Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Of Fire and Shadow, an Original Story by Rob Hebblethwaite





‘Can we go?’ Derryk said with a sniff. ‘It’s cold here, and I could swear I heard something howling in the distance.’
            ‘Probably just a wolf,’ Jaedor said absent-mindedly. Ignoring Derryk’s mumbling and moaning, he kept scribbling in his heavy, leather-bound pad of parchment with his stick of charcoal. There was indeed a cold wind, but nothing Jaedor was not used to. After all, he spent most of his academic life outside, wandering through the hills and amongst trees.
            ‘I’m a priest!’ the young man with his ludicrous bob of curly hair hissed, storming over to Jaedor. The young man was only some five feet tall when making an effort to stand with a straight back; he was not very intimidating, particularly when he had on the funny little pair of half-moon spectacles he always wore, though he did his best. ‘I’m meant to be in a church, worshipping the Divine Empress with every fibre of my being!’ he protested before turning to gaze out across the darkening landscape about them. ‘Oh, there’s not a part of my being I wouldn’t give to be back there now, in the warmth, surrounded by the Blessed Sisters…’
            Jaedor rolled his eyes, glancing up from his work. ‘That’s not very sanctimonious.’
            Derryk folded his arms and grumbled to himself. ‘I should’ve stayed back at the church.’
            The wind was not even that cold. Jaedor had stacked their small fire with more than enough wood in order to stave off what little chill there was, and the low flames even left a little residual warmth in their tired bones. The late spring day had been hot, and the heat had only just retreated with the sun. The high, green foothills of the Great Mountains had been covered in shadows, and whilst Jaedor had busily been scrawling away in his heavy pad of parchment, Derryk had moaned and groaned as he watched the light of the day sweep westwards, out of the province of Maedar, and over the faraway horizon.
            Jaedor gazed up from his sketch for a moment and at the mountains. ‘Oh, ice and stone, might and gilt-frost; gaze down from the heavens and tell us all. For you are as one ancient, and time is etched upon you.’ Jaedor smiled for a moment before he returned to his drawing.
            ‘What was that?’ Derryk called as he wandered to the edge of their tiny hilltop campsite. Jaedor was aware of him picking up a pebble and tossing it away down the grassy slope.
            ‘A piece from my favourite poem,’ Jaedor said. ‘It’s called On the Great Mountains and it’s by-…’
            ‘Leodulf of Westersea, I should’ve known,’ Derryk interrupted. ‘You’ve harked on about that poem every time you’ve so much as glanced at a grassy knoll,’ the short, curly-haired man grumbled, tossing another pebble down the hillside.
‘Then you should be able to recount it by heart, now,’ Jaedor said absent-mindedly, too focused on his picture to worry about Derryk.
His friend ignored the quip. ‘How much longer will you be?’ Derryk moaned. He wandered slowly between their two low tents. His black habit, emblazoned on the chest with a great golden Vidorian Phoenix, was far too big for him. The sleeves hung over his hands and the hem scuffed along the ground. The bottom of Derryk’s robe was ragged in places, and for about half a foot up its length from the ground, was covered in dust and dirt.
            ‘An hour,’ Jaedor said, not looking up. Instead, he altered his round, brass-framed glasses and pushed his long, dark fringe out of his eyes. ‘Go to sleep.’
            ‘I can’t sleep with the fire this high,’ Derryk said and sat down in the dust, putting his chin on his hand and staring glumly into the flames.
            ‘Then read.’
            ‘I’ve read everything I brought with me.’
            ‘Count the stars.’
            Derryk sighed but said nothing in response. Instead, he began to pick his dirty nails and scratch the stubby nose that sat in the middle of his round face.
            Jaedor continued his work. He had made much better time than he had thought he would, which he prided himself on. Derryk wasn’t the easiest travelling companion, but he was Jaedor’s oldest friend and he knew he could not deny him the trip. I did tell him he would get bored, Jaedor thought, glancing back towards the fire. I did warn him.
            For the last three weeks, Jaedor and Derryk had been travelling between the imperial capital, Vidoropolis, and the Maedarian city of Palvia. Jaedor was the eldest son of minor nobility, the Gaelon family, who controlled a tiny estate on the banks of the River Koppar, far to the east. However, he had been born weak. For his first few years, his parents had been unsure if he would survive; he had been gripped by frequent sudden illnesses and fevers, and each had threatened to be his end.
            Now, twenty-three summers old, Jaedor had sworn to himself that what he lacked in physical prowess he would make up for in intellectual capability. He had a dark complexion, with smart, narrow eyes and dark hair. Though his body was thin and gangly, he exalted in the arts of the mind. He had devoted himself to study, and had quickly outdone all of his teachers when he was young. When he entered his fourteenth year, he had been offered a place at the Imperial University in Vidoropolis, and he had accepted – much to the delight of his worn-out tutors. It had not been long before he had cut his academic mark into the community there, staggering those of his peers and of higher academic status with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the beasts and creatures that walked across Esdaria, as well as his understanding of herbology, plants and alchemy.
            Three weeks before, he had been tasked simply to travel between Vidoropolis and Palvia and draw. Any creature he saw – alive or dead – was to be documented in as much detail as he could manage. Professor Kerras, one of the few academics above Jaedor in capability, had not told him what the pictures were for, but Jaedor had put the pieces together. They’re rewriting and reissuing Commander Ludwig Nicstaed’s Bloody Bestiary. It’s never been illustrated before – they want my drawings for the book!
            It was an exciting time in the Vidorian Empire. It had been approximately one-hundred and eighty-one years since the Second Age had begun with the accession of the Divine Empress to the Imperial Throne. The period had been uneasy, but such was expected in an empire that spanned several large, formerly independent provinces – Jaedor should know, he had studied each and every one to an intricate degree. The Great Westernaean Rebellion began forty-eight years into the Second Age and ended twelve years later, he reminded himself. One-hundred and fifty years into the Second Age, Altmeria fell. Sixteen years ago, this very province, formerly the Kingdom of Maedar, rose in unsuccessful rebellion.         
            ‘I wish I had your life,’ Derryk sighed as he sat by the campfire, interrupting Jaedor’s mental revision. ‘All I get to do is sit in a church in the eastern Heartlands and sing praises to Vidoria.’
            Jaedor looked at the stag skull positioned before him. It was a fine example, free from all the gore and skin and with a fantastic set of antlers. ‘Then you parents should not have rebelled,’ he said with a shrug of his shoulders.
            Derryk glared at the back of Jaedor’s head. ‘It’s not my fault,’ he spat. ‘I was only eight when Maedar rebelled!’
            ‘I never said it was your fault,’ Jaedor said absent-mindedly, glancing at the stag skull. He was losing the light. Maybe Professor Kerras will let me write a few entries of my own. After all, Ludwig only wrote about monsters-…
            ‘It’s still not fair,’ Derryk moaned. ‘I never wanted to be a priest – and you’re right, if my parents hadn’t rebelled, I wouldn’t be here. It’s not fair. I hate them so much.’
            Jaedor rolled his dark brown eyes. ‘Don’t be stupid,’ he said. Jaedor tucked his charcoal back into a pouch on the back of his belt, and closed his enormous pad of parchment. He attached the leather-covered pad via a large chain to the belt he wore to hold up his baggy blue britches. He kept the pad close to hand at all times – he had quickly learned that he might have to whip out his charcoal and start drawing at a moment’s notice.
With a sniff, he stood and turned to face Derryk. ‘You know the law, as did your parents,’ he said matter-of-factly. ‘It’s common for the eldest sons of families who break the law to be put into churches or monasteries. You don’t hate them, thought, do you? They’ve been good to you – they send you letters and make sure you’ve enough food and money to keep yourself busy.’
            Derryk said nothing. He continued to glare into the fire. The flames danced in the thin, scratched lenses of his half-moon spectacles and over his angry frown. The last of the sunset had retreated over the western horizon, and darkness had fallen across the province of Maedar.
            ‘Tomorrow we’ll head for Palvia,’ Jaedor said, ignoring the miserable look on Derryk’s face. ‘Professor Kerras told me he would see to it that a sum of money is sent to Palvia ahead of us so we can afford to resupply for the journey home – I have to go to the university there and collect it. Then we’ll strike a deal with a merchant and see if we can share a cart bound for home.’
            ‘I’m not sure I want to go back,’ Derryk muttered.
            Jaedor let out an exasperated moan. ‘You just said you don’t want to be here,’ he began, ‘and a moment ago you were saying how much you wanted to be back home – amongst the Blessed Sisters or some nonsense – and now you’re saying you don’t want to go back?’
            ‘Well I do want to go back,’ Derryk whined, ‘but I’ve had a nice time out here-…’
            ‘You’ve done nothing but moan for three weeks!’ Jaedor cried. ‘Now you’re saying you’ve had a nice time?!’ He waved a hand at Derryk and shook his head. ‘You’re intolerable. If I hadn’t known you so long, I’d hit you in the face.’
Jaedor turned and walked towards his low, thin tent. Whilst he had been busy sketching and taking notes, Derryk had, as usual, set up their modest campsite. As it had been every night before, it comprised of two low, battered tents made of a rectangular length of cloth stretched over a simple wooden frame. Then, close enough to keep one warm whilst in their tent, yet not so close as to pose a risk, Derryk had made a low campfire. They had discarded their heavy leather rucksacks inside their respective tents, and the large hiking stave Jaedor carried had been laid down beside his bedroll.
Jaedor crawled into the bedroll, ignoring Derryk’s loud, attention-seeking sighs. Old friends we may be, Jaedor thought to himself, but I don’t think we’ll miss each other for the next few weeks. The two had met almost a decade ago when Derryk was sent on a trip to the imperial capital with a few of the bishops and Mothers from his monastery. The then fourteen year-old monk had stolen away whilst the group were at prayer, and Jaedor had found him drinking heavily in the cosy tavern which he himself occasionally frequented with a book and a glass of sweet berry wine.
            Their friendship had blossomed from there, though it was no rose. It was a strange bloom, dark in colour and with many blotches here and there. Jaedor and Derryk were, by no means, perfect friends. They had fought and argued on many occasions. They had once even had a drunken brawl, though their pathetic flails and hand-chops had brought a great deal of laughter to the onlookers – most of whom were trained soldiers. They had been broken apart by a grizzly-faced barmaid who had tossed them into the streets and left them there to flounder.
            ‘Do we have to be moving at sunrise tomorrow?’ a thin voice came from outside Jaedor’s tent. ‘We’ve had to do it every day so f-..’
            Jaedor sighed and removed his spectacles. ‘Yes,’ he snapped. ‘Keep watch until midnight and wake me. It’s not far to Palvia; I should guess we’ll even be able to see it in the morning light.’
            A long groan came from outside the tent. Jaedor rolled his eyes and clambered into his bedroll. I don’t know why he came, he thought. All the way he’s moaned about being hungry, thirsty, or having aching feet. I thought a scholarly life would make one soft, but every time I see Derryk he gets more and more lazy.
            Jaedor lay in his bedroll for an hour or so, whilst outside his tent the new night began to age. A few clouds rolled across the dark skies, and the shadows cast by the moon began to shorten as midnight came closer and closer. Despite his fatigue from that day’s walking and enduring Derryk’s moaning, Jaedor could not sleep. After an hour or so of staring at the top of his tent, he unclipped the large, heavy leather-bound pad from his belt – he dare not remove it ever for fear of losing it, for it contained all his work from the past three weeks – and opened it on a random page.
            A wolf stared out at him, barely visible in the last light tossed up by the embers of their fire. The picture was wondrously detailed, even though it was rendered in simple charcoal. Once he was back in Vidoropolis, he would re-draw all the pictures in ink. That was an interesting day, Jaedor thought with a small smile as he looked over the wolf’s front and side-profile, as well as quickly checked some of the measurements he had taken of its head and face.
            Three wolves had come upon them as they were crossing the River Sayn which separated the Imperial Heartlands from Westmoor. Neither Derryk nor Jaedor were fighting men, but both had small short-sword like seaxes in their belts should the worst happen, and Derryk had only just managed to raise his blade as one of the wolves leapt onto him. The beast had impaled itself on his weapon, and the entrails from its ripped-wide stomach had cascaded all over the short man, whilst the other two wolves had fled in panic. Jaedor had spent the rest of the day drawing the dead creature before skinning it to analyse its skull, whilst Derryk was forced to strip naked and wash all his clothing in the ice-cold waters of the River Sayn.
            Jaedor turned the page with a smile. The next was a salmon, based on one which had leapt from the Sayn and into Derryk’s face whilst he was trying to clean his robe. By a sheer miracle, Derryk had managed to catch it and after Jaedor had done a few sketches of it, they cooked the fish and ate it for supper. Derryk was so frightened he fell over – how he rolled about and screamed! Jaedor found himself grinning and stifling a laugh at the memory.
            On the next page were a few sketches of common birds – crows, blackbirds, a pair of pigeons and a few smaller examples. Unhappy with a blue tit’s beak, Jaedor scrabbled for his coal and quickly made an adjustment. Once satisfied, he quickly leafed through the other pages. Hundreds of creatures leered out at him: wolves, dogs, cats, birds, the silhouette of a gulon, as well as a sketch of a huge fang.  Jaedor was irritated that he had not seen anything rarer than a far-off cockatrice, plummeting into a small wooded copse in the search for prey. His sketch of it was also poor, as Derryk had panicked at the sight of the notoriously violent monster and the two of them had hidden in a nearby bush. The cockatrice has good vision, Jaedor reminded himself, but its senses of hearing and smell are poor. Still, we probably made the right decision.
            On the whole, he was pleased. He was certain his sketches were to be used in a reissue of the famous Bestiary Written in Blood, as it had been called, and given that his task had been to draw anything and everything, he could only assume that the text was being expanded with more creatures. After all, Ludwig only recorded those beasts and monsters which were interesting and exciting – half of them don’t even exist. Jaedor knew as much, for he had written a short study on the work which had been very well received by his academic peers.
            He glanced out of his tent at were Derryk was sitting, staring glumly into the fire. We should be back in Vidoropolis in a few days, he thought, eyeing his friend. There will be few hold-ups on the way home, and we’ve encountered everything we probably will. All the best, really – we’re sick of each other.
            Over the past few days their flare-ups at one-another had become more frequent. Derryk’s moaning wound up Jaedor, and Jaedor’s complete lack on sympathy for Derryk upset the curly-haired young man. As a result, Derryk’s long, stony silences – broken only with lengthy, forced sighs – infuriated Jaedor, and when Jaedor finally snapped at Derryk, the short man accused Jaedor of being unkind and the two would explode into an argument.
            Jaedor rolled over and clutched his pad of pictures to his chest. Derryk’s pride will heal, he thought. If I lose this, though, the last three weeks have been for nothing. Slowly, he began to slip into a light doze.

*

The next day was grey and overcast, but it could do little to reduce the beauty of the province of Maedar. The hills which had been golden-green in the sun of the previous day were now brooding and dramatic, low, angry bulges in the landscape, which groaned with the wind as Jaedor and Derryk made their way across them.
            They followed a southerly road they had picked up when they had risen – much to Derryk’s disapproval – at dawn. Jaedor had quickly learned that the easiest way to gain Derryk’s compliance for a few hours was to shove some food down his throat, so, just before the day’s first light broke upon the eastern horizon, Jaedor had prepared the last few thick rashers of bacon they had brought a few days before.
            It worked, and the bacon kept Derryk quiet and compliant as they began their south-bound journey towards Palvia. The only noises that he made as he followed Jaedor came from his trudging feet and ratting pack – from which a great any pots, pans, spoons and utensils hung. All the various wood and metal apparatuses that hung from his heavy leather pack made him sound like a large, man-shaped wind-chime. His small stature and short height merely served to emphasise how huge the pack upon his back was, and he looked like some strange, upright beetle, walking on its hind legs whilst its large, leathery percussive shell rattled and jangled upon its back.
            Jaedor enjoyed the walk. He strode out ahead of Derryk, his hiking-stave in his hand, the refreshing wind upon his face and the dramatic landscape around him. He could not fight, he could not lift much weight, his ability to swim was sub-par, but he could walk. He had overheard some of the academics at the university talk about his walking – ‘scuttling’, they called it. ‘To and fro he goes,’ Professor Adelbard had laughed fondly to one of his students as Jaedor had passed, a pile of anthropological books in his arms, ‘legs awhirl, a mountain of books upon his shoulders!’
            ‘My feet hurt.’
            The bacon has worn off.
            Jaedor took a deep breath of air and looked at the land about him. He stopped and narrowed his eyes, squinting through his round glasses. ‘Palvia isn’t far,’ Jaedor said, pointing to the south with his stave. ‘You can see it over there. It’s not a very big city, but it’s quite rich and grand. Tonight, we’ll find residence in a nice cosy tavern and enjoy a drink or two.’
            Derryk sighed and stopped beside Jaedor. ‘I should’ve tried harder to get a horse for my cart,’ he said sadly. ‘It would’ve been much easier than carrying all this paraphernalia.’ The short man scratched his curly-haired head and sniffed through his nose as he glanced over his shoulder at his bulging pack.
