Runic - Stygian Necrosis // Hood Of Lightning

This was taken from my novel Runic - Stygian Necrosis for the Writers Talent Competition.

It tells a story about one of the characters, Wilva.

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1. Chapter 3 - Hood Of Lighting

 

 

“Ambright isn’t a place where saturated factions group hordes of idiots. It’s not a place for empty power, empty royal names, or fake kings. If you want to succeed, get creative, and always be willing to open your mind.”

-Heron-

...

A vision of brutality awaited lieutenant Wilva atop the high tower of Farrow. Steps, worn smooth in the middle from ages of use guided the warrior’s ascent through the seemingly endless pillar of stone. Wilva’s path was no longer her own, and a new task awaited her in the spire. The frigid winds carried the sounds of war into the slivered windows, hammering the shame of her abandonment deep with each pass. I should be with my comradesNot here.

Wilva heaved in the cold, damp air as she neared the belfry. At last, she stepped onto the platform. There stood the Temple Arbiter, Goman Haeq, facing out toward the chaos. A once formidable figure, the years had whittled him down to the decrepit figure that stood before her.

“We must go,” Wilva said. “Your priests await you in the temple.”

Haeq was trembling. The old man would not outlast the elements, yet Wilva found herself unbothered by the dire state of him. She took a step forward, and though she told herself not to look, she saw the horror unfolding below. The Outbreaker horde had pinned the Etherians against the east gate, and what little light remained beyond the storm clouds revealed the gruesome scene of a battle slipping out of control. She felt a knot of anxiety twist in her chest and forced her gaze back to the complacent priest.

“We must go,” she repeated.

Haeq looked out at the fading horizon and did not acknowledge her presence.

“Arbiter, please—”

“Look upon your people,” the priest said sourly. “They honor Mejis and spill blood for its purpose. Yet, it is not enough.”

Wilva looked down upon the battle. Not to gaze upon her own, but at the enemy’s rapid advancement. She had no intention of failing at her task, but that required cooperation from Haeq.

“General Tage is dead. The morale is shattered and the Outbreakers are decimating our numbers. It is time to go.” Wilva gently placed her hand under Haeq’s feeble arm to hasten their departure. “If we do not leave now, they will beat us to the temple. That cannot happen.”

Haeq shook his arm free with a jerk, snarling back at Wilva. “They have failed us!”

The priest’s accusations sent a flash of white-hot rage through Wilva. She sighed, attempting to find patience. The task must be complete. She grinded his teeth together, swallowing bitter anger. “The council needs you,” Wilva begged. “Without your direction—”

“Without my direction?” the priest snapped. “You are a fool, lieutenant. Do you have any idea what the Outbreakers do to clergy?” Haeq turned to Wilva, revealing the ghoulish features of his hairless face. “If we are captured, they will carry us over the sea, then tear us limb from limb in the city square as an offering to their false god. I will not be a spectacle for the Outbreakers. I have no council to offer them.” His voice wavered and broke on that last sentence.

“There is a passage within the temple. It will lead us through the mountain and to the docks.” Wilva placed her hands together and stepped toward the apprehensive priest. “We can leave Farrow tonight and be back at the capitol in the morning, but we have to leave now.”

“Join the fools if you must, but I will not be leaving the spire!”

The horizon had finally disappeared and lightning ripped through the night, shattering the black canvas beyond. The brief illumination revealed a thunderhead looming over the eastern sky, threatening its violence. The full force of the storm would soon be upon them.

“We’re leaving!” Wilva shouted over a roll of thunder. She took the priest under the arm, assertive and deliberate, and pulled him away from the edge.

Without warning, her action was met with a blast of lightning that battered the spire in a deafening crash. The pair stumbled away from each other and left them dazed. After blinking out splotches of white light, she saw Haeq writhing on the floorboards and muttering incoherently in a heap of soaking robes. In the priest’s tumble, he sustained a small gash to the side of his head. His eyes rolled about in their sockets as he sputtered aimlessly. Wilva pulled him to his feet.

