Belthan watched it from the upper floor of his manor, his face grim. Despite being well within the old Brotherhood watch-line, the exemplar felt ill at ease. He had been feeling so for days, without reason, and it was not just he who was affected.
A pall of unease had fallen across the Brothermark outpost. Frightening sounds were heard come nightfall, but as yet, despite many reports of intruders being sighted within the outpost’s borders, no enemy had revealed themselves. Paranoia was taking its toll – knight and villein alike were jumping at shadows and several of the lower-born had vanished with no satisfactory explanation.
Belthan himself had taken to wearing his day-clothes to bed and keeping both sword and lantern within easy reach. Although no confirmed sightings had been made he was sure that whatever it was that was out there was drawing closer with every passing night. His villein scouts had just yesterday spotted peculiar tracks that started from nowhere and ceased just as suddenly only a couple of miles away. Messengers sent to neighbouring outposts had either failed to return or else turned up bedraggled and near incoherent, rambling of empty settlements with neither blood or bodies to tell any tales of the fate of their residents.
It was most unlike the forces of the Brothermark to surrender their posts, especially without first putting up a stubborn defence, and Basilea seemed increasingly stingy and reticent in offering them due military support. As time went on, Belthan and a growing minority of exemplars were beginning to wonder whether the Hegemon was using them more as an expendable shield than accepting them as a true part of Basilea’s grand army. Rivalries and mistrust, it seemed, remained in practice, whatever might have been written on paper.
Belthan heard someone approach and glanced over his shoulder. One of his scouts was drawing near, a grim look on his face. Eager for any update as to their situation, the exemplar turned to face him.
“My Lord –” the scout began.
“Well, what news?” Belthan demanded, cutting the scout off in his impatience. “Have you found them, those Abyssals? This must be due to their mischief!”
“My Lord, there has been no activity from the Abyss,” the scout returned. “Whilst those infernal creatures are no doubt busying themselves with wicked designs, they have not yet marched any forces into our lands. We encountered no one, not the living, not the dead. The only report of movement was from a group of ogre hunters who made mention of a small army from the far north making its way across their lands.”
Belthan stared long at the scout, then turned away in a huff. He began pacing back and forth across the room. “Where did you look?” he demanded at last, glaring at the scout and pointing accusingly. “I don’t need to know if there is an enemy out there…” he cast a haunted, sideways look to the window. At length, he turned slowly back to the soldier and spoke in a whisper. “I can feel them…I…” he shook his head, involuntarily reaching up and holding his arms as though chilled. “I don’t need to be a wizard or a priest. Something evil is out there, and it is draws closer with every passing day.”
The scout swallowed hard and nodded.
“What of the envoy from that elf-lord to the far north?” Belthan asked. “Was he not sending someone to entreat us? Have you heard word? Have they already met with any outposts further north than us? Are they bound for here?” The exemplar turned back to the window, his face dark.
“There has been no word of the Northern Alliance, save for that distant army that the ogres mentioned,” the scout reported. “If they have made contact with the other Brothermark outposts then no word has yet reached us here.”
Belthan turned to the scout with a scowl but before he could say more, hurried footsteps approached and a second soldier appeared. “My Lord,” she said, bowing her head, “High Paladin Adrianus has arrived!”
“He has?” Belthan returned, his eyes wide. “I had not expected to hear a response. Clearly the roads back south to Basilea are still open and free of this devilry! Have everyone ready to receive him and his men! Hurry!”
The two scouts nodded and hastily withdrew, with Belthan in close pursuit.
“High Paladin?” Belthan exclaimed as the mounted Basilean lord clip-clopped into the outpost’s square. Noting the size of the paladin’s force, the exemplar regarded him in appalled disbelief. “Is this all, then?”
“I beg your pardon?” the paladin returned. “All?” He watched as the two dozen spearmen and half a dozen paladin knights marched past him into the village, where they were met by local soldiers and assisted in stabling their steeds or being shown to suitable accommodation. Adrianus glanced back at Belthan. “What more were you expecting? What more would you need?”
