Prologue

The stench of death hung heavy over the killing grounds, thick and stagnant in the summer heat. It wasn’t the first time Alfrid Valens had seen a dead body, it was a soldier’s duty to make as many of them as possible, after all. But what he saw brought him near to retching. The men had been dead for a week, maybe more, just as the riders had said.

     “Looks like they were right.” Eryk coughed, shielding his nose with the back of his hand.

     It was a stupid and obvious thing to say, but Alfrid himself was at a loss for words. He stared down at the ruin that used to be the King’s soldiers, their features having withered away into nothingness. What was unmistakable, however, was the eagle sigil of Betanthia on their breastplates.

     “What sort of brigands would do something like this and not take a single thing off the bodies?” Alfrid pondered out loud.

     It seemed strange for anyone to attack a Betanthian patrol and not take their pick of the spoils. There was plenty of fine steel, armor, and provisions, all of which could fetch decent coin. Or be put to good use, if one were so inclined.

     He swatted at a fly that danced around his face, then donned a crested steel helm over his mop of shaggy blonde hair. Alfrid Valens was the last son of a dying line, and had produced no heirs for himself. His father reminded him of it often. He was every bit the image of Lord Cedric, and just as stony and calculating—though a man of fewer words, if such a thing were possible.

     “You know these northmen; they like to kill for sport,” Eryk replied.

 Alfrid grunted. There was some truth to what he said. The barbarian tribes were more akin to animals than men. But it was Dhuuld Lurrson’s job to keep the peace in Khorrtal and the surrounding lands, a peace that was often precarious. That was the agreement, the price for their relative autonomy. What good was a chieftain that couldn’t uphold his end of the bargain?

     “It’s possible.” Alfrid turned away from the hideous mess before him. “Someone knows what happened here, and whoever is responsible needs to pay.”

     His father demanded nothing less. Cedric Valens would be waiting at Castle Morden for the offenders to return in irons so they could be promptly executed for their crime. Perhaps a good hanging would help to restore order, since Dhuuld seemed incapable of maintaining it by virtue alone. How could he allow such a thing to happen? Alfrid had half a mind to ride to Khorrtal and wring the old man’s neck until the answers came tumbling out of his mouth. The more he thought of it, the more appealing the idea sounded. Savage folk often needed reminders of their true place in the world, and perhaps a hangman’s noose would be reminder enough.

     “I think we had best pay our barbarian friend a little visit,” Alfrid announced. “These are his lands, and what happens here is his responsibility. Perhaps he’s become a bit too comfortable in his station.”

     “Very good, Captain. Should we bury the dead first?”

     Alfrid considered that, but the army had lingered long enough as it was. Staying here for a burial detail might only expose them to danger, the same danger that had sealed the fate of his countrymen. “No,” he decided. “We’ll leave that task to the Khorrtalli. This happened on their watch. Let them take care of it.”

     The road would be the most direct way to the village, but also the most dangerous. Its banks and surrounding fields were thick and overgrown, and could be harboring any number of unseen threats. Even with three thousand soldiers at his back, Alfrid felt uneasy. He watched the tall grass rustling in the breeze, its blades whispering soft warnings. Something about the road seemed treacherous and uninviting, something he couldn’t quite explain.

     “Shall I get the men moving, then?” Eryk asked.

     Alfrid nodded. “We go around the road. And spread them out. Tell everyone to stay alert.”

     He climbed back into the saddle as the orders were echoed down the line, his gaze still fixated on the road. The column began to shift and spread out until the men were nearly a quarter-mile abreast. Khorrtal was a mere speck on the horizon, but within an hour, maybe two, they would arrive.

     “Keep a sharp eye open, lads!” a sergeant with a large poleaxe shouted to the infantrymen. Thousands of colorful kite shields bobbed up and down as the men trudged through the field, their long spears swaying like barren trees in the wind. The clattering of steel plate and the clinking of mail played like a symphony, though the song was of little reassurance. 

     Onward they rode. Eryk was babbling about something, but his words seemed as distant as the village. Alfrid was too focused on their surroundings to take notice. He spied a flock of carrion crows circling in the dreary sky, cawing and complaining. It was difficult to comprehend the fact that pieces of good Betanthian men were now in the bellies of those foul, winged creatures. The thought sickened him.

