When the shroud fell, only one glimmering sun hung above the vast world of man, women and beasts.
Its gleaming rays settled down peacefully, shining through the thin membrane of vegetation in order to quell the nightmares of those creatures below. The golden beams of flowers stemmed upwards at the touch, opening their leaflets in order to soak the light; allowing the life-giving beams straight through into their insides. The sickening stillness of the green undercoating grass started to dissipate into a calm flow, rocking back and forth alongside the movement of the forest; forming a wave of grass tendrils. Groans of ecstasy enveloped the terrain, mostly sounded from the low rumbling voice of the trees; deeply rooted oaks that had branches so large and tall that they blotted out the blueness of the sky and speared whatever reigned beyond. They were good trees, useful for hard bark outlines with softer mahogany within that could easily be moulded into the arc of a bow or the hilt of a spear. Large green leaves the size of a man’s shield started falling down to the ground, and alongside them the seeds inside the earth started to grow. The forests were filled with trees of all kinds, the seeds often passed alongside the gust of wind that always flew in from the western shores. From the ocean afar came a great many things, the snows of dusk and the dual suns of the dawn ever so merciless and cruel in nature. The waters were the bringers of life, and of beings from other lands.
But it was the sun high above that would be worshiped, its presence more than an omen or a sign; it was a blessing.
The lights above were often wondered and objectified, the harrowing sight of the star of Myria high above them all; sometimes even tormenting men and woman alike to spit and die amidst the glare of gods. They are the eyes of the gods themselves, watching and judging us amongst the test of faith and strength; leading some to kneel in testimony and others to crumble at the stare. Some spoke of the suns as a torment, a merciless torture that would split itself into a set of three if the realm of men ever disappointed their gods again. They said that dawn was appropriated with only one of the stars during times where Myria found peace in her subjects; and in times of anger she would send two orbs of light to burn her infidel children. Whatever the purpose or means for dawn, the realms of five isles found no love for such weather; and wished for the blissful tranquility of dusk to live the rest of their days.
They had existed in such a dormant peace for three years now, never threatening the gods of Myria to unleash their second sun. The singular orb in the sky had served well enough, growing crops and healthy children alike under its careful grace. Many had stipulated that one sun was the opened eye of the gods, that of mercy and love; whilst the second orb would only encompass little mercy and even cruelty. Under the care of dusk, the five isles would always sink into a slow greedy lust for such laziness to last until the end of their days. But eventually the dawn would come, and the world of men would be showered with the cruel presence of both eyes staring down on them. Crops would spoil, beasts would wither and die and even the usual calm of the ocean would become boiling warm. There was no escape from the blistering gaze, nowhere to run or hide; it was a hell on their world.
Yet it was not the worst they had ever toiled under, in fact ever since the Shroud had fallen over the far isle; men prayed for anything to replace the darkness that surrounded them. No one knew where it came from, be it either from the wrath of the gods or the actions of the opposing sage’s; or if it was something they understood little of. All they knew is what they saw themselves, a legion of ten thousand men clad in the armour of their gods and the banners of their league. The sky cracked open and night fell on the world, a darkened night that released no rain; serving to confuse all those who would know the time as day; both of beast and man alike. It was an unnatural occurrence, as the time of the natural cycle had suddenly been ripped apart by this discovery; it was strange to say the least. Students and sages of Astronomy would spend hours staring at the one star they could see through the thick veil of the night; the soft blue winking light of Myria herself. They would pray, sacrifice and beseech the sudden command of the gods in vain, wasting livestock and blood all on an answer that would not reveal itself.
The night after, many expected the strange matter to leave them; for the day to vanquish the night as it always had in the past. Just as dawn would come and overtake the dusk, light would eventually pierce through the shroud.
But it didn’t, the darkened barrier around their cities and towns continued to remain dormant and waiting; almost teasing them into insanity. The sudden deliverance of darkness was disturbing, yet it would not halt the actions and day to day life of men living amongst obligations and requirements; the people of the city would not let it stop their everyday life. Sparrows, carriages and delivery boys were eventually sent out from city to city; required to swim through the darkening barrier that surrounded them all on their path. Messenger birds of all ilk’s would refuse such a journey, preferring their masters to pluck their feathers then to physically touch such a void. But the route of carriages and wagons were led by the people themselves, and men had more to worry for then just the dark of the shroud; they had jobs to complete and families to feed.
So they left the safety of their cities, attempting to pierce the veil as they headed for any other civilization they could find. Crowds had formed to watch the first boy step out of the capital, the adorned crumbling city of Myria; third caption and redeemer of the five isles. He was a young lad, dressed in the brown cloth of any commoner and a satchel around his chest. No armour or decent gown covered his premature chest, leaving his darkened sigil for the entire world to see. It was a paw mark, one of the deemed affixes that the gods would place on a child during birth; showing what an individual was worth. A paw meant many things, it symbolized a tracker, a learner and a wild boy of the forest. To the eyes of the crowd, it meant he could run fast; a required skill for this task. In the bag, he held letters that families had requested be sent to the southern city; it seemed overflowing with white envelopes and darker black ones. He was refused a horse, as none of the beasts would let themselves be lead into such darkness; even the duller painted filth breeds that builders and messengers would easily manage to master. No one would accompany him on his first step; it was something that he would do alone with the eyes of a city in front of him, the god’s singular spectacle up high and the cruel hidden gaze of the darkness in front.
The first step he took proved to be his last, causing the crowd to scream out in horror and fear whilst guards grabbed for the dangling short swords at their backs. The lad’s gurgle of surprise and scream of pain ran louder than any of them, somehow amplified by the presence of the darkness that now forced itself down the boys open wailing mouth. He fell on his knees and screamed into the ground, beating at the muddy floor whilst every bone in his body started to deform and wither away. It took him well over an hour to die, lying alone as his roars became hoarse whimpers. Whatever he screamed of, they could not hear; yet many spoke of him as if he roared out for vengeance, many said that he cried for his mother whilst others swore that he spent his final step damning the gods for such a curse.
When the moans finally passed, the boy barely appeared human anymore; his entire face had fallen in on itself and bled ferociously into the ground. It was a horrific sight, yet it served as an even crueler message; that they could not leave the sanctity of their city. Those who resided inside their palaces and farms would have to stay there, fearing the darkness that seemed to grow every second they waited; taking anyone who attempted to flee. The presence of the shroud had become a nightmare, a blanket folded over their eyes that seemed to only limit their vision and knowledge of the entire world around them. Orders of Myria had worked on the shadows for days, using all weapons and knowledge at their dispensal all in order to destroy such an unknown yet undeniably powerful enemy. They gave in to their own defeat soon enough, abandoning the many sages that had fallen under the paralyzing smell of the darkness and wandered aimlessly towards it; seeking their own doom. The Arch King offered prayers, sacrifices and promises to the gods for all he could do; yet they replied with nothing, only allowing the dormant silent to further infuriate their people and subjects.
Many people tried to flee their cities regardless of the shroud, abandoning all hope as they attempted to reconvene with their own families. They screamed and beat at the floor together, never reaching a foot past the shroud’s presence before they swallowed its darkness and fell under its spell. At this point, a devout zealot of Myria intervened. Constructing a helmet created of pure iron, he clogged up his nose, ears and mouth with the harsh presence of metal as he waded out through the thick sludge of darkness. He made it further than most, stepping over warm corpses as he made his way south. Eventually even his faith fell, allowing the rest of his body to succumb as soon as the shroud wormed itself into his interior through the gaps of his eyes.
Even to leave by ship was its own journey that would end in the darkness, the winds did not come and pick the boats away from the harbour as they would in the high tide of the morning; and to take a ship to far would mean to lose ones crewmembers at the dark of the shroud. Many jumped free and attempted to swim underneath the dark, forced by their own aching bodies to rise and gulp the shroud in eventually; left to drown miles from their home. A ship clogged with wood and metal attempted the challenge of the Shroud, hiding its crew within and sailing out into the darkness with the orders to ignite a brazier if they were to survive to the other side.
No brazier was lit, those of the city would never know what happened to those of the doomed vessel; only guessing what started to become wildly known.
That the shroud itself had no ending, that to leave it would not guarantee safety; for the only safety was within the capital itself.
The Arch King intervened eventually, placing guards around the darkened mists to halt anyone attempting to leave. He placed them far enough for the smell not to allure them, yet close enough to serve as a barrier against any traitor fleeing the city. At this stage, the people of the grand Capital of the five isles had waited for over a month and were only starting to realize that this reality would not end. The darkness continued to fall through day and night, corrupting and slaughtering any who attempted to bypass the sworn guards without hesitation or proper reasoning. It revealed no purpose or motive to its presence, not that it hadn’t been given the opportunity either; a new order of devout worshipers had started to dedicate their lives to study the shroud around them. By analyzing and attempting communication at a safe distance, the ‘Speakers of Night’ had shown rare success. However, as soon as it had been discovered that the dark wanderers had actually attempted to feed the darkness with those willing to flee the city; the order had been named by the Myiaster of Faith as a heresy based cult. Their extermination and eradication came swiftly, as darkness was an ally for any sworn swords to use at any time of the day now. Men and women were butchered in their sleep, awoken only by the grim sight of steel adorned warriors cracking them open with their lit blades. Blood ran thick over the city of the Stars that night, or day if it would have been; any concept of hours were slowly forgotten by the prisoners of the city. All they knew was that of the endless darkness, the shroud that had claimed them all and never once granted them a moment of piece or light.
The shortage of sunlight and warmth had started to torture them in ways other than in misery and sadness. Lack of growth in crops and the hunting of beasts was a growing concern, as eventually even the stocked holdings of wheat and cattle would run low. Herders would report a common problem, that breeding their sheep or pigs would often create snarling beasts instead of the pudgy animals they expected. Such was the case in the procreation of children, many boys and girls had been dismissed as ‘Shroud-born’ as they started to reveal strange traits. Bleeding of the groin, fingers falling off and the attuned golden hue of their eyes were all the signs of such a corruption and nightmare. Eventually even the kind nature of the Arch King had to succumb to the words of his underlings, ordering the painless execution of such freaks of nature. It was said that the father of a great many sons wept that night, but none soaked their sheets in tears as much as the mothers did; or the king himself.
The population of a once large capital was being chipped away one day at a time, men and women ending their own lives or merely fleeing the city. They did this by climbing over its high walls, breaking into and attempting to utilise the cruel tunnels underneath or stealing a ship and floating to their deaths. Those who traveled underground were smart; they brought provisions for the trip that led them harmlessly underneath the realm of men. It was only once they met the end of the cave did they fall sick of the darkness, as its presence seemed to reach miles in every direction; and none of the gas seemed touched with mercy.
To keep his own mind sane, as well as that of a public community that seemed obsessed with fleeing the one sanctity they knew off; the Arch King devised a set of tournaments and challenges for their entertainment. He brought in the few orders of Knights the city trained and held them in jousting, hunting and even melee based scenarios. They were more class acts then gory violent pits they would witness during the seven day risk, a tournament styled gladiator race that was held by the League of Hearth during the third moon of Dusk and the first sighting of the Dryke itself. These acts were of grandiose tales, which of a warrior fighting of darkness to rescue she who he loved and could not bear to leave. It was a well-known fantasy that the crowd seemed to appreciate all the same, that of the hero saving the damsel; and it was far brighter than the reality they seemed to have fallen within.
The games and performances may have distracted his people, but the Arch King knew that eventually the possibility of starvation was coming for them all; and the peace wouldn’t hold out as soon as a shortage was placed. No supplies came in through ships or cart, no crops or animals grew naturally and those already grown were being eaten through with a fierce and alarming speed. The sudden possibility to end it all then and there was one that the King of Myria considered far too many times; and every time he threw the possibility away he felt it coming back faster and stronger than ever before. It had been a year since the peoples of this city had seen the light of the sun and now they forgot what it had even been. The flash of a candle often caused many to shriek out and douse the light, content with the darkness in which they lived. They slowly became beasts, afraid to even speak to each other or even to leave their filthy houses. The will to live, to stay clean and to protect oneself had been left behind, leaving only a raw feeling of terror and anger that they would act out on at a moment’s notice.