            ‘I did say,’ Jaedor said with an irritated sigh. ‘Besides, even if you had managed to find a horse you could afford for that cart of yours, you haven’t used the thing for so long it’s half-sunk into the ground! I saw how overgrown it was when I visited you a few months ago.’
            Derryk shot an angry glance at Jaedor though his half-moon spectacles were so dirty Jaedor could barely make out his eyes. ‘Let’s just walk,’ he snapped. ‘The sooner I can sit the better.’
            ‘We’ve only been walking a few hours!’ Jaedor cried as Derryk began to march forward. Jaedor watched as the short young man’s dirty robe flapped about him in the breeze. He near-waddled, struggling to accommodate the pack on his back and his far-too-big-for-him robe. On any other day, Jaedor would have laughed. Today, though, he could already feel himself grating with Derryk and they had only been walking for a few hours.
            Jaedor took a few quick steps and soon overtook Derryk. He led the way down the long, winding dirt road in silence for a good half hour before they came upon anybody. Jaedor was surprised to see a large group of partially-armoured soldiers, wearing the legplates and carrying the shields of the Vidorian Empire, but wearing only their undershirts. The young scholar counted some sixty men being led by a mounted nobleman upon a large horse. They paid Derryk and Jaedor no attention as they passed, sparing them little more than diminutive glances.
            Derryk, out of habit more than belief, touched his brow and chest with his hands and said a few quick words from the Chant of the Divine Empress. ‘Blessed She who walks amongst us, her light the torch that banishes the dark. May her heavenly hand guide your swords, and her wings of gold be your shield!’
            Jaedor paid little heed to him, for as with every soldier they had passed, Derryk had quickly said the lines of the Chant he had been forced to learn. They had passed many soldiers during their week or so in Maedar – far more than one would expect in a time of peace.
            ‘Training exercises, do you think?’ Derryk said once they had passed.
            Jaedor shrugged a shoulder. ‘I’ve no idea. I can’t think of any explanation for not wearing full armour.’
            ‘Maybe they’re being given new armour?’ Derryk said hopefully. ‘I do miss my old armour. And my sword. I wonder what happened to it.’
            Jaedor began to walk south whilst the soldiers headed north, disappearing into the hills. ‘I’m sure it’d all be far too small for you nowadays,’ he said, glancing over his shoulder. ‘Mind you, you don’t look as if you’ve grown much since you were ten summers old, or whatever age it was you were when you were given to the Faith.’
            Derryk glared at Jaedor through his filthy half-moon spectacles. ‘At least I actually got to lift a sword,’ he hissed.
            Jaedor rolled his eyes, trying to ignore the comment, but his pride stung. ‘I was only joking,’ he said, perhaps a little too firmly. ‘Lighten up.’
            ‘It’s hard to be light after three weeks with only you for company,’ Derryk muttered and kicked a stone out of the dirt road. It disappeared into the grassy verge and a woodpigeon exploded from a nearby shrub, making the small man start. His pots and pans clattered and he let out a small cry.
            Jaedor was not able to stop a short burst of laugh, and Derryk’s cheeks went ruddy-red with embarrassment. ‘That’s not funny, you twig-armed sod!’
            The rebuke was a toe over the line for Jaedor, and his smile vanished. ‘You can be an awful little midget, you know,’ he spat, ceasing walking and turning to face Derryk. ‘You’ve moaned your way across Esdaria and now, instead of being excited at the prospect of a warm bed tonight, you’re moaning about me! I do wish you’d get a grip.’
            ‘Get a grip on what exactly?’ Derryk snarled. ‘You think you’re so highbrow and knowledgeable, but I’ve got more than a firm grip on your clever little rebukes and jabs.’ Derryk waggled a short finger in Jaedor’s face.
            Jaedor scoffed and continued walking. ‘I think you do not,’ he called over his shoulder. ‘I’d imagine – like most things – it’s a little too high above you to properly reach. Though, given how short you are, that’s not really that high at all. Now keep up, or you’ll never get home.’
            He ignored Derryk’s muttered rebukes best he could. Hollow threats of terrible deaths and mutilations followed Jaedor for the next five minutes until Derryk exhausted his vocabulary of morbid words and bodyparts. He’ll be fine once he’s had an ale and is under a solid roof, Jaedor told himself. It’ll all work out. We’ll be in Palvia soon, and he’ll stop being an insufferable ass.
            The next two hours were awkward. Neither Jaedor nor Derryk wanted to admit that they had thrown the first stone, though pebbles had been tossed this way and that for so many days now that, in truth, neither of them could possibly remember who had cast the first. To calm his rising temper and forget about the rebukes of their latest exchange, Jaedor took to gazing at the landscape around him and ignoring Derryk entirely. His mutters and moans were drowned out by the whistle of the wind, and the drag of his shuffling feet were lost in amongst the rumble of a far-off storm.
            Before Jaedor knew it, they were only a few miles from Palvia. The small but wealthy city could be seen from miles away, slowly rising from between the hills and framed on all sides by the great green landscape for which the region they now entered was named. The Emerald Peninsula, Jaedor thought, pausing atop one of the many low but taxing hills they had climbed that day. The richest, most arable and beautiful land outside of the Imperial Heartlands.
            Palvia was at the very north of the long, fang-like peninsula that jutted out from the province of Maedar and into the South Seas. Every inch of it was a lush, beautiful green. Low, picturesque hills stretched in all directions, patterned with mismatched patchworks of fields. Here and there were rich woods, their thick canopies fluttered and danced like great green waves in the wind. Even the grey sky above, ever darkening with the promise of rain and storms, could not tarnish the beauty of the province of Maedar.
            It was approaching dusk when the two men, weary from their travelling and glad to finally be at the end of their journey, found themselves on the long, wide road leading straight towards Palvia’s gates. The high, granite walls of the city loomed over them, and way above their heads Jaedor could make out the silhouettes of Vidorian soldiers slowly marching back and forth. Beyond, the high roofs of the city’s many buildings reached upwards, peeking over the grey rampart that surrounded the city in a great ring.
            Jaedor gazed up at the tall, round towers spaced equidistantly around the walls. Two were either side of the wide, broad gatehouse which the two men approached, dark and ominous in the dusk light. ‘Palvia was besieged eleven years ago when it rose in revolt,’ he said matter-of-factly to Derryk.
            ‘Oh,’ his companion responded in the flattest, most uninterested voice he could muster, the pans dangling from his pack clunking and clattering as he walked onwards towards the city.
            ‘You’d never know it,’ Jaedor said, pointing at one of the towers. ‘There are no scars of conflict upon any of the walls – well, none that I can see in this light. The new governor, Aelfurd, has put a lot of money into repairing the city-…’
            ‘Can I just go straight to the tavern?’ Derryk interrupted. 
            Jaedor looked over his shoulder at his companion and blinked, surprised. ‘I’m sorry?’ he said.
            ‘That tavern you told me about days ago,’ Derryk said quickly. ‘The Red Resthouse, I thought you said it was called. Close to the city centre, don’t you remember?’
            Jaedor waved an irritated hand. ‘Do what you will,’ he said shortly. ‘You had said you wanted to have a look at the University of Palvia, but-…’
            ‘But now I’ve spent enough time with you recently to never want to look at a place of learning ever again,’ Derryk said quickly and coldly. ‘Right now, I’m tired and weary. I’m not interested in learning this stuff. I’ll never again complain of having sore knees whilst kneeling and praying to the Divine Empress, for all this walking has been exhausting.’
            ‘Whatever,’ Jaedor said with an exhausted sigh. ‘I only have to go and collect the money Professor Kerras promised us. Buy me some mead or something and book us a room each.’
            Derryk grunted in response and continued to follow Jaedor towards the high gates, his feet scuffing along the dirt road. As they got closer to the walls, the track suddenly became cobbled and lit on either side by low-burning lanterns hanging from wooden posts. Jaedor was glad to see the signs of civilisation, as the isolation of the Maedarian province and Derryk’s constant moaning over the last few days had left him doubting his sanity.
            Aside from the four guards posted beside the wide gates that led into the city, there was no-one else around. Jaedor was surprised to see that the men were not wearing the armour of the Vidorian Legions. Instead they wore expensive-looking, brightly-coloured liveries and glittering silver coloured steel plate and chainmail that shimmered in the setting sun. How odd, he thought as he approached the gates.
            One of the men stepped out and held up a hand to stop them. He was a tall and well-built fellow, a heavy sword at his hip and his yellow tunic hidden under a steel chestplate. Jaedor was somewhat relieved to see he still wore his Vidorian shield upon his arm, emblazoned with the golden phoenix that matched the one on Derryk’s dusty habit. ‘Halt,’ the man said in a lacklustre voice. ‘State your business in Maedar.’
            ‘We’re heading to the university,’ Jaedor said quickly, placing a hand on the heavy leather-bound pad on his belt.
            The man nodded. ‘And him?’ he said, pointing at Derryk.
            ‘My travelling companion,’ Jaedor said, glancing over his shoulder at the scruffy-haired young man. Derryk looked a little nervous, and his eyes flickered uneasily across the cobblestones under his feet.
            ‘Really?’ the armed man said with a laugh. ‘We thought he was an invading army, all that clattering he was making. We thought we were about to be attacked by one-hundred knights!’
            Derryk let out a huff. ‘They’re my utensils,’ he said in a snap. ‘They’re important for, you know, cooking, which is instrumental in the process of eating.
            The armed man suddenly seemed to harden. His lined, weathered face dropping into an angry frown, and the three other men behind him stirred from where they were lounging by the walls. ‘You think I’m stupid?’ the soldier said, stepping towards Derryk. ‘I know how both cooking and eating work. I’ve been on campaigns before, I’ve done tours, sat on the frontlines.’ He was standing right before Jaedor and Derryk now – half a head taller than Jaedor and easily strong enough to overpower them both. ‘What have you done? Sung praises before an altar all day?’
            You’ve really done it now, Jaedor thought angrily. ‘Sorry, can we just enter the city?’ he said quickly, trying to avert any problems.
            The armed man held up his hand. ‘Once your friend answers my question,’ he said in a gruff, gravelly voice.
Derryk looked at the stones beneath his feet. He joined his hands together in front of himself to stop them from shaking and said in a tiny voice: ‘I’m the son of a nobleman.’
The guard snorted. ‘And you’re prancing around in a priest’s outfit? You’re either so far down the line of succession to your father’s estates that there’s no way you’ll ever be needed, or he’s a lawbreaker and you being tossed to the so-called “Divine Empress” was his punishment.’
Jaedor stepped forwards, placing himself squarely between Derryk and the guard. ‘Now sir,’ he said in the boldest voice he could muster, ‘my companion and I are in a hurry, and I’m sure you have many more important and fulfilling things to do than taunt us. Please, may we enter Palvia?’
The guard spat onto the floor. ‘Get out of my sight,’ he snarled. ‘And don’t you ever let me see you causing trouble again.’
Jaedor grabbed Derryk by his upper-arm and dragged him through the gates. The other three guards who had not partaken in their comrade’s bullying stared angrily at Derryk as they went past. Jaedor could not reach the streets beyond soon enough. The moment they were in the shadowy shade of the eaves of the rich townhouses that lined the street, Jaedor lost himself and his complaining charge – whose arm he was still gripping – within the few people who were still out at dusk.
There were enough folk about for Jaedor to quickly feel invisible, though not enough to permit complete comfort. He found himself glancing over his shoulder and back towards the gate for fear the men were pursuing them, but they did not come. Instead he saw other people: men, women and children of all ages coming and going. No-one was poor, for they all wore good, clean clothes and most had well-brushed hair or tidy hats upon their heads. There were many guards too, both wearing full sets of black Vidorian steel, and others wearing the mismatched livery that the gate-guards had worn. Jaedor noticed that neither mingled with the other, and instead the Vidorians and brightly-liveried men eyed each other uneasily. The men and women in the streets seemed to pick up on the tension and avoided the patrols that went this way and that.
As soon as the gates were out of sight, Jaedor threw Derryk aside and glared at him. They stood at the edge of the cobbled main road that ran from the gates and to the centre of the small city, as far as Jaedor could tell.
‘What was that?’ he hissed.
Derryk quickly tried to walk away from Jaedor, but Jaedor quickly grabbed him by the shoulder. ‘Get off,’ the short man snarled.
‘You nearly got us in a lot of trouble!’ Jaedor cried. ‘We could have been kept out of the city, or thrown in the dungeon, or-…’
‘I know, will you be quiet?’ Derryk hissed and batted Jaedor’s hand away. ‘I just want a drink. Where is this tavern of yours?’
Jaedor rolled his eyes and shook his head. There’s no point arguing now, he thought. ‘It’s on the way to the university,’ he said. ‘I’ll take you.’
He led Derryk down the wide, cobbled road that led towards a great man-made hill that rose up in the middle of the city. It was ringed by a wide, steeply-edged trench that was as deep as the hill was tall. Upon it was another set of walls; high and dark, bruised by the purple sunset. Professor Kerras had told him that the University of Palvia was in the Inner City, close to the keep. From where he walked, Jaedor could see both rising above the high rampart that stood atop the hill at the centre of Palvia: two tall and distinct sets of towers. One group, to the west, was ramparted. The others, to the east, were filled with windows and were roofed with slate. That must be the university, Jaedor thought. For the first time in days, he found himself smiling. Our journey is nearly at its end.
            They passed many establishments on the way towards the middle of the city. On either side of the long, straight road rose bakeries, inns, grocers, tailors, smiths, and more. Most were closed, but Jaedor saw a few of the craftsfolk through the wide windows to their establishments, sitting at easels, working wood, or tinkering with tiny pieces of metal. They passed both Men and Halflings in the streets, all of whom went about their business quickly and purposefully.
            ‘Jaedor,’ Derryk said quietly as a group of Men and Dwarf-folk passed, talking and joking. ‘Look, they’re talking.’
            ‘What?’ Jaedor said.
            ‘The Halflings and the Men, they’re talking.’
            Jaedor had hardly noticed, but now Derryk had drawn attention to it, he saw it everywhere. Men and Halflings were talking. He saw a female Gnome, small and child-faced, her hair piled atop her round head in a great golden bun that revealed her huge ears, walking side-by-side with a human woman into a low tavern, from which a large group of Men and Dwarf-men walked.
            ‘They never socialise together in the Heartlands,’ Derryk said. ‘And that time I went to Baradun – did I tell you? – the Halfling-folk have a district of their own, separate from where the Vidorians and the Altmerians.’
            Jaedor shrugged a shoulder. ‘Maybe they’re from a different clan or something. I know little of the Halfling-folk.’
            Derryk nodded slowly. ‘I’d wager most of the folk here know more about the Gnomes and Dwarfs than we do.’
Soon enough, the long road they had been walking down came to an end, and gave way to a long, wide, arching bridge that stretched across the large precipice that separated Palvia’s Outer-City from its Inner-City. Jaedor took a quick right, walking down the road that ran adjacent to the great earthwork. He was thankful for the chest-high stone wall that separated the road from the precipice, and could not bring himself to peep over the edge at the steep drop below.
Soon enough, The Red Resthouse came into view. Nestled between two tall buildings, one of which was a tailors, the picturesque inn had a few leaded windows in its face, either side of the heavy door in its middle. The windows were each accompanied by a window-box filled with dark red blooms. As its name suggested, the inn’s outer walls were painted with a dark, red paint, and the wooden timbers that held it up were carefully covered in a thick, black coat. A sign hung above its low, wide door, depicting a red fireplace and a golden mug of overflowing ale. It was tall and narrow, some three floors, in height, and from its roof protruded a thin, soot-stained chimney from which a thin line of smoke was rising. The storm which had threatened to break over Palvia earlier that day seemed to have moved off, and the air was still and quiet.
‘Brilliant,’ Derryk said the moment he set eyes on the narrow, red building. He clapped his hands together and instantly set off towards the door. ‘I’ll be here when you get back,’ he called over his shoulder, advancing towards it at a pace that was closer to a jog than a walk, his pack clattering all the way.
‘Don’t forget rooms!’ Jaedor cried at his quickly-retreating figure. ‘And get me something to drink!’ He had barely finished, but already Derryk had disappeared from view. He hasn’t walked that fast for the entire duration of this trip, Jaedor thought angrily. With an irritated purse of his lips, the young, dark-haired scholar turned about and headed up towards the University of Palvia.
There were more of the irregularly dressed armed men around that Jaedor had previously noticed. Men in mismatched pieces of expensive-looking armour that were definitely not standard-issue for the Vidorian Legions, loitered in large groups or patrolled this way and that up and down Palvia’s clean streets. They must be mercenaries, Jaedor thought. Probably hired for fear of something – what, though? The Empire is at peace. Jaedor knew trolls and ogres occasionally reared their hideous heads in the northernmost parts of Maedar – he had even managed to find the skeleton of a long-dead ogre one at the foot of a great cliff in the mountains – but even trolls and ogres were not foolish enough to attack a city.
