The world was shrouded in darkness. Not a single light shone, either in the heavens above or on the earth below by which a weary sojourner could find his way. The darkness was almost tangible – alluring and taunting – yet elusive – always hiding just out of reach, like a spider web with fine gossamer fibers that one can never quite brush away. The darkness was absolute; it seemed to hold some sort of a spell. Nothing stood long within its path – the darkness laid desolate every living thing that stood in its influence. Every tree, every shrub, and every blade of grass, it seemed, had long since surrendered its life to the iron will of the darkness. Not a single soul had ventured into the Dead Plain for over a hundred years. Not a creature dared to take refuge beneath the gnarled, rotten limbs of withered oak trees. Not a word. Not a sound. Only darkness.
And then something moved in the darkness. It was a feeble, quaking limb, shattered into many pieces, then a trembling fist; and, finally, a rasping breath forced its way out of a twisted, parched mouth into the plain, ringing across the darkness like a war cry on the field of battle. The air was still thick with the stench of blood and the screams of the dead and dying. A solitary form, decrepit with age and misuse, crawled like a worm across the desolate plain through the carnage of the previous day.
An icy wind whipped over the plain, rattling the rusty branches of the trees and the very bones of the living and the dead into a lifeless submission, and a torrential rain drummed ceaselessly against the lifeless forms, running tiny eddies through tangled and blood-matted hair. No life, it seemed, could endure such devastation. But the form did not give in. Bracing herself — for it was a woman, if one could call such a deformed creature thus — against the frozen blast, she pulled up, seeming to draw strength from her macabre surroundings. With a hideous shriek that was a death rattle and a victory shout and a vulture’s croak in one, she thrust her hands into the sky. Suddenly, the field was ablaze in an unearthly light. Each of the bodies that lay upon the ground was within that moment consumed by an eerie blood-red flame that was not extinguished by the torrential downpour.
And the witch was not alone. Two other figures very like the first crawled through the muck and gore and joined her in pagan incantations. The hellish light grew stronger and more powerful until the light was almost blinding. Yet the three sisters carried on, as indistinguishable from the light as one filth from another.
“I feel my strength returning, sister,” croaked the first.
“I, too, sister,” snarled the second.
“And I, too, sister,” hissed the third.
The sisters turned to one another in pagan glee.
“Our work here is almost complete, sister,” said the first, rattling her skeletal wings slowly behind her.
“When shall we three meet again, sister?” queried the second, tail methodically swaying from side to side, as in a trance.
“And where the place, sister?” demanded the third as her forked tongue flicked in and out of her mouth to catch the scent of decaying bodies,
“When the battle’s lost and won – ere at the set of the sun,” cawed the first, “upon the heath.”
“There we shall meet Lord Rían,” responded the second.
The women, having completed their plans, joined hands. The fire that had once consumed the bodies at first tricked then erupted in a giant cascade out of the bodies of the witches and formed a giant pillar of fire and smoke that reached as a thousand grasping tendrils trying to bring down the foundations of Heaven itself.
“I summon you, Tanwen,” cried the first over the silent roar of the flames.
“I come, Greymalkin,” shrieked the second.
“Dema calls,” murmured the third.
Then, as suddenly as the light began, it subsided into a smoldering, pulsating glow that crawled over and through the bodies of the slain warriors on the field. The field was empty – abandoned it seemed; desolate once more. But it was not forsaken entirely. For three creatures were making their way through the field: a skeletal vulture, a bedraggled cat, and a rotting snake. Their eyes shone feverishly with the flame of the fire that had only moments before enveloped the entire plain as the gathered around one of the fallen heroes and gorged themselves on flesh – biding their time until Lord Rían arrived. And then there was silence. Not a word. Not a sound. Only darkness.
A final shot rang out. The sound bounced off the rocky cliffs that enclosed the army as a box until it was able to escape like a captured bird out of its cage. Kennet, commander of King Ashton’s armed forces, strolled over to his target and kicked the man with his boot to ensure that he was truly dead.
“That’s the last of them, I would think, my Lord King,” Kennet said, as he bowed to show respect to the man who had just appeared behind him.