It happened eventually, during a dispute between two elderly women about the portions of food. A guard had saw fit to stand between both fanatics who were clawing and growling at each other; he used his arms to separate them and didn’t feel the dagger in his back until he rested his hand back onto his hilt. It was a member of the crowd, someone that had been living unsnapped for far too long; and now saw fit to render peace useless by a simple lunge of his blade. The fanatic did not seem to regret his actions either, screaming and lunging himself at the second guard that made the mistake of standing to close to such a violent and aggressive crowd. More and more bodies would fall and what started as a brawl would end at a massacre, with peasants turning on one another as easily as they would against a common foe.
It was anarchy, a relentless crowd of unmotivated men and women obsessed with taking what they wanted and ripping the king down from his throne. They chanted out curses and hatred for their Arch King as they broke open his door, accusing him of the shroud as they lifted him up from the battlements of his own adorned castle and threw him off the balcony of the marble palace itself; unto the rocks below.
The league of Trumph was slaughtered that day, a family and group of those united the common blood of Kings; all butchered by the very men and women they swore to protect. Any who remembered spoke of that day with fear and rage in their hearts. The cracking of the thickly adorned golden illuminated door and the shouts from the outside were enough to cause members of the council to flee their roles and stations. Unarmed mobs would hunt through the temples of Myria; grabbing every concealed or retreating member of the royal garb for due process under their version of the law. Most members of the Decade were granted their lives, except for those who refused to step down. The Myiaster of Spears was the first to die, a man that seemed far too easy to slaughter despite his ranking over an entire army; the rest managed to hide themselves and bow their heads in hopes to keep them.
With the guards slaughtered, inside riots and their own king thrown from his throne. The crowds of Myria searched for their one last remaining enemy; the Shroud itself. They grabbed whatever they could find, pikes, fishermen hooks and shovels; anything that could prove itself in battle against such a foe. And then they rushed forwards as one, refusing the will and presence of such a violent and cruel entity such as the Shroud. They roared and ran as one, wielding their makeshift weapons and torches to fight the unbeatable foe; and then that was when it happened.
The Shroud fell.
It started letting open a crack of light and sounded almost a roar as loud and ferocious as that of the Dryke itself. Its side splintered and buckled and finally it spewed open; its darkness retreating and ascending upwards until it disappeared from view.
And that was when the singular sun was seen yet again, a golden orb that hung high in the air as a beacon for them all. Its rays touched down and burned their skin, yet all the people and animals of the five isles could do was to shout out and cry. Their eyes sizzled with pain and were coated in tears, yet together they stood against the smiling light of their deity high above; praising and loving the goddess of Myria to return to them yet again. They held their children up high to touch the sky, to feel the warmth and take in the golden rays; and their skin was cured. The Shroud Born were healed, their prickly hides returning back to a tanned mellow whilst their eyes took on that of a fresh babe. They snarled not, but cried and wept in their steads; reaching up from the shoulders of their fathers, mothers and strangers all in order to tug at the light above.
And as the children wept, so did the sky. It was a downpour of rain, glistening in the sky as every drop reflected the beauty of the sun.
Regardless of the thunderous downpour, a sudden flurry of messenger birds unattached themselves from the stinking city that had served as their prison for far too long. The majority of the suddenly freed flyers were crows, dark sharp wings that would carry morbid news about deaths and grim events. Hundreds of falcons flew to all directions of the globe, intent to reach their master’s families, fulfilling their role as the family messenger. Few sparrows filled the air and even less owls manage to taint this moment. The lack of a barbed eagle was a regular sight, as its sharpened wings and thorned beak would only bring the word of war; without a note attached but with the simple role of attacking all it could. The sight was a wonder to behold, and it brought with it good news; a promise even. With the speed of the birds, the grace of the sun and the stormy beat of the rains above; those of the Five Isles begged and prayed for the world to turn back to normal. They would never lust, naught would they wish for more than they earned; they just wanted things to stay the way they were.
This of course, would never happen.
Siephra didn’t see the light flutter through the shattered windows, didn’t smell the sudden flourish of the world around her. In fact the only thing she noticed of the change in the year was the cawing falcon that woke her cruelly from the kindest of her dreams. Her visions went to her husband, the strong stoic man that stood high above the rest; one flag in his left hand whilst he held her with his right. The sound of her children screaming outloud, running alongside the soft grass with practice imagination based blades in their arms; hacking at each other with wild glares in their eyes. They had never listened to her will for silence, nor had they respected any request she placed on them; even if she placed them to save their lives.
The widow rose slowly, knocking apart the cold bowl that tucked in her soft chair form the side; no doubt corrupting it with whatever crap she had thrown in. Glass cut at her unprotected feet as she walked forward, kicking apart the remains of several bottles. They had served to conceal her mind from the hideous truth for days on end yet now they simply served to grant her headaches without end, and to worsen the bleeding cuts on her feet. No one was there to make her pick it up, if there was anyone living in the outside world at all. No contact with the outside world had left her with little left, dampness coated under her eyes and blood flowed freely underneath the soles of her feet. The green tinge underneath her fingernails left her with the urge to bite or scratch as hard as she could; yet that only seemed to open up sores that should have never existed.
The world around her had started again, no doubt spruced back to life due to the sudden illumination and love of their gods; yet she felt nothing. She looked up into the sky without passion or love, a life with or without the sun meant nothing to her anymore; as they both encountered a woman without a family. Whatever the gods thought of her, she barely shared a second thought for them.
The falcon cawed at her nervously, tucking in her dark talons as it scrunched her feathers together; shaking of a few droplets of rain. Usually a family bird such as this would never traverse through such rough weather, yet she anticipated any opportunity to spread her wings after an entire year of waiting. She was a faithful falcon, one that Siephra’s new family had managed to master for years on end. They had named her many titles, yet Brawn had been a name fashioned by their youngest; Rhu. It was far from fitting, yet it had stuck. Somehow the absurdity found more leverage then logic, as it usually did. Brawn’s scaled talons were combed with several letters, all wrapped up in leather straps that would mark her as a member of this dying family.
The letter was short, yet every word seemed small and tucked in order to preserve space all along such thin parchment. It was hardly strong fabric, almost ripping in her hands as soon as she scrambled it open. No doubt a shortage of paper had befallen the frontier, that and a lack of many other things. She read it quickly, her breath held.
To my darling wife and mother of three, Siephra.
My count continues.
The third day of the twelve month, a count that I have dreaded yet forced myself to continue until our predicament falls and we are reacquainted with the eyes of Myria.
Our rations grow shorter and shorter still; the prisoners and hostages have been butchered first on my orders to sustain the hunger of the dogs and the men. I wish we could have kept them, they would have served a good bargaining chip in our frontier here but I see no incoming great battles without my men well fed and rested. Most of our horses have fell to their sickness and as many times as it crossed my mind to eat such large beasts, I forced my men to burn the bodies and destroy whatever they picked up. The demand for water and proper medicine continues, yet I can only thank the gods that this shroud has not given us the fickled warmth of Dawn. At least with this darkness comes the cold, a foe that we can challenge and meet on combat as easily as any braided man.
Please do not accept my open mindedness as acceptance however, the toll of this accursed shroud has severed more than just men and food; it has separated me from my family, me and you. I only pray and wait for it to pass, just like any season or hour that one must overcome; this folly will eventually pass. I long to be reunited with you, as with the rest of my family and the world that has seemed to leave us all behind; now I can only pray that you have not done the same.
I have already written a bird for the Arch King himself if he still lives, if the realm of five isles have even survived the shroud that seems to have no end. I have beseeched him not to forget us, the legion that still awaits word and arms as our enemies close around us. Now I can only ask for you to say the same to Rhu, Tarrin and Ryasse, that I have not forgotten them and will come for them all very soon.
This message will receive you as soon as my judgement is passed and the shroud rises. I will tighten it amongst all the others to my falcon, a small beast that still refuses to open wing in the sight of such darkness. Once the Shroud falls, the bird will find you and I will continue my campaign without delay; then I will come home for you.
Signed, the Arch General of the First Legion and Royal Army, Commander of the Regiment of Stars and supervisor to the legion of Sun and Fleet of the Moon. Cub Born, Blood thirster and redeemed patriarch of the far isle. You’re husband and still faithful lover, Leviticus of the governing league Trumph.
He had sent the message three days before the end, with no hope or light in sight. Yet the falcon had flown only when it deemed the absence of the Shroud; finding freedom with spreading its wings far and breathing in clean air. The darkness had brought a foul smell, a blanket to limit the senses and a hidden dagger within its midst; one that would take anything foolish enough to stumble in. Yet now finally the flier sought the skies, mixing her brown tipped feathers with the cool torrents of air and wind. During her sentence within the city, one settled with fear of the Shroud itself; she had found very little time to spread her wings at all. It wasn’t natural to confine any bird, especially a falcon of the wind and soft blow. Her master had never granted her the punishment of a cage, in fact the Shroud was the closest she had ever been to confinement; and she had hated it.
But now as she had soared over them all, her wings tipping and buckling hesitantly as they sought the warm air currents of the world around her. As uncoordinated as she seemed, the falcon knew that her previous skill would come back to her; she was a bird of the wind after all. Her sharp eyes saw much which many couldn’t, picking out the sudden movements of small critters fleeing her shadow. It was remarkable that they had even managed to survive the Shroud out in the darkness for so long; most animals and creatures she had seen were sick and dying from such a prolonged exposure. Nevertheless it seemed that those who hid, waiting for the darkness to pass before making a move were the wiser; it was like the coil of night and the heat of Dawn. One could only wait for it to leave.
Brawn had fluttered over the high esteemed camps first, hearing the shouts and sobs of joy underneath the beat of her wings. The Arch General’s camp had been her home for far too long, as it was the nature of a Falcon to embrace freedom at least one flight a day. Men coated in smell and shouts were far from reassuring, large bannered strips of cloth fluttering in the sky; providing themselves as obstacles were more of an annoyance. The mind of a Falcon remembered little from the emotions or actions of her environment during the Shroud, it was a confusing and restless moment in her life; one associated with darkness and blood based tension. Her master had hardly seen her, leaving her to float around the somehow protected camps aimlessly. Some of the militia archers had even taken shots at her, anything to pass the time and fight back the evading boredom.
Luckily their aim was as bad as their breath, segments of slung shot rock barely offering accuracy for such a faithless armada. Brawn had dodged far worse, the bolts of wood and chunks of metal were nothing against the thunder of a Dusk storm. That was the first challenge she had managed to overcome, the blistering weight of rainclouds and gusts of Myria’s breath buffeting her wingspan from all sides. Such was the challenge of traversing water, where storms and thunder were almost as harmful as those Leviathan that lay underneath the churning white waves. The only light leading her way, or even offering a hand for her efforts was the eye of Myria herself. The blinking golden sun lay high above the falcon; gleaming through the thick clouds of darkness and floating deep underneath the waves as well.
Such a presence of light, the thick stream of gold that hadn’t been seen in a year was received with enthusiasm. Animals and men had roared out together in happiness, watching the fields finally start to grow and the forests to sing out as one. As Brawn had flown over them all, weighted down by the numerous letters on her leg yet strengthened by her freedom; she had witnessed a great many beasts coming out of hiding to embrace the sun’s kind touch. Even a beast from the deep had come up to embrace the golden tendrils, its thick scaly hide erupting out of the waves with a ferocious explosion. It had roared a ferocious yet victorious growl, its green trimmed tooth flashing in the sky whilst the rest of its neck uncoiled and slowly sunk back into the deep. A Leviathan was hardly seen above the waves, even Brawn felt a terrifying hint of fear as she witnessed the beast’s crimson jaws and thrashing limbs; and she feared nothing.
After flying back to the capital of the Five Isles, a large jutted landscape that indoctrinated stone and wood in heaps of metal and lumber; Brawn had finally managed to witness her homeland. It was a calm terrain, scarred deeply by the cruel effects of the Shroud; yet hints of regrowth coated its shallow edges. Men and women could be seen from the deep blue of the sky, scuttling the cities edges and spreading far; suddenly released from their prisons. The largest segment of rock and people was called the Capital; the Offering of Myria and the city of the stars. It was an impressive feat of strength, unity and power that combed the edges of a mountainous region; ending in three impressive spits of land that turned appropriately into docks, farms and fishing villages. Yet for the Falcon it was nothing but stone, filed with the messy loud individuals that she was taught to avoid. Gas polluted the sky in large droves of dark smoke, all lining up from the various straw filled huts of outside farms and the stone segmented houses of those inside the cities impressive trio of high arced walls.
