling silence. A steed, overtaking Krypsis, Tharos, and Giscard, bore the lower half of its rider, still held fast by stirrups, racing ahead toward the beckoning light, its burden lightened.

Two mighty arrows traced a sweeping arc across the heavens, their flight seemingly eternal. Misty rain, acorns, and oak leaves continued their descent, as the remaining men observed the two fiery shafts, akin to saplings in size, reach their zenith and begin their descent. Further muted cries and the plaintive wails of one of the surviving men followed.

“Two arrows, two shitty arrows?” one cried out with what little strength he could still muster. With a fearful embrace, he clung to the thick-veined neck of his mare. Her nostrils and eyes seeped blood, burdened by the poison surreptitiously administered through the signet ring moments prior – a venom intended for her rider in the event of capture.

As they emerged into the open, the sun had sunk beneath the horizon, and upon the day’s demise, a mighty, blood-curdling and sonorous roar came forth from the length of the tree line. It was as though Death had opened its mouth to speak and show the world all the life it had ever devoured. And then, like a tempest unleashed, arrows descended, transforming the fields flanking the sodden path Giscard’s remaining men tread into seas of flame and billowing smoke. In sequence, lights illuminated the entire circumference of the towering, unblemished stone walls and watchtowers of the Second of Fifth. Startled by the sudden inferno that seared her vision, one horse, casting off her rider, lost her bearings and retreated to the shelter of the forest she had come from.

“Hada, hada, hada!” an emboldened Giscard could be heard shouting once more, to rally his men toward safety, guided by city gates opened only wide enough to permit the passage of a single rider at a time.

The first to breach the gates was Giscard himself, but he advanced only a few strides before his mount, spent and weary, crumbled beneath him, threatening to trap him beneath its weight. Krypsis followed, trailed by Harrad gripping the tattered reins of Adæèm’s horse, with Cremor and Kippis in their wake. Jorren, thundering through the gates, arrived last, his knee colliding with wood. Ten men short.

Brushing away blood and sweat clouding his vision, Giscard surveyed the men before him, calling out their names, as the heavy, iron-bound gates groaned and sealed shut once more. Approaching the closing gate, flanked by those steadfast men whom he still trusted—Krypsis and Harrad—Giscard thrust the breadth of his sword into the narrowing gap, stealing a glimpse through the slender slit and portcullis. There, in the distance, on foot and limping, he beheld Tharos, navigating his path amidst wavering flames on either side.

“Reopen! Unseal these gates!” Giscard’s voice thundered at the town guards attempting to remove him from the narrow aperture. The other men unsheathed their blades upon which bows readied for action against them from the shadowed heights above.

“I shall have the lot of you laid bare if you don’t lower those swords immediately, and tell me who you shits are for coming here at this unholy hour!” a smooth, almost mellifluous voice emanating from one of the wooden balustrades above said. It carried an air of subtle elegance amidst all the commotion.

The stain compels me, Giscard thought to himself. He threw his sword to the ground, shook himself free from the grasp of the guards, and ordered his men to throw their swords to the ground as well. “We need to talk, now! Both our lives are at stake here!” Giscard exclaimed. A silence followed, punctuated only by heavy footfalls.

 “Do you comprehend the cost incurred in setting those fields ablaze? Our financial losses are not to be taken lightly,” sneered another voice, this time from a lower vantage point. A foot emerged from the shadows, bathed in the flickering light of torches, followed by another. Both made their ascent toward Giscard, one more gracefully than the other. Clad in lightly worn, supple leather boots, the figures bore witness to an elaborate ensemble, secured by an array of buttons adorning fine fabric, enveloping smug individuals who seemed to have never missed a meal in their entire existence. One of them introduced himself as the Commander of the Second and Third of Fifth.

Exasperated by their sluggish demeanour, Giscard attempted to approach them, only to be halted by the pointed tip of a sword and a menacing warning from above. “Over three dozen arrows trained on you. Think on it.” Finally, one of the portly men stood face-to-face with Giscard, his peachy countenance leaning close to his own, demanding the repetition of the earlier statement. “Threaten me once more!” he snarled, baring his milky teeth in a feeble display of aggression.

Putting a blood-stained hand where the commander’s shoulder met his ample, sagging neck, Giscard, slowly moved his lips to the man’s ear and spoke in a most menacing manner as a raised hand assured archers above there was no danger.

“That man out there, the one you are leaving out there to die, is Tharos Lox of House Lox. Have I made myself abundantly clear?”

Without hesitation, the man swiftly raised a hand, signalling to the guards to lower their swords and bows.