King Ashton of the Arnava looked around and surveyed the battlefield. He was a good man, Kennet noted for the hundredth time, with kindly features. The Arnava was an ancient species renowned for their delicate, detailed metallurgy and verbal prowess. Although he was only a few thousand years old, Ashton’s face was creased with crevices that demonstrated the great care and effort he took in ruling his country. From the white hair that flowed off his crowned head onto his shoulders like light dancing on the water to the beautiful iridescent white wings of the Arnava royalty that stretched out to the sky from his back, Ashton looked every inch a king; his presence instantly demanded respect. But his heart was the heart of a peacemaker, not that of a warrior.
Ashton nodded. “I should hope so,” he stated sadly. “I have seen many deaths in my lifetime and I should not like to see any more today.”
“Understood, Sir,” Kennet responded. He holstered his gun and walked slowly with the King back to the military outpost. “We won a great victory today, Sir. Today will certainly teach any other man who wishes to be a traitor to think twice before he acts.”
“I suppose it shall.” Then he paused. “Was today even necessary, Commander?”
Kennet faltered in his steps, a shocked expression on his face. “Sir, Lord Oscar was trying to take your throne! He was willing to kill you for your crown. Any such man deserves to die!” he declared passionately.
Kennet could see that the actions of the day were weighing heavily on the king. He shoulders were stooped; his face was puffy; and he dragged his feet as he walked, not bothering to even look up. “I suppose you are right,” he acknowledged, but then he quickly added, “but surely there was another way: another avenue we overlooked…”
Kennet sighed. He was very young in Arnava terms – only in his late eighties – and was known for his compulsive, aggressive behaviour that was uncharacteristic even of youth. Hence he couldn’t understand Ashton’s peaceable mindset. But Kennet was also fiercely loyal to his king and was willing to go beyond his duties for the sake of the State: qualities that led rapidly to his early promotion to the Commander of the King’s Army.
“There was no other avenue, my Lord. You know that as well as I. All negotiations failed years ago. It was time to act.”
It pained Kennet to speak so his king. It was Ashton, after all, who had saved his life as a child living in poverty and brought him to the palace to be raised and educated. Kennet had been all but adopted into Ashton’s family and almost thought of him as his father.
Ashton opened his mouth as if to say something and then abruptly closed it again. He saw a figure in a bloodied gown frantically making her way towards the two men. Kennet’s hawk-eyes strained to discover the identity of the woman. Then his eyes widened in shock. It was Dr. Dŵynwen, head of the army’s medical personnel, though her current state of disheveled anxiety hardly resembled the cool and collected surgeon that was so familiar to them both. Something must be terribly wrong, thought Kennet apprehensively, to make this woman behave in such a way.
Dŵynwen stumbled up to the men, barely bothering to make a sloppy half-curtsy to the king before blurting out her news. Her eyes were wide with fright, her hair in a tangle, and her face and hands and gown were freckled with dripping sweat and blood. Kennet’s russet wings twitched nervously in anticipation of her news. “My- my Lord Ashton,” she began, gulping the air the way a dying man in the desert consumes water.
“What is it, Dr. Dŵynwen?” the king gently asked. The regal demeanour he had lost during the recent conversation with Kennet he bore once again with a kindly smile that masked growing concern.
“It- it’s your son, my Lord,” she managed to gasp between heaving breaths, “he’s been- grievously wounded.”
Kennet saw the king’s face blanche and knew his face was undergoing a similar process.
“My-“ Ashton began, voice cracking. Then he started over, clearing his throat, “My son… Finn?”
“Yes, my Lord King,” Dŵynwen stated, drawing herself up again. “He was wounded in combat with Lord Oscar not two hours ago.”
“Where is he?” cried Ashton. “I must see him!” Without waiting for a response, King Ashton dove towards the medical district, great wings beating the air into submission like a trainer would a disobedient animal. Kennet also stretched his wings out, their earthen tips extending wide, and raced with the king towards the dying prince. The king is going slow, he thought, faster than I have ever seen from him, but too slow. Kennet was young and powerfully built: his wings were strong and his body was lithe and designed for speed. The King, however, was old and unused to flight; time and again, Kennet had to force himself from beating the king to their destination.
Time marched on like a line of ants with no end in sight; the winds tossed them about like a discarded old toy. Desperation creased the countenance of the elderly king; tears mingled with the sweat and rain that were streaming down his face. Just as Kennet was beginning to have newfound appreciation for the unknown athletic stamina of Dr. Dŵynwen, he saw the medical district faintly in the distance.
It was a small structure of no remarkable features, for it had been set-up rather hastily as part of the last minute preparations for the oncoming onslaught… (To be continued)