This land was healing, yet it was not her destination. The capital of Myria was merely along the way, a hindrance or a thorn in the Falcon’s side. Brawn flew on, avoiding the thick pits of smoke that rose and attempted to draw her in. Many fliers would hesitate at such opportunities, flying in closer to investigate the strange musk of the dark billowing clouds; yet Brawn was not of one of that foolish Ilk. She was a household falcon, a messenger bird only bested by one other.
Brawn had flown for a day and a night, soaring through the warm currents with less and less energy imbed in her feathery hide. It was by the cold touch of moonlight that she laid her fatigued eyes on the land of her birth; the southern isle. It was a softer land, one dominated by the cold drifts of snow and ice as an appeasement alongside the spiny backbone of pine forest and those that lived inside.
The League of Stade lived in these thick vats of snow and forest, existing of the tip of a rather feral mountainous range often harassed and overrun by those clans and hunters of various tribes and ilk’s; those who lived in the woods. Only the toughest forms of beasts and wildlife would find any sort of life in the neck of the white glades; a sharpened point of land stapled with the aggressive expansion of toughened vegetation. Many knew the southern isle as that of the ‘Glade’, a harsh yet rewarding atmosphere that indoctrinated compassionate yet powerful men and women. Its chief village or town was known as the City of the Moon; although it seldom appeared to hold functioning walls to protect its occupants. Years of raids, assault and harsh storms from the merciless sea had weathered the city down to its bones. Yet the warriors, farmers and citizens inside had held hope, fighting back the shrouding darkness and all filth that spewed forth out of it. They had given the city a name as well; one that many had agreed was an appropriate title ‘Port South.’
As Brawn flew over the shrieking steamy mess his sensitive hearing drew to the sound of villagers weeping to the sky; gladdened by the sight of the sun and the falcon illuminating through. It was a sight to behold, one that caused men to weep like children and beat the floor in happiness; the soft shadow of wing against cloud. She took no heed to the distracting nonsense as another shriek had filled the air, one that caused fear and adrenaline to pump itself straight through her body.
From the deep white depths of the Glade’s forests, a large brown shrieking ball of fury and wrath unwrapped its wings and shook upwards; its gilded jaws creaking open. Brawn immediately changed direction, turning her wings to the side so sharply that they almost snapped of the tendons before fluttering as far as she could from the assailant. Whatever noises that the newcomer had made immediately ceased, as was the hunting fashion of any barbed eagle. They were large birds of prey, wrapped in cloaks of spiny feathers and beaks that could snap bones; but worse still was the talons of such a beast. Once latched, the barbs of the heel would sink into flesh and never unattach itself unless ripped out. A new bone would replace the lost within a week, yet to have ones flesh penetrated by such a tool meant death; as its barb would only sink in deeper and deeper without means of escaping. The Barbed Eagle was the terror of the skies, bested only by one other of a far more dangerous ilk; yet now it seemed as powerful as the wrath of the Leviathan.
It cut through the skies ferociously, its red tinted feathers slicing the blue atmosphere as though the creature itself defied gravity and time. No noise escaped its cruel beak, a tool that would often be sharpened on rocks whenever the opportunity arose; yet every second of silence was torment for the Falcon. Brawn didn’t risk glancing to her side, only beating her wings as hard as they could against the surprisingly strong buffets of wind. Rain was starting to fall around them, impacting lightly against her brown feathers; hardly a concern in such a situation. It was a thick liquid, one sloshing with the presence of icicles; sharply bouncing of her wings and winding her chest. The letters tied to her leg were sagging down, hit and weighed by the sudden presence of water; slowing her already fatigued speed.
It was only when she heard the snap of a beak did she realize the chase was over, no doubt the eagle had harnessed its jaws close and tucked its barbs somewhere vital. Yet as she waited for the pain to come, a deliverance that seemed far too slow; she heard another crack. It was the sudden illumination of lightning that danced along the sky; blinding both birds as it cracked violently. Brawn immediately felt her eyes closing as the shards of light blinded her, doubtfully doing the same to the hunter shrieking behind her. The falcon flew on nonetheless, beating back the storm as she sought out her target; a small wooden beam house that lay in the small fishing village right near the east of the Glade. It was only once she flew over the singular white tipped mountain, past the spikes of forest and across the snow-capped plains that she dared to look back; confirming that the Barbed Eagle had abandoned her. Luckily the hunter was not as determined to fight back a storm just for the chance of a catch; no doubt its mind merely sought any excuse to spread its wings after confinement for a year. Yet Brawn flew as if the beast was breathing straight down her wings, still running on pure adrenaline alone until finally the farm came into view.
It was a small installation, split from the rest of the world by a barely standing wooden fence. One Watermill slowly spun along the current of white tipped liquid; surrounded by the natural froth of the sea. Small stacks of wood and hay helped carpet a collection of buildings, each offering enough room for any family to comfortably sit by. Brawn knew which was his, the large hut at the side of the snow flaked forest; that was the house of his masters wife. Siephra had moved back to her girlhood home as soon as her husband had been sent off in retribution by order of the Arch King; life in Port South had never suited her much anyway. After taking her three children back with her to the humble village, she found that the life forgotten had come back to haunt her still; as the workers themselves had named the town General’s Wife. It had been in honour of Arch General Leviticus himself, a man that saw past the royalties and wealth of those in Myria’s Keep and saw fit to marry a lowborn in the fishing village of the Glade. To those who lived in such a town, it breathed promise and prosperity; more than enough reasoning as to why they would name the village over such an action. As soon as Siephra had returned home, a feast had welcomed her back; one acquainted by the cruel presence of questions cutting at her every second she attempted to enjoy herself. They asked over her husband, her children and herself; yet the biggest inquiry was over why she would leave the city of the Moon and abandon the seat he resided within such a fort. Leviticus was a wealthy man, and had made sure to enrich his wife; she was not without friends or power in the large city. Yet she had come home, driven by neither homesickness nor the will to calm her life by the touch of the sea and smell of the pine. The questions would have to wait however, as not soon after; the cruel Shroud had appeared and Siephra had concluded herself within the dormancy of her house with only her children to comfort her. There she laid to this day, a woman broken and splintered even as the sun arose over the land of men. Farmers, villagers, loggers and smiths all shouted out in one voice as they saw the glimmer of the sky; yet she had remained silent. As families had hugged each other close, wept tears of joy and celebrated their love for the god they served and the land they lived; Siephra had remained silent. Without her children to hold or love, the reason to cry or the will to celebrate; she would do nothing.
And as she read the letter from her husband, a man she had settled on dead or gone. Tears slowly coiled down from her face, but they were far from the liquid of happiness. She wept openly, falling to her knees and throwing the letter as far as she could. Blood clotted the soles of her feet, wine spilled from her lips and tears ran from her dead drained cheeks. They spoke no joy or sadness; they were the results of fear. Everything she had done, or more failed to do was coming close up to her; and as soon as her husband returned he would kill her for it.
Of this she had no doubt.
It was a shrill call, one that a bird or any creature of the forest was capable of producing. It rang high, penetrating the restless sleeps of many great beasts of the eastern land. They arose to the roars of triumph and wonder, feeling the cool warmth of the sun bearing down on them once again; breaking through the skies and delivering a message of redemption. Cries of joy and happiness were common within the fields of men that day, where warriors and beasts alike would bask in the sun and live life in luck.
Arch General Leviticus stood high above them all, watching the golden gaze of Myria staring down on him. His armoured sleeve rested calmly against the crippled rock outline of a window, one of the many inlets that surrounded this singular fort. His gaze ran over the legions of his men, a large host clinging onto the three towers known as the Stonecheck. There used to be four of the thrusts, yet one had collapsed during the siege; a battle that marked the first blood spilt of their campaign. It was a crumbling fort, one that used to host a tribe of his enemy; yet now had served as their settlement for nigh a year on end.
It had protected and sustained them for such a duration where only darkness had revealed its grim blanket. Food stores and a field of wheat were barely enough to host a swarm of fourteen thousand legionaries and their steeds. The horses demanded more and more with every bite of grain given, eventually their greed would become their downfall as the men started to crave meat; taking the hounds before stripping away their own rides. Leviticus had made the call, one he would surely make again; even sacrificing his own purebred silver steed for the good of his men. It was all they could do, and the lands of the Far Isle were thickly populated with such beasts nonetheless. Siege engines, shields and any wooden resources left over were used in the fires built, thin cuts of light and warmth that managed to beat back the darkness surrounding the fort and growing in the hearts of his men. The united armada of the Stars did live on, sacrificing and taking what they could to survive before drastic measures overcame their sense of dignity and loyalty. First they had eaten the prisoners, men and women taken from the legions of the Braided Men during the capturing of Stonecheck. It was another order that the General had to make, knowing that such cannibalism would eventually pay them back with their own survival. Then came the rogue faction, a united squad of archers and pikemen that saw fit to take what meat they wanted for the good of their own members. By stealing and killing members of their own armada, the unit that called themselves the ‘Hidden’ gained unfortunate notoriety inside the thin walls of the Stonecheck. It was that infamy that brought them to their knees, as soon as Leviticus had taken word of such criminals he had campaigned to bring them to justice.
By burning their bodies, leaving nothing for the cannibalism of his men to start yet again; the Arch General hoped to the god above that their torment would end. With no contact to the outside world, no faith or members of the upper class to lead them; Leviticus was lost for what to do in hopes to maintain order. Eventually the conclusion was made; a temporary council would be formed to navigate five crucial elements of his efforts to come. The Decade was a legendary formation of ten men inside the unity of the city of Myria, its reasoning and comfort had no way of contacting their armies. Yet as the eldest of their captains were called, Arch General Leviticus had made the call to form a new council at his side; one that would retain order and discipline within his courts. The crucial responsibilities of Spear, Horse, Ships, Faiths and the Horn were planted on his closest captains; authorizing all members of his council under the new title of Myiaster and all power that would follow.
With the temporary unity formed, the reign of Arch General Leviticus continued without the pampered efforts of the ‘Hidden’ or creatures of the shroud to assault them. Peace and Order resided alongside the walls of Stonecheck yet again, assisted by the governing rule of all six mighty men.
Leviticus took a breath in shortly, even the air of Dusk was a blessing sought. Without the darkness to corrode every draught of air and drink of water, freedom started to sow itself within the intake of men. He looked over the lands that were finally revealed to them all, surprised that the ecosystem of the Far Isle hadn’t been corrupted by such a deliverance of darkness; they almost seemed to thrive now that their judgement had passed. A flock of darkly spotted deer could be seen from his viewpoint, their location already noticed by many hunters; men that were suddenly freed and desired the food that tasted not of filth, disease or the flesh of their brothers. The Arch General watched them weave through the thick entanglement of the woods, eager to see if their bloats and arrows would strike true and bring meat back for the rest of them.
“My lord? They’re ready for you” A voice interrupted his gaze, one filled with the rasp of a man that had climbed up the thick chasm of stairs. It was the calm yet sharp voice of his assistant, an able warrior and butler that served as many things; steward, warden, guard and squire. A young lad born amidst the Urich of a darkened nail; the first signs of a warrior, Mello was a compassionate and eager learner with an appetite for knowledge and experience. Yet he never seemed to lack his own basic input, always going above his assigned rank to assist and comment in matters that concerned him not.
“We’ve all seen it before, yet now. Yet now it’s different” Leviticus turned his gaze back to the fields ahead, sharpening his vision to monitor the hunting ahead. He heard the soft sweep of bloats flinging across the sharp air, released by a strap of cloth used for long ranged combat. They served as easily accessible ammunition, merely the sharpening of a rock would do. Many warriors dismissed it as primitive, yet its capabilities to crack a bone open was unmatched by nothing but a warhammer alone. His many legions of divisoned archers had taken the sling as their weapon, adapting its use to hunt down beasts and man alike. It was light and even easy to hide and as the General watched his men fell the spotted deer amidst a crack of stone and roar of triumph; he also saw the benefit of such a sidearm.