“I requested military assistance and you send me a border patrol?” Belthan growled. “And how is that you have travelled here and remain unmoved by the unease that has gripped all others?”
The paladin drew a weary breath and dismounted, waving to several of Belthan’s soldiers to take his horse. Then he paused. “Do I smell burning?” He glanced about and noticed two columns of smoke rising in the cold evening air, a little way from the outpost’s square. “Bonfires?”
“Need-fires,” Belthan returned. “Many of the villeins ascribe to the practice – something they have always done to ward away wickedness since before our home was sundered and became the Forsaken Isles. This evil is different…even the demons of the Abyss do not cause such dread.” Belthan stepped forward and regarded the paladin intently. “Could this be the same evil that gripped Tarisios?”
The paladin wrinkled his nose. His lip curled in derision. “Remember who you now serve, Lord Exemplar. The Brotherhood is no more. Your order is now that of the Brothermark, and it answers to Basilea. You have no need for such base rites as these ‘need-fires’. Have them extinguished, else I will be obliged to report your heresy to the head of my own order and then you might face the Drowning Pools.” Adrianus rested his hand upon the hilt of his sword. “Numbers are not so powerful as faith in the Shining Ones. Besides, have not your own fellows answered the call to bolster your ranks?”
“They have not answered,” Belthan returned grimly. Then he frowned. “If Basilea wishes for us to be an effective line of defence then it must ensure that we are suitably supported – a good deal of our knights departed to serve elsewhere, after all.”
“That they would prefer the thickets and thorns of the woods over the glory of Basilea speaks volumes of those turncoats’ dedication to order,” Adrianus returned coldly. “If that is a life that you find preferable then you are free to pursue it. Basilea has offered you more than the forest-folk ever could, and it is by Basilea’s light that evil is kept in check. We appreciate your help, but we do not require it –”
He broke off as a shadow passed overhead and a loud caw echoed throughout the area. A great black bird swooped down and a gruff-looking dwarf in fur and mail hopped off of its back to land with an audible thud before the astonished soldiers. After taking a brief moment to appraise those assembled around him, the dwarf clomped up to Belthan and Adrianus.
“News from the Winterlands,” he declared. “Prince Talannar Icekin requests aid. We ask that you muster every soldier at hand, and march to the North as swiftly as you are able!”
A bemused silence fell as Basilean and Brothermark soldiers alike exchanged glances, before looking to their respective lords.
Belthan opened his mouth to speak, but his Basilean counterpart beat him to it.
“Who are you?” Adrianus asked with disdain. “You dress like a woodsman and smell like mutton…”
“Woodsman?” the dwarf repeated, his beard bristling. Then he grinned like a wolf. “A woodsman I am, of sorts. Such are the skills needed to flourish in the chilly North. But skilled as we might be, we are in need. My lord requires your presence and is willing to pay handsomely for it.”
“Basilea musters its legions for greater cause than mere coin,” Adrianus growled. “I take no orders from errant dwarfs from far-off lands,” He waved dismissively. “Be off with you, and let us humans manage our affairs as best we can.” He turned away from the dwarf and would have walked away had Belthan not spoken to the contrary.
“Wait!” the exemplar called. Stepping forward, he raised a hand, hailing the messenger. “We had been expecting word from Prince Talannar – are you per chance from the army making its way across the ogre lands?”
“I am,” the messenger replied, “though such are the circumstances that we are being recalled. The tidings are evil,” the dwarf leaned towards Belthan and spoke in loud whisper. “Would you risk all that makes Chill what it is, taken? Would you risk losing our presence to the North? Would you risk another Evil arising in our place?”