“It comes,” Haeq mumbled through ragged breaths. The old man flailed about in Wilva’s arms, but was too weak to free himself. “It rides the storm to Farrow.”

The lightning blast sent the arbiter into a fit. Wilva ignored his ravings, swung the priest’s arm around her shoulder and dragged him back toward the stairs. The ravings continued between spurts of maniacal laughter as they made their descent. Time had become a burden, and if they did not hurry, they would never make it to the temple before the Outbreakers.

As the two made their descent, Wilva clenched her hand around a shred of purple linen wrapped on the hilt of her sword. It was a memory, long-faded and dragged through the mud. Before she left from training to fight those years ago, she brought a fragment from a piece of her mother’s clothing as reminder that she would soon be with her again. And now, more than ever, she needed that reminder.

Wilva repeated General Tage’s orders to herself; retrieve the Skayzer from the tower and get him and the other priests to the docks. They cannot be taken alive. Though staying with the soldiers meant death, it was a promise she made to them upon accepting rank after the bearing trails. She would fight alongside them. Always. The guilt was tremendous—not for leaving them behind, but upon completion of her new task, she would be spared death. The thought brought her a shameful relief.

Shouts from outside the tower mingled with the storm. Before the steps gave way to an exit, she peered through an opening in the stone. As the Etherian numbers dwindled, they retreated through the gate only to be further pursued by the Outbreakers. The battle was still beyond the walls, but the fighting slowly trickled into the city. She saw the desperation in her fellow soldiers, churning a fear for her own life and an even deeper resentment for the priest who stole her away from those who fought below.

They finally made it down the stone pillar to be released back into the elements. The rain battered the world as if to strip the city down brick by brick.

“It comes,” Haeq continued. “The . . . the Stormlord”

Haeq squealed as Wilva yanked his body closer, trying to maintain a grip on the wailing priest. Wilva sucked in a breath. The frozen air burned her lungs but she pressed forward.

...

They slogged through a courtyard lined with overgrown, dead vegetation that hadn’t been tended to in months. Just as they reached the street, Wilva heard the pounding of boots squelching through the muck. Fear bubbled up within her, and without thinking she dropped Haeq to ground, letting her warrior’s instinct wash over.

Two Outbreaker creatures in mismatched species approached. Wilva took a step forward, unsheathing her blade. The first monster lunged forward with the point of its claws, only to be parried and sent sprawling to the stones. Hate burned deep and Wilva released her anger with a thundering bellow to rival the storm. She gripped the hilt of her sword between both hands and thrust the blade through the second Outbreakers’s chest. The monster sputtered blood as it gurgled away one last breath. The shriek of war pulsing through her body sent the cold away as if it had never existed. It felt good to kill for this reason alone.

The other Outbreaker had gathered itself up from the stones, and by the time Wilva pulled her blade from the corpse, the Outbreakers’s halberd was thrust through her thin chain mail, deep into the shoulder. Wilva wailed as the blade scraped across bone and tore through flesh. Her diligence faded into fear as the reality of death flooded her mind, heart thundering.

Wilva swung her sword upward at the monster. It was a weak blow, wild and careless, but it connected under the Outbreakers’s scaled chin. It was far from fatal, but allowed her enough time to free herself from the blade’s grasp. The halberd clattered against the wet stones. With all the strength that remained, she crashed into the monster and knocked it off balance, sending it back to the ground. Exhausted, she collapsed atop her enemy, letting the weight drive the sword deep into the skin.

Wilva’s agony was deep and throbbing. She pressed a hand over the seeping wound and pushed herself up on her weapon. Aside from the pain, the warm blood trickling over her chest was a welcome respite from the cold.

As she always did after a fight, Wilva looked down to confirm the linen was still tight around her sword. It remained where she left it. Haeq, however, was not. The arbiter had managed to drag himself into the overgrowth. The old man felt like a corpse, cold and limp, the rain slick on his leathery skin. But by whatever miracle, the old man lived. Maybe Mejis does watch over them.