“Many have said it, Myria won’t curse me for yet another” Mello stood up by his side, confidently laying his bare skin against the crumbling stone, “We only glean for that we do not have, and only now do we have it again”
“It’s what many wanted” The General spoke up, softly realising the cruel irony of it all, “We begged the gods for any chance to quell the hazards of dawn, to sow the judgement of both eyes. And Myria complied, shutting both eyes to us and allowing darkness to crawl in where her gaze used to be. We asked for this.”
“Now we all have another season to hate, the dreaded might of the Shroud itself” He was right, as much as they had begged for such an opportunity; it was as cruel as the opened gaze of the gods themselves. It had offered them nothing but misery, seclusion and terror; at least Dawn killed them slowly. Many warriors of their legion had claimed the shroud was a message from Myria herself; one that warned them of what happened when they demanded change.
“Far from a season, more of a punishment”” Leviticus whistled sharply, tucking in the corners of his chest plate as he turned back to his room. It was a temporary sitting for someone in his position, one that offered the thin mattress of a bed without company and a fireplace without wood. Three bed keepers had followed the legion of the Star across the deep chasm; eager to manipulate and seduce the thousands of soldiers enough for food and wealth. When the shroud fell, the army fell on the whores like animals; taking what they could when they could until all three women were raped and even killed. They had been offered to Myria as a sacrifice, eaten for the filth they were and abandoned to flee through the darkness; never to rise again. The Arch General was a married man, yet he missed the touch of a woman and would have taken one of the bed warmers without hesitation. One year without his family had affected his mind, making him lust for the fuel of fresh fruits, the breeze of calm water and the touch of any woman that would have him. It was a trait he was far from proud of, he was only glad that there were no temptations for him to sever his uniting ties with.
“Or a curse” Mellow brought him back to reality sharply, adding his own opinion on the topic long lost past. As the general looked at his squire shortly, he began to realise just how scrawny and weak the meal deprived advisor had become; a predicament he hoped would change soon enough.
“It matters not, you were sent for more than just conversation” Leviticus knew that his underling would not draw his attention merely for the company; he had a task to do and a message to receive with confirmation, “Where are they?”
“The Unity awaits your door sir” Mellow bowed shortly, walking straight to the barely standing frame of wood with one bone shown hand on the material. It was a crude construction, one that required more of a tug then any interior mechanism to open, “Shall I?”
“Of course” The General stood tall, branching his arms crudely around the small of his armoured back as he watched his council walk in. They were tough men, weathered and beaten by the darkness and waiting; yet they held a certain resolve and truth that many politicians and priests would miss. Most importantly, they were warriors; they knew what it was like to fight and lose men on the battlefield. Men like that would offer more counsel then any student in learning, books could only offer so much. The Myiaster’s that stood in his door frame were armed and armoured heavily enough; many wore hopeful faces yet some continued their stern grimace. He of the Spears wore the cruellest grimace of them all, a stare that none other could even compare too. His Urich symbolised an entire hand coated in black fingernails; the symbol for a battle heartened veteran prepared for more.
“Please” The General felt that in times such as these, generosity and calm courtesy was the least he could do for these men. He gestured to his side, already regretting that no chair or table was there to accommodate these councillors, “We have plans to discuss no doubt, and the hours of sunlight could easily slip us by for every second wasted.”
“Indeed” The Myiaster of Ships spoke up shrewdly, already placing her blade against the corner of the door to stop it swinging back and cracking against their backs. She was a tough legionary, a captain of many and a veteran of naval combat; without an actual fleet to command. The armada of the Stars lacked any ships, as all vessels of transport and combat had been taken to the north; alongside the fleet and army of the Moon, “The Shroud had fallen, you have an army to lead and a campaign to finish.”
“The campaign is finished” The Myiaster of Faith immediately interrupted, a religious man that would spend his nights watching the stars and reading the omens. An entire year without the sky above had changed his mind, changing him from a holy man to more of a violent barbarian. There were rumours that he was the mind behind the ‘Hidden’, rumours that had never led to anything but daggers in the night. He growled to the general sharply, leaning on his mighty shoulder plates, “The Shroud has broken your army, maybe not physically but with a spiritual sense.”
“I never trusted ones spirit to heave shield and march on an order, these men are ready for what is to come; perhaps your stars cannot tell you that” Spears growled from the back of the group, already folding his heavily armoured limbs together. Most warriors held a set of plate over chain and leather, this brute wore a whole set of iron plating around his body. It was almost of the same calibre as that which the Fated would wear, yet his strength could never match those beasts. He of the faith knew better than to speak up against such an influential leader, a man that held the army they all spoke off within the palm of his gloved hand.
“He speaks true, your men have waited for a fight ever since that blasted darkness fell” She of the ships spoke up. She also spoke the truth, pits of wrestling and armed training had set station for days on end; far from tournaments yet still physical matches for warriors to test their skills and keep their sword arm fresh. The men had taken to this addition well, yet they craved for the blood of the braided men; it was the only reason they had come to the far isle in the first place. The Myiaster continued, taking the silence as her own opportunity, “But as enthusiastic as our men are, they are still daunted and weak; we will need the might of all three legions to settle this score. Only then will we be able to challenge the might of the Arthmire itself”
“Many tribes lay in our way, forts and villages that would not only halt our progress but would even endanger it” The Arch General growled shortly, clicking his fingers together and pointing to the thick parchment roll to their side; it was a map of the Far isle. They stared down at the cloth together, noticing the three blotched points that marked the legions of Star, Moon and Sun together across the western coastline. The legion of the Star laid closest inland and surrounded by the thick forest glade of this strange world, to the north rested the fleet of the Moon and the south alongside the narrow pass of rock and smoke; the legion of the Sun. All three triad units had lost contact with each other as soon as the darkness had fallen, if they had even survived at all then logic dictated they would want to go home.
But to the mind of Leviticus, such an action was treason; as their campaign on the shores of their enemy was not yet complete. His finger trailed from their crimson banners, across the steamy line until it went as far inland as the map understood; finishing on the dark black dot that marked the enemy hive. All other land had been uncharted, unknown to the horned men of the west; leaving only the approximate quarter of the far isle as an understood landscape.
“I second caution” The Myiaster of Horses spoke up, his role already belittled by the lack of steeds they maintained. Hounds, steeds and the beasts of the land were supposed to be his domain; categories that had only started to blossom into view, “You’re men are tired from the Shroud, they need time to recover and gain their strength. Hunting and gathering from the outside will do them some good, as will honing their skills and marking them back up to battle.”
The members of his unity seemed to nod alongside the judgment, agreeing silently. Leviticus had come to that conclusion a long time ago, yet it was surprisingly revealing to hear that another had proposed it, “Agreed, we wait a few days for recuperation and then we march east.” He turned his vision to his man of the faiths, “Look to the stars at night, try and discover the reasoning to such a cruel punishment; try to see if it will ever come again.” He turned to the man of horses, “Send parties to the fields and plains to the north, find steeds and creatures to hunt and master; we’ll need anything and everything Myria has to offer.” Turning to the Myiaster of the Horn, a councillor that had remained silent and distant for a while despite his actual role, “Send out the falcons, the crows and the sparrows; we have blinded for far too long and need to know of the world around us. Our priority goes to the Arch King himself, then to the other legions wherever they may have travelled off too.”
“Yes General” They nodded crudely, taking no effort or wasted time to bow. They left without another word, leaving the Myiaster of Spears and Ships alone. Leviticus nodded to the female slowly, allowing her also to leave though the creaking door; removing her blade and sharply fastening it over her left shoulder plate. She gave him a curt nod, fastening her belt around her belly; allowing several blades to glint in the sudden daylight. The Myiaster had grown accustom to carrying as many weapons as she could, as one of the few women permitted to fight and travel with such a large horde of desperate men; she had learned to stab first and leave a bloody reputation behind for others to gag on. Five gelded men had been the sign for others to back away, one that they did with fear in their hearts. She was no bed warmer or whore for sale, she was a captain of men and recently promoted Myiaster of the Ships; and the longer his men remembered that, the more dangerous she became.
Leviticus had considered tempting the women many times, finding her allure more than enough to break free of his own bonds. Yet he knew that business was business, and the fear of gelding such a woman would easily allow her the upper hand over transactions concerning their armada’s movement; it wasn’t his right to choose favourites based on lust alone. She was the only woman on his council, and that the other captains knew better then to question her strength or sexuality; such questions never ended well.
“General, you know the men are begging for a fight” The Myiaster of Spears nodded curtly, not allowing one blemish to ruin his hard as iron stature, “Ever since the siege of Fort North in the land of the Hearth, blood has been a desire; braided blood more then all”
“How many braided men governed these walls” Leviticus felt it important to ask, he could already feel their bones under the balls of his armoured feet. Perhaps a number would give his mind some ease, “Before we took it from them I mean.”
Otto’s memory was impeccable, there was little that would slip past his mind, “Over five hundred held against our attack”
“And how many were armed?” The General lowered his gaze sharply, his anger already rising. Blood was blood, and if the Myiaster requested it out of lust or loyalty it did not matter. Leviticus could hear the other man stuttering, so he took no time out and completed the question for him; the man was a loyal warrior yet little else, “Less than even two hundred of these braided were even capable men, less than one hundred wielded a blade. Yet none stand alive now.”
“We took prisoners…”
“We ate prisoners!” Leviticus roared outloud, slamming his glove down onto the map; straight over the blodge that marked their encampments, “And we almost ate each other! And now you want me to go marching to war without recovering from such a nightmare! How long before we fall back into madness, how long before they demand more then what they have! Would you really want to risk that?”
“No of course not” Spears held his head out high, his thickly woven neck still pulsating madly from the outburst of rage. He revealed no fear, and his hands didn’t lower to his weapon; yet it was evident that his resolve had faltered.
“Exactly, so get your men what they needed. Supplies, healing, cures, food, whores I couldn’t care less” The General snapped cruelly, rolling the map up into a tight bundle before throwing it back into the corner of the shaded room, “I won’t have my men march until they’re ready to sprint, until their ready to spill the blood of innocents all in the name of their king.”
“Very well my General, will that be all?” The Myiaster of Spears knew when it was time to navigate himself away; before the wrath of that man continued on.
“No, the legions of my army may be tired and weak but the Fated won’t be” Leviticus hated how far the world would go to disprove him, giving him any small excuse or reason to promote any previous statements as false, “I need you to prepare them for battle yet again, with the closure of the Shroud around us; I fear that the Braided men may attack.”
“It will be done, but do you think that those primitives even survived a year?”
“I don’t know what to believe Otto; many say that the braided men were those who brought the shroud to us. There are those who speak of the curse that we brought our self, by trespassing on such unknown lands” Leviticus sighed openly, removing the top of his steel rimmed helm. It was an impressive work of craftsmanship, one that used pure steel and the feathers of a barbed eagle to signify ranking. Yet it only worked as well as the mind inside the helm, one that was far too weary and cautioned with the many opinions of others that clouded every decision, “What would you have me believe?”
That an enemy stands before us, weakened and crumbling no doubt, Otto said nothing, merely nodding in place and removing himself from the general’s presence. His trust in the commander was paramount, and he knew that Leviticus would do the right thing eventually.
The Arch General heard his final council member leave, no doubt fuming in rage over the decisions made. He called for his squire sharply, already noticing that the fires outside his fort had started to burn yet again; notifying the presence of cooked meat. Shouts of triumph and victory no doubt circled the hunters victorious; leather bound warriors carrying in meat for them all. More would have to be sent, yet for now it would serve. With his underling’s assistance, the General found planting his overall plate and cloak was no difficult matter. The sun arose high above them all as he stepped out from the crumbling fort of Stonecheck; his crimson cloak sagging down to the rise of his boot. His presence was quickly noticed by his men, tired, beaten and weathered soldiers that still retained the courtesy to raise a fist and shout out his name. They hailed him sharply before turning back to their meals; eating what they could when they could. Leviticus acknowledged them shortly before sledging his boots across the encampments silently. Shouts of metal clashing against metal hit at him every time he witnessed a sparring arena or that of a smith, tents lay dormant in the wind; their masters suddenly eager for the future ahead. One of the ruined buildings of Stonecheck had been transformed into a pub, where soldiers would drink what they had saved for this specific moment; when the Shroud would finally grant them freedom. The pub’s ceiling had collapsed a long time ago, allowing the golden glow of the star above to settle on their pudgy faces. Leviticus considered finding himself inside one day, yet today he had errands to run and an armada to monitor. He found one archer seated over a stump of wood, biting at his nails as he stared lustfully at the meal cooking. His slung rocks ran red with the blood of the deer, yet he had been excluded from the feast by members of the Rusted Spear; and elite faction of knights that would lead the vanguard and take whatever appeased them.