     “Wouldn’t you agree, Captain?” Eryk said, breaking Alfrid out of his distraction.

     “What was that?” he asked, brow furrowed.

     “The ground. It’s like a bloody marsh, look at it!"

     It was true. The field was becoming a soupy, saturated mess the further they rode. The early summer rainy season had been relentless this year, turning even the driest plains into lakes. Alfrid was beginning to regret not taking the road. He would have preferred solid ground over this, even if the risk was greater. His horse was struggling to keep a solid footing, and the men seemed to be faring no better. Their pace had slowed to a crawl, but thankfully the field was not impassible. At least, not yet. “We’ll be through it soon enough,” Alfrid said, though unsure if he believed it himself.

     Why hasn’t that old fool come out to meet us? he wondered.

     He glanced over his shoulder at a rider carrying the King’s standard. The blue cloth snapped and twisted in the wind, it's eagle sigil appearing to flap its wings and take flight. Beside him, another horseman carried the blue and burgundy war-flag of Castle Morden. The banners were large enough and bright enough to be seen a mile away or more, yet still Dhuuld had not produced himself. Had the old man turned false, or was he simply too oblivious to take notice of an army marching through his lands? Either situation was unacceptable.

     “You’re doing it again,” Eryk observed.

     “Doing what?” Alfrid scoffed in annoyance.

     “You’re thinking too much. Try not to look so grim; it doesn’t suit you.”

     Eryk was a good man and a good friend from their days before the army, though a bit loose in the tongue. He was all of twenty, nearly four years the junior of Alfrid. Much of their youth had been spent chasing maidens in Willowsgrove and getting into one scuffle after another with the other lads. There was something in Eryk’s dopey face that could make Alfrid smile in even the direst of situations, but today he wasn’t smiling. Neither of them were.

     “Can’t help it. I’ll feel a lot better once we get out of this stinking bog.”

     It was impossible to not notice the smell. It was a ripe, pungent scent of wet, rotten vegetation and stagnant water. Alfrid wasn’t sure what smelled worse, the swampy field or the pile of dead men they had encountered. A sudden, hot gust swept through the plain, the tall grass shaking and hissing like snakes coiled to strike.

     “I don’t know about you, but I could use a good romp once we get to the village,” Eryk said, smiling. “What do you say we have ourselves a go?”

     “Pass. They smell like… like wet dog.” Alfrid wrinkled his nose at the thought. He had never cared for the women in the barbarian village; they were far too plain and dreary for his liking. But then again, he never cared for much of anyone in Khorrtal in the first place.

     “What’s the matter, you haven’t lost your appetite, have you?”

     It was utterly perplexing yet somehow oddly impressive, the way Eryk was able to remain so aloof even at the most inopportune moments. There were times when all Alfrid could do was marvel at his friend’s utter lack of self-awareness, and this was one of them. He shook his head incredulously.

     You truly are a piece of work, Eryk.

     A rider appeared in the distance, a large, hulking thing of a man on the back of an equally massive warhorse. He was as black as a shadow, tall as a castle’s keep, with a long crimson cape flapping behind him. Alfrid sighed in relief. “About time he showed up. I ought to put the lash to him in front of the entire village—” 

     But something seemed odd, out of place. He remembered Dhuuld being smaller and thinner—not gaunt but certainly not an imposing figure by any means. Alfrid leaned forward and squinted, his eyes straining to catch a better glimpse of the man, but he was too far away to see clearly. The rider sat motionless, save for the soft fluttering of his cape in the wind.

     “What’s the matter?” Eryk asked.      “Why—”

     “Shhhh! Quiet!” Alfrid interrupted softly. He raised a hand in a friendly gesture towards the rider, but it hung in the air unanswered. Something was wrong, he could feel it. He raised his hand higher in case the man didn’t see, but still there was no response. The rider continued to sit idle, and silent, like a lion sizing up its prey.

What in the world is going on here?

     Alfrid heard something whoosh past him, like the air itself was being torn asunder, though it was faint and hard to make out over the sucking sound of his horse’s hooves in the mud. He thought little of it at first, until something pinged off his breastplate and fluttered off into the weeds. Alarmed, he gave the reins a frantic crack, but an arrow struck his horse in the neck, followed by another and yet another in a near-instant. The beast wailed and fell screaming to the ground.