Steel sung in the distance. The fighting had moved further into the city and she knew that if it came down to another confrontation, they would die. She heard the shouts of dying men, magical bolts being loosed from mana powered crossbows, but above all, the thundering storm was ever-present. Lightning painted the city in brief flashes of clarity, helping Wilva spot their destination. The temple was just two hundred strides from where they stood.

A bit of strength returned to the old man, making him a much heavier burden to carry as he attempted to twist out of Wilva’s grip. Bearing the frailty of two, her desperation doubled.

Wilva stumbled onto a crossroads and heard a voice calling to him. “Lieutenant!”

Between sheets of rain, a figure approached. Wilva stepped back into the alley, weary of the stranger’s intention, and drew her blade. The soldier came into definition.

“Lieutenant Cyngus,” he croaked, giving a sluggish salute. He was Etherian. The man was bloodied and his armor had sustained a considerable amount of damage. “We thought you were dead.”

“Not yet,” Wilva replied. “How does it look out there?”

The soldier gave Haeq a concerned look.

“He rides,” Haeq muttered. “The storm upon which he rides—”

“What’s wrong with the Arbiter?”

Wilva paused, regarding Haeq with concern. “Just the ravings of an old man. What’s your name, soldier?”

“Corporal Aunde, Daris Aunde of the fifth regiment.” He noticed Wilva’s wound. “Your shoulder, lieutenant! Do you—”

“Corporal,” Wilva barked. “Nevermind my injury. I need you to collect a company of men, whomever you can spare—”

“Spare? We can spare none,” he said, desperately. Corporal Aunde was frantic, his eyes darting back and forth, scanning the area. “They’ve corralled us against the eastern gate. The battle is lost. Men are retreating back within the city to prepare one final stand.”

Wilva fought the pain and placed a calming hand on Aunde’s shoulder. “I need five men. That’s it. The arbiter and his priests must be taken to the docks, and it must be done now. Bring your men to the temple and I will see to it that they take passage to the capitol.” She looked eastward as more soldiers, both Etherians and Outbreaker filtered into the city. “The battle is lost, yes, but a hero’s task awaits you and your men. Now, go!”

The corporal straightened and gave a tight salute before disappearing into the storm. Wilva was exhausted, but she quickened the pace through the narrow alleyways toward the temple. Much of the city had fled at the news of an approaching Outbreaker army, but those too weak, or too stupid, were left behind to suffer the invasion. Men and women, both young and old scampered through the shadows looking for any means of escape. A young woman passed and Wilva’s thoughts turned to her mother. I will be with you soon. She clutched at the linen.

“Let . . . let me go,” Haeq mumbled. The priest had vomited somewhere between here and the tower and yellow bile dripped off his chin. “They are at the temple . . . expecting us.”

“Yes, they are.” Wilva yanked Haeq upward back into a firm grasp. “And it is why we must hurry.”

The priest muttered his opposition, but gave into Wilva’s will.

The fighting followed them deeper into the city. Rot hounds had been released in pursuit of those who fled. The beasts’ howling echoed through the storm, likely sent by Linus to locate specific targets. Wilva could only hope that Aunde and his men would make it to the temple alive. If not, they would be forced to outrun the dogs on their way to the dock. It would be an impossible task.

The temple was a mass of dark stone at the heart of Farrow that came into view between a row of tightly packed houses. The spires reached high up into a swirling mass of clouds like the black hand of a corpse. They were close.

...

Aunde intercepted Wilva and the arbiter just strides away from the temple. She was joined by three other men, each as battle-worn as the corporal.

“I could spare only four, lieutenant,” Aunde said, looking at the group. “Geram didn’t make it, so this is what you’ve got. How can we help?”

“Thank you.” Wilva’s chest heaved as she struggled to maintain her breath. “Take the arbiter. I cannot carry him any longer.”

Aunde gestured at Haeq and a tall man approached to relieve Wilva of her obligation.

Once free of his burden, Wilva doubled over, placed her hands on her knees and began to vomit. The sour bile burned hot in her chest as it spilled onto the stones. “Let’s go,” she croaked. She spat the sour taste from her mouth and wiped away the dry crimson plastered to her face. “We need to get out of this damn rain.” Wilva took one step and the relief instantly melted away at the sound of approaching rot hounds.