Jaedor found the bridge he had passed earlier and quickly crossed it. Either side of him, the very earth fell away before dramatically rising again in an impossibly steep upward slope. Soon, he could see a second set of gates, these ones set into the Inner-City walls. Jaedor was reassured to see black-armoured Vidorian Legionnaires guarding the gates, which were shut.
As he approached, one of the guards stepped forwards. He was a hefty Heartlander with a big nose and large hands. In one fist he held his shield, and the other he extended to Jaedor to order him to halt. ‘What brings you here?’ he said in a low voice.
‘I have business with the university.’
The guard looked him up and down. ‘Jaedor Gaelon?’
Jaedor was surprised the man knew his name. ‘Yes, is everything alright?’
The guard nodded. ‘Head in. Leodulf of Westersea will see you. He’s in the north tower.’
Jaedor’s jaw dropped. ‘Leodulf of Westersea?’ he gasped. ‘The acclaimed Westernaean poet and scholar? He’s here? He wants to see me?’
‘North tower,’ the guard answered slowly and raised a hand, signalling to someone in the gatehouse to raise the iron portcullis blocking access to the Inner-City.
Leodulf of Westersea! Jaedor buzzed as he watched the portcullis slowly rise. I’ve read all his work, and his ‘On the Great Mountains’ is a phenomenon! I’ll have to tell him how I orated it at the last Vidoria’s Day feast. Jaedor had been a fan of Leodulf’s of Westersea’s writings since he was young. When he was a little boy, his mother used to read him some of his shorter poems before he slept. Never once had he dared assume he would ever meet the man himself, and the thought of doing so washed all the fatigue from Jaedor’s body and mind.
The iron barrier was barely risen, but Jaedor could not contain his excitement. He rushed through the gap and into the Inner-City, which was little more than a collection of some two-dozen large buildings surrounding the great, tall Palvian Keep, the rampart of which Jaedor had identified earlier. He paid the keep, which was immediately on his right as he entered, little heed. It was a large, granite structure, that much he knew, but Jaedor’s excitement was focused elsewhere.
He barely even looked at the outside of the great, cathedral-like building into which he dashed. He vaguely noticed tall, colourful windows and a great, vaulted roof of dark slate from which several tall towers and spires rose, but soon he was inside, diving through the wide-open wooden doors and into a dimly lit stone corridor.
For a few wonderful minutes he was lost in a labyrinth of learning vastly different to the one he was accustomed to in Vidoropolis. Clutching his pad of drawings, and the weight of his heavy pack forgotten, Jaedor wandered, near-aimlessly through the corridors of the University of Palvia. The hallways down which he walked were beautifully tranquil and warm, and his footsteps echoed around the high, stone walls that came together above him to form an ached ceiling. The stones of the many hallways and corridors were faintly lit by candles and considerate windows. Some of the windows were set into small reading-nooks in the stone walls, in which students and scholars sat quietly upon low benches, pouring over great rolls of vellum or heavy books.
Jaedor heard voices from inside one of the many rooms and paused to and was unable to stop himself from pausing to peek inside. An old man with a great grey beard stood before a large group of young men and women, talking on grammar and syntax – things Jaedor had considered writing on himself. Quickly, he hastened on his way, reminded of his purpose: I’m going to meet my scholarly hero!
 Great bookcases, higher than three men standing on each other’s shoulders lined many of the rooms. Packed with scrolls and leather-bound tomes that looked as old as time, they strained under the weight of the knowledge they contained. Jaedor passed small groups of men and women, heads bowed and engaged in thoughtful discussion. Some wore the robes of priests and Mothers of the Vidorian Faith, the women in pristine white and the men in dark, dull robes emblazoned with phoenix embroidery.
             Before he knew it, Jaedor had found his way to the north tower. He had clambered the stairs to the very top almost by accident, for he had been so enraptured in the beauty of the University of Palvia. Now, having alighted a narrow set of spiral stairs, he stood before a large wooden door, lit on either side by two low candles. This is it, he thought. The end of my quest. He raised his knuckles and rapped on the door.
            ‘Please come in,’ a gentle voice called from the other side.
            Grasping the iron handle of the door in one hand and his hefty pad of drawings in the other, Jaedor lifted and pushed. The door swung inwards and he was engulfed in the sweet, organic smell of ink and parchment. For a moment, he thought he was back home in his own little room in the Imperial University. On all sides, the surprisingly poky and dark room was lined with shelves upon which dozens of books and innumerable lengths of parchment and vellum were stacked. There was a large, well-made bed in one corner, covered in thick furs and many plump pillows, and by the one wide window was a large, low desk covered in parchment and books. Sitting at it was a low, hunched figure.
            ‘Ah, you must be Jaedor Gaelon,’ the hunched figure said in a soft tone. There was a shuffling and Jaedor quickly, but nervously, stepped further into the dark room. The figure by the window slowly set down his quill and parchment before getting to his feet. Leodulf of Westersea was neither tall nor fat. He was a few inches shorter than Jaedor and had lost most of the hair on his head, though what he kept around the edges projected outwards around his ears in a great white arc. He had a small, wiry beard on his chin, and two deep blue eyes that twinkled through the gloom.
            For a moment, Jaedor was at a loss. ‘Sir Leodulf, my lord, I-… It’s an honour. I’ve read so much of your work, and all of it is hugely inspiring!’
            Leodulf waved a hand and smiled affectionately at Jaedor. The skin stretched across his frail bones was as yellow and papery as the parchment around him, but there was a vigour to his movements: the genuine joy and confidence of a man who had accomplished much and would be forever remembered. ‘I received a note about you and a rather heavy pouch of coin from an old friend of mine, Professor Kerras. There’s something I’m to look over?’
            ‘Oh! Yes!’ in the moment, Jaedor had almost forgotten the pad in his hand. He quickly unfastened it from his belt and held it out to Leodulf, who took the hefty object and opened it. Jaedor held his breath as the old man looked over the many pages, taking a careful eye to each picture. Jaedor watched, suddenly critical of every skull and bone he had drawn. The troll’s head needed more definition around the eyes and tusks, as does the cyclops femur around the top. And that female blackbird! Why did I ever think drawing that would be a good idea?
            ‘This is wonderful,’ Leodulf said with a small laugh. ‘You’ve a brilliant eye and a fantastic memory for detail. These will look wonderful in the re-issue of Ludwig Nicstaed’s work.’
            ‘I knew it!’ Jaedor cried, suddenly elated. ‘Professor Kerras would not tell me, but I knew that was what he was doing!’
            ‘Indeed!’ Leodulf of Westersea said with a grin. ‘His letter said as much. He also sent enough money to see you and your travelling companion on to Asvir, so you can continue your work.’
            Jaedor felt as if someone had kicked him in the stomach. His eyes grew wide behind his circular spectacles. ‘I beg your pardon?’ he said. ‘What was that about Asvir?’
            Leodulf seemed as confused as Jaedor. ‘Asvir City in the province of Westernaea, some two-hundred miles south-west from here. It’s the capital of my homeland! Your journey ends there, or so the letter from Professor Kerras says.’
            Jaedor was terribly confused. ‘May I see the letter?’ he said quickly, the pack on his back suddenly feeling very heavy and cumbersome. ‘I don’t mean to be rude, I just-…’
            ‘No, no! By all means you may,’ Leodulf said. He turned to his desk and rooted around underneath the great piles of scrolls and vellum that were stacked whimsically here and there. After a few moments, he produced a neat piece of parchment on which a tidy hand had written a brief note. ‘Here you are.’
            Jaedor took the scroll he was handed and read aloud. ‘To my colleague Leodulf,’ he began, ‘Praises be to you, my old companion. May the light of the Divine Empress forever shine upon you and those lands in which you dwell, for it has been a long time since we last conversed.’
            ‘Just here,’ Leodulf politely interjected and tapped a small passage at the bottom of the page. ‘The rest is just the usual rubbish in a letter – you know how it is: “Praise the Divine Empress,” and “Give thanks for the health of Lyshir III”.’
            Jaedor looked to where Leodulf had pointed. ‘Please can you send my student, Jaedor Gaelon, further westwards; we at the Imperial University in Vidoropolis have decided that his initial journey will not provide him with enough time or distance to encounter all the creatures we wish him to try and track down – how will he ever see a basilisk in the wild unless he goes deeper into the provinces? Please see to it that he and his travelling companion know that their new destination: Asvir City in Westernaea. See to it they have a day or two’s rest in Palvia before setting off, so they can re-supply themselves and sleep in proper beds. I have sent with my courier a pouch containing three-hundred silver coins for the hand of my student. I am aware this sum is substantial, and I would be indebted if you would make sure the courier has not pocketed a few.’
            ‘He hasn’t,’ Leodulf gently interrupted with a friendly grin.
            Jaedor ignored Leodulf’s comment and bit his lip, feeling utterly crushed and exhausted. His arms fell to his sides, still holding the letter, as a horrid realisation dawned on him. How am I to do another month of travelling with Derryk when we are already at one-another’s throats? he thought. As he stood close to the door of Leodulf’s study, he felt a great weight of fatigue suddenly crash into his form. He felt as if he could collapse and sleep forever, completely forgetting his quest. The Bestiary be damned, Derryk and I will have killed each other before we make it to Asvir.  
His feet began to ache with a soreness that his adventurous spirit had previously staved off. The journey ahead seemed to lack its mystery, and Jaedor genuinely feared for his relationship with his companion. He knew Derryk’s black cloud of misery would not have time to dwindle and fade before they set off again, and he would make the travelling a waking nightmare. Perhaps I should just tie him to a tree and leave him somewhere, Jaedor thought with a sad sigh.
‘May I see that pouch of coin?’ he said and passed the letter back to Leodulf without so much as looking at the old man.
            ‘Of course,’ Leodulf said quietly, sensing Jaedor’s ill mood. He retreated to his desk again. He returned holding a fat leather pouch of coin and passed it to Jaedor. It would have been a substantial reward, but Jaedor found himself willing to trade it for the chance to travel home and have a break from Derryk’s company.
            ‘I had best be leaving,’ Jaedor said quietly. ‘It was an honour to meet you, Leodulf.’
            ‘It was my pleasure,’ he said with a smile, returning to his desk. ‘If there’s anything you wish to ask before you leave, please feel free to,’ he said with a yawn. ‘I’m only writing a poem as a commission for some lord or other back home in Westernaea, and I’d rather not be doing it.’
            ‘Actually, there is something I’d like to ask,’ Jaedor said, taking a quick step towards Leodulf. ‘These oddly dressed soldier-types around Palvia: who are they? They gave my companion and I a little trouble at the gates.’
            ‘They’re Governor Aelfurd’s son’s own private mercenary band,’ Leodulf said with a slow shake of his head. ‘Since the Vidorian Empire is at peace, there is no place for Carl the Red’s private army. Rumour has it that, given Governor Aelfurd Heimsvart is Carl ‘the Red’ Heimsvart’s father, he has allowed the boy’s little military force to garrison themselves in the city for the time being.’
            Jaedor looked puzzled. ‘I didn’t think the Empire allowed such things,’ he said and scratched his chin. Much to his surprise, a few long, straggly black whiskers were growing there.
            Leodulf shrugged his narrow shoulders. ‘They’re being paid, and they’re being kept out of trouble. I’m sure the emperor would rather have it that way. To my eye, there are far too many of them to simply eject from the city. I’d imagine if they dug their heels in, there would be a great deal of blood.’
            Jaedor nodded. ‘Fair enough,’ he said. He was about to turn and leave, but remembered something else he had noticed that day that was bothering him. ‘One last thing,’ he said, facing Leodulf, who looked up from his work with a quirked brow. ‘Derryk and I noticed that the Men here and the Halfling-folk get on very well. Back in the Heartlands and Altmeria, things are much tenser. What’s happened?’
‘The Halfling-folk?’ Leodulf said. ‘Oh, that.’ he waved a hand and returned to his papers. ‘It’s some initiative or other Governor Aelfurd has been working on to try and improve relations between the Maedarians, Vidorians, and the Halfling-folk of the Great and Syladras Mountains. He offered well-paid crafting jobs to the Halfling-folk from the Syladras Mountains when he had the city repaired and re-fortified following the rebellion eleven years ago. He then offered many of them good housing, and most of them have stayed. I believe his little incentive worked quite well, and it’s made him very popular amongst the Dwarf-folk in-particular, or so I have been told.’
Jaedor frowned. ‘What?’ he said, unable to hide the surprise. ‘I’ve heard of no-such thing back in the Heartlands, and I’m sure even Derryk would’ve picked up on any rumours that would’ve come over the Altmerian border that concerned something like this.’
Leodulf shrugged a shoulder and picked up his quill, making a quick note of something on a large sheet of vellum. ‘Maybe it’s something the Imperials are testing in Maedar, you know, after the rebellion eleven years ago. Perhaps they hope that good relations between the Vidorians, the Syladrian Halflings – I believe that’s what they’re referred to as – and the natives here may leave the Maedarians reluctant to revolt again.’ Leodulf let out a small, wispy laugh. ‘A political love-triangle! I do hope not, those tend to end badly.’
            Jaedor looked at Leodulf of Westersea for a few moments as silence emerged between them. He desperately wanted to say something clever and insightful about either poetry or Commander Ludwig’s famous bestiary, for he knew that any praise from the famed Leodulf of Westersea would lift his low spirits. He wracked his brains, but his fatigue-clouded mind could produce nothing. He continued to stand by the door to Ludwig’s study awkwardly, scratching the bristly beard on his chin. ‘I’ll leave now,’ he said eventually.
            Jaedor heard what Leodulf said as he left, but he paid it very little heed beyond replying with a customary ‘Good-bye.’ His mind was far away from Palvia and the western provinces. It was back in the Imperial Heartlands, in Vidoropolis, in his cosy little chamber. He missed his small bed and the constant, quiet hum of activity from the rest of the Imperial University. He missed his collection of books and poems, and found himself desperate to reread Aystulf’s Life of Emperor Daeral I.
He made his way back down through the University of Palvia’s ornate hallways, but found their beauty had greyed with his mood. He had been so sure his adventure was over, and had been desperate for a few weeks reprieve from Derryk and enough time to rest. I’m no soldier, he thought, yet Kerras expects me to march half-way across the empire, then back again! And Derryk, he’s going to be a nightmare, Jaedor thought darkly. Already, he could almost hear the western roads between Palvia and Asvir City ringing with Derryk’s heavy, laboured sighs and long, pained moans. The knowledge that they would follow him like a bad smell for the next month or so made Jaedor want to scream.
He stepped out of the university and into the dusk. For a moment, he turned his gaze westward, but found the last dying light of the sun hidden by the high walls of the Inner-City. With a heavy heart, he headed back through the high gates and down towards the rest of Palvia.

*

Jaedor and Derryk sat in a sad silence, gazing into their drinks. Jaedor had told Derryk what they had been tasked with, and – once he had managed to get Derryk to stop bashing his head in frustration against the low table at which they sat – they had briefly spoken about the route they would take before falling into silence. Behind the counter near to them, the Red Resthouse’s landlord, a tall, thin man with a scarred and pock-marked face moodily rubbed clean his cups and plates, paying no heed to what went on in the room before him.
            Derryk had done as he was asked, and two small rooms were prepared for them on the second floor of the tall, narrow building.  Jaedor had briefly climbed the narrow, steep stairs and glanced into them to make sure they were worth the silvers they cost. Satisfied enough, he had tossed his heavy pack, his shortsword, and his walking-stave into the room and headed downstairs with only his leather pad of pictures and the heavy pouch of coin. Once he was back downstairs, he sat in silence with Derryk and drank from the large mug of sweet wine his strained and weary friend had purchased for him. At least he got that right, Jaedor had thought.
            The Red Resthouse had been quiet for an hour or so. The only other tenants had been a handful of Men sitting at one bench, and a few Halflings at another. The room in which they sat was nicely decorated, with colourful flowers on the tables and planters hanging from some of the red-painted walls. Jaedor wished it was enough to lift his spirits, but the sight of the colourful pansies and tulips just reminded him of the journey to come. To try and elevate his spirits, he turned his attention to his heavy sketchbook and focused on scratching some dried on mud from its cover.
Just as Jaedor had finished his first mug of sweet wine, a group of four off-duty Vidorian guardsmen had entered the small, narrow main room of the inn. They had ordered ales before moving into the corner of the red-painted room to sit by the low hearth that squatted there. Shortly after, six of the brightly-liveried mercenaries that Jaedor and Derryk had seen many of that day entered and sat pointedly apart from the Vidorians, offering only spiteful glances at their black-armoured contemporaries.
            Just as Jaedor was nearing the halfway point of his second mug of sweet wine, another group of figures had entered the Red Resthouse and, much to the displeasure of the patrons, had not yet left. They had arrived with a great shuffling of feet and a clatter of chains. ‘She comes!’ their leader had cried. ‘She comes and walks amongst us once more! The Divine Empress rises again and will lead her Faithful to the Promised Land beyond the horizon!’
            The preacher who spoke was a dark-skinned man with lank, black hair trailing over his dirty face. His great tangle of mane was barely held in by a ragged cloth cap, and behind him he led him three poor-looking young men dressed as he was, in dirty black habits with belts made of rusted, discarded chain around their middles. The preacher himself wore no shoes, though the sullen-faced men with him did.