     He landed with an awkward thud, his head rattling around inside his steel helm like a pebble. Stunned and nearly unconscious, Alfrid stumbled to his feet, clasping his temples as a dull ringing sound filled his ears. As he turned, a savage beast of a man charged in, an axe in one hand and a short sword in the other. Roaring and swinging wildly, the bald barbarian attacked and nearly struck a killing blow.

     Instinctively Alfrid drew his arming sword and parried one strike, and then another. He was seeing double, and did not know which of the savages to attack. He answered with an arcing slash, but the beard of the warrior’s axe hooked his blade and ripped it free from his grasp.

     The northman stepped in with a thrust, the sword point biting through the rings of mail just below Alfrid's breastplate. He heard the wet thump of the steel sinking into his flesh, yet felt no pain. As it was wrenched free, a torrent of blood erupted from the wound, spilling onto the ground with a spurt. The barbarian gave him a shove and set off towards another target.

     He couldn’t remember falling, nor hitting the ground. The last thing Alfrid saw before his vision turned to black was the blurry, frantic chaos of battle, a horrific maelstrom of steel and flesh colliding violently with one another. Slowly he drifted off to unconsciousness, a deep and welcoming sleep that he might never wake from.

     But his slumber would not last long. Alfrid Valens awoke, gasping and choking in a sudden panic. He could still hear the clanging of steel and the screams of dying men, though it was much quieter now. Coughing and spitting out a mouthful of dirty water, he tried to stand and retrieve his sword, but the sting of severed nerves wracked his body, sending him crashing back onto the ground.

     Alfrid groaned woefully and nearly vomited from the pain, his hands clutching at his lacerated bowels. When he pulled them away, he saw blood running between his fingers, warm and thick and nearly black from bile.

     No… this… this cannot be...

     Terror-stricken, Alfrid clutched his abdomen with one hand and grimaced, then began to drag himself forward with the other. He had to get away, as far away from here as he possibly could, and fast. It was the only thing he could do.

     A pair of barbarians came sloshing through the red mud, laughing and jeering in a language he did not understand. Alfrid laid still, hoping they would mistake him for a corpse. He would not have to try hard, as he already appeared to be moments away from the grave.

      Their hair and beards were long and untamed, their skin painted with a tapestry of blue runic tattoos. They wore leather, mail, animal furs, and bits of steel armor. One carried a two-handed great axe, a weapon Alfrid had only ever used to split wood. He could only imagine the pain of having it split bone. The other carried a large wooden shield and an arming sword that appeared to be Betanthian-forged, with its ornate handle and inch-wide fuller running down the length of the blade.

     The barbarians rifled through the belongings of one corpse after another, pilfering anything of value. They turned one body over and found a man still alive, moaning in agony and clutching a bloody chest wound. Alfrid watched through a half-opened eye as the northmen pointed and laughed mockingly.

     “No, please, no! I beg of you! Please!” the soldier cried out.

     One of the savages plunged a blade deep into the man’s guts, twisting and jerking the steel back and forth until he expired.

     Alfrid shivered with fear, his bowels pulsing with a vicious, fiery ache. He waited patiently until the barbarians had moved far enough away before he began crawling once again. He navigated a labyrinth of bodies, each more ravaged and ruined than the last, their faces forever frozen in terror.

He saw the cold, dead eyes of Eryk staring back at him. A thick river of blood snaked out onto the ground, filling the space between his head and body.

     I’m so sorry, my friend. I’ve failed you. I’ve failed everyone.

     Alfrid wept softly, overcome with despair. He thought of surrendering to his wounds and joining his friend in the afterlife, if there even was one. There seemed little point in continuing on, not after such a devastating defeat. But no, Eryk would not want that. He would want Alfrid to escape, and to live, and to grow old. And to avenge him, along with every other man who had met his demise on this day.

     After whispering a soft goodbye, Alfrid continued onward, hoping to reach the tall grass and find cover. As he lurched across the soupy earth, he heard the metallic crunching of armor from behind, the ground squishing with each step. A massive, black shadow crept across the field like an eclipse, bringing with it a sudden chill.