“Dogs!”

Linus's hounds, an experiment gone horribly wrong. Wilva pulled her sword from its sheath, groaning, hoping it would be the last time. The cold had numbed her wound down to a pulsing ache, but every motion was severely limited. She gritted her teeth and prepared for death—her’s or the dogs, it didn’t seem to matter anymore. “Do not let them near the arbiter!”

Haeq had been released from the soldier’s care and had already begun to crawl away from them. He wouldn’t get far.

Three hounds turned a corner out from an alley and took off toward the soldiers. The beasts were hardly animals anymore. They were something much worse; an abomination of bone and rotten flesh and dark magic created in a horrible laboratory. Their purple eyes glowed, leaving trails in the night as they advanced.

Each of the hounds found themselves skewered on the end of a sword as they lunged at Wilva and the others, but it did nothing to stop their frenzied assault. Black blood spilled out across the stones as the blades were pulled from the beasts. Wilva dropped the edge of her weapon down on the back of one of the dogs, cutting through matted fur, severing its spine. Its back legs went limp, but the hound’s jaws managed to grab a hold of one of the men’s calves. The soldier cried out in pain, twisted his body and hacked slivers into the beast.

“Kill the damned dog!” the soldier yelped.

The snarling hound snapped its head around in an attempt to tear the man’s leg off. Wilva took hold of the beast’s nape and yanked, trying to pull it free. Instead, the rotten skin sloughed off as easily as pulling cloak from back, revealing a tangle of corrupted flesh. The putrid smell burned her eyes. She wanted to vomit but he leaned in closer and pulled the blade across the beast’s neck, sending out a spray of life. Finally, the dog dropped dead, twitching on the stones and the soldier was free.

One dog and just two of Aunde’s soldiers remained. The tall man who had taken Haeq now lie on his back, gurgling out blood from his shredded gullet. The beast howled as it circled them. It was a fiendish shriek, chilling Wilva deeper than the frigid winds ever could. With a roar, Aunde and his two men battered the hound in a flurry of steel.

Wilva pressed her free hand on the wound, trying to rub the pain out, but those actions only elevated her misery to another level. “Corporal,” she said. “Take the arbiter and let’s get inside. We are leaving this city. Now.”

The temple atrium was a massive room with a tall ceiling held up by two rows of white marble pillars. Braziers placed along the center path lit the way while incense burned sweet in the air. Wilva found no warmth in the temple, however—just less rain. An eerie breeze blew in from the heart of the temple, kicking up the flames from the braziers and sending shadows dancing across the walls.

“There’s a passage to the docks somewhere within the temple,” Wilva said. She kept his voice low. “Once we find the priests, they will direct us from there.”

“I don’t see any priests,” said Aunde.

“They’re here . . . somewhere.”

Wilva tore off her cuirass, wincing at the pain it caused. It would no longer do her any good. The white undershirt she wore was stained with blood and sweat and washed out by the rain. She lead the others through the atrium. They stayed close to the fires, taking in as much warmth as possible, but did not loiter. Time was still as much a burden as it was in the tower.

Haeq had become increasingly defiant the closer they got to the temple. Aunde struggled with the arbiter as he regained more strength. “We must leave . . . now! They will find us . . .” The priest’s words trailed off into mumbling as they so frequently did.

“Mad this one is,” Aunde said.

Their boots squelched on the polished floors, leaving a trail of rain as they marched on. Murals covered the walls. Once grandiose depictions of the temple’s benevolence, the paintings had faded and peeled to reveal the gray stone behind.

Wilva came upon the likeness of a young woman, perhaps a few years younger than her. On a head of long, black hair she wore a wreath of pine branches. In one hand she held a young child, and in the other a skull. It reminded him of a story his mother told Wilva and her family about life and death. Mejis takes what the mother gives and so continues the cycle of life, she would say. The balance must be maintained. Wilva gripped at the hilt of her sword.

