Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Of Fire and Shadow, Part 3 of 4



 This is the third part of Of Fire and Shadow. In this section of the story, Jaedor awakens to find the city in utter chaos, and Derryk nowhere to be seen. Spurred on by duty and friendship, the young scholar sets out on a quest to find his companion with the help of some unlikely allies...

The final part of Of Fire and Shadow will be released on Sunday the 17th of July.


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!’

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