     The huge barbarian halted, his bloodied sabatons resting mere feet away from Alfrid’s face. A small gathering of warriors had congregated behind him, though all were mindful to keep their distance. His nearly seven-foot frame was imposing enough to make cowards of even the bravest men. He wore a suit of steel plate, so black that it seemed to swallow the light around it.

     After coughing out the blood that was steadily filling his mouth, Alfrid turned, his eyes slowly moving upwards. There would be no escape, not now.

     “Well, I suppose this is it then…” he said helplessly through labored, panting breaths.

     “For you, it most certainly is. For Betanthia, this is merely the beginning.” the colossus replied, his cadence slow and measured. “Remember the Bloodbath at Borjifa? Of course you do, all of you Bethard underlings know the tale. The gods have demanded justice, and I am their champion.”

     The man’s voice echoed out of a blackened steel helm that encased his entire head. Shaped in the form of a skull, the helm had two long horns protruding from its brow, and two smaller ones near the mandible.

     “Get on with it, you fucking savage.” Alfrid shot back, spitting out a mouthful of blood in frail defiance.

     “I would have your name first.”

     “Alfrid Valens. Remember it well, swine. You will rue this day.” His jaw quivered.

     The barbarian removed his helm slowly and deliberately. Beads of sweat dripped down his bald head and ran across a stern and sour face. His eyes were nearly as black as the steel that encased his massive and muscular frame. Several weeks of beard growth had formed across a chiseled jawline, his lips tight and forming into a half scowl, half smirk of amusement.

     “Valens, you say? Then the fates are kind, it seems. I know your father well. We have a sort of history, you might say. Worry not, son of Cedric. He will be joining you in the next life soon enough. I, Damien Dreadfire, will see to it that his line, and the lines of every man responsible for Borjifa are extinguished forever. Never will the name Valens be uttered again.”

     Alfrid’s eyes drifted towards the gray, overcast sky. He wished he could see the sun one final time and feel its warmth before departing this world, but it was not meant to be. He cursed himself for ever coming to this place, but it was too late now for such regrets.

     “Father… I’m sorry…” Alfrid whispered. His cold and clammy body was warmed momentarily by a stream of fresh urine that pooled around him.

     Damien chuckled in amusement then reached for the hilt of his bastard sword. In the hands of smaller men, it might very well be a greatsword. It was nearly five feet of expertly forged death. The length of the dark-gray blade was washed with a thick layer of blood, and Alfrid supposed that soon enough, the sword would drink of his own blood as well.

     The end was near, that much he knew. Every instinct, every fiber of his being drove him towards survival; but there was little more that could be done. Damien Dreadfire would never allow him to leave this place, and even if he did, there would be no recovering from such a grievous wound.

     I’m tired. So… so very tired…

     Alfrid broke down into a fit of tears, the last of his strength flickering away like a candle about to expire.

     “No please, please, good sir, don’t kill me,” he begged. “I had no involvement with Borjifa, I had only just joined the army when it happened. I wasn’t there! Please! Your quarrel is not with me!” He tried to drag himself backwards and away from the barbarian in one last effort to escape.

     “Die now with dignity, son of Cedric. Azldyr has no sympathy for cowards. If your soul is untainted, then you may very well enter Sjenohor this day.”

     “Please, I beg of you. I’ll do anything!” Alfrid cried. “I’ll give you anything, please just let me live!”

     Damien Dreadfire took a step forward, his fearsome black armor clanking. His face was a roadmap of rage, vengeance, and a beastly hunger for death that could not be sated.

     “I will be sure to let your father know that his son died begging in a puddle of his own blood and piss when I visit him shortly.”

     Defeated and exhausted, Alfrid laid flat on the ground and relieved the pressure on his wound. His skin had turned cold and icy blue as the last traces of life seeped from his abdomen. There would be little point resisting the inevitable now.

     He grimaced in expectation of a fatal sword strike, but instead his face was greeted with a crushing stomp from Damien’s armored foot. His skull gave way with a sickening crunch and sprayed blood and brain matter everywhere, some of which splashed against Dreadfire’s hardened face. The now-headless body of Alfrid Valens twitched once, then twice before becoming still.

     With this terrible and decisive stroke, he had become one of the first casualties in a new conflict, the likes of which had not been seen for nearly four hundred years. War was not coming to the Kingdom of Betanthia, it was already here, and Damien Dreadfire was its architect.