            The four men in their filthy black robes had found a bench and clustered around it. The three men with the dark-skinned preacher listened intently as their leader babbled a near-heretical form of the worship of the Divine Empress to them. The Vidorian soldiers, though, were uninterested in the group and continued their quiet conversation in the corner near the hearth.
            ‘This is so boring,’ Derryk moaned.
            Jaedor clenched his jaw and rubbed his eyes, carefully pushing his fingers under the frames of his spectacles. ‘I thought you’d be glad to be seated and warm, and at least we have a few days of rest,’ Jaedor said bitterly.
‘I am glad of rest,’ Derryk whined, ‘but we have to go further and-…’
‘Go and play some dice or something,’ Jaedor said miserably with a wave of his hand. Derryk had turned to dust the shattered shards of the good mood Jaedor had gained from his brief encounter with Leodulf of Westersea. ‘Gamble away a bit of your hard-earned money.’
            Derryk shook his head. ‘Dice isn’t my thing.’
            Jaedor almost choked on his mug of sweet wine. ‘You’re joking,’ he said. ‘I’ve seen you play dice dozens of times!’
            Derryk looked deeply offended. His eyes narrowed and his lips pursed. Carefully, as if trying to hold together the frayed ends of a long-tattered temper, he placed his mug of mulberry mead down on the wooden table. ‘The game you have seen me play in the past is not dice,’ he said in a dangerous whisper. ‘I’ll have you know it’s called Warriors and Wyrms, and it’s a complex-…’
            ‘Does it use dice?’ Jaedor interrupted.
            ‘Yes, it does, but that’s not the-…’
            ‘Then, as far as I’m concerned, it’s dice,’ Jaedor said and shrugged.
Derryk glowered at him across the table, but said nothing.
‘My friends!’ a voice called and a shadow suddenly fell over their table. ‘My friends, let me speak to you the truth of the Divine Empress!’
Jaedor looked up and saw the dark-skinned preacher standing over them. The whites of his eyes were yellow, whilst his brown irises were faraway and dull. A wispy moustache and beard clung to the space around his mouth and the flesh of his chin. The edges of his wonky teeth were dark with decay, and his nose was fat and flat upon his face. ‘Please don’t,’ Jaedor said with a sigh.
‘How dare you,’ a second voice said in a tone that was more cackle than speech. ‘Cassidus knows the truth.’ At the dark-skinned fellow’s side appeared one of the three young men the so-called preacher seemed to keep as his companions. He was horribly pale, sickly so, with eyes that were too large for his head, sunken deep into their sockets. His teeth were long and sharp, with wide, dark gaps running between them. His nose was long, the nostrils of which seemed too wide for his narrow, windburnt face. His hair was short and spiked in great unkempt tufts above his head. Jaedor found himself thinking how much he looked like some sort of horrible cave-creature that had been dredged out from under a mountain. Perhaps I should do a sketch of him for the Bestiary.
‘Calm, Johnas,’ the preacher – Cassidus, his companion had called him – said with a wave of his dirty hand. ‘The Divine Empress was not led to anger, and she does not lead us to anger, but to a great land beyond the Sun!’
‘Praise her,’ Cassidus’ cackling companion said in an emotion-wracked breath, the chain-belt around his waist clinking.
Derryk looked up from the ale he had been moodily sipping. ‘What are you talking about?’ he said, frowning over his scratched half-moon spectacles. ‘The Divine Empress never said she’d lead us to a Promised Land – have you ever sung the Chant?’
            Cassidus the preacher’s dark eyes widened and he raised a hand to touch his forehead with a finger; his companion, Johnas, did likewise. They looked shocked. ‘They are among us, Johnas!’ he said. ‘The Liars who wish to institutionalise and turn Her Truth into words and paper! Pray to her for defence!’
            Jaedor looked at Derryk, whose dark frown melted into a wince of confusion. ‘What is this heretical nonsense?’ the short young man said. ‘I may be the worst priest in the Vidorian Empire, but I know for a fact that-…’
            ‘Stop your lies!’ the white-faced disciple of the dark-skinned preacher hissed. ‘We’ll have none of your heresies!’
            ‘Please leave,’ Jaedor said again with a sigh.
            He was ignored by the other three men. ‘What lies?’ Derryk said, getting increasingly agitated. ‘You’re the one spouting heresies and-…’
            ‘You are blinded by the Lies of the so-called Empress’ Church!’ the preacher said, pointing a finger directly into Derryk’s face.
            Derryk bit his lips together and glared into the faces of the two men. ‘Alright, fine,’ he said, climbing to his feet. He was at least a head and a half shorter than both the thin, poor men. ‘I’m the liar. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going for a walk. I’ve had a hard day and you’re just making it all the worse.’
            Before Jaedor could climb to his feet, Derryk had whirled about and shot through the door to the Red Resthouse and out into the night. Jaedor lowered his eyes and looked at the sketchbook in his hands, pretending to have lost all interest in the preacher and his hideous companion.
            ‘Are you accessible to the Truth, my friend?’ the preacher said.
            Jaedor rolled his eyes. ‘No,’ he spat. ‘Go away.’
            ‘You shall die and be taken away by the great demon Azgorha if you do not hear the truth,’ the preacher, Cassidus, said.
            Jaedor scoffed. ‘There is no great demon Azgorha!’ he said. ‘And I imagine, if there were, he would make better company than you. Now, leave me in peace. I’ve had a busy day and I’m far too tired to listen to your babble.’
            The white-faced Johnas opened his mouth to rebuke Jaedor, but the preacher placed a hand on the young man’s shoulder and led him back to where his other two disciples were sitting. ‘Come, my friend,’ he said, ‘like so many in this world, he too is blind to the truth – a mind poisoned by Liars.’
At last, Jaedor thought as he watched them go. Finally, I can have a little peace and quiet. For a few precious moments he sat by himself and enjoyed the company of no-one. His sweet wine was cheap but warming and took the painful edge off the day. He found his head clouding and his thoughts becoming fuzzy, much to his delight. The prattlings of the so-called preacher on the other side of the room blended into the low hum of the rest of the conversation that was being had between Men, Dwarf-folk and Gnomes in the tavern, and Jaedor found himself nodding off.
There was a crash from the entrance to the inn, and in burst Derryk. Jaedor nearly leapt from his skin in shock, and as he jolted he sent his mug of sweet wine arcing across the table. His eyes met Derryk’s, where he found them wide behind his spectacles and his face paled with fright. ‘There’s an army!’ Derryk cried. ‘There’s an army outside the gates! Five-thousand men, if not more!’
Jaedor rolled his eyes. ‘You fool,’ he said. ‘How much did you drink whilst I was at the univ-…’
He was cut off by the sound of a far-off boom, followed by a great chorus of cries and the clash of steel. His eyes widened and Jaedor felt all the colour run from his face as he sat still, staring at Derryk. Then, quite suddenly, everything happened at once.
The men in their mismatched liveries and pieces of steel were on their feet, weapons in hands. Before the Vidorians on the other side of the room could so much as think about fighting back, the other men fell upon them. ‘Death to the Vidorian Empire!’ they cried as they painted the inner-walls of The Red Resthouse with blood. ‘Burn the phoenix, and drive them out of our lands! Long live King Aelfurd! Glory to the Kingdom of Maedar!’
Jaedor leapt from his seat and grabbed Derryk by his arm as behind him the entire room erupted into chaos. One of the mercenaries drove his fist so hard into the face of the preacher that he instantly fell to the floor, flat-out unconscious. As he went down, he caught one of the planters hanging from the wall and sent it flying across the room. Jaedor did not stop to see what became of them, instead he hauled Derryk to his feet and, before anyone could stop him, he was moving. Suddenly, men, women, Dwarf-folk and Gnomes were all running for the exit, and both Jaedor and Derryk ran with them. From behind, Jaedor heard one of the colourful mercenaries cry ‘Kill the priest!’ and his blood almost froze. They’re going to kill Derryk.
Within seconds, they were outside the inn and back in the streets. Lost among the hundreds of people running in all directions, Jaedor kept his hand clamped around Derryk’s arm so as to keep them together. Through the press of fleeing people all around them, Jaedor could make out brightly-liveried mercenaries and Maedarian men in defaced Vidorian armour setting about the loyal imperial men within the city. As he tried to stop and get his bearings, Jaedor found himself and Derryk being dragged by the throng of fleeing folk back towards the city’s main gates through which they had come. The Inner-City on its high, man-made hill, slowly retreating into the distance behind them as they made their way down a familiar-looking road, whilst on all sides, battle raged.
Jaedor had never seen a real dead body before. He had looked at many pictures of skeletons and organs in books – brightly coloured in expensive ink and leafed in gold. Parts were always numbered – a numeral next to an artery or a valve, an arrow to a particular muscle. The streets, though, were already covered in the dead; men, women, and children – innocents brought low in the heat of battle. Some bodies were peppered with arrows, or pierced with sword-blows. There was no numbering to be seen, no labels upon the wounds and exposed matter – there was no neat academic cleanliness to the slaughter. The only number attached to the corpses in the street was an ever-rising death toll. Jaedor’s eyes, wide with terror behind his round spectacles, flitted from the road before him and the people cramming it to Derryk beside him – white faced and gripped with fright – and then back to the blood and bodies.
There was another huge boom, this one much closer. Jaedor fell to the floor as his world rocked about him, left swaying and trembling from the colossal sound and the huge chorus of cries that accompanied it. Scrambling to his feet, the tide of people suddenly turned, running away from the gates. Buffeted and staggered, Jaedor almost fell again. Beside him, Derryk grabbed his arm and began tugging him backwards as he fought for his footing. ‘Jaedor! No!’ he cried, ‘No!’
Jaedor began to turn, but as he did so something hit him. He span with the force of the blow, the world about him once again awhirl. Pain lacerated his shoulder and chest, shooting down his arm and up into his neck. As he fell, his glasses shot from his face and the spinning world became a blinding blur of melding colour and screaming heat. He fell hard and fast, and the last thing he heard before he smacked the back of his head on the hard cobblestone of Palvia’s streets, was Derryk’s cry.

*

When Jaedor opened his eyes, he was unsure if he was alive anymore. Everything was dark, and he felt as if he were being crushed by an immense weight. Jaedor had once read a poem about dying. He could not remember who it was by, but one line stood out in his mind as he lay, lost in stillness and dark: ‘Forgive me, O darkness; I look upon you in sweet nothing as the weight of the dead presses down upon me. I feel it in my fragile form, pressing my flesh to dirt and my bones to dust.’
            Then it was as if a dam broke, and everything came flooding back to him at once. His vision flickered into its usual blur, and a terrible, consuming pain wracked through his body. He gasped; crisp, cold air filled his lungs, and for the first time in a long time, Jaedor felt truly alive. He tried to extend his left arm to drag himself forwards, out from under whatever was pressing down upon him, but the unbearable pain wracking his shoulder and chest worsened. Eyes watering and teeth clenched, he glared accusingly at his shoulder and, despite his poor vision, could see clearly enough that there was something long, dark and upright lodged there. He also saw an arm.
            It was blurry, but it was clearly an arm. Jaedor blinked and squinted his eyes as best as he could. His vision cleared a little, and he realised that the arm was attached to a figure. The source of the weight upon him was a large, armour-clad mercenary-man in what had once been bright green livery, who was draped across him in death. His tunic was stained and soiled and his whole body was dripping with blood and peppered with crossbow-bolts. His head lolled over Jaedor’s shoulder – his face was a bloody ruin, destroyed by a savage sword-cut.
            Horrified, Jaedor reached forwards with his right hand, desperately grabbing and scrabbling for something, anything, that could help him escape. In a panic, he grabbed onto the nearest protruding cobblestone he could and heaved himself. Jaedor began to come free, and as soon as he could, he rolled onto his back – the wound in his shoulder wracking with pain as he did – and with his good arm, pushed the dead man off him.
            He scrambled around on the floor for a few moments until finally, more by luck than anything else, he felt his fingers brush a familiar, fragile object. He picked up his glasses and placed them on his nose. One lens was cracked, but the other was fine. Better than nothing, Jaedor thought, and struggled to his feet. He looked around – he had not moved, for he was still in the same street he had been when wounded. It was near-empty, and as soon as he was up, his blood-covered hands shot to his belt – his heavy sketchpad was still there, attached by its chain. Its leather covers were soaked in blood, but the pages within were not damaged. Terrible agony lanced through his shoulder as he did so, and his gaze shot back to his arm.
            The arrow had a straight and well-made shaft, and the flights at its tail were neatly cut, though flecked with dark red droplets of Jaedor’s own blood. He had no idea how he had not noticed sooner, nor was he sure how he was not in more pain. The arrow which had struck him had burrowed at least an inch into his flesh, staining most of his simple tunic with blood. Adrenaline, Jaedor told himself, it has to be. Quick; what do I do?
            Palvia was still a battleground, and there was no hope for finding a surgeon – that much was clear. Jaedor could hear fires, cries, and steel in the distance, though the battle had moved away from where he was. The main road was all-but empty aside from a handful of colourful mercenaries upon the walls watching the gates. Somehow, they had not yet seen Jaedor rise from amidst the bodies in the street – perhaps their view of him was partially blocked by the drooping eaves of the tall, broad townhouses and other buildings that lined either side of the corpse-filled road.
Quickly, Jaedor looked around for somewhere to hide. Most of the timber-framed houses and shops had been damaged in the fighting, and the adjacent side-alleys running between buildings were empty, aside from bodies. Beyond, though, Jaedor could see people moving – Dwarven, Gnomish and Human men and women running, dragging children with them, pursued by armed men. For Jaedor, the terrible far-off sounds of their pain and panic were oddly ambient and peripheral, drowned into a chaotic fuzz by the throbbing agony in his shoulder. They’re rounding people up, Jaedor thought. Quickly, he dived down the dark alley and threw himself in the deep, dark, night-time shadows that cloaked it.
            Jaedor could waste no more time. He had proof-read something about wound-treatment a few months past for a young surgeon writing an encyclopaedic tome on battlefield surgery. Most of the terms and diagrams had been too in-depth for him, but he had understood well enough how to apply a bandage to someone. First, though, he had to deal with the arrow.
Wrapping his fingers around the protruding arrowshaft, he took a deep breath and heaved. Fresh blood and agony welled from the wound and Jaedor thought himself on the verge of passing out, but the projectile came free. The bloody tip was razor-sharp, and upon its barbs were a few bloody morsels of his own flesh. He thought he would vomit, and cast the arrow aside as fast as he could.
            Steadying himself, Jaedor tore the blood-sodden sleeve from his tunic. Doing his best with only one hand and his teeth to grip with, he made a tight bandage out of the dirty length of cloth, wrapping it tightly around his narrow chest and thin shoulders. By the time he had finished, his mouth and cheeks were slathered in his own blood.
            Jaedor sat back against whatever dark building he skulked in the shadow of and let out a long breath. His shoulder burned, his head hummed nauseously, and he felt weak in the stomach. He closed his eyes for a moment, and tried to find calm. The chaos of the city rang in his ears: the screams, the cries, the steel, the fires. Opening his eyes, he took a long, steadying breath and pushed himself to his feet. I’ve lost Derryk. I’ve lost all my things. What am I to do?
            Suddenly, there was a scuffling, scraping noise from the shadows around him. Jaedor leapt to his feet and raised his fists - for there was someone further down the dark alley. The shadows were shifting and moving – someone was staggering forwards.
            ‘Who’s there?’ Jaedor hissed. As he watched, the shadows shifted into two. Jaedor readied himself to flee – one man he may be able to fight off, but not two, not with his arm in the state it was.
            ‘She has abandoned us,’ a voice came. ‘She has abandoned us all.’
            Of all the people, Jaedor thought. Of all the people in all of Palvia…
            The dark-skinned Preacher Cassidus and his skeletal-faced companion Johnas staggered into view. The preacher had a huge dark ring around his eye and a bloodied nose. His lip was split and one of his teeth was missing. His comrade, the ghoulish Johnas in his dirty black habit, had a split lip and a torn ear. Both men were flecked with blood.
            Jaedor glared at the two men, who stopped in the alley before him. None of them spoke, and instead all three men glanced uneasily between one-another. Johnas’ thin lips were drawn away from his sharp, uneven teeth in a snarl of disgust, but Preacher Cassidus simply looked as if he were about to burst into tears.
            ‘Let us past,’ Johnas said in a lisp of hiss.
            ‘The main gates are blocked,’ Jaedor said. ‘Have you seen my companion?’
            Johnas slithered forwards and glared down at Jaedor. ‘I don’t care about your snivelling little Liar of a priest,’ he snarled. ‘I want you to let us pass.’
            With a shrug, Jaedor stepped aside. ‘By all means,’ he said. ‘You’ll step towards the gates and get killed.’