Belthan stared at the dwarf, then glanced at his soldiers, scattered around the outpost’s square. “Perhaps this dwarf is right,” the exemplar began, almost to himself. Around him, soldiers of both factions glanced his way. “The Alliance lies far, far away, but though we do not see much of it, they hold back many foes that would otherwise assail us from the North. We are beset already by demons, by rampaging orcs, not to mention the greed of Tragar.” The exemplar looked out across the sea of concerned faces and raised his hands. “Can we stand idle whilst so famed and powerful an ally is assailed?”
The soldiers began to murmur, but once again Adrianus spoke.
“Talannar thinks too highly of himself if he thinks that he may send bedraggled woodmen to the gates of Basilea and expect its legions to drop everything and march for his purpose! As has been stated, we are already beset.” He stared at the dwarf. “Send word to the Hegemon, with all suitable decorum, and then, once the Shining Ones have been consulted, you might have what you seek. We will not move until then.”
“Perhaps you won’t,” Belthan said quietly, “but we might…”
Adrianus turned sharply to the exemplar. He opened his mouth in rebuke, but this time it was Belthan who cut him off.
“Time is not a luxury we have,” Belthan said flatly. “Do you truly think the void-filth will stay in the North once they have slaughtered our friends? No, they will be upon us before we know it.” He stepped forward and addressed his soldiers. “What say you, men? Will you march to the aid of the famed elf-prince, and stand in common cause with our brothers and sisters of his Alliance? Is it not for thwarting Evil in its myriad forms that our order even exists?”
The soldiers of the Brothermark, high-born and low-born alike exchanged looks of approval. One of the knights spoke. “We go where you go, Lord Exemplar.”
The dwarf grinned again and glanced at Adrianus. “It seems that the men of the Brothermark have spoken.” Without another word he clambered back upon his raven. It took wing and was quickly lost to sight, flying north-bound at speed.
“Well?” Belthan asked, as he came to stand before Adrianus. “What will you do? March with us on the morrow, or head for home?”
The paladin said nothing. With a cold stare at the exemplar, he brushed past him and joined his retinue in seeking sleep and supper.
Belthan watched him go, muttered under his breath, and returned to his manor – night was upon them, and he did not fancy being out of doors when it fell.
From the shadows of the tree-line, Kohrael Dawnshade watched. Though she answered to the name, it meant little to her – a vague memory, like so many others that she had of this fascinating world. In another life, in another time, the banshee had walked this world, had been born upon it, but that was a long time past. Her time in the void, among the void-kin, had given her a new perspective, had opened her to new horizons that she had previously considered to be beyond the reaches of the mind. The physical plane still called to her, but once upon it she beheld it only as a realm saturated in emotion – emotion upon which she could feed.
Behind her, lurking among the trunks and branches, the rest of the host waited, basking in the fear and anger that radiated from the mortals ahead. There, where the trees thinned and the meadow began, another settlement of wood and stone stood. Two great fires burned, those responsible for starting them had been the beacon that Kohrael had followed – the radiance of their fear she had perceived from afar as vivid sparks of blue light. She had followed them, the rest of the host trailing after her, and now, as they were upon the cusp of indulging in their feast, the menu had broadened. Now beyond the blue of fear were added the red of passionate anger, the orange of ignorance and the purple of arrogant pride.
The mortals were arguing. Emotions flared. The recently arrived were arguing with those who had begun the fires and who had stayed with them. Kohrael could not comprehend their words, but she did not need to – the flickering colours of the speakers told her all that she needed to know. She would have smiled, had she a face capable of the expression. Instead her splayed head tensed, opening and closing in anticipation.
The voices continued to rise, and at last, the fires were doused. As they did, the red of anger faded into the blue of fear for many of those assembled, whilst the purple of pride in the others grew intense, too intense to be ignored. Emitting a scream beyond the range of mortal hearing, Kohrael gave the signal to advance and as one the host exploded into action, running, scuttling or flying at preternatural speed out of the woods and into the open.