She looked back at Haeq being dragged along. She hated the old man, but most of all hated that the fate in her hands. She stepped into this city surrounded by ten thousand men and woman, two-hundred of them under her command, and each of them were ready to die. And die they did, absent their lieutenant. Every glance at Haeq drove the guilt deeper and deeper. “Let’s go,” she said, bitterly. “The priests are waiting.”

...

At the end of a corridor were two heavy oaken doors twice as tall as Wilva. He placed a hand on the circular handle fitted into the old wood. She was trembling. The uncertainty of what awaited her on the other side twisted a knot of anxiety in her chest. Worst of all, she heard nothing. There was silence beyond the doors that sent angst prickling over her skin.

Winds rushed into the hall as Wilva heaved the door open. A dome towered above them. A circular opening was fitted at the center of the ceiling that allowed the storm to pour in. Flashes of lightning bathed the candlelit sanctuary in white light, briefly illuminating the nuances of the temple’s brilliance.

Wilva’s eyes trailed away from the ceiling as she stepped further inside. Her heart sank as she found the priests. They were all dead, sprawled out across the marble floor, soaking in an ever-expanding pool red. In each of their hands was a dagger—a blade held by all Etherian priests to defend would be assassins. Wilva’s body went hot. The mounting tension snapped, sending all hope away in a rush of dread.

“It’s over,” Aunde said. “The Outbreakers beat us here . . . we’re too late.”

Wilva ground her teeth together, nodding at a group of cloaked men just beyond the corpses. “No, Corporal. It was them who did this.”

They were dressed in black robes. Like vultures, they hovered above the dead priests, faces a mystery of shadow within their cloaks. Though unable to see beyond the shadow, Wilva had an inkling as to their origin. Their motive was another matter, however.

The fear and dismay of her broken task turned to a hot, burning anger. These men had taken something from her. There was nothing left to do but accept his failure. Haeq began to laugh. His cackle echoed in the sanctuary. Wilva spun around and pulled the priest from Aunde’s arms, losing herself to frustration as it boiled over.

“I’ve another for you!” Wilva spat. He threw Haeq down with the other priests. “Send him back to Heron's realm, just like you did the rest.”

“Lieutenant,” Aunde said. “What are you doing?”

“It’s over.”

Haeq’s skull bounced off the bloody marble. The fall did nothing to cease his laughter. He pushed himself up on his palms, pulling his frail body over the priests. For a brief moment, Wilva felt the urge to drag Haeq back to him and cut the priest’s throat herself. Yet he did nothing and watched in disgust as her one chance at passage from Farrow slithered away.

Aunde stepped beside Wilva. “We should go,” he said. “We’ve no option left but to rejoin the others. There is nothing for us here.”

Wilva gave no response.

Haeq stopped and pushed himself up onto his knees, still muttering to himself between spurts of laughter. The men standing before him stood stoic under their black vestments. One of the figures stepped forward. The laughing stopped. The priest wavered, trying to keep himself upright. Haeq reached to his side and wrapped his bony fingers around his dagger’s hilt.

“Crazy idiot,” Aunde muttered. “Lieutenant. We need to leave. Now.”

A hand gripped her shoulder, but Wilva paid no mind to the Corporal’s request. After a moment the hand slipped away. Aunde and his men had fled the room, leaving Wilva behind to witness the priest’s demise.

Wilva was unable to pull her gaze from the standoff between Haeq and the cloaked figure. Moments passed in silence. She was tense, frozen in fearful anticipation. At last, the figure broke the silence and muttered something to Haeq. She strained to hear the words, but could make nothing of the whispers.

Haeq yanked the dagger from his belt and, wasting no time at all, pulled the blade across his own throat. Crimson pulsed out in streaks. Wilva drew in a quick breath of surprise and watched as Haeq sputtered away his final moments. A sickness washed over her realizing that the priests had done this to themselves. The cloaked men were cast even deeper into shadow.

The man approached Haeq and wrapped his hand around the priest’s robe, holding him upright before he expired. With his other hand he slipped the cloak from his head to reveal a long face with sharp features and black eyes staring down at the priest. He had black hair, and his ghoulish features were unsettling. He gazed at the man, forgetting his anger. This was no human, but the lead Ghistyian Skayzer, Heron. The Ghistyian regarded the dying priest with cool indifference and let Haeq slip out from his grip to join the other corpses.