“Hungry?” Leviticus spoke up, stopping in his tracks to acknowledge the weary archer. The slinger wore half torn leather over his body, blotted in red marks; he didn’t bother to acknowledge the speaker without a spit.
“I’ve had my share” He dribbled through the cracks in his fingernails, with another spit he managed to loosen one and throw it against the floor.
“Then what idles you archer? Is it loneliness that makes you stout like a pig?”
At this the slinger paused, his eyes burrowing in furiously. Closing his palm he growled at the stranger, lifting his vision and his body with a slow grumble, “You’re testing me”
Leviticus stood his ground, allowing the thick golden trimmed plate over his chest and the robe on his back merely serve as the reminder. It did the trick easily enough, forcing the impudent warrior to immediately fall to his knees and bow his head.
“Apologies General, I didn’t know it was you”” The Archer spoke in mutters, falling to the ground once again in deep regret. It was only then Leviticus could see the boy’s face, the blemish that coated him. The underside of his cheek blotted with crimson liquid, a liquid un-bandaged and growing slowly.
“No harm done” Drawing his attention to the thickly riddled and hanging corpse in front of them wasn’t difficult, its size and mass was enough to draw many eyes. Its thick brown coat and red lit tusks marked it as a different species to most; a Tattooed Boar, “An impressive catch; one you share well with the rest of your ilk”
The slinger was bad at receiving such praise, merely lowering his head in shame as he picked up on what he was supposed to do. He seemed to doubt himself far too often, illuminating the traits of an unhealthy mind, “I’m sorry General, I knew we should have brought the hides straight up to you; I only thought…”
“No, you did well” Leviticus had eaten surprisingly well during the famine of the shroud’s reign, with the privilege of such a high rank governing him priority. He couldn’t bear taking food away from those who needed it most. His armada needed to be healthy and strong, he only needed to appear that way, “But pray tell, was it the boar that happened to your face? I never knew the spotted dear to be such a violent species.”
A few other warriors chuckled from their own seats, japes that the slinger confidently ignored. He held his face high, allowing the dim sunlight to capture the thick cut alongside his cheek. It was a jagged inclination of flesh and blood, muddled together to hideously deface what remained of this boy’s handsome face. It far from a clean wound either, segments of flesh seemed to have been torn out and a green hue had already taken route around the boy’s neck, “It was the pig sir, a tusked beast that refused to go down with slings alone.”
“You still managed to best such a beast?” Such creatures were usually hunted by the most courageous of warriors; those who sought glory and blood more than the flesh of their foe, “How many where you?”
“Intriguing, yet rash” The General continued, “How did you manage such a kill? The Iron boar is a legendary hunt, tempted only by the mightiest of hunters.”
“Rocks only even seemed to anger it” The archer admitted honestly, holstering the thin leather strap that served as his sling, “But a blade through the heart was more than enough. By that time, the bastard had thrown be around far enough for my ribs to ache.”
An impressive feat “You revealed courage this day archer, but I fear it was more recklessness then strength” The General sighed, knowing it would be wiser to draw the good out of such a deed. For a boy to hunt such a monster was worth a tale and a flagon of abuse, not for the lad to sulk away in the corner. Leviticus sighed, wondering what sort of man he saw in front of him, “Tell me, what is your Urich?”
“Never born with one sir” He took it in himself to breath in before continuing, keeping his words low enough for the others to pass by, “I’m an unmarked sir”
“That means one thing boy” Leviticus didn’t speak in a cruel term, many with such information would easily have taken a stab at the archer; yet the General knew that the archer had trusted him with such a conversation for a reason. It was treason to neglect any questions planted by such a highly ranked individual, but the knowledge given was far too sensitive to speak lightly.
“Myria didn’t choose me” He spoke as if he was ashamed.
“No she didn’t, which means that you can choose you” Despite himself, he felt a slow guilt as he spoke to the disadvantaged fighter. To be born unmarked, without the Urich to templet and reveal one’s future; you were destined to shape your own fate. That was a kinder way of saying that those born without the mark were far from remarkable individuals, they were the scrutiny of the earth and were hardly missed. It was a sign of cowardice, weakness and even shame on ones family to foster an unmarked child into a world dominated by those splattered with the tattoos of the gods. Yet the general still managed to find the light in such a predicament, at least he had no ultimatum goal he was forced to continue, “No realm or god holds hand over you now but your general; remember that”
“Yes General, I will” The slinger didn’t speak as if he was impressed or even interested, no doubt he had heard the similar speech before.
“Clean that wound, report back to your unit” Leviticus moved on, clasping the soured archer across the shoulder as he walked forwards through the sludge. Some had reserved hatred and envy even now, when the sun rose high and illuminated their gasping faces; some were cursed to live out with nothing but rage. The general himself couldn’t find it in himself to celebrate, to smile or even acknowledge the blessing given. His mind rolled over and over again with the same headline, his next move as a leader of three armada’s. Of course he would have to be patient, no victory came easily to those who didn’t watch the skies and maintain his soldiers; but waiting an entire year without end had done its toll. His forces around him were eager for a fight, he could tell in the way they spoke and walked; they were eager to spill the blood of the braided peoples.
Leviticus carried on, walking past to the large concentration of training pits with anticipation. They had been situated outside the thick stone walls themselves, leaving only a set of dirt tracks for the general to walk over. Two guards trailed his movement, a necessary annoyance that he would have to live with. As he walked over the surprisingly blooming grass, he felt a sudden desire to run his toes along the soft sea of green. He even considered it, to rip of his boots and just let his sweaty soles slowly sink into the vegetation below. But the sharp clang of blade on blade brought him from the lust, bringing him back to the thick wooden encampment that lay next to the fort itself. Members of the Fated sought solitude during times such as these, builders would have to caper to their needs and create whatever they could. The warriors themselves would never move a limb to assist with the construction, in truth they found the concept alien and wrong; as many were physically unfit to grasp onto anything but a blade. The sound of metal cracking down had been one to explore a great many times when the soldiers of his army trained. Yet now the Fated would train yet again, strengthening their limbs and preparing themselves for anything ahead.
“Strike him hard!” He could hear one of the audience members shout out from the dim of the pit, an excited soldier witnessing two warriors of colossus crack against one another.
The Arch General walked through the thick wooden beams, listening to the sound of men shouting out in cheers and cries of admiration. Commentators no doubt, he knew that the warriors of fate would make no noise during combat; apart from perhaps the shriek of metal and growl of a beast they all remained deadly quiet. The capability to speak was not something taken from them, yet they as many warriors around them; felt as if actions spoke more than any phrase.
Leviticus stole a good position above the pit, pushing aside three cheering warriors so he could take a glance to the battle below. The gaze of the sun was soft, allowing mist to fall; yet the two metal clad behemoths swayed through the grey winds as if they were mountains fighting against a mere drizzle. Rusted iron plating creaked in the wind, only audible whilst the crowd of energy driven watchers paused their screams and held their breaths in. The dull thud of blade striking against armour was barely recognisable, yet when the sabre of the first Fated would strike against the imbued axe of the second; the crowd would scream and roar as one.
“Beautiful isn’t it?” A voice cut to him sharply, one that he knew yet couldn’t particularly pinpoint to a particular member of the audience. Finally the grim face of Otto came into view, the Myiaster of Spears that stood amongst his men; standing grimly above them all as he watched his warriors hack at each other. He was a stubborn man, and Leviticus found it surprisingly that he would find anything beautiful at all. Supposedly one thing could sway this man more than the touch of any woman, the roars and spit of the battle itself; a life and role he had accepted and fashioned his future around.
“They seem ready” The general responded honestly, witnessing the crack of the first warrior heaving his axe straight across the other’s chest. Cheers arose, yet were quickly dowsed as the second fated recovered swiftly and bounded forwards yet again. These men were prepared for more than guard duty, “A year has done little to quell their rage, or their skill I see”
“Ten would have done little else, these men are trained and bred for this” The Myiaster of Spears drew out his arms as if he was the father of them all, listening to the crunching shriek of their rusty armour moving ferociously. To many it was a sickening sound, to Otto it was music, “They are the Fated of Myria and that is all they will ever be”
Leviticus peered into the dark below him, hoping to catch a glimpse of the dreadnoughts of iron below, “Indeed, impressive display”
“You see nothing here” Otto shook his head earnestly, grasping hold of the arch general’s palm and leading him downwards through the thick mob, closer and closer to the bellows and screeches of beast and man united as one, “Come down with me General; let us speak to the Fated”
Leviticus tore his arm free of the Myiaster’s rather commanding grip, choosing to keep one hand on his own blade as he nodded, “Lead the way”
Otto did so, weaving through the steaming shouts and punches of the crowd slowly as they descended to the fight pit itself. The archer’s, knights and warriors that shouted and stamped their feet didn’t move aside or recognise their commanders; merely seeing them as hunks of metal and meat walking through the crowd. With such a large assemblage of blood hungry men distracted by one movement, ranks and chains of command mattered little; all that mattered was what the soldiers wanted. No currency that came with the armada was kept throughout the year of the shroud, as its copper value would do better to burn than anything else; leaving the warriors with nothing to bid. Instead they focused on creating as much noise as possible, pleading and roaring for their favoured warrior to win; almost forgetting that this was supposed to be a training pattern, it would not end with what they desired most. Leviticus knew little of men, little else of those affected by a year of darkness; yet he knew nothing swayed them as much as the touch of a woman, the glint of gold or the thick bath of blood. Alongside the stamping of sandals and boots, the screams, groans and warriors shoving each other for a better look; the sound was deafening. The general would have lifted his hands up to govern his ears if he didn’t focus on holding his weapon; he was far from trusting when it came to the men of Fate themselves.
Eventually the roar of the crowd started to muffle down as they traversed a thin set of wooden steps, only the cracks of battle made their way here. The shuffling of boots against sand, grunts of men and snaps of armour throwing itself forward. Whatever mist clouded the thick behemoths from view had passed now, leaving Leviticus to stare in shock, fear and a chilling blood thirsty admiration for such beasts.
Most newborn children were born with the mark of the Urich, a symbol darkened over the child’s body. These had been taken in as a symbol and message of the god above, Myria watching and shaping each individual’s future. Many born with the mark of a beast of any form would share qualities with such creatures, born with the symbol of an object or item would retain different traits depending on the object. A spear was often associated with a grand warrior; a helm offered the wisdom of leadership whilst perhaps a fist would offer the strength of a barbarian. Many Urich’s were taken in as good omens, positive reinforcement to any individual’s future; yet others were crueller and crueller still. It was still a heinous crime, yet Leviticus had heard the tragic tale of children murdered by their own parents due to the presence of a silver moon or that of a lying serpent.
But some individuals were born unique, with the symbol of the sun itself brazen across their chest or even their foreheads. Such children were born strong, requiring a mother to go through various months of strenuous labour before the gifted child would breathe in the open world. Their Urich’s were taken as a gift and symbol of the gods, they were fated for greatness; they were destined to become the warriors of Myria herself. And so they would train, taking what they could and gathering their strength throughout their lives; all until the day they became men. Their tattoo wouldn’t change over the years, and neither would their fate. They would become warriors, metal clad beasts that knew little of hammering a nail, gathering crops or speaking poems. Branded iron would coat their bodies, covering every scrap of vulnerability with the hardest crudest metal forged within the tempest mines of Hearth. The preferred weapon of each child would be taken as an oath, many wielded blades or axes; others used to unstoppable crushing power of the hammer or the mace to rip apart all those who stood in their way. At the coming of age, the Fated would journey to the tempest mines to the north; never again would they see their families or even return as a mere boy in training. They would become one with their fate, forging the thick brands of sharpened metal over their skin and encasing themselves deep within the armour itself. Their blood became oil seeping through gaps in their hide, their skin became hunks of metal and their eyes became slits in a darkened helm. Their hands became blades, forged swords and axes would be melted into the warriors palm; allowing no possibility for any member of the Fated to be anything but a warrior of Myria. No beast of war could become a farmer, a carpenter or a lover; not with the weapon of destruction welded into their right arm.