The villeins, still sullen from the loss of their warding flames, snapped their heads up in horror as the host of nightstalkers exploded from the trees. Dark and evil-tempered fairies darted around the lumbering forms of butchers and ravagers, whilst reapers and their tormenter brethren sprinted nimbly between the sluggish mass of scarecrows – a horde of zombies, consisting of dead bodies, living bodies or actual inanimate scarecrows that incorporeal stalkers had managed to attach themselves to and animate to anchor themselves to the material world.
In moments the villeins were overwhelmed, torn apart, or dragged into the dark before they could raise the alarm. The several Basilean soldiers nearby could only watch, stunned, as they were drowned in a mass of teeth, tentacles and claws.
Lying upon his bed in full kit, Belthan could not sleep. Leering faces and hideous monsters haunted his thoughts. Sweating, he sat up and reached for the lantern that set upon his bedside table. Some might consider it a childish act for an exemplar of the Brothermark to sleep with a light at their bedside but Belthan was beyond caring. He held it high, his hand trembling despite himself, like a child hazarding a look under their bed after hearing a bump in the night.
Belthan had faced many foes in his time serving in the Brotherhood, and now, in its new incarnation, the Brothermark. He had faced the barbaric and brutal orcs, the horrors of the walking dead and the diabolical evil of demons from the depths of the Abyss itself. Yet none of them had inflicted upon him so crippling a fear, a fear so strong that it could not be banished by any consolation or cheerful thought.
The floorboards somewhere within the room creaked. Belthan snapped his head up and looked that way, thrusting his lantern forward as he drew his sword. Nothing. He moved the light about, searching, turning around until he spotted something that made him stare in astonished disbelief.
Within an alcove that the exemplar used as a storage area and wardrobe stood a figure. A figure with a familiar face. Belthan’s face. Even as the exemplar stepped away, raising his sword, the false Belthan stepped from the dark of the alcove and into the light, its face flusher and more radiant, than Belthan’s own. This was no undead ghoul or leering demon. The brightness in its eyes and the friendliness of its smile were too genuine – and that made it all the more terrifying.
“Who are you?” Belthan demanded, pointing with his sword. “What are you? Speak!”
“I am Belthan,” the doppelgänger answered cheerfully.
“No,” Belthan whispered back. “You are –”
“I am Belthan,” the double insisted, its smile never faltering. Dressed as Belthan was, it too had a sword at its hip, which it reached for with disarming slowness.
In a fit of anger, Belthan lashed out, taking off the doppelgänger’s head in a single, clean blow. The head rolled across the floor as the body fell, coming to a halt with its eyes fixed upon Belthan’s own, distress and pain writ large across its bloodied face. Then the head and body melted into mottled grey flesh, before crumbling to dust and fading into the ether.
Belthan stood over the spot where it had fallen, frowning. He blinked and shook his head, wondering if he had imagined the entire event. His sword was clean – no blood. Had it been merely a hallucination?
Cries of distress echoed throughout the outpost and Belthan, shaken from his reverie, hurried to his window to see what was happening outside. Across the square he spied freshly lit lanterns flicker to light in several buildings, only to be swiftly extinguished. Shrill squeals, tittering laughter and resonant roars smothered the screams of the victims.
A horn sounded, followed immediately after by a familiar voice. Belthan looked to his left and saw High Paladin Adrianus at the head of his retinue. They charged into the square, followed by their spear-armed legionaries. Belthan’s own warriors were nowhere to be seen and he could only assume that they had been destroyed buying time for their Basilean allies to get in good order or else had fled to wherever they thought was safe.
The spearmen were targeted by a horde of hulking monsters, eyeless, a mix of ogre and tentacled beast who thundered towards the startled Basileans with murderous intent. The spearmen adopted a defensive formation, expecting their foe to come crashing into them. But the charge never came. Instead, the ravagers came to a halt frighteningly close to the legionaries and raised their arms, unleashing a spray of steaming, corrosive ectoplasm that ate through armour, cloth and flesh alike. As the remaining spearmen sounded a charge to avoid a second spray they were caught unawares as a mass of tormentors nimbly leapt over the ravagers and landed in their midst, causing mass panic. In the dark, with the enemy at every turn, the spearmen fell to a storm of scything claws.