She wrapped his hands around the hilt of her sword—not just out of fear, but for the memory. Her own demise would come soon, whether it be by the blade of the Outbreakers, or by his own. She shivered.

“You killed them,” Wilva said, looking down at the bodies.

The man looked up at him. “I have done nothing but steady the hand.” His voice was low as thunder. The man stepped toward Wilva. He pulled his cloak off and let it slip the floor. He was shirtless, his body the color of a corpse left to the ice. From his waist to his neck, his skin was carefully scarred with lines that coiled around his body. He looked segmented like a centipede. In between the scars, symbols and unusual text were tattooed across the smooth skin. He drew in a deep breath. “You have done us a great favor. As you can tell,” he said, gesturing at the corpses as if to display his handy work, “we’re not much for getting our hands dirty, and your delivery of the arbiter has saved us a great deal of trouble.”

Frozen, Wilva’s eyes darted across the room, searching for a way out from the sanctuary.

“You will find no exit,” the man said, “You will depart this city in peace. We will see to it, I promise.” He motioned to the others, and one by one, they retreated to the back of the sanctuary to a reflecting pool fitted directly below the open dome.

“Ghistyian fiends,” Wilva spat.

“Ghistyian, yes,” the man said. “Fiend? A bit dramatic.”

“Why do you come here?”

“To liaise between Mejis and my realm, of course.” The Ghistyian’s response was smug. “If not for this endless conflict between mortals, we would have kept to the shadowlands. But alas, once again we are summoned from the shadows to arrange yet another reception.”

“Reception? Who do you receive?”

The Ghistyian forced a smile over clenched teeth. He went to speak but was cut off by a commotion coming from the atrium. Wilva instinctively stepped away from the entrance and took cover next to an unlit brazier. Her hand was still clenched tight around the hilt of her sword. Footsteps grew louder until a figure burst into the sanctuary. It was an Etherian soldier.

The soldier met Wilva’s gaze. His look of desperation went lax as the iron head of a quarrel pierced his chest. He collapsed to the marble.

The Ghistyian strode toward the other Skayzers and took his place beside the reflecting pool. “Do you still wish to be free of this city, lieutenant?” he asked.

A bolt was released into the sanctuary, just inches from where he stood. He turned back to the Ghistyians in time to see another bolt fired at the cloaked men. The quarrel’s trajectory tilted away from them, as if carried by the winds. It bounced off the wall and blasted across the floor. Sweat beaded on her forehead as panic washed over. Without realizing, Wilva had pulled her sword. The hilt burned in her grasp.

She now stood between certain death and something far more evil. Apprehension faded as she met the eyes of the scarred man. She wanted out of the city and he may yet find passage under the cover of Ghistyian shadow. All of those she had arrived with were dead, her task now a pile of ashes, but freedom, not only from Farrow, but from the Etherian war machine was what he sought. He would fight no more. She chose to gamble with evil. “Will you help see me out of the city?”

The Ghistyian nodded. “We must first see to our obligation. You will then be free.”

Escaping the shadow of the hallway came a handful of soldiers, weapons drawn. Much like Wilva, they stood agape at the sight of the dead priests. Their arrival drove a spike of familiar guilt into Wilva’s chest. Would they be so lucky? Will they be spared death as well?

“Hold them back,” the Ghistyian said. “This will soon be over and you will be free.”

Not a second later, six Outbreakers burst into the sanctuary, bellowing hate and fury, and were met by the Etherians. One last time. Wilva advanced, sword still burning in hand. The floors were slick with the gore of the fallen priests making it difficult to fight. He cut down two unsuspecting Outbreakers, just barely escaping their final blows. They abandoned their halberds for short blades, much like Wilva carried herself. Though clumsy and poorly trained with the weapons, Wilva’s exhaustion made it difficult to keep up.

A mangled yalon ran across her side, opening her linen shirt and released a trickle of warm blood across the hip. She battered her assailant with the pommel of his sword, dazing the Strixix just long enough to drive the point through its long neck.