“Warriors!” The Myiaster of Spears roared out, his spittle traveling far; yet not as far as the deep sound of his voice. The thick shadows of metal and grunts stopped immediately, their will cut short as their commanders stepped down into the dirt; the pit itself. Otto didn’t seem to fear the beasts, he knew his voice acted on them in a way that any whip could not. The Fated didn’t feel pain, they hardly recognised fear and they understood little in morality; they had become weapons for the engine of war.
The huge segments of metal and flesh turned to face their commander, lowering the weapons carved into their hands yet not dropping them.
Never dropping them.
“Recognise Arch General Leviticus, Commander of the First legion and Royal Army. Leader of the Regiment of Stars and supervisor to the legion of the Sun and Fleet of the Moon.” Otto commanded to them at once, standing tall as he pointed to the armoured man that would have been seen as hiding behind the Myiaster. The general had every reason to be afraid, the raw crushing power and strength of these warriors could easily be seen. The Fated installed fear wherever they would walk, it wasn’t just their unnatural height or width that could be sensed from affair but also the stench they carried around with them. Warriors of this ilk were confined to life inside their armour, cleansing oneself was hardly an option; Leviticus could only guess what happened when one warrior of Fate was forced to defecate. They may have been clad machines of destruction, but there was a human body within those caskets of metal; a body that required nothing but sleep and food to function properly.
The warriors of Fate rarely spoke, they simply revealed no reason to open their mouths if not to hiss or bite at their enemies. Every tool and measure taken by these men would be in the interest of battle, otherwise they would never be taken at all. Instead these two behemoths of sharpened metal and brawn kneeled in their place; their armour still poking higher than the general did as he stood on his two legs.
“This one here is known as the Disciple of Myria” Even the Myiaster knew better then to touch such beasts, resorting to point to the larger of the two; he who wielded a large stunted battle-axe in his arms. The weapon wasn’t moulded down into the flesh, a unique choice the man himself had decided to ignore over the use of both arms. If Otto disapproved of the warriors lack of dedication, he did little to show it, “He held of an entire battalion of the scaled beings from the north, commanding a unit of minors that turned a risky victory into an easy one. He has earned his name.”
The other remained in silence, one arm outstretched against the floor whilst the other remained forever curved around his harsh metallic blade. He let his actions speak for him, or rather the lack of them, “This one has done little to earn a title, yet he is keen for the battles to come and the blood to spill for his land.”
Arch General Leviticus stood tall, watching both creatures of war kneel before him. Many saw beasts in that armour, many saw brave heroic champions of the land. Most were afraid of them, as the commander had personally witnessed. Yet he saw them in a very secluded light, he saw snatched children and stolen lives thrust into that armour; forced to wear out their lives in servitude of blood merely because the god above favoured them.
“Remove your helm” He spoke.
“General!” Otto immediately intervened, “The armour of the Fated are their lives, they are welded shut never to be opened but to Myria herself.”
“Indeed, yet the helmet is removable” Leviticus wouldn’t let this man bully him into dispatching his request, he would see what lay underneath that metal mesh of darkness and stench with one way or another.
The Fated with no name did so first, using his own free arm to grasp hold of the thick metal barrier that surrounded his skull. His armoured fingers squeezed together, confirming their hold before he finally pulled the entire menace off his face. He took no sighs of breathe, he received an able amount with his life inside the armour; he merely kneeled in silence.
“Return your helm” Leviticus would have hidden the gasp on his lips, if not for the sudden urge to scream. What he had seen was not natural, it would haunt his visions from that day on and even humble a god into submission.
They had received the letter through the night, a dark winged crow fluttering through the cowl of darkness; a worthy embrace of illusion. It had come as good news, for an animal to penetrate the blanket of night meant that the Shroud hadn’t returned on them; a fear soldiers had cursed the four rifts for. The crow had been affixed with a letter, an important scroll that carried the words of the commander of the Moon legion; the fleet that lay to their south.
A horn had been blown and the Unity had been called together once more, five members of extreme importance leaving behind the work and sweat of their fellow soldiers in order to answer the call of their Arch General. The legion of the Stars had been cutting through their weaknesses of storage in the night, laying waste of trees and taking whatever food they could from the sleeping creatures they found. Fires burned hot around the reach of the legion, warnings for the carnivorous elements of the forest to leave the soldiers in peace; they didn’t ask for unwanted bloodshed from the felines of these dark spiky woods. Men laboured away in peace, taking what they could from the environment around them; waiting for the morn and the march of war to come.
“General!” Otto, the Myiaster of Spears was the first to call out the title. He waited as the other members bowed, and for the man clad in his crimson cloak to speak. They had joined together in the third keep of Stonecheck, the tallest spire in the entire crumbling fort. This was where the birds would fly to, this was where the messages would be received by the Myiaster of Horns himself.
“Any news from the other capital?” Called out the commander of Ships, she and many of her kin had been awaiting news from the land of their birth; that they’re loved ones were safe and they could eventually come home.
But no such news had come, for as Leviticus held his head high he spoke sour words, “The City of Myria has remained silent from our pleas, I have sent letters to the other cities in hope for some form of hope” He turned to parchment in front of him, “Yet this one reads from the Legion of the Moon, General Turk himself has displayed an order to regroup at the crescent bay behind us.”
He expected them to be gladdened by the news, but perhaps they knew him far too well; they could tell by the frown and the crease in his face that he had no intention of marching backwards, “But I received word from the Legion of Sun as well, a command that will complicate our position to aid both armada’s.”
He revealed the second letter, monitoring the paper for any chance of deceit or hidden code. It was a simple enough parch of stripped and harvested wood; scrapings of ink dotted its temple in the formations of words. The royal seel of the Sun Forces lay at the base of such a sheet, a crimson splattered star doused in oil and matched to target any of those important enough to communicate with the armada of the Hearth legions. Those soldiers lay to the north of Leviticus’s own settlement at Stonecheck, their forces held down at the ruins of an old mine for protection against the shroud; yet now they had started to move.
The message was clear enough.
Arch General of the Star Armada’s, supervisor of the Sun and Moon and Patriarch of the Far isle.
I write at the break of sunlight at last, where the beasts and man can walk upon this earth and fear no prosecution. After receiving your letter, our legionaries have moved east alongside the ridgelines of lake at a steady pace contested only by the banshees above. Our target remains the same, our goal remains the same.
No contact has been heard from the Capital, which leaves me to wonder over the state of those back home. We can only wish that it was all worth it, and that Myria will smile on us at the time of the Dawn. We have encountered none of the Braided Men as of yet, luckily for the natives their closest settlement is guarded by the flux of a river and the heat of a jungle. I do not trust my men to traverse such land without loss of life, we will move forward.
Another town lies to the north, the steaming villages of the Third Ties will give us little trouble in return for their lives. My men urge for the sight of blood again, to fight back the storm of darkness that betrayed us for a year.
I ask you write back in haste, we will reach the town soon and crush all rebellion inside. Our progress goes forward unhindered, the Capital of these Braided men will soon be in our sights.
Myria preserve you.
Lady Hasmine the Sixth, general of the Sun Legions, daughter to the House of Hearth
“She won’t meet us at Bay?” The Myiaster of Horns spoke as if surprised. He had made it his own responsibility to never lay eyes on a message entitled only to his superior; it was treason to lay eyes on a crow that wasn’t sent specifically for him. He had received messages from both the Generals Turk and Hasmine, yet he had learned nothing from them himself.
“What town do they march too? That which is guarded by river and forest?” Otto inquired, he had never been such a man to memorise the layout of a map; especially a terrain map of their enemy themselves.
Queneth threw forth his own map, allowing it to curl over a large segment of cobblestone before he pointed to their location; and the town of their wanting. The Myiaster of Horses frowned, pointing down to the dark insignia upon the map table; the only town of such significance it would have to be invaded, “A small braided village to our east, one guarded heavily by the thick environment by all those coming from the north. I believe it is held by the clan of warriors known as the Devout of Haze, a formidable armada at least”
“They can’t reach it” The General concluded, pointing to the river that would cut the armada away from their goal, “And if they rush past without destroying it, the mercenaries of the braided men could easily hack at them from behind”
“So we take it” Otto nodded.
The Arch General agreed, it was the only option that presented itself, “It’ll be a day of marching, yet plains will give us more speed than our allies. We will fall upon this village and take it with minimal loss, covering the legions of the Sun and insuring our travel east unto their capital.”
“What of Turk?” Some part of this wasn’t right, and the leader of Horses was the first to notice what it was, “He awaits our answer”
“Mikeryla, Commander of the Ships” Leviticus knew the Myiaster would appreciate his decision, yet it was the wisest he could consider, “You seem wasted out here on solid land, I need you on the deck of a ship”
“You will journey west, you will meet up with the fleet of the Moon and you will join them. You will become part of their convoy, and my voice for Turk to follow” He knew the stubbornness of the sea-faring general better than most; it was better that he held a representative on board his own vessel, especially one with the strength and fortitude of the woman in front of them all. She had been brought up with men her entire life, she had forced herself to the level and beyond for less.
“Yes sir” The way she spoke it, Leviticus knew that she would have more to say to him later. It was the waver in her voice, the strain in her tone and the bite at the end of her sentence.
“Hasmine ignored your request for patience” The commander of Horns spoke as if insulted. He was correct of course, the commander of the Solar Legions had done little in the way of patience; choosing instead to bathe her enemies and her own warriors in blood. Hopefully the lust for violence wouldn’t blind her purpose and reasoning.
“Rushing the enemy doesn’t seem like the wisest strategy” She of the Ships spoke in disproval of the general’s aggressive decision, “Hasmine invites attack from the docile forces surrounding us, and even she cannot stand such an affront. If we lose the northern legionnaires then our campaign will surely they fall”
“What will they fall to?” The Myiaster of Horns narrowed his stubborn eyes, even his mystical eyes could see the weakness in his enemy. The legion of the Sun may have been rash, yet they faced a foe much weaker, “The Braided men are hardly an opposing force, even if they survived the Shroud; their numbers are smaller than ours, they wield lesser weapons and lesser tactics. They still believe in animals for gods, in Myria’s pity and gaze they still choose beasts over the goddess herself”
Otto stared at them all as if they had forgotten something important, their superiority over the easterners no doubt, “Villages hardly pose a threat, villagers even less”
“Do not underestimate them, you would be foolish to ever turn your back on a warrior of the Braided Men” The Myiaster of Faith growled openly, limiting his speech no longer, “They are remorseless, they hold animals in the place of the gods! They have turned from Myria, praising the fanged felines and the banshees of the sky. We all know what they’re capable off, we all know what they did to forts to the north”
“Indeed, we march tomorrow with the morn” The Arch General had made his decision, underestimating his foe was the last thought on his mind; he would use every precaution necessary to ensure his soldiers safety overall. He commanded the entire board of Unity easily, not with his voice but with the mead he poured into their glasses; it was simpler than having to shout.
“We do…” Otto had turned himself from the group; lowering his own portion of the drink as another warrior had been allocated entrance into the tower. It was strange that a warrior as plain as this Legionnaire would have been allowed passed the guards, yet his purpose was almost as important as the rank he carried with him. The Myiaster spoke first, addressing the young man with something close to a bellow, “Ultra?”
The archer wore his leather helm with pride, no doubt using the irony of its low rank to his own benefit. He could walk alongside many soldiers without notice, yet his influence over his legion of rangers was bested only by the Arch General himself; and sometimes not even then. Many knew him as the Ultra Legionnaire Archer commander; many simply called him Ultra as was his rank. Yet his name was Phillips, a common yet fair title originating from the central isle of their lands. He was a scrawny warrior, one given a simple temple Urich over his shoulder blade; the image and beckoning of a faith inducted lifestyle. Yet he held a hidden strength, one often forgotten and misplaced by warriors of a legion; versatility.