‘They’re Carl the Red’s men,’ Preacher Cassidus said quietly, limping forwards. There was blood in his wispy beard and moustache, and as he got closer, Jaedor could see the whites of his eyes were an even darker, dirtier yellow than before. ‘Those and loyal Maedarian men taken into the Vidorian Legion are who currently run rampant through these streets. There’s been dissent here for a long time – Maedar is nothing like Eagle Island, where my journey to spread the truth began. As I’ve journeyed through the province – or should we now call it the kingdom? – of Maedar over the last few weeks, I have seen strange things amongst its armies: more soldiers being moved into towns, men without uniforms, these mercenaries everywhere. Oh, woe! Woe is unto us! The demon Azgorha works through us all!’
‘Invoke Her sign, drive Azgorha away,’ Johnas said before waving his arms in the air, making a strange symbol in the air and rolling his eyes back into his head.
Jaedor rubbed his eyes with thumb and forefinger. You lunatics, he thought. The pieces began to fall together, though. The mercenary in the tavern had cried out Governor Aelfurd’s name as he attacked, but he had called him ‘King’. The mercenaries belonged to Aelfurd’s son. ‘This is a coup,’ Jaedor said quietly. ‘Aelfurd’s seized power and proclaimed Maedar its own power once again. The Vidorian Empire is once more at war – the Children of the Phoenix and the people of Maedar will once again shed each other’s blood.’
            Cassidus nodded his head slowly. His lank, greasy hair bobbed. ‘It’s been a long time in the making, how I’ve seen it. Both the Vidorian Legion and the Maedarians have been at one-another’s throats for a great time, and both are blind to the truth I wish to spread. And now, look! Look at the blood which runs through these streets. If they had accepted the light I wished to spread, if they had only tried to see Vidoria the way I share Her, this could have all been avoided!’ Preacher Cassidus fell to his knees and began to sob. ‘They should have seen Her as She is – three-parted, light, fire, and stars! She watches and walks among us! And they do not see! Their eyes are blinded to the Promised Land beyond the horizon!’
            Jaedor gritted his teeth. ‘I am no man of devout faith,’ he said, ‘but I know you speak heresies and untruths-…’
            Johnas lurched towards Jaedor. ‘My fellow disciples are going to die,’ he said in a hiss, ‘martyrs, they will be. Their blood will anoint the ground of Fidelas Square, and flow as testament to the cruelty of the Liars. Do not spread your filthy words here, Liar.’
            ‘Wait,’ Jaedor said and raised his good hand. ‘What’s happening at Fidelas Square? Where is that?’
            ‘West.’ Preacher Cassidus said as he rose from the floor and stumbled towards where Jaedor and Johnas were standing. ‘They have rounded up everyone of Vidorian faith and rank, along with as many townspeople as are left alive. They plan to execute those of the Empire in front of the civilians to send a message – my disciples are there now, waiting for their deaths.’ Preacher Cassidus closed his eyes and shook his head slowly. ‘They shall be the first martyrs, and they shall have shrines erected to their names in the Promised Land.’
            ‘I shall write their names in the Book of the Golden Empress, once I get round to starting it,’ Johnas said and placed a hand on Preacher Cassidus’ arm.
            Jaedor was horrified. ‘You aren’t even going to try and help them?’ he said, aghast.
            Johnas’ hideous, gnarled face snarled at Jaedor. ‘They are going to be martyrs,’ he said. ‘Their deaths are their saving!’
            ‘My friend is there!’ Jaedor cried loud. ‘I won’t let them kill him!’
            ‘It’s all the Liar deserves,’ Johnas said in his horrid hiss. ‘His blood will boil and coagulate as it touches the pure-…’
            Johnas was cut off by shouts from the main road behind them. ‘Priests! Vidorians in the alley! Over here!’ a voice yelled. ‘Get them! Quickly!’
            Jaedor span to look before he broke into a run. He counted five men: two in defaced Vidorian Legion armour, the other three in the mismatched chain-and-plate and bright livery of Carl the Red’s mercenaries. With cries, the men charged towards Jaedor and the two zealots, brandishing their weapons aloft. The steel of their swords and spears shone in the dark, fiery glow of the city.
            Jaedor, Preacher Cassidus, and his sole-remaining, hideous disciple fled. Jaedor’s arm and chest flared in agony as he swung his arms in a sprint, and he felt the ragged, torn flesh under his bandage rub and roll as he ran. Behind him ran Cassidus, and before him Johnas – whose dark robes had darkened further at the front, where he had wet himself as he had fled.
            They burst from the alley and were in another large street, surrounded on all sides by tall, timber-framed houses. There were more of the Maedarian rebels in this street, only they were too preoccupied herding several large groups of terrified civilians back and forth to try and stop Jaedor and his unwanted companions. As they ran down its length, dodging bodies and makeshift barricades of boards and barrels, more shouts erupted from behind them. ‘Stop them!’ someone cried. ‘Don’t let them get away!’
            Jaedor had always been a capable runner, despite his thinness. He took care to eat well and walk everywhere he could, and his legs were more than capable of carrying his slight weight. He overtook Johnas quickly, and caught a glance of his wide-eyed, tearful face as he passed. The armed and armoured mercenaries and Vidorian defectors behind them struggled to keep up in their heavy armour, encumbered by their weapons and shields. Jaedor did not dare glance back again, and kept his hand around his precious leather pad of sketches.
            Then, from nowhere, came the thundering of heavy hooves. A huge, white warhorse with a mounted rider upon its back raced past Jaedor and turned about in front of him. Jaedor staggered to a halt, and found himself face-to-face with a tall, blonde-haired man in an ornate suit of fine steel armour: a bloody red plume rose from the back of his helmet, and his tabard, which lacked all markings of house or loyalty, was also completely red. He held a longsword in his fist, slathered in blood and gore, and pointed it squarely at Jaedor’s face.
            For a moment, Jaedor thought of turning about and running in another direction – he could see another narrow alley some twenty paces away between two tall townhouses, and he was sure the horse would not be able to fit down it. He poised himself, backing away from the rider slowly, making ready to flee again.
            ‘Don’t even think about it,’ the tall man said and raised the visor on his helmet. He was a young, blonde-haired man who spoke in a level, stern voice that was as cold as a mountain wind. ‘As it stands, my father may yet let you live. If you run, I’ll just put my blade in your skull. What is your name?’
            Jaedor swallowed and looked up at the mounted man. ‘Jaedor Gaelon,’ he said.
            ‘You’re a Heartlander?’ the mounted man said.
            Jaedor thought about lying, but the tall blonde man’s cold, grey eyes harrowed him. There was an authoritarian blankness in his expression that chilled Jaedor – here was a man who had split a thousand skulls and likely ranked them in favourites. ‘I was born in the Imperial Heartlands. I’m a student who studies at the Imperial University,’ Jaedor said quietly.
            The blonde man nodded. ‘I see. I am Carl Heimsvart – some call me Carl the Red, though I’ve no idea why – and these men are mine. You are an enemy of my father and are not welcome in his kingdom – who are these ugly, greasy men you travel with?’
            Soldiers were all around him, suddenly. He heard the weeping Johnas thrown to the floor beside him, where from the smell, he promptly wet himself again. Some of the brightly-coloured men-at-arms laughed, and one of them kicked the weeping, ghoulish man in the groin. ‘I do not know these men,’ Jaedor said quickly. ‘They followed me when we fled.’
Carl the Red nodded, and for a moment looked as if he was about to let Jaedor go. He raised a hand and nodded his head, but when he opened his mouth, so did Preacher Cassidus. The dark-skinned, dark-haired Eagle Islander raised his hands to the dark sky and waved his fists at the silver slither of moonlight beyond the thick covering of night-time cloud. ‘Curse you, Azgorha!’ he cried. ‘Curse you, for you have taken the sweet light with which Vidoria will guide us to the Promised Land!’
            At the mention of Vidoria’s name, Carl the Red’s blank, cold face contorted into a terrible snarl. ‘Priests,’ he snarled. His eyes turned lethal and he glared at Jaedor. ‘How dare you lie to me? All those who fraternise with the so-called Divine Empress should be burned. Take all three of them to Fidelas Square and have them executed.’
            ‘No!’ Jaedor cried and stepped forwards. As he did so, heavy hands grabbed him and pulled him back. Pain shot through his shoulder-wound as one of Carl the Red’s mercenaries grabbed him. ‘I am no priest! Look! I’m taking sketches! Sketches for a book!’ He tried to reach the heavy pad at his waist, but another mail-clad hand grabbed his arm and dragged him backwards.
            Carl the Red sheathed his sword and pointed straight at Cassidus. ‘You are filth,’ he snarled. ‘You call the lies you spread “light”, and the old ways and traditions it burns away “shadows”, when, in-truth, all you spread is hatred and bigotry. No-more shall the Divine Empress’ fiery, all-consuming eye burn Maedar. Your faiths shall all be tested by the flames which she spreads. Take them to the square! Ready the pyres!’
            Behind Jaedor, Johnas began to wail. ‘No! I am no man of faith, I only followed this raving Islander lunatic to get away from my gambling debts! Please, don’t burn me! Don’t burn me!’
            Jaedor struggled for a few more moments, but the men around him were too strong. In three small groups, the shrieking Johnas, the silent Preacher Cassidus, and the softly cursing Jaedor were led away, through Palvia’s broken streets.
            After some half-an-hour of walking across shattered glass, burned beams and bodies, the three small groups passed through a neat, green park close to the Inner-City’s huge moat-like earthwork. Some of the largest townhouses flanked the park on all sides, and the wide, grassy green place was almost untouched by the violence. Close to the edge, far away from where Jaedor and the others were being dragged, a small group of Vidorian defectors and mercenaries were drinking heavily from a large cask they had pillaged. Jaedor clenched his jaw and tried to think of some way to escape. I have to find Derryk, and I have to get out of this city, he thought. I have to take word to the Heartlands of what has happened. I have to return my sketchbook to Professor Kerras.
            Angrily, Jaedor stared at Cassidus, who was being escorted roughly by four of the Maedarian mercenaries in the group ahead of him. If you’d just kept your useless mouth shut, he thought. He wanted to break free and pummel Preacher Cassidus, then toss the despicable Johnas – who was in the lead group, weeping and wailing as he went – down the great ditch that separated the Outer-City from the Inner-City. Perhaps he’ll wet himself again – you could fill the Inner-City’s moat with the amount of urine he’s spent this night.
            Suddenly, there was a hand at his waist. ‘The Rogue provides!’ one of the mercenaries, a bearded fellow in a dented pot-helmet and a sturdy-looking chestplate, whooped and laughed. Jaedor felt the large pouch of coin that Leodulf had given him detach from where he had hidden it, tucked under the hem of his tatty doublet, and saw the mercenary lift it into the air. ‘See? As soon as we got rid of that pox of a Divine Harlot, the Old Gods provide!’
            ‘Will you be quiet?’ a second of the colourful mercenaries said, this one in a steel greathelm and a coat of shiny mail. He held a spiked mace in his gauntleted fist and wore a bright blue undercoat. ‘You’re as bad as that bishop we burned and that Mother we hanged. Besides, I saw that coin first. Give it here!’
            ‘If you saw it first, why didn’t you take it?’ The first guard said, spitting in the dirt. ‘Ha! There must be several hundred silver in here! How’d you get all this?’ he said, glancing at Jaedor, ‘From reading books?’
            ‘Something like that,’ Jaedor muttered
            The second mercenary growled under his helmet. ‘Share it out,’ the greathelm-wearing fellow said, letting go of Jaedor’s wounded left arm and stepping forwards. ‘We’re all entitled to some of that – we’ve dragged this wretch together.’
            ‘Back off,’ the first mercenary said. He let go of Jaedor’s other arm and put his fist around the hilt of a wide dagger he had at his waist. ‘I found it, I’m keeping it.’
            Suddenly, the second mercenary raised his fist and drove it hard into the first man’s jaw. There was a spurt of blood and a cry of agony. The two mercenaries began to scuffle, shoving and punching each other. The third man holding Jaedor let go and rushed forwards, trying to place himself between his two companions, and at that moment, Jaedor took his chance.
            He ducked and twisted as fast as he could, ignoring the agony that shot through his arm as he did so. The final mercenary holding him stumbled and lost his grip, letting out a cry of alarm as Jaedor whizzed away, running as fast as he could towards the edge of the small, green park. He dashed past the trees, skipping over exposed roots and small beds of ornamental flowers. Behind him, he could hear the soldiers yelling and calling out for someone to intercept him, but he was too fast. No bows and arrows, he thought to himself as he ran. Please, no-more bows and arrows.
With every moment that passed, he expected to feel another arrow tear through his flesh. He had been so lucky the first time – the arrow had just missed all his important veins and arteries – and he did not wish to test his luck again. The shouts of the mercenaries grew more distant as he dodged his way through the park’s bushes and trees. In no time at all, his swift legs had carried him to the edge of the small, green space, and he was approaching the side of a large townhouse that marked the park’s edge. It was ringed by a low, neat hedge, and it sides were studded with many large, leaded windows and criss-crossed with dark timber beams. The building looked as if it had been undamaged by the fighting, and as Jaedor hurtled over the low, green hedge, he saw a young Human man and woman cowering behind it. Without so much as a thought, Jaedor leapt forwards and hurled himself at one of the windows.
It shattered under his weight and Jaedor crashed hard into the glass-strewn floor inside the house. He felt the flesh on his chest, face and arms tear, but he was away. Ignoring the pain scything through his body, and the renewed agony in his shoulder wound, he scrambled to his feet and began to run anew. He tore through the well-decorated halls of the smart, empty townhouse. He ignored the fine chandeliers and tapestries that hung here and there, and did not pause to look at the many tomes on the high bookshelf – only touching the heavy pad of pictures at his waist to ensure it was still there, which it was.
When he found the heavy front door, he kicked it open and ran out into the street. The sky above was smoke-black, and lit in places by the fires still raging in the city. The far-off chorus of battle had subsided, and the streets Jaedor found himself in were practically empty. Every now and then he passed groups of scavengers, picking over bodies or breaking into empty houses, but none of them made any move to stop him as he ran.
Derryk is in Fidelas Square, Jaedor thought as he ran. I have to find him, and we have to escape. Though he had no idea how he would fulfil either of his objectives, Jaedor was determined not to give up. I will never sleep another night knowing I had abandoned my friend to die in a miserable hovel like this. I must find him, I will find him.
*

It was nearing midnight when Jaedor finally found his way to Fidelas Square. For a quarter of an hour, he had wandered aimlessly, lost and afraid to ask any of the ne’er-do-wells he passed for directions. His money had been stolen, he was wounded, and all he had was his precious sketchbook which he would never give up. When he was on the verge of losing up all hope of ever finding Derryk again, he heard a far-off, powerful voice drifting upon the smoke-filled air of Palvia. Jaedor had begun to run towards the source the moment he heard it.
For a usurpation of power, the so-called King Aelfurd has done a wonderful job of trashing his own city, Jaedor thought bitterly as he swiftly made his way through bloodied streets decked in shattered glass and burned-out timbers. Trees, once ornamental in the richer streets, were aflame or had been torn up at the root to obstruct further passage. The richest houses had been ruthlessly pillaged, and dark-eyed, baggage-laden figures crouched in alleyways counting their ill-gotten spoils.
Twice, Jaedor was almost caught by groups of patrolling rebels. Carl the Red’s mercenaries were everywhere, themselves looting the homes of the people they claimed to be saving from the Vidorian Empire. Jaedor saw them wrestling kegs from the arms of disgruntled tavernkeepers, pulling abandoned food and drink from within empty houses, and shoving innocent people trying to hide from the carnage this way and that. The former Vidorians were more organised, though. They continued to follow designated patrol routes in their defaced armour and remained alert, watching for any sign of trouble.
Seeing so many former Vidorian Legionnaires in defaced armour explained the group that Jaedor and Derry had passed earlier that morning. King Aelfurd sent them elsewhere so that when the time came, he would have loyal men in other parts of his new kingdom, Jaedor thought. It was a sound tactic – one that rang a bell. As he walked, Jaedor wondered if he had read of the tactic being used before in one of the many military treatises he had read in his life.
Soon, though, he found himself close to Fidelas Square. Carefully, he pushed himself into the thronging crowd of scared, panicked individuals, whose gazes were all directed towards the centre of the great square plaza. The great open space was on all sides flanked by high buildings, most of which appeared to have been untouched by the fighting. At its centre was a tall and wide wooden platform, and Jaedor could see many figures upon it. The great, wide place was crammed full of people and packed with many mercenaries and defectors. However, the thousands of common folk there vastly outnumbered them.
They were all twitchy and uneasy, like a herd of horses on the verge of stampeding. As Jaedor pushed his way through the crowd, towards the high wooden platform with the figures on, he feared someone would panic and strike him, or someone would cry out and all would turn to chaos. The very voice that had drawn Jaedor to the great square also made the crowd flinch, and every sharp syllable made some of the folk present recoil. Jaedor could feel the tension. He could feel the danger.
‘Look upon these men!’ the figure whose voice had guided Jaedor to Fidelas Square cried as he approached the large wooden platform. ‘Each of them has defiled the faith which our ancestors held so dearly. They pass laws that call for us to be burned should we go back to the ways of our forefathers!’