“More,” one of the Etherians cried.

Hope was fading.

From the shadows of the corridor came another two Outbreakers. Wilva dropped her shoulder and sent one of the mutations to the stone, but more filtered into the sanctuary. They were matched one on one, then two on one, until Wilva was all that remained of the Etherians. Plagued by fatigue, she could hardly lift the sword and was no longer a threat to the Outbreakers. She dropped his blade and fell to her knees, accepting death.

She spat blood from her mouth, with her sword lie just out of reach on the marble in front. The purple linen had unraveled itself was now barely attached to the hilt. Tears welled up in her eyes at the thought of her father, and her mother, but she smiled at the memory. An Outbreaker approached, another Strixix, beak razor sharp and pointed at her. This was his end; the culmination of her service to the Etherian. A waste.

Wilva closed her eyes.

The sound of a bell rung deep and loud, sending a spike of pain through her head. She opened her eyes. The Outbreakers were dazed, pressed to the ground sharing in her agony. The bell rang again. Wilva immediately collapsed onto all fours, then pushed herself up onto her knees to shield her ears, but the din of metal echoed inside. She looked back to find the Ghistyian Skayzers had stepped away from the reflecting pool, seemingly unaffected. The bell rang a third time. Wilva searched the room for the source of her misery but found nothing.

Most of the Outbreakers had fallen. Many began to crawl away toward the entrance, some trying to fly. If there had ever been a cue to leave, this was it. The pain in her head matched that of his body. She couldn’t stand and was forced to drag herself over the fresh corpses. Her arms slipped on the pools of blood between the bodies as she pulled away in a desperate frenzy. The metallic ring of the bell had faded, only to be replaced by the whispers something terrible. The words were foreign, unlike anything she had ever heard—something ancient—but to her surprise she understood them all the same. This was the voice of Heron.

Exhausted, Wilva pushed herself against the wall, facing the reflecting pool. The wound in her shoulder was leaking blood again and the pain coursed deep through her body. She looked toward the Ghistyians standing in the shadows. A figure began to reveal itself from the waters. The reception had commenced.

A creature rose slowly from the pool, displacing water as it ascended. It was immense. A cowled head of purple cloth trimmed with golden thread broke the surface. Even in the gloom, the brilliant thread shimmered. Wilva was iced with fear. Seized by terror, not a single soldier within the sanctuary moved giving no distinction between corpse and the living. She sucked in a breath of the cold air, forcing to breathe.

The whispers grew louder as the beast crawled out from the water, fiendish murmurs spinning webs of confusion in Wilva’s mind. It placed a hand, twice as large but with the same dimensions as any mere man's, he carved edge of the pool and pushed itself upward, revealing a pair of long, spindly arms. Though impossibly tall, the creature was more man than beast. Long, flowing vestments were wrapped around its chest but held no water. The rain still poured in through the opening but it seemed to curve away from the creature. Much like its hood, the golden threads sewn into the robes reflected orange light throughout the dim sanctuary.

The creature was fully exposed now. It towered over the Ghistyian Skayzers, near tall enough to climb out from the open dome if it pleased. It made no attempt to leave, however. Instead, the creature surveyed the room, its head ducking from side to side with an animalistic instinct. Even though its cowl Wilva could feel the eyeless gaze burning over her. Is this what Haeq had warned of in his mad ravings? Wilva recalled the words of the priest. It rides the storm to Farrow. Was this the Stormlord?

Wilva was barely holding onto her sanity. What stood before her was a beast of Mejis, born of the stars, a bridge between the mortal world and what lies beyond. Though terrified, the creature was magnificent to behold. She was unable to pull her eyes from it.

The scarred Skayzer stepped out from the shadows to confront it. He raised his arms high above his head and unfastened a gilded clasp on the creature’s robes. Hidden beneath the vestment was another pair of arms, these much longer than the two branching out from its shoulders. A pair of Ghistyians stepped forward to receive the robes.