The Ultra Archer Commander spoke up after a swift nod of his head, walking straight up to the general’s league of Myiaster’s, “I apologise over the sudden alarm General, as well as congratulate Myria for the birth of dusk yet again; but I also bring matters of importance to your step, matters others seem to have left behind”
“Speak Ultra” Leviticus returned to his drink, intrigued by the boldness of such a boy of a man.
The Archer didn’t wait to be interrupted, he spoke quick and to the point, “Our Legion is going up against natives that throw javelins as if they were stones, we need to best them in the field of range. We need bows, we need hard oak – trees that bend at the will of an axe, yet fight back the storm of the elements. I can’t make weapons out of these strippets of wood, and my archers can’t use slings to match the fire power of a full thrown prod of war.”
“Sharpened sticks are hardly prods of war Ultra, perhaps your position requires a man more learned then you” The Myiaster of Spears had recruited this man before the Shroud had even fallen in order to govern the fluxing number of archers, he was already starting to regret such a decision. The problem lay with the Ultra’s proficiency at leading, he had even warriors amidst his pocket. He had won their loyalty through no feats of strength or wisdom, nothing but genuine care had given him such control.
“Wood or metal, spears will shatter armour, bone and arrogance alike” He spoke most of the words straight to the general himself; he offered the last one in spite and direct eye line of the commander of spears.
“Legionnaire” Leviticus had met the weathered boy on a small number of occasions, each had been at least somewhat interesting, “We have bows – many of your archers took with them their weapons”
“Burned during the shroud, we have barely enough arrows to pick our teeth with” Philips sighed loudly, remembering the condition of many men inside their armada of the star. He felt compelled to add, all in the sake of honesty, “Most of our teeth”
There were many ways to approach this, the General hoped to glance upon the way that would require less argument, “I could request bows sent from the capital, then your men could easily dispatch the braided men on the field of war”
“One bow isn’t the same as another, no two archers could ever use the same bow. Just as no two bows could be used by the same archer. A bow isn’t a sword for any man with strength to swing around, it isn’t a sling for any man to twirl and fling. It is an extension of one’s eye, one’s arm and ones stature. If the bow line isn’t perfectly acquainted with the archer, then it is useless and even deadly to its own user. If the reach of a bow is too far, the arrow will miss it potent target nine times out of ten. If the reach is to short, the arrow won’t even leave the bow; it will hitch and sever the archers hand straight through the middle” Phillips wouldn’t be bantered away as simple as that, by the way he spoke many would have agreed that he could have continued without a loss of breath. It seemed that military career may have been lost on such a talented spoken man, Leviticus could only thank the Myiaster of Spears for giving them such a talented archer both in the art of warfare and speech craft.
The Arch General enjoyed the speech, yet he could tell that many members of his Unity couldn’t wait for the upstart to leave their presence. Arrogance did seem to be there undoing, “What do you suggest Legionnaire, we have little time”
“Request segments of hard oak, my men need to create their own bows; not use second hand wastes that would serve more use to the enemy” Philips didn’t seem afraid to speak the truth, unlike many of his ilk and ranking. He spoke full and allowed other men to merely gawp at the words steaming forth; this was a man that would insult his commander without fear in his eyes.
“Indeed, very well Ultra I will make that suggestion” Leviticus couldn’t help enjoying the young man’s company, his banter was wasted however on members of his Unity, “In the meantime make sure to implement any tree alongside the green forge suitable for your needs”
“I will, thank you arch general” Philips bowed his head properly this time, he may have served under many great men of great titles; yet he would bow to no man unless he had proven his worth as a leader. His general had served it many times, this time yet again; he had listened with patience and care and then acted on what needed to be done. There was no greater skill for a leader to hold, then to act on the needs of ones men as soon as possible; a trait many leaders of his age seemed to lack. They all spoke words, this man was already commanding his fingers of order to dispatch the Ultra’s request.
“An interesting lad” The Arch General mused as the archer and the Myiaster of Horns started to leave his room. The finger of communications had been tasked with another crow to send, a darkened bird that would carry tidings important to the war effort. Leviticus could only hope that this message made it to the capital, as no response had been returned yet.
“Interesting doesn’t cut it” Otto made sure to add, his jawline already sharpening aggressively as he watched the boy retreat into the darkness. He appreciated the boys abilities, yet his arrogance and wish to upheave authority would one day leave him with a blade in his back.
“That concludes the meeting Myiaster’s” Leviticus stood from his seat, placing his glass back onto the stone table, “Make sure to carry forth the news to all who need to hear it; we leave for the tribe of the Devout tomorrow”
“Yes sir” They left together, some deciding to take their mead with them; the others deciding to leave them behind. One stayed behind, the lightly clothed commander of Ships remained in her seat; balancing the tip of her drink with her finger. All members of the Unity had been given a small metal stud as symbol for their rank, mere hunks of metal compared to the elaborate badges of the Decade; yet easily recognisable. She wore no rank on her shoulder, allowing her mere presence of an unarmoured female to force warriors into recognising into who she was.
She decided to speak first, her words tumbling forward as soon as she was sure the Unity had left them, “Commander, about my arrangement…”
“Yes? You leave at the Morn as well, take whatever horse we have available” He could by the hesitancy in her voice that she would need more details in the matter, “Make sure to convey my word to the fleet. Maintain the boats, sail around the coast and meet us at the top of the Isle/ we need sailors here, not warriors”
“A wise strategy sir, yet that wasn’t what I worried for” She would have smiled, if not for the indefinite need for her to continue a scowl on her face. Men lusted for those who smiled, whores smiled; she would give none such satisfaction, “You could have sent any of your men to be your eye over Turk”
“I need to send you, you are my Myiaster of Ships – you know them better than he ever did” She had been brought up on the sea, her need to fight and stay alive came from a life destined on the ocean; where even the environment would go out of its way to kill you. Becoming a warrior and then a respected Myiaster of his Unity had come from that strength, the hidden fortitude of a woman born amongst men in a boat of fishermen.
“But I am a woman, and you know how the General of the Moon will react to a woman barking orders in his ear – haven’t you heard of how he treats followers?” Her fingers slowly cracked together, “He has no respect for those he deems under him”
Leviticus took a breath in before he spoke, he hadn’t expected the strength of this driven woman to falter at the sight of such a mission, “Are you afraid of him?”
“No, I’m afraid for what I will do if he threatens me” She spat, staring out to the rough cobblestone ceiling above them. That was what she had to be, she had to be a rock against the storm of sea, “If any sailor or warrior sees me in an act of weakness, they will take that on hand and attempt me again – I will have to defend myself, you know that”
“I do, tell him that your orders are just as demanding as mine - make sure that he knows if he is to strike you in hand or tongue then he should face the punishment of striking against his lord” A taunt or refusal to carry an order would have insured a demotion, on a ship it could even be punished by a whipping. Any physical harm would have immediately been counteracted with confinement, or even the edge of a blade and the swallow of the ocean.
“You think the other crew members will accept their captain taking orders from me?” She had managed to change those who worked under the fist of Leviticus to obey her as well, but she had years on these men and they had a kind lord that taught them well. Turk was far from a compassionate man, he would have taught them little but violence and domination; they would do badly being controlled by her.
“I need you to make them accept it, make him bend the knee to you if you have too” Leviticus would have any possibility if it meant progress, he could only hope that Turk’s stubborn attitude would get him killed, “Just tow him in line with the rest”
“Yes sir” Men didn’t kneel to woman, not to women of weak will anyway. They were stubborn, they were strong; but she was stronger. She would only need his cooperation for the entire management to settle out, if that didn’t work then she would have to work with his obedience and if not that then she would be forced to deal with his corpse. If they were prepared to kneel to a man they deemed worthy and wise, then they would do the same for her.
There was more to ensure, more to conclude, “You’ll need an escort for your travel back to the bay, chose who you trust”
“Does every lady under your rule need an escort?” She stabbed at him, knowing well that it was her gender alone would set her different from the rest.
First she demands respect... Leviticus stared back blankly, he didn’t understand whether it was an attempt upon him or a mere gripe, but he reacted accordingly, “I would have every Myiaster given an escort, we are at war and currently stand upon the lands of our foe; to walk alone is a fool’s errand”
“You don’t trust the path home?”
“I don’t trust these roads; not even those behind us” Many threats lay through the world of the Far Isle. More than just beasts and Braided men lived near, any foolish miscalculation with the land could easily lead to an injury; an injury could easily lead to a death, “I need you alive for this to work”
“I plan on it as well” Losing to the forces of nature or the enemy wasn’t an eventuality she was prepared to encompass. She would lose friends, she would gain injuries; but she never planned on losing herself.
“You are a good leader, I have you seen you command and kill men” Leviticus didn’t regret saying it, this might have been the last time he could have spoken to such a person; a person that thought in a manner that he did, “Yet unlike many of the brutes here, you discern a difference between both acts. I don’t know whether it’s maternal or just care; but it’s a trait any commander needs”
Like all others given praise, she was unsure what to do with it, “Its simple courtesy sir, but now I must retire”
“Get as much sleep as you need, you will need it” He watched her go, regret starting to build up ferociously; almost forcing him to take back his order. She was a stubborn woman, a strong leader and a commander to be; yet he was afraid to what Turk would do to her. He respected the Arch General well enough, yet he had never found the courtesy to even consider woman as anything apart from ‘Breeders’. Proffesionality would have to be considered in her decision to act on the general’s stubborn nature, otherwise Mikeryla would be forced to deal with a crew ready to mutiny; or join their captain in killing or acting heinous crimes on her.
Leviticus sighed, the night was long and he required rest himself. He could still hear the sound of his warriors outside; a legion united of archers, warriors of all ranks and a special calibre of Royal knights known as the Splintered Spear. Many were suiting up, preparing themselves for the march that would bellow as soon as the night drew to its end. Many were praying to Myria for a successful campaign, he could hear their chanting as if it was one voice against the breeze.
We pray hold to Myria tonight
For the troubles to come and the darkness to spite
May she guard our life and help our born
So that we may live through the test of Dawn
Leviticus was surprised they hadn’t added a verse concerning the cruelty of the Shroud; perhaps the lack of minstrels and bards had slowed progress. The voices continued to speak those verses, praying to Myria that she would look after them; that she would deliver them home to their families and stay their deaths. They begged her to protect them from the battles to come, a war that Leviticus himself had commanded and was ready to see through. Many of those voices would subdue as they pressed on and on until no soldiers prayed, for the more battles they would see the more they would notice the truth; if Myria was watching over them at all then she did nothing. She allowed devastation and death, she allowed flames and spears to reign over words and love; eventually even the most devout followers would realise the truth. Those who had seen a war would never pray again, for if Myria had made the world they lived in; then they would be praying for war and murder over anything else.
“Sir, should I prepare a meal?” Mello’s voice suddenly came forth through the darkness; he had entered quietly as the Arch General had sat in deep thought, his mead lay forgotten alongside all the rest. The squire picked up the bottles quickly and quietly, the sound barely leaving a trace.
“No, I’ve…” He cut himself off, captivated by the breeze of voices still rushing through the camp; this could be the last time he would ever hear them sing a prayer again.
“Should I even be leading?” He narrowed his eyes, what right did he have to stop their singing; rank mattered little against the beauty of a voice, “What campaign do I follow? We have no word from the High King; we have no word from anyone but our own armies who seem ready to rebel against my orders – why are we doing this?” Most commanders didn’t speak so openly to their subjects, a weakness Leviticus found hard to overcome.
“Because we need to sir, because we live in loyalty and we have a task to do” The squire hesitated to continue, then realised he must; he couldn’t leave it at that, “We have lost so much, have we lost our honour as well?”
“No we haven’t” Leviticus swept his sleeve across his mouth, the mead had no doubt dulled his mind and loosened his tongue; at least it was only to his squire, “I swear you have become the corner of my mind that still listens to reasoning – the quarter that ignores hesitation”
“Comes with the task sir”
“Indeed!” He laughed outloud, a bark more than anything else. Even the noise sounded strange, it was as irregular as the world they were attempting to exist inside, “I haven’t felt like that in over a year, not really”
“A year away from home is difficult enough, a year with the Shroud was even worse” They could only hope that it never happened again.