 Soon, Jaedor was at the very front of the crowd with a clear enough view of the people on the platform to see what was going on. The figure who was shouting was an older looking man with long, grey hair to his waist and a lined, shaven face, creased with anger, bitterness, and volatility. He wore a dark red robe and had his hands raised high above his head. Behind him, upon the hastily-constructed wooden platform, Jaedor could see some two-dozen figures all lashed to tall, high stakes surrounded by small, dry pieces of wood. Pyres, he thought. They’re going to burn them. He looked desperately for Derryk, but could see him nowhere.
‘For so long, the Twelve Old Gods have been confined to the dark shadows cast by the all-consuming light of the Empire’s terrible false goddess,’ the red-robed priest of the Old Gods cried. ‘The Warrior’s axe was broken by the darkness her light cast, and the Mage was burned at the stake for the so-called crime of magical knowledge. The learning of the Scholar has faded to dust, and the King was usurped long ago. The Rogue, the Maiden and the Witch have all fled into hiding for fear of suffering for crimes they did not commit, whilst the Prophet was gagged and tossed aside, a slave!’
The priest of the Old Gods paused for a moment and gestured to the huge crowd with a pointed finger. ‘There are yet more!’ he cried. ‘The crimes against the Old Gods are numerous! The Shadow was burned by the Divine Empress’ fires, and the Smith’s hammer has been tossed aside. The Lover has wept for those she lost, and the Hangman has been cast into his own noose. But no more! Today, those who have defiled we who loved and cherished our ancestors shall be punished! The fires of their false faith shall consume them, and in those blazes shall the Old Gods be reborn anew! Death to the Vidorian Empire! Long-live the Kingdom of Maedar and King Aelfurd!’
Jaedor shrank back into the crowds of people when two figures appeared beside the priest. One was a tall man, perhaps in his late forties. His hair was iron-grey and his face thickly bearded. He wore an emerald green tunic and a heavy wolfskin cloak about his shoulders. Upon his head was a magnificent golden crown, encrusted with many jewels and engraved intricately. Jaedor had never seen Aelfurd before, but he looked every inch a king. Beside stood a tall, blonde-haired and grey-eyed man whom Jaedor recognised all too well – Carl the Red.
The son of King Aelfurd’s eyes scanned the silent crowds. Jaedor quickly ducked behind a tall, broad man beside him when he felt the iron-grey gaze alight on his position. He stayed there for a few moments, lost in the crowd, and waited for someone to speak before he re-emerged from where he had stooped.
‘This is a great day for the Kingdom of Maedar,’ King Aelfurd’s voice rang out. ‘For too long have we suffered under the yoke of the Empire’s oppression. On this day, we cast off the hands of faith and the claws of steel that have constrained our people for too long. These men before you are the Empire’s finest priests in our lands. Now, before you, we shall confine them to the flames of the so-called Divine Empress. We shall-…’
The king was interrupted by a scuffling sound from the far-side of the platform. A dozen of Carl the Red’s mercenaries appeared, escorting with them two familiar-looking charges. ‘Two more,’ one of the mercenary men said.
            Jaedor looked at the group. He could see the pot-helmeted mercenary who had taken his money: his lip was split and there was a hefty cut on his cheek. The greathelm-wearing man beside him now had a familiar-looking bag of coin tucked into his heavy leather belt and a wide grin on his face. From behind them, Preacher Cassidus, dark-skinned and greasy-haired, was dragged forwards. His companion, Johnas, appeared beside him, tossed to the floor by the men who had carried him. He was still crying, and the front of his robe was sodden with urine.
            King Aelfurd looked at his son, Carl. Both men nodded in unison, and the king raised a hand. ‘Do we have any more pyres?’ he said.
            ‘I fear not, father,’ Carl the Red said.
            ‘Oh, a shame,’ the king said. ‘Very well, cut off their heads.’
            A ripple of horror went through the crowd, a mumble of malcontent and fear. The priest of the Old Gods stepped forwards, stopping before Johnas, whilst the biggest of Carl the Red’s mercenaries on the platform – a tall, fattening man in a thick leather hood and a full set of mail over his heavy tunic – readied his large sword.
            The Old God priest stooped before Johnas. ‘What is your name?’ he said in a cold, authoritative voice. ‘Speak now, and the Old Gods may yet look favourably upon you.’
‘Johnas Onnet,’ the wet-faced, ghoulish man said as he raised himself to his knees. ‘Please, I am no Vidorian, I’m-…’
            ‘The Warrior looks down upon cowards,’ the dark-eyed Maedarian Old God priest said. ‘The Mage and the Scholar turn their eyes from you in disgust, and the King – he who is temporal, and he who is beyond – does not lift the order for your death.’
            Johnas opened his mouth and a terrible, long moan came out. He began to try and scrabble away, but the big mercenary placed a heavy boot on his back and hacked down at Johnas’ neck before any more protests or struggling could take place. The blow was clean and hard, and Johnas’ hideously faced and dirty-haired head rolled away from the rest of his body. For a few moments, his blood-spurting corpse writhed and jolted, before falling still. Beside him, Preacher Cassidus said nothing.
            As Jaedor gazed at the scene before him, the crowd on all sides began to bristle and shuffled nervously. Each and every person in the crowd was scared, waiting for an excuse to get away from the horrible scene unfolding before them. I have to do something, Jaedor thought. He could not see Derryk still, though his cracked, dirty glasses were hardly aiding his poor vision. As the Maedarian priest began to ask Preacher Cassidus his name, an idea struck Jaedor.
            ‘Imperials!’ he cried at the top of his voice, ducking into the crowd, out of sight. ‘Everybody run! The Empire is coming!’
            At first, nothing happened. The people immediately around him span and glared at him as if he had gone mad. King Aelfurd, Carl the bloody, and the assemblage of men upon the raised platform looked around incredulously, but before any of them could speak, someone on the far-side of the square screamed.
            Jaedor knew neither who had screamed nor why they had let out such a terrible, shrill cry, but before he had time to think, Fidelas Square turned into a seething pit of boiling terror. Everyone tried to flee at once, all going in different directions. Jaedor was knocked to the ground by a pair of surly dwarfs holding each other’s hands so as to not get separated, and for a few moments was lost under a great tide of stampeding feet. He was certain he would die, crushed and flattened by the terrible tide of terrified people, but, despite the agony wrenching his arm, he fought to his feet and ran towards the high platform.
Jaedor seized his moment, provided by the chaos once again rampant in the streets, and jumped onto the wooden platform. Someone had set light to perhaps eight of the stakes’ pyres, and various men and women in the garb of the Vidorian faith fought against their rope-bonds and screamed as the flames crept every closer to them.
            King Aelfurd and Carl the Red had vanished, along with all the mercenaries who had been on the platform. The only people who remained, along with the two-dozen men strapped to stakes, were Preacher Cassidus and the Maedarian priest. The two of them were locked in a vicious scrap on the platform, clawing at each other’s eyes. The presence of a burning torch close to where they fought identified the Old God priest and the man who had alighted the pyres.
            ‘Jaedor!’ someone cried. ‘Jaedor, over here! Help me! Oh, by the Divine Empress, help me!’
            Jaedor span desperately. Then he saw a familiar bob of ludicrously curled hair atop a short figure. The stake to which Derryk was lashed was aflame, and the kindling at his feet was already almost fully consumed. Jaedor rushed forwards, ignoring the pleas and cries from others for his help.
Without a thought for his own safety, Jaedor leapt onto the fiery kindling and scrambled to the top of the dense pile of dry twigs and branches. Derryk let out a cry – something between terror and elation – as Jaedor grabbed hold of the ropes tied around him. ‘Don’t let me die!’ he wailed. ‘Please, Jaedor, don’t let me die!’
             Jaedor made no reply. Instead, he took his teeth to the ropes around Derryk. He had no knife, for he had lost his blade back at the Red Resthouse, and nothing on his person was sharp enough to cut through the ropes. The flesh of his legs began to get unbearably hot, and Derryk’s cries worse and worse as the flames got closer and closer. His mouth filled with sinewy, dry fibres and blood, but, like a starving dog with a bone, he kept chewing. Around him, some of the other Vidorian faithful were already aflame: a Mother, in her white dress of purity, screamed and gargled as her flesh began to melt. Beside her, another priest was already gone – fully cloaked in a golden cape of fire. The others simply continued to scream in terror.
            ‘Jaedor! Hurry!’ Derryk cried. Around them, the square was still in chaos. Fights had broken out between the Maedarian mercenaries and groups of loyal Vidorian civilians. A handful of Imperial Legionnaires, still loyal to the Divine Empress, had appeared from somewhere and were engaged in a ruthless and bloody skirmish with another group of mercenaries on the far-side of the square. The spaces in-between were full of people still running, mercenaries trying to bring order, and countless bodies of the injured and dead, trampled under the feet of the rushing crowds.
            ‘Hurry! Hurry!’ Derryk cried.
            I’d like to see you do this, Jaedor thought coldly as he continued to bite and gnaw at his friend’s bonds. The backs of his legs were blistering in the heat from the fire, and he knew he had only a few moments before his clothes would take up the flame. With one final effort, Jaedor heaved on the rope as hard as he could – it snapped in his hands. As fast as his weary, bloody fingers could move, he untangled his friend.
            The two of them leapt from the stake as fast as they could. Still, Preacher Cassidus was engaged in his struggle with the Old God priest. A knife had appeared between them, a long, wicked blade with sharp edges and a needle-point. The priest held it in his hand, only a few hairs’ width from Cassidus’ left eye as they grappled on the floor.
Jaedor rushed forwards, his whole body aching with pain – from the fire, from the shards of broken glass, and from the arrow-wound in his shoulder – and kicked the Maedarian priest as hard as he could, right in the middle of his face. The older man’s nose crumpled, and the knife flew from his hand. ‘Derryk!’ he cried, ‘Grab the knife and cut the others free!’
Derryk scuttled forwards, his face blackened with soot and his half-moon spectacles cracked and bent upon his nose. The short man scrambled for the dagger whilst Jaedor joined Cassidus’ grapple with the priest of the Old Gods. Jaedor locked his arms around the priest’s neck and dragged him off Preacher Cassidus, who lay dazed and stunned upon the wooden decking of the platform. For a man old in appearance, the Maedarian priest had a great deal of strength in his arms. Jaedor found his grip was not enough against the priest, and soon his assailant was almost free. ‘You shall all burn!’ he cried. ‘The Hangman’s noose descends! The hellish fires of the Demon Empress cannot scorch his snare!’
The priest rolled over and broke free from Jaedor’s arms. He lunged forwards and grabbed Jaedor around the throat and began to beat his head against the wood of the platform. Dazed, exhausted, and in far too much pain to make a reasonable response to the Maedarian priest’s show of ferocity, Jaedor found himself going limp. At least Derryk can escape, he thought as he felt his word darken and begin to go cold. He stands a chance now. He stands-…
His hand brushed the heavy sketchbook at his hip. Still attached by its chain, it hung where it had for weeks. With his last remaining vein of energy, Jaedor seized his trophy of academia – his crowning glory, his achievement and his mission – in both his hands and smote the priest the heaviest blow he could across the head with it. There was a loud crack that split through the rumbling chaos of Fidelas Square and the priest let out a cry and fell sideways. Suddenly, Jaedor could breathe again.
Staggering to his weary and bloodied knees, the young scholar raised the heavy book over the priest’s head and brought it down again and again and again. He inflicted blow after blow upon the older man’s head whilst the prostrate figure below him tried to fight him off with ever weakening punches and lashes. Blood from the Maedarian priest’s nose and face saturated the pages, but soon the older man fell still.
Exhausted, Jaedor toppled backwards. He filled his lungs with the smoke-filled air, heavy with the odour of charred flesh and incinerated hair. For a moment, he gazed at the bloody sketchbook. He opened its pages and found them soggy with gore and torn in places. The spine of the sketchbook and broken, and some of the pages were horribly creased. Kerras will never accept this, Jaedor thought – but he did not care, he was alive.
Around him, the chaos continued – chaos he had started. People were still trapped in Fidelas Square, caught amongst the various groups of rebels and insurgents that Jaedor could no-longer tell the difference between. As he lay on the wooden platform and gazed at the blood, fire, and death about him, he found everyone to be dangerous – whether armed with a blade or not. Trampling feet, slashing steel, raw terror, he thought as he watched the various whirling combats in the square continue.
Two dark hands grabbed him by his tatty tunic, and Jaedor was being hauled to his feet. Preacher Cassidus’ yellow eyes greeted him, and the stench of his breath washed over Jaedor’s bloodied face. ‘Thank-you,’ the dark-skinned and black-haired Eagle Islander said. ‘You saved me.’
Jaedor could not respond, and kept breathing heavily. He patted Preacher Cassidus’ arm and staggered past him. Derryk was cutting down the last living Vidorian prisoner, though six had been consumed by the flames. His curly-haired companion ran back towards Jaedor as soon as he was done, clutching the long, sharp knife awkwardly in his hands. ‘I couldn’t help them all,’ he said in a choked voice, ‘two of them – they begged but they were already on fire. I-… I tried to help them, I swear, I-…’   Cassidus’ hands appeared again, interjecting between Jaedor and Derryk. ‘The flames of the Divine Empress will purge their bodies of all sin,’ he said in a cracked, exhausted voice. ‘She saw your strength and courage, and for that you are no longer a Liar and have earned a place in her Promised Land. You cannot now mourn, for the demon Azgorha is yet all around us. Together, we shall escape this place.’
Derryk, wide-eyed and ashen-faced, looked at Preacher Cassidus, whom he had just that day had a public falling-out with. ‘What…?’ he said in a weak breath, wracked with confusion. ‘You’re the lunatic preacher from before! Why are you helping? I don’t…’
Jaedor stepped forwards as Derryk trailed off. ‘Now is not the time,’ he said in the sternest voice he could muster – which, in truth, was not very stern at all, but in the present company it hardly mattered. ‘We need to get out of here, as quickly as we can!’

*

Jaedor was unsure whether or not he was the one to blame for the complete chaos the streets of Palvia had exploded into once again. The fighting, which seemed to have initially quelled quite quickly, had erupted once again following what had taken place in Fidelas Square. People were being rounded up anew – civilians forced into their homes, and the large army of mercenaries which had marched into the city was now far more visible than they had been.
            ‘They went to the south side of the city,’ Derryk told Jaedor in a whisper as the two of them and Preacher Cassidus crouched in the shattered storefront of a looted tailor. ‘The Empire had a garrison there, and that is where the worst of the fighting took place.’
            ‘How did you get caught?’ Jaedor asked quietly.
            Derryk glanced out through the large, shattered window to see if the patrol they were hiding from had passed. Quickly, he ducked down and lowered his voice. ‘I got lost without you,’ he muttered. ‘I thought you were dead. When Carl the Red’s reinforcements came in through the gate and you went down, I just ran away from them. I found myself almost being followed by the main body of the army, and realised I was heading south. I stumbled upon the massacre outside the garrison – the Legion was annihilated. As I tried to flee from there, I ran straight into a group of Maedarian defectors, who dragged me to the square.’
            ‘She provides, even against the servants of the demon Azgorha,’ Cassidus said, a faraway look in his yellowed eyes. ‘She will lead us all from this city and to the Promised Land beyond the sunset.’
            Derryk sniffed sharply and wrinkled his small nose. ‘Now, look here,’ he said in an irritated snivel. ‘I don’t know who you think you’re speaking for, but I assure you, it isn’t the Divine Empress. She has no Promised Land, and there is no demon called Azgorha.’
            Preacher Cassidus sighed from where he crouched under a cracked table. ‘But how can you know this? She comes to me in dreams! She fills my head with light and-…’
            ‘I’ll have you know that what you spread is heresy,’ Derryk said with a waggle of his finger.
            Jaedor rolled his eyes and adjusted his round spectacles. ‘We haven’t the time for this nonsense,’ he said. ‘You can have this debate once we’re outside of Palvia and away from the people trying to kill us all.’
            Derryk screwed his face up in protest for a moment and took a deep breath. Jaedor could tell he was panicking, but doing his best to hold it at bay. ‘Alright,’ he said, quietly. ‘What do you propose we do?’
            ‘I read a story once,’ Jaedor said, fondly touching the bloodied cover of his broken sketchpad, ‘you may have heard of it, it’s about a dwarf called Grimnir the Giantslayer. Grimnir was adventuring through the Empire’s lands one day-…’
            ‘We don’t have time for the whole story,’ Derryk hissed. ‘Tell us the important part.’
            ‘Sorry,’ Jaedor said quickly. ‘Well, at one point Grimnir escapes captivity by navigating a set of sewers-…’
            ‘No,’ Derryk said firmly and waved a hand. ‘I’ve just got out of one awful place, I’m not hurling myself into another. Think of something else.’
            ‘What?’ Jaedor said and gestured wildly with his good arm. ‘The gates are shut, I very much doubt access is granted in to or out of the city. What do you suggest?’