The scarred man turned back toward Wilva, and immediately found his gaze. He moved with ghostly grace through the mess of corpses as he approached him. He stood over and extended an arm, gesturing at the creature. “The Stormlord, awoken from its benevolent slumber,” the Ghistyian said, hovering over Wilva. “As I said, we typically liaise between the Mejis and my world. Today, however, he arrives for another purpose.”

“You lied,” Wilva croaked between coughs.

“Your departure awaits, lieutenant.” The Ghistyian grinned. “Soon, I promise.”

“Why? Why did you bring this . . . beast to Ambright?”

The Ghistyian regarded her with puzzlement. “It is not us who summoned what stands before you. For centuries, your people have spilled blood to honor the Valkyries. Now he arrives to put your faith to the test. It is your own that have awoken his purpose, not I.”

“A test of faith, heh.” Wilva barked a painful laugh of derision. “I wish to depart, fiend. Fulfill your promise however you see fit.”

“Then let his light lead your path away from this place.”

Wilva looked away.

A memory of freedom had lit her way to the temple, leading her into the waiting arms of the Ghistyian. Now broken and defeated, her deliverance from this world would come by way of the Stormlord. The burden of her failure fell on herself, but she would not have to carry it much longer. Wilva would soon meet demise. She did not know how, but it was coming.

Though left to suffer her pain alone, one glimmer of hope remained, and she clung to it. Between the disorienting murmurs came brief moments of clarity, and it was there he found warm comfort. Her bloodline. She reached for her linen. It was gone, lost among the dead, still tied around the hilt of her sword. She would not let the memory turn to ash, however. Not this time. Not ever again. She smiled at the thought of her, waiting for her after all these years. A flood of memories washed over her and he began to cry. Why did she let herself forget? She cursed herself.

Thundering in her mind, the whispers were now too great to ignore. The memory faded. She groaned, searching for her memory, but it was gone. Wilva blinked the tears away and stared up at the creature. It was sitting cross-legged upon the marble. Its shorter, more proportional set of arms were outstretched, palms up, while the hands of its other arms were intertwined across its lap. The voice became more defined, less chaotic. She could make out the words now. It spoke to her and all others able to hear its words.

My children, flesh of the world

Sacred blood of my own

Humble servants of Highchaw

Honored in your sacrifice

The creature pulled its hands apart to reveal a shimmering light. It began to weave the lambiance in its palm, spinning strands of pulsating energy around itself, steadily growing larger. The room had become illuminated. Wilva’s body, once cold and stiff was now warm. She welcomed the heat as it spread to her arms, then to her feet. It was an odd comfort, unexpected. The pain faded. Her muscles twitched as they became active once again and breathing came steady.

As quickly as his strength returned, it was cast away in an instant. The pain returned in a flash. The creature replaced comfort with agony. A cruel joke. A spike of searing pain formed in her side, clutching tighter and tighter until he found herself gasping for air. It felt as though the Valkyries had reached within her to squeeze the life out.

The light now faded. Wilva’s body went lax and he slumped down against the floor. The pain was immense and she could feel his soul being stripped away. It would soon be over. The darkness enveloped her and graciously accepted it. She turned his final thoughts to the one she loved as the world closed in around. There would be no more obligations; no wars or tasks. She had been released from service and was now free to search the heavens forever. Through death, the final claim.

I can’t let this happen

Perhaps it was a silence sense of Valor, or a blind notion of honor. Wilva opened her eyes again. She didn’t know how much time passed, but the Stormlord and cloaked figures were still nearby. They were within range. If only her body would cooperate with her mind. She painfully slipped an explosive scroll from her inner sleeve, hands bleeding, instantly soaking the paper red. She focused and set the bomb to go off in five seconds. With one last desperate lunge she tossed the scroll up high enough so that it would explode at the perfect time. Everyone turned to see her gag and life spilling from her wound, but Wilva had to do one last thing. It would certainly result in an Overdose, but at least now she would have the smallest chance of life. Concentrating, a force field brighter than three suns morphed around her, and the temple filled with light blasting like a supernova. All was a blur, her skin ripping at its seems, her body crumpling to the marble that once held greatness.

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