The singing outside had stopped, Leviticus already felt the silence reeking over the legion, “What do you miss, miss the most?”
“Reading sir, I miss books”
“Reading? Not your family, your friends; your lands?” This was far from what he had expected, far from what any regular man would have wanted for.
“Never had much of a family or friends sir, I was given as a squire and they don’t have lands. But even squires get to read books from time to time” Mello was quiet at most times, he never lied to others; only hiding back the truth.
“Indeed, I suppose the Braided men have little times for reading” They had found no scriptures within the walls of Stonecheck, no books or tomes were kept for them to learn from. There was nothing there, it was more barren then the crimson sands of the shallowest beaches. Very little books had been taken with them from the capital; none were very helpful or even entertaining to read.
“What of you sir?” Mello spoke.
“I miss my wife, my three children” He spoke honest and true, there was no shame in admitting who’s faces he saw as he slept. He still feared for them, sending messages with every chance he could; with no reply, “They have waited far to long for their father to return”
“And when you return to them? When you are reunited with your family, will you come back to your home with victory or shame on your shoulders?” Now Mello spoke with passion, neglecting rank and command to ask the truth.
They had journeyed and fast to lay eyes on their enemy, fighting back the surrounding environment and the beasts inside for the goal ahead. Even the leaves themselves could be seen as an enemy, thick needles protruding out of the branches; scraping against flesh and even drawing blood if care was taken. The ground had been coated with calm soothing long grass, tall enough to hide the cruel scales of the many types of wyrms that resided in such plains; and there were far many differentiations of such creatures than the great Serpent should have permitted amongst the world of the commoners. Green wyrms were the most poisonous of all the legless beasts, Crimson were the most violent and unnecessary aggressive whilst white harboured the most impressive size and strength. The White Wyrm was a god amongst the commoners, a creature of magnificence that could crush and swallow any man or woman with its mere mass and muscle. It was far longer than its brethren, reaching metres on metres with little challenge from any other.
The warrior of the Braided Men made sure to keep his bare feet as little as he could inside the thick sea of grass, he hang to the trees and used small collections of rocks to traverse without fear of the Wyrm’s and their lethal poison. He didn’t worship the cruelty of the White Wyrm unlike many of his clan, he found the strength and courage of the Fanged Feline as the deity to swear his oaths to; and to one day challenge. It was tradition; a warrior of any of the commoner clans would choose one of the four deities as their oath gods. They would follow the traits of such creatures until they came to the stage in their path where they would challenge them to a singular battle to the death. The victor would walk or slither free, and if the winner was the man over the beast; then he would wear the coat of the fallen deity and proclaim himself as an Elder.
The leader of the pack of Braided Men had nominated the Fanged Beast over all else, choosing in the path of strength over all else; but the other four lightly armoured warriors had chosen others. Three had blessed themselves with the coiling trait of the White Wyrm whilst the last had chosen the dark wings and screech of the Banshee to challenge; the scaled beast that would only descend upon the field of men when it searched for meat and blood. Despite their differences in faith and choices, the group of four were armed and set all for the same reason; to discover the truth of the shroud.
It had been a cruel blizzard of darkness, much like the sheets of white that would drop whenever their world went through its stage of frost. Except the shroud had been harsh, it had settled death and misery over their world; giving them nothing but the wait. Food had been scarce, crops sunk into the earth and animals fled from their towns to the shadow around; coughing and spluttering back blood before they fell to their knees.
When the light had returned to them, the Braided Men had expected to find the terrain and nature around them to be twisted and torn apart. But the darkness had done nothing to those already outside in the darkness, no death or sickness lay in the fields of forests; the stream were thick and full with fish. Many praised the great strength of the Fanged Feline, many blessed the cunning speed of the White Wyrm and some even begged the Black Banshee to never return. None thanked or feared the fourth token, for it was the man itself; and even the commoners knew that they had nothing to do or say against the darkness until it rose. All the prayers and oaths continued as they were, food was sent to the towns and even rain returned to the isle of the braided men; it was if they forgot what had happened.
And then came the report, the invasion of the Horned Men from the West. Those warriors that had slipped in whilst the darkness had dropped, using it as a cowl to cover their advance onto their sacred fields. Spies had been sent out, small teams commanded to infiltrate and attack these forces where they were weak; intent on opening wounds in the side of their enemy, wounds that would slowly bleed until the entire force would fall. These teams would be led by a Warrior of the Divine path, one that had claimed the victory of his peoples by surviving in the jungles for a week; using only the resources of nature to survive. His first step had been in the study of his own deity, the great Fanged Cat itself; his second had been in the survival which had given him the rank and title of ‘Devout’.
They moved swiftly along the forests, using various vines and heaps of rock to leap across with speed on their side. They wore little armour on their tattooed bodies, relying instead on stealth and versatility to dispatch their foes without the enemy even noticing. Small crudely hammered blades coated their sides, the leader wielded a thick wooden beam with a sharpened edge; a toughened spear dipped in the filthy poisons of the flame toads. The prong sizzled with everything it touched, its purpose easily debatable between wielding as a throwable javelin or a melee counterpart.
Fear was slowly repelled by the need for silence as the leader lifted his arm quickly, hushing the group into a silent stillness. The forest around them had changed, one formation of darkness had shifted and changed stature; no doubt the silhouette of a beast crouching in preparation. The Devout’s eyes narrowed as he watched the darkness; searching and listening for any sound that would give away the hiss of a serpent or the growl of a cat. His men stood still, their hands already wielding blades whilst their eyes remained alert; pupils taking in every speck of light they could manage.
Finally the moment passed, the snort of a hog managed to lift the warriors blades and allow the metal to be sheathed. The fattened beasts were hardly a threat, most wore no tusks and dedicated their time in growing plump for their hibernation in the heat; a task that drew many predators in through the smell of such enormities of flesh. The pigs were prime game for any hunter amidst the commoners; they could feed many for a long time.
The Devout lowered his fist, allowing the formation of warriors to once again traverse through the rough terrain; locking onto the sound of metal grinding and the deep crimson plumes of flame in front of them all. Their enemy hadn’t been difficult to locate, the Horned men were always loud; never using the element of stealth to their advantage. As the four warriors finally laid eyes on the branded flames of their enemy; their teeth ground together and almost roared out in fury. The enemy had taken control of a pivotal building, the thick stony walls and towers of Stonecheck was supposed to be manned; yet only murders reigned inside.
The Horned Men would pay for such a crime, to take and butcher at wish and will was no power given to them by the four deities. Not even the man would give such a responsibility away to the barbarians clad in steel and cloth. They had come and plundered at will, and now they hid themselves amidst the walls belonging to the commoners; the stone offering safety from any form of assault the Braided Men could offer.
As the warriors fumed in rage, the Devout searched the walls for any chance to breach; yet they seemed as powerful as they did the last time he had seen them. That was many years ago, when he was amongst the crowd who were to witness the challenge between a warrior and the black winged Banshee. The naked warrior had come to these plains, using the flesh of a crimson boar to attract the airborne beast. The scent of such distinctive blood would bring a Banshee screeching within hours; drawn even from the peak of the mountains for the thrill of the hunt. The challenging warrior would then coat himself in the crimson of the boar, using only a spear to attempt to injure or even kill such a beast. He was an old warrior, one that had waited to live out his life before attempting such a quest; and he had been smart to do so. For when the dual had commenced, the Banshee attacked first; slashing its sharp wings and cutting at the soldier; leaving him to bleed into the ground.
Back then, the leader hadn’t even earned his title of Devout yet; and the stony fortification of Stonecheck had been controlled by a friendly clan; known to most as the men of the Stoic. They had used their time and resources to indulge into mines, constructing even a stone fort to demonstrate their independence and strength as a clan. Yet none of them stood now, only the building had remained after the enemy had come; everything else had been burned or even captured for sports and amusements.
The Devout growled, infuriated that no access could be found into the walls itself. It mattered little, they would have had little time to rush across the plains to the fort anyway; not without being spotted on the calm green ocean. No trees surrounded Stonecheck; there was no way to sneak in without raising an alarm or being shot.
Suddenly one of his men pointed forward, making no noise as he singled out a small tower off from the fortification. It was a wooden beam, one used to signify the mine of the RockSmite clan; one that would burrow itself deeper and deeper into a pit. The Devout expected such a mine to be empty, except fires rolled inside; letting of tell-tale smoke that would trail the air into the ocean of clouds above. The pit was easily accessible, outside the walls of stone and even close to a strip of trees; the only task would be to take and kill all intruders inside.
The Devout whistled once, commanding his men to rush forward through the planes of grass at a quick pace; bounding over the green waves as they pit of flames drew closer and closer still. At any sign of movement or sudden sounds from the mine or stone wall, the warriors would drop down low and move at a much slower pace; only halting when they stood at the tip of the pit itself. Smoke poured out from the mines as if they were the entrances to magma, yet only a singular fire had been placed in the middle of the pit.
The warriors of Braided Men stumbled backwards, fighting back the urge to cough as they prepared to leap in; already revealing their blades. They could hear movement down below, the shuffling of feet and clatter of metal; yet no voices gave away the location of the fiends. Eventually they were forced to leap in, blinded by the smoke and deafened by the lack of noise; only finding their senses when their feet found the cruel rock to walk on.
It was dark in the pit, a putrid smell filled the air and their noses mercilessly. The Devout foot had already been cut open on the harsh stone underneath, allowing a small bubble of crimson to float out and trickled into the mines themselves. He maintained his hold on the sizzling spear, pointing the wooden weapon all around him as he expected to find his foe; yet no enemy seemed to reveal itself in the darkness. It was only then that the Braided Man realised a cruel truth, the singular flame had been extinguished; plunging them into the void with only pain and filth to choke on.
A scream alerted them all to a presence, the sound of one of his men screeching out as a jagged blade revealed itself in the dim light. It had been stabbed deep, deep enough for its edge to protrude all the way out of the warrior’s chest and into the cold air. As soon as the blade was extracted the body fell, and the demon clad in branded black armour stood before them all; its horns twisting out in spirals whilst its hand remained engraved with a cruel sabre.
It snorted once, cold white trails of smoke revealing themselves through the brim of its dark blackened helmet. And for the final moment in his life on this world, the Devout felt fear stiffen his side and stop every action he considered making. His teeth chattered together and for the longest second in his life, he could only feel the insides of his palm; his gaze held and set on the beast of war walking towards him.
A second scream finally awoke him into movement, snapping his arm in a throwing position as he held the javelin by his side. He let it sail directly towards the towering blackened warrior, far too aware of its prowess at close quarters combat; hoping instead he could immobilise the beast from afar.
The spear shattered on impact, splinters of wood barely denting the cruel black armour of their enemy. Golden poison sizzled to the ground, uselessly sliding away as the undeterred behemoth of armour crunched its blade down yet again; crushing the third member of the intruding warriors. The final beam of wood cracked against the stony floor as the beast stepped up to face the unarmed Devout of the Braided Men.
No warrior of the Fanged Feline would surrender or flee, he would stand his ground and face his quarry until the night would fall. But never had the stone under his feet felt so slippery, and he would have never imagined his legs giving way and sending the rest of his body to smack against the merciless ground. He didn’t know whether it was fear or agony that had felled his body so, leaving only his mind to wander as all else failed.
The Devout could hear the armoured beast walking closer and closer, but that didn’t matter to him anymore. He could see out the mine and into the ocean above, watching its perfect silver waves and deep blue waters swell and fall. Sometimes the seas from above would weaken, allowing liquid to fall unto the land they called home; other times they hardened into soft patches of snow to dampen their spirits. Yet it was always there, the glistening gold of those that existed inside the deep blue shining down on him.
The mine he had found his match in might as well as been a challenger pit, he had faced and fought against the beast of war; losing first his men and then himself. Some creatures weren’t meant to be challenged, they were meant to be left alone. And as the warrior of the Braided Men, Devout of the Ashborn and devout commoner of the Fanged Feline accepted darkness; he could only feel sympathy for the creature that lifted its heel and drowned out the light.