            Derryk thought for a moment. ‘We could take their armour,’ he said. ‘We could dress up like them and-…’
            Jaedor snorted. ‘Firstly, any armour we scavenge will be damaged and blood-covered. Secondly, none of us have any idea how to get into or out of armour, or what Carl the Red’s mercenaries do for patrol routes. This leads me to the third thing: if we are challenged, what can we do? None of us can fight, and in ill-fitting armour, I doubt we’d be able to run away!’
            Derryk’s eyes narrowed and he glared at Jaedor. ‘So, what, we go scrambling through other people’s sh-…’
            ‘Sometimes,’ Preacher Cassidus said in a slow, thoughtful voice, ‘the safest place to hide from Azgorha is inside him. He never expects his enemy to be within.’
            Jaedor and Derryk both peered at the greasy preacher, whose face was pulled into a cringe of smile. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Derryk hissed. ‘Not to mention Azgorha doesn’t even exist.’
            ‘The sewers,’ Preacher Cassidus said. ‘My blessed martyr, Johnas, once went into the sewers on a quest to fight and slay a basilisk there. He said he saw a great, worm-like creature there, but scared it off with a shout.’
            ‘More-like scared it off with his face,’ Jaedor muttered under his breath.
            ‘A basilisk?’ Derryk scoffed. ‘You and your friends really are full of rubbish. You mean to tell me he saw a six-eyed, snake-like creature the size of a sea-faring vessel in the sewers under Palvia? Nonsense!’
            Preacher Cassidus rose to his feet. ‘Blessed Johnas is with Vidoria now, and wields a great sword of fire in her ever-lasting battle against Azgorha. Do not insult him, for otherwise he shall see to it that you are left behind when She comes to take us to Her Promised Land.’
            ‘Right, you listen here,’ Derryk said, scrambling to his feet. So short was he, he barely came up to Preacher Cassidus’ chest. ‘I’ve had quite enough of your heretical nonsense. I’m no man of great faith, despite my garb, but I don’t like it when people get things so wrong.’
            Jaedor rolled his eyes and glanced out of the wrecked shop-front. ‘The street is clear,’ he said to his two quarrelling companions. ‘If you two can just give it a rest for just a moment, I think I can see an entrance to the sewers not far away.’
            ‘Does he have to come with us?’ Derryk moaned.
            Jaedor glared through his cracked, round-lensed spectacles at his short, curly-haired friend. ‘We’d probably both be dead if it wasn’t for Cassidus,’ he said firmly. ‘Whether or not you agree with whatever it is he preaches, you do owe him a debt.’
            Jaedor jumped through the wrecked front of the tall shop and back out into the street beyond. Behind him, he heard Derryk mutter and mumble darkly to himself as he struggled to manoeuvre over the large, broken wreckage of the tailor’s shop. Behind him, Cassidus made no such complaints and instead continued to gaze at the burning city beyond, a faraway, vacant look in his dark eyes.
            Quickly, Jaedor led his companions across the street. The cobbles under his feet were bloody, for a terrible skirmish had taken place outside whilst they hid in the tailor’s ruined shop. Vidorian Legionnaires and Maedarian mercenaries were scattered across the cobbled road, some dead, others dying. A mercenary, his bright blue tunic stained with blood and his mail pierced by a great spear which protruded from his stomach, groaned at them as they passed and tried to clutch hold of them. Jaedor ignored him, though Derryk recoiled in disgust. Preacher Cassidus instead glared at the dying man. ‘Azgorha take you, for you are an evil thing,’ he said and raised his arms to the dark sky.
            ‘Come on, we don’t have time for this,’ Jaedor hissed. Once Preacher Cassidus had begun to follow them again, Jaedor led the two men down a narrow street between an unscathed warehouse and a pillaged butcher’s – a whole pig’s carcass had been tossed out of the front window of the low building and lay abandoned in the road, peppered with shards of glass.
            As Jaedor had hoped, a low hatch waited at the bottom of the dead-end street. The sounds of far-off battle ringing around him, he hurried towards the wooden trapdoor. As he bent to try and grab the worn-wood handle, his whole body flared in a great throb of pain and he toppled forwards, reaching out with his good arm to steady himself. His shoulder-wound was bleeding anew, and the numerous cuts and burns covering his body from the shattered glass he had landed on stung as if he was being assaulted by a whole swarm of wasps.
            ‘Derryk, get the trapdoor,’ Jaedor said in a weak voice.
            Mumbling and muttering to himself bitterly, Derryk begrudgingly did as Jaedor bid and heaved the trapdoor open. As he did so, he cried out: ‘Ah! My hand!’
            Jaedor shot upright. ‘What is it?’ he said, his concern for his friend overriding his own pain.
            Derryk began to clutch at his right hand. ‘A splinter! I’ve got a splinter! It hurts awfully.’
            You hurt?!’ Jaedor snapped. ‘I’ve been shot with an arrow, Derryk! I’ve been beaten and battered and burned in my quest to find you, and you’re going to whine about a splinter?’ Jaedor took a long, steadying breath. ‘Get into the sewer before I push you down there!’ he said after a moment’s pause.
            His face wrinkled with disgust, Derryk begrudgingly lowered himself into the hole the hatch had revealed. ‘There’s a ladder,’ he called. ‘It’s not very big and it’s terribly old. Only come down one at a time-…pwoahr! The smell!’
            Jaedor walked to the edge of the narrow entrance, about to chastise Derryk for his moaning, when a great waft of fetid air blew into his face – air upon which the rotten odour of an entire city’s excrement was carried. Coughing and gagging, Jaedor leaned away from the hole.
            Preacher Cassidus appeared at Jaedor’s side and leaned over the hole. ‘Are you nearly down?’ he called, apparently completely unfazed by the wretched stench from the sewers.
            After a few moments, a terrible retching sound came from below, followed by a tell-tale splattering sound and a long groan. ‘It’s awful, I don’t know if I can-…’
            A shout came from behind Jaedor. ‘You!’
            Spinning around, Jaedor found the entrance to the narrow dead-end street they had walked down cut off. Half a dozen Maedarian mercenaries stood there, and at its head was a tall man in a fine suit of steel armour. His bloody-red plume was repentant in the fiery night, and his longsword was raised. Oh no…
‘They’re Vidorians,’ Carl the Red yelled, levelling his sword at Jaedor and Preacher Cassidus, ‘get them!’
            ‘Hurry!’ Jaedor cried, as the Maedarians behind him began to charge. Preacher Cassidus dived into the hatch and onto the ladder, scrambling down it as fast as his baggy, dirty habit would allow. Footsteps hammered behind Jaedor, and he leapt onto the ladder, yanking the trapdoor closed as he went. It slammed shut with a crash, and from above Jaedor heard Carl the Red’s voice, ordering his men to open the hatch and follow them.
            Hand over hand, Jaedor began to scramble down the damp, rotting wooden ladder. The sewer around them was pitch-black, and the smell was like nothing Jaedor had ever experienced before. Then, as Jaedor reached for his next handhold, he heard a terrible snap as the ladder broke and all of a sudden there was nothing but air around him. He jarred his arm as he fell, crashing through the remaining rungs of the ladder as he plunged downwards. The slimy stone ground of the sewer rushed up to meet him, and with a bone-shaking thump, he crashed into the floor in a shower of rotten splinters and mouldy wood. Again, his entire body wracked with pain and pain shot through his right side. I’ve broken my ribs, he thought. I’ve broken my bloody ribs.
            ‘Jaedor!’ the wounded young scholar heard his two companions cry. Momentarily helpless and groaning with pain, Jaedor felt two pairs of hands grab him by his filthy, blood-soaked tunic and drag him backwards, further down the wide, reeking tunnel of the deep, dark sewer.
Suddenly, there was light in the dark sewer from above him as he was dragged, writhing in pain down the clammy near pitch-black tunnel. Opening his eyes, he looked up and saw Carl the Red’s mercenaries glaring down at him from the hatch which they had got open again. ‘They’re going to escape!’ one of them cried. ‘Someone, fetch a crossbow and hit one of them!’
‘We must hurry,’ Preacher Cassidus said in a level, calm voice. ‘We can lose them in this thick gloom, and I doubt Carl the Red himself will dare to descend into the very bowels of Azgorha.’
‘For the last time,’ Derryk snarled, struggling and slipping down the slimy tunnel, ‘there is no such thing as Azgorha! You’re in a sewer being chased by murderous bastards ­– not otherworldly demons inside Azgorha’s bowel-tract! Besides, there are no other plains of temporal existence, the Faith of the Divine Empress says so!’
Preacher Cassidus sighed and shook his head as he dragged Jaedor away into the gloom, apparently unfazed by the yelling coming from the trapdoor. ‘Azgorha is in all things – as we are in him. Only She can save us and lead us to Her Promised Land.’
Derryk snarled in frustration. ‘You don’t make any sense!’ he said as he dragged Jaedor further into the gloom. ‘What evidence is there for this so-called demon? What-…’
‘Will you both shut up?!’ Jaedor snapped, looking around from the fast-disappearing beam of weak light that poured in through the open sewer trapdoor. ‘This is not the time! Unhand me, both of you! I can walk myself, and the Maedarians aren’t following us.’ He smacked his companion’s hands away and staggered to his feet, wiping off some of the dark, sticky muck that had covered him. ‘We have to try and find an outlet – somewhere that lets us out beyond the walls of the city.’
Cassidus spoke in his slow, faraway tone. ‘When the Blessed Martyr Johnas – praise his fiery soul, for he was taken too soon by the servants of Azgorha – faced the basilisk, he did so on the south-east side of the city. It was coiled in a deep pool of waste-water, near a large outlet in the hillside.’
‘Excellent,’ Jaedor said and began to lead the group quickly away over the slippery, muck-encrusted stones in what he guessed was a south-easterly direction, ‘but I doubt he faced a basilisk. Basilisks, according to Ludwig Nicstaed’s famous bestiary, live both in and out of water. They stay near coastlines, or by rivers. They don’t dwell in city sewers, Ludwig never says anything about city sewers.’
‘Even I know that,’ Derryk said irritably and wrinkled his nose. ‘Just what was your friend doing in the sewers anyway?’
Preacher Cassidus’ pause allowed for the group’s squelching footsteps to echo through the near-pitch-black gloom. When he finally did speak, he did so quietly. ‘A wager,’ he said.
‘He was drunk, wasn’t he?’ Derryk said, triumphantly.
Cassidus paused again. ‘He had consumed several tankards of strong ale,’ he said quietly, before quickly speaking again: ‘though he was never a man to let strong drink err his senses!’
Derryk said nothing. Instead, he beamed triumphantly up at the dark-skinned Eagle Islander and folded his arms across his chest. Jaedor could see his hands were shaking, and his fire against Preacher Cassidus was Derryk’s way of trying not to panic.
The group continued in silence, glad that any fears about the existence of a basilisk within Palvia’s expansive sewers had been allayed. They seemed to stretch on infinitely, a great, winding maze of dark tunnels and narrow, slimy steps and walkways. Beyond the sounds of their feet upon the wet, sticky ground, the only noise that filled the endless, dark tunnels was the slow drip-drip of far-off, reeking water.
Jaedor continued to lead his small group of companions further and further down into the long, dark network of sewage tunnels. Occasionally, they would branch or criss-cross, and he would have to guess as to which the right one to take was. He would stop the group, and together they would peer at the slow-moving trickle of sewage beneath them and try to ascertain which way it was heading.
‘If it’s of any consequence,’ Derryk said once they had taken a right at a crossroads in the dark sewer-tunnels, ‘it does feel as if we’re heading somewhat downhill.’
‘Good,’ Jaedor muttered, ‘hopefully that means we’re heading down a drain and towards an exit somewhere.’
Cassidus’ voice floated through the stagnant air: ‘Vidoria will guide us from Azgorha’s jaws, for we have only to remain-…’
‘Look,’ Derryk snarled back, glaring up at the gangly, tall preacher. ‘I’ve had quite enough of your heretical prattle; I may not be the best priest in the World, but I do know my faith – and what you preach is heresy, Sir, and nothing else.’
‘And who tells you that I am a heretic, but other priests and bishops – the Mothers and the Archmother above them. What if they are the heretics, and they are telling you that they are correct so you spread their lies, and then you become the Liar – a servant of Azgorha yourself?’
Because there’s no such thing as Azgorha!’ Derryk cried loud, his voice echoing off the walls either side of them and bouncing away, deeper and further into the sewers. ‘You’re a mad Islander, preaching your untruths!’
Jaedor turned and cried out in anger. He had endured enough. Despite his aching, cracked ribs, his slash-marked body, and his ruined shoulder, he began to kick the thick, unwholesome slime that caked the sewer floor at Derryk and Preacher Cassidus. ‘Oh, shut up! Shut up! Shut up!’
The two other men recoiled and raised their hands to cover their faces, but Jaedor kept kicking the filth at them. It arced through the gloom in great, gloopy lumps and splattered across their clothes. ‘I’ve had enough of you both! I do not want to hear another word of your silly little quarrel! If I do from either of you I’ll leave you both down here!’
            With that, Jaedor turned and marched away as fast as his aching body would allow him. He clutched the battered remains of his precious sketchpad in his hand as he went, although it was still fastened to his belt by its chain. It felt more like a hindrance now – a wrecked icon to the time lost trying to further the world of Vidorian academia. All he had to show for his weeks of travel, hard work, and enduring Derryk, had been snatched from him in the last few hours. Blood and dirt had soaked the pages, and the blow he had struck the Maedarian priest had thoroughly snapped the spine of the pad. What an utter waste of time, he thought to himself. Professor Kerras will never agree to take this, never.
            ‘Kerras will accept your work, I’m sure,’ Derryk’s voice came softly from behind Jaedor – it seemed as if the short, curly-haired man had read his thoughts. ‘Don’t worry. I’m sure he’ll understand what happened, and you’ll find a compromise.’
            Despite the voice in the back of Jaedor’s mind telling him that Derryk was wrong, the lank-haired, skinny young man managed a smile. ‘It has been quite an adventure so-far, hasn’t it?
            ‘It has,’ Derryk said quietly. Despite the gloom, Jaedor saw his face wobble into an unhappy smile.
Derryk reached up and patted Jaedor’s wounded shoulder – apparently forgetting it to be injured. After a cry of pain from Jaedor and a torrent of apologies from Derryk, the two friends continued, their quiet companion with them – silent and melancholy in the gloom.
            When the group finally came to a fork in the tunnels, Jaedor and his companions took a right and continued a little further along the slippery tunnel. The dark, reeking network of passageways they had been trapped in suddenly took a sharp right and then, before them, was light. The group found themselves at the end of their tunnel, and were greeted by an opening which led into what would have once been a large natural cavern set into the hill on which Palvia was built. The great, wide space was on all sides covered by the same dark stone that had made up the tunnels through which the group had staggered, and these walls had many other tunnel-holes in them, leading away to other parts of the expansive sewer network that sprawled underneath the city.
These high walls flanked a wide, dark and deep pool of sluggish, grey-green sewage on all sides, into which the waste from the other sewer-tunnels was draining. Once upon a time, it would have been a natural lake of crystal-clear cave water, though now it was a dump for Palvia’s excretions. On all of its jagged, uneven sides, the lake-sized pool was surrounded by a narrow, slippery stone pathway – great pools of runoff slathered the uneven stones here and there, making them treacherous to walk upon. Heavy stalactites hung from the far-off cavern ceiling, above the group’s heads, drip-dripping into the deep, dark pool below, sending tiny, slow ripples across the surface of the thick, reeking liquid.
            But at the back of the great space was a large, wide hole in the stone wall, out of which the huge amount of sewage in the great, dark pool was draining via a long, waist-deep stone trench. Once it would have been covered by a heavy iron grate, but that had long-since broken away and been tossed aside, and through it was a tantalising glimpse of far-off, pure-white moonlight.
            ‘We’ve done it,’ Derryk said in a trembling voice. ‘We’ve escaped.’
            Quickly, the group hurried from their tunnel and scrambled down towards the narrow, slippery pathway that bordered the great lake of organic waste. It was only two paces wide, and the great, dark pit of slurry beside them leered at them like a great, stinking maw, threatening to swallow them up. The smell was unlike anything they had ever experienced before, and Jaedor, Derryk, and Preacher Cassidus all found themselves gagging and retching as they staggered around the edge of the lake of sewage.
            Just a little further, Jaedor told himself as he staggered forwards, keeping one hand pressed against the high wall for support, ignoring the occasional droplets that fell onto him from the runoff pipes above. He held his breath and marched forwards. My wounds will be infected, he thought as he went. Soon, he had skirted the horrid lake and was at the last, wide tunnel – he could see the moonlight upon the hills of the Emerald Peninsula beyond. There are surgeons and doctors in the Heartlands, the Empire has some of the finest – if I can just get out of this sewer, we’ll make it back, there is hope, we can do it, we’ll-…
            A figure stepped into the far-end of the sewer, his dark silhouette blocking the moonlight. There was a longsword in his hands and a tall, feathered plume upon his fine, steel helmet. As he began to march slowly down towards where Jaedor and his comrades stood, frozen in fear, more men appeared at his back.