“I’ll see to it every horse, mule and dog so inclined in this joy-forsaken latrine you call ‘home’ shall have its way with you before the sun comes up again, if Lord Lox does not walk through that gate tonight.” To lend weight to his words, Giscard parted his blood and sweat-stained shirt, revealing the Seven Swords of House Marron, the sigil seared upon his chest upon completion of The Trials.

A concoction of revulsion, uncertainty, and apprehension melded into the man’s countenance in response to Giscard’s overt and unabashed threat. He raised his pudgy, ring-adorned hand into the air once more and the second man commanded the reopening of the gate.

 “Much obliged,” the captain uttered.


Most of the archers, who had been trained on Giscard and his men until now, descended the wooden staircases in haste and took up positions at the gate, battlements, and embrasures. Giscard, Krypsis, and Harrad squeezed through the gate, rolling beneath the rising portcullis, and dashed toward Tharos, shielded by a rain of arrows from above.

As the fires dwindled, a thunderous, bone-chilling roar echoed from the tree lines flanking the path. Following the lead of the other guards, Kippis, Jorren, Cremor, and Adæèm readied their bows, seeking cover behind the fallen bodies of their steeds. Horns sounded, and a surge of men, women, and even children rushed into the courtyard. Spiked planks of wood were brought forth and erected, while a fully armed soldier paced back and forth, his sword tracing a line in the sand. “No further than here,” he repeated incessantly.

“Archers, prepare!” it boomed several times from various sections of the defences, as iron fire baskets were lit all about the inner courtyard, atop the walls and upon the towers. A resounding “Aye” replied in unison. A faint tremble was felt.

“Stand steady!” it boomed. The tremble grew to a soft tremor as more archers presented themselves. “Hold firm, lads!” Two colossal crossbows overhead were tensioned by teams of four while another pair armed them with arrows as long as saplings, which the men had glimpsed earlier.

The fire baskets inside the courtyard now shook somewhat. Men felt vibrations travel through their feet and knees. As Giscard and Krypsis reached Tharos, with Harrad close behind, fiery arrows soared into the sky. Arcing over the heads of the four figures exposed in the open, the blazing shafts illuminated the approaching danger, 

“Steady!” it boomed.

Two vast hordes, writhing masses of shadowy beings, stumbling, falling, and clambering over one another, surged forth from both sides of the smouldering fields. They swept across the charred grasslands, hurling whirling ashes into the air, their relentless advance marked by chaos. The mighty crossbows unleashed two more volleys, and the commander ordered a tally.

A young boy perched atop the watchtower directly above the main gate called out the count. “Eighty and nine hundred!”



With unwavering confidence, the boy responded, stating they were now at seventy and eight hundred.

“At four hundred, front rows free reign. Again!”

“Forty and four…” the boy announced, upon which a deluge of flaming arrows synchronised in their release, overwhelmed the sky before burying themselves in the earth and the oncoming creatures. The arrows formed a crescent-shaped inferno, pocking the ground behind the four men still out in the open. Two of them carried Lox, while the third provided what cover he could. The boy no longer awaited orders; instead, he continued the count rapidly.

“Back row, left flank, middle row, right,” it sounded, “at your leisure.”

The Shadows slithered along the flanks, some evading the rain of arrows, threatening to encircle the men. Though their vision was obscured by the onslaught of projectiles and the fires of the town, they pressed forward, guided by sound, scent, and maddening frenzy. The townsfolk were keenly aware of this, for they fought accordingly. Horns sounded once more, distant from the gates, luring away a significant portion of the beasts. However, a considerable number still closed in on the men.

Meanwhile, Kippis, Jorren, Cremor, and Adæèm found themselves encircled by dozens upon dozens of archers, young and old, men and women alike, all bolstered by a formidable shield wall and spears.

“Take aim true!” a braided girl, standing alongside warriors far beyond her years, commanded in the courtyard. The gate, now a voracious maw, allowed the defenders to unleash their volleys as the four drew nearer and nearer, finally reaching the threshold.

“Release it! Lower the portcullis!” the command resounded as Harrad, the last among them, successfully crossed over.

A small lad, standing amidst Giscard’s men and measuring only four feet in height, had inadvertently soiled his breeches. Adæèm, gazing down at him, observed the growing puddle and provided solace, assuring the young one that something would indeed be amiss if he had not.

“Why haven’t you then?” the boy replied with a slight tremor in his voice.

“Something amiss with me alright,” Adæèm replied, his eyes devoid of life, as the order was given to set the moat ablaze….