High Paladin Adrianus and his retinue charged into the ravagers, skewering many upon the tips of their lances, but it was not enough. The beasts turned about and yanked or punched several of the paladins clear off of their horses whilst a flock of black fairies engulfed the remainder, causing their steeds to panic and flee, only to be pounced upon by the tormentors who had finished with the spearmen and were hunting for a new diversion.
Adrianus tried to call to them, to rally the paladins back, but he was silenced as the dark-fey descended upon him in a suffocating cloud. Belthan saw a reaper, heavier-built than the rest, leap upon the paladin’s back, its two shoulder-mounted blades separating Adrianus’s head from his body.
Belthan backed away from the window, then froze, inexplicably feeling a presence behind him. Spinning around with his sword at the ready, he found that a peculiar being was standing in the doorway to his chamber. He had heard no sound of its coming and stared in rapt horror at the creature, who remained still and silent.
It’s skin was mottled grey, and though it had the slender arms and torso of a woman, its lower half was a thick, muscular stump that flared at its base with a ring of claws. Its head was akin to that of the carnivorous plants Belthan had been told of by members of the Brotherhood who had gone contrary and joined the forest-folk. That splayed head twitched, shut tight, then opened slowly. The creature raised a slender arm and beckoned for the exemplar to approach.
Belthan felt his warmth and spirit drain away. His fear left him as well, and entranced, he released his sword and entered the banshee’s chill embrace.
At midnight the void-host left their haunts around the outpost and mustered in its square, answering an unspoken call. In the dark and the chill they waited in silence, all facing the same direction in anticipation. From the shadows of one of the buildings emerged a figure who walked with fluid grace despite being clad in armour. That armour was adorned with motifs of leering faces and grinning skulls. The soulbane raised his wickedly-curved axe and pointed at the void-host. At that signal, the nightstalkers animated, hissing and stretching restlessly. Behind the dread-knight skulked another figure, who remained in the shadows, her eyes gleaming.
The soulbane, Harketh, surveyed the gibbering host in commanding silence. The nightstalkers hunkered low, like hounds sitting patiently before a hunter, eagerly awaiting their next instruction.
“Fresh meat lies ahead,” the twilight-elf said softly. He turned and pointed to the south with his weapon. “Go. Now. Destroy them, and any whom are in their company. Feast upon their flesh and upon their fear.”
The void-host voiced their delight and ran, scuttled or flew on their way, their speed unhindered by the darkness. Upon the wind they could already taste the unease and the apprehension, and nothing but their destruction would halt them.
Harketh turned about and watched them vanish into the night, then inclined his helmeted head back, towards his fellow, who remained lurking in the dark. “The humans of this region fear. They fear the Abyss. They fear the orcs. They fear each other.” He observed the silent outpost around them. “The bloodworms have drained every drop of blood and the fallen have provided fresh vessels for more stalkers to inhabit. All that these humans were, we have taken to serve us, and only fear will follow in our wake. This is our time.”
“Indeed,” the crone agreed. “This region is rich in fear, and jealousy, and arrogance. They are reluctant to help the Icekin, and even slower to ride North. All the easier to thin them out.”
Beneath his sinister helmet, Harketh smiled. “A shame that I am posted here, so far from our main force, but someone must oversee the culling of these wretches. The more of these outposts we destroy, the longer for aid to reach Talanaar, and the easier our kin will achieve the grand design. Come, there is work to be done before we cast the North into shadow.”
With that, Harketh stepped back into the shadows alongside the summoner crone. Then, upon the wings of magic, they were gone, leaving yet another Brothermark outpost empty and silent, with neither blood nor bodies to tell any tale of what befell its defenders.