            ‘What do we do?’ Derryk said in a trembling whisper. ‘We can’t-… he’s blocking the way. Jaedor, what do we do?’
            Jaedor wanted to give up. He wanted to fall to his scuffed knees and throw his hands into the air in surrender. He wanted to accept defeat and just let Carl the Red burn him. His shoulder wound was agony, sending terrible, spasmodic jolts of pain down his arm, across his chest, and up his neck. His ribs ached as if they had been hit by a hammer, whilst the burns and cuts that laced the rest of his body stung and tingled painfully.
            ‘We can run again,’ Preacher Cassidus said in a low mumble, though he sounded as if the fight had been knocked from him. ‘We could make for the other sewers and see where we end up? Perhaps find a ladder back up into the city and-…’
            Carl the Red was now but paces away, half a dozen well-armed men at his back. ‘Go on,’ he said with a laugh. ‘Flee! I’ve just become a wealthier man off the bets we placed on what you’d do! My boys all thought you’d try and re-surface somewhere in the city, but I, oh no, I had the truth of it! I thought you’d pop out here, where all the sewers connect and run off towards the South Seas!’
            Jaedor suddenly felt angry. Bets? He thought, grinding his teeth. This was a game to them, our suffering was a game. My wounds were a game. ‘You want us to run?’ Jaedor cried. ‘Then we shall! Come, chase us! Get lost in these sewers and die trying to eat the excrement of the innocent people your bloodshed and pillaging has supposedly “saved” from Vidorian oppression!’
            He turned and grabbed Derryk by the arm and pushed Cassidus backwards. The group all span about and began to run back the way they had come. Familiar shouts erupted from behind them, followed by the sound of heavy boots slapping upon the slimy stonework, and heavy metal armour clanking and shifting.
            Jaedor led Derryk and Preacher Cassidus back onto the edge of the huge lake of filth, his wounded legs aching and burning as he ran. As fast as their tired and battered feet could carry them, the three men began to skirt around the slimy edge of the great lake and back into the horrid gloom of the wretched, reeking sewage system. The turgid sewage-water from the many outlets above splashed down on their heads and shoulders as they scurried away as fast as they could. Twice, Derryk slipped on the uneven, slime-covered stones that made up the narrow walkway and almost fell into the reeking expanse of pool only two paces away, but both times Preacher Cassidus caught him and dragged him back to his feet.
Quite suddenly, Jaedor became aware that the Maedarian mercenaries were not following them. The sounds of their boots slapping the slimy muck that covered the great sewer-chamber had ceased, and their laughter and taunts were distant. He stopped with Derryk and Cassidus behind him, and carefully turned about to look back towards where the Maedarian mercenaries and their leader, Carl, were standing. They had not followed them far, only part-way around the great pool of sewage. Instead, Carl the Red and his brightly-coloured mercenaries had positioned themselves upon the fleeing group’s flank on an adjacent branch of the unevenly-edged pool. A good, wide arm of the stinking lake ran between them and Jaedor’s small party, but as his eyes settled upon them, a terrible fear took hold of Jaedor’s gut.
The first crossbow-bolt cracked into the wall behind them, missing Derryk’s head by a hand’s breadth. The short man screamed and slipped, falling to his knees and sliding towards the great dark lake of sewage – a sight the mercenaries excitedly whooped for. When Jaedor and Cassidus both grabbed Derryk’s arms and pulled him back to his feet, they were greeted by boos. Another crossbow bolt followed, this one going wide and ricocheting harmlessly off the wall and into the great dark pool between the two groups of men.
Jaedor stared wide-eyed through the gloom to where the mercenaries stood, cheering and yelling. Three of them had crossbows, and before Jaedor could shout a warning, the third man fired his shot. It whizzed across the lake towards them. Jaedor gasped and leapt away, slipping on the slimy stones beneath his feet and falling hard to the floor. Derryk stumbled too, trying to hold himself up as he covered his head with his hands.
The bolt smashed into Preacher Cassidus’ left knee. So powerful was the shot, and so strong the projectile that it tore the Islander’s lower-leg clean off. Blood, blackened by the gloom of the great cavern, erupted from beneath Cassidus’ robe, though he did not cry out. In silent shock, he stumbled and slipped, keeling into the great, deep lake of grey-green human runoff. There was a sucking splash as he broke the surface of the thick, terrible goop, and for a few moments he lay there, the colour of the thick fluid around him darkening. Then, quite abruptly, as if a great weight had been attached to him, he vanished below the surface and did not re-emerge.
The mercenaries and their plumed leader on the opposite bank of the sewage-lake broke into a great chorus of laughs and began to slap one-another’s back with mirth and celebration. ‘Get the others!’ Carl cried. ‘Ten silvers if you make them fall into the sewage! Ha-ha!’
But Jaedor was not listening to them. Derryk was trying to haul him away, but his eyes were fixed on the spot in the great lake where Preacher Cassidus had been. ‘Jaedor,’ Derryk hissed, his voice cracked and broken with sobs, ‘we have to try, we have to try to run! We have to-…’
Jaedor raised a hand to hush Derryk and stared, wide-eyed and the surface of the fetid lake. ‘Hush,’ he said. ‘Don’t move, and don’t make a sound.’
Derryk’s eyes were wide with terror behind his half-moon spectacles. ‘Jaedor they’re reloading,’ he hissed. ‘Jaedor, they’re going to shoot us, they’re going to-…’
Something below the surface of the pool let out a long, terrible rumble. A dark shape, as long as a ship and half as wide, slithered below the surface, sending a wave of grey-green muck towards the Maedarian mercenaries. The half-dozen men and their leader suddenly ceased their merriment, and their eyes turned to the surface of the lake, all smiles vanished from their faces.
Then, as if the grey-green lake of slime were the portent to a nightmare, a thing more vile than any creature Jaedor had ever seen and imagined burst from the surface of the thick pool of slime. It was massive – as long as the largest of ships and without both legs and arms. It was, however, no basilisk. Jaedor had read about basilisks – they were scaled and had snake-like heads. This thing had neither scales, nor any discernible head. The enormous, slime-slathered creature had a long, grey, worm-like body. Down either of its sides were a number of wide gill-like slits as tall and wide as a man was, and where its head should have been was a great maw – a sucker-like face full of hundreds and hundreds of curved, fang-like teeth.
Its colossal girth crashed down upon the Maedarian mercenaries, crushing two of them flat. It let out a horrid, wet roar from its sucker-like face, spraying thick tendrils of rotting, sewage-filled phlegm over the remaining mercenaries. The four reaming soldiers and their red-plumed leader turned to flee, desperate to escape the terrible creature.
It has no eyes, Jaedor thought as he watched the huge, worm-like monster thrash and flail amongst the Maedarian mercenaries. How does it know where they are? As Jaedor squatted silently on the edge of the thick pool of green-grey goo, Carl the Red began to yell at his men. Caught in a moment of insane valour, he tried to organise his four remaining men into a fighting force. ‘We can bring it down!’ he cried. ‘Think of the rewards! Think of the treasures! Attack!’
The monster reared as the mercenary leader yelled, and pitched its great hulk down upon him. Carl the Red managed to dodge aside and thrust his blade into the creature’s grey body. It let out an earth-shaking roar and reared up, high into the roof of the cave, Carl’s blade still buried in its side. Sound, Jaedor thought. It’s using sound to find them
Jaedor grabbed Derryk and they began to move again, back towards the great sewer-cave’s outlet onto the hillside. The great monster was distracted by the screaming mercenaries and, keeping a finger pressed to his lips to signal for Derryk to be silent, Jaedor led Derryk as fast as they could quietly move towards the ring of moonlight visible through the sewer-cave’s final outlet tunnel. As they moved as quickly as they were able to without making a sound, the carnage on the opposite bank continued. The rearing, worm-like behemoth crashed down again, flattening another of Carl the Red’s men before taking another in its great maw of spiralling, enormous teeth and grinding him up. The horrifying creature, its sucker-like face now streaming with blood and entrails, reared high into the cave again and let out a deafening roar.
As quickly as he could manage and holding his breath all the way, the aching, agonised Jaedor led the white-faced Derryk towards the final sewer exit. Soon, it was less than twenty paces away, and the tantalising moonlight from the outside world glittered upon the slime-covered stones that marked the exit. ‘We’re nearly there,’ Jaedor said as loudly as he dared. ‘We’ll make it.’
Suddenly, one of the remaining mercenaries appeared before them on the path, clutching a long, sharp halberd. ‘Stop where you are!’ he yelled from under his greathelm, brandishing the weapon aloft.
Jaedor and Derryk froze for a moment, too aware of what was about to happen. From beside them, the great worm-creature with its sucker-face disappeared back below the slime and filth, and for a few seconds there was nothing but silence. Then, with a roar that sprayed terrible, blackish animal-phlegm and sewage across Jaedor, Derryk and the mercenary advancing towards them, the enormous creature burst from the waves of muck with its great sucker-maw wide. It crashed into the guard, swallowing the mercenary whole, and slithered back into the muck in which it dwelled.
The sight of the monster’s chomping jaws as it slunk away sent a great wave of terror through Jaedor. Throwing caution to the wind, he broke into the fastest run he could muster. His breath ripping out from his lungs as he went, he rounded the final edge of the lake, Derryk behind him. With a final leap, Jaedor and Derryk were in the short outlet pipe, skidding through an ankle-deep stream of sewage. From behind them they heard screams, and turned just in time to see Carl the Red half-crushed underneath the girth of the great monster. When it reared again to finish off his comrades, Jaedor realised the red-plumed mercenary leader was not dead. From the waist down, his body was a mangled mess of burst and flattened flesh and twisted, ruptured armour. He screeched in mindless agony as the great worm-thing rose above him again, its maw wide and gaping.
‘Jaedor!’ Derryk cried, grabbing his friend by the wrist. Jaedor found himself dragged towards the end of the pipe and the night beyond, away from the carnage of the sewer-cave. He did not see Carl the Red die, but he heard the terrible crunch-crunch of his armour being crushed and torn by the great monster’s terrible maw.
They leapt from the final outlet pipe, the great city of Palvia behind them, looming on its hill. Smoke still billowed from its fires, and the black clouds that smudged across the sky above it were illuminated by an orange fire-light, cast up from the streets below. Before them, a small and narrow river of refuse stretched away, joining up with the River Vier and making its way southwards, into the sea.
The Emerald Peninsula stretched away to the south, now a part of the Kingdom of Maedar. Green and picturesque, and decked in tall, thick trees, the province was a thing of beauty upon which the bloodshed in Palvia was a dark, screaming stain.
Jaedor and Derryk ran east as far as their legs could carry them, and, after perhaps a half-hour of mindless running, they collapsed in the shadow of a great oak. ‘We did it,’ Derryk said though gasps for breath. ‘We’re safe, we’re safe…’
Jaedor said nothing, collapsing beside him and slumping against the wide, twisted trunk of the fat tree against which they sheltered. He took his ruined sketchpad in his hands and opened it. The pages were streaked with blood and sewage-water, and several of them were missing: the stag-skull he had drawn just a few days before and the skeleton of a grass snake he had been particularly proud of was gone too, along with many others.
With a sigh, Jaedor continued to leaf through the pad, looking for an undamaged blank page. Soon he found one, bloodstained in one corner and torn at the bottom, but otherwise unspoiled. From his pocket he produced a slightly soggy lump of charcoal and began to scribble, whilst beside him, Derryk tried to catch his breath. No-one will believe this, he thought. No-one will ever believe this.

*

Professor Kerras placed Jaedor’s shattered and stinking sketchbook aside, his thin face and pointed nose wrinkled in disgust, before pushing his long, thinning hair back behind his ears. ‘I don’t believe a word of this nonsense,’ he said with a shake of his head, taking a silken handkerchief from his robe-pocket and wiping his fingers.
            Jaedor’s whole posture fell. He was glad for the perpetual gloom of Kerras’ narrow, shadowy office, for it hid the few tears that fell onto his cheeks. Quickly, he reached under his glasses with one hand and wiped them away. ‘But it’s true!’ he cried. ‘Look at me! Do you think I’d lie? Have I ever lied before?’
            Professor Kerras took a long, deep breath before speaking through his thin, wrinkled lips. ‘Jaedor,’ he said slowly, ‘the quality of work you have provided is – sorry, would have been – exemplary, had it not been so badly damaged. However, this story about a, what, giant lamprey-creature? I can’t believe it, my boy. I’m sorry.’
            ‘Ask Derryk!’ Jaedor cried, gesturing with his arm. ‘He saw it too! It almost swallowed us both! It did swallow Carl the Red and his men! How do you explain that?’
            Professor Kerras knitted his long, spindly fingers under his sharp, pointed chin. He was an older gentleman, thoroughly analytical in his approach to everything, and was not impressed by tales and, as he had called Jaedor’s story of what transpired in Palvia’s sewers, ‘fanciful imaginings from a delirious mind.’
            ‘You and Derryk were addled by noxious fumes, fever, and infection,’ Professor Kerras said with a shrug of his wiry, narrow shoulders. ‘You probably imagined the entire episode once you were in the sewers – have you read Mother Alahwehn’s wonderful “Corrupted Air: Spreading the Unholy”? It goes into great detail about what different fumes and gasses can do to one’s mind.’
            Jaedor sank back into the well-cushioned chair on which he sat. His eyes, now behind new and undamaged spectacles, fell to Kerras’ wide, parchment-strewn desk. He had no more fight in him. It had taken him and Derryk two weeks to escape the Kingdom of Maedar, and crossing the southern branch of the River Vier – the new border between the imperial province of Westmoor and the Kingdom of Maedar had been dangerous. They had barely been out of Westmoor when that province, immediately adjacent to the Imperial Heartlands, had declared its support for the Kingdom of Maedar – along with the western provinces of Westernaea and Eagle Island. Full-scale war had exploded in the west, and Jaedor and Derryk had managed to miss the worst of it by a whisker.
            Professor Kerras slid Jaedor’s ruined sketchbook back across the desk to him. ‘Look,’ he said gently, ‘given the war that has broken out in the west, we will be unable to send anyone else westwards for a time – maybe we never will, as Maedar’s support from the other provinces makes them a formidable force.’ Kerras paused for a moment and rubbed his eyes. ‘If you can re-produce the sketches here, we may yet be able to use them in the re-issue of Ludwig’s Bloody Bestiary. Can you do that?’
            ‘And the monster I saw?’ Jaedor said quickly. ‘What of that?’
            Kerras shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I cannot include it.’
            Jaedor reached out with his right hand and took hold of the sketchpad. He stood to leave, sighing heavily. ‘I’ll do it,’ he said and turned to leave after bowing his head formally to his professor.
            ‘Jaedor,’ Professor Kerras called out from behind him as Jaedor pushed the door to Kerras’ study open with his foot. ‘I’m sorry about your arm.’
            Jaedor swallowed and glanced at what remained of  his left shoulder. ‘Thank-you, Professor,’ he said quietly and left the room. The stump where his arm had been was wrapped in thick, wine-soaked bandage underneath the neatly folded and pinned arm of the smart blue doublet he wore. He had feared the wounds upon his body would become infected from being in the sewer, and his fears had been well-founded. By the time he had returned to Vidoropolis, his entire left arm from shoulder to wrist was an awful blackish-purple colour, and the arrow-wound itself had filled with hard, yellow pus. There had been no alternative but to amputate his arm. His burns and other wounds had been treatable, and his whole torso was wrapped in bandages to try and brace his cracked ribs.
            Derryk caught the door from the narrow stone hallway on the other side. ‘How did it go?’ he said quietly as he let the door swing shut and followed Jaedor as he stalked off down the corridor of the Imperial University, back towards the small chamber he called his own.
            ‘He won’t believe us about the monster,’ Jaedor muttered. ‘He said we were high on sewer-fumes and dizzy with infection.’
            Derryk sighed. ‘You lost your arm,’ the short man said quietly. ‘Did that count for nothing?’
            Jaedor shook his head. ‘But he does want me to re-draw those pictures which survived. Have you heard from your parents?’
            Derryk nodded. ‘I had a letter waiting. They escaped at the first sign of trouble. They’re currently in residence with Aesigner Fortescue, earl of the Western Heartlands.’
            Jaedor nodded slowly. ‘Good,’ he said in a quiet voice. ‘I’m glad.’
            The two friends turned and left Professor Kerras’ study. Derryk walked Jaedor back to his poky but cosy chambers, and as soon as they were outside, Derryk stopped and placed a comforting hand on Jaedor’s back. ‘I’ll be in the city for another day or two before heading back eastwards,’ he said gently from the low doorway into Jaedor’s single-bedded room. ‘We should meet up and, I don’t know, I can show you how to play Warriors and Wyrms or something.’
            Jaedor had nodded. ‘Perhaps,’ he said mutely. ‘I’ll let you know.’
            Derryk nodded and closed the door. Jaedor reached out with his remaining hand and drew the bolt across, before turning and tossing his wrecked sketchbook onto his single bed. As soon as the sound of Derryk’s retreating footsteps had vanished, Jaedor slumped down against the door to his room and began to sob.

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