Adven lost his final son in the darkness that fell upon the land. Fiends of darkness and ashes roared in the muted moonlight, while the People bared their own teeth in reply, snarling in the face of creatures they could not hope to stop. That was the way of men.
Swords, some curved and darkened with ash and others made of hardened shadow, flashed in the night, making both creatures and men scream in agony and hatred. Easterling muskets roared with choking clouds of smoke and flame, and the People fought through the night, willing the dawn to come quickly. Either they would sing of triumph in the morning, or they would enter Spoven’s city and watch the eternal morning.
The battle had left Adven behind as it traveled down one of the rough, jaggedy canyons of the Mouth of the World, and he gasped as he trudged toward the screams of men. He was no longer a young man, willing to run all day then fight all night . . . and even if he had been willing, his body simply wasn’t.
Stumbling, half-asleep through the wake of the nightmarish battle and tripping over bodies of men and lifeless husks of creatures, he found his son. The young man still wore the bright, emerald-green sash Adven had given him, though his shortened musket had been cleaved in two. The tip of the muzzle was covered in ashes, mud, and the dark blood-ashes of the creatures.
He fell to his knees beside his son’s broken form, too exhausted to cry or sob. He let his sword slip from his fingers, falling to the ground with a soft clatter. Picking up his dead child and cradling him like an infant, he made his way away from the sounds of fighting.
The western profitos called Samõn was sitting beside a fire, unconcerned by the maelstrom of battle that was raging less than a mile away. He didn’t look up, as Adven stumbled toward the fire, carrying his slain son, and only motioned toward a pallet he’d prepared. The father, too tired to grieve, laid his son on the bed of pine boughs.
“I saw his death,” the profitos said. “Long ago. Do you remember?” He glanced at the chieftain, then grunted. “You thought I was mad, and your son laughed and spit in my face—he was always proud.”
Adven stared at his dead son, then turned unblinking eyes toward the foreign profitos. He didn’t understand the honor of a warrior; one had to be a Person, to understand. “He died well,” he said softly.
The profitos didn’t answer directly, and instead frowned into his fire. “He died as all men do. But if he found honor, then so be it.” His pale face was devoid of any emotion, and his broken, twisted speech lacked any intonation. He looked at Adven suddenly, his dark eyes studying the older man’s weary expression. “He did not want to die on these shores, though, buried alongside his ancestors.”
“Sal’yul wanted to die on the green shores of the Eastlands,” Adven said, every word dripping with exhaustion. “With women weeping for his passing, and a tower of stones for his home.” He turned his eyes away from the profitos.
Samõn the profitos said nothing, and took up a long stick to poke at the fire. The flames twisted and grew at his urging, and Adven almost saw the figures of men in them. He didn’t have the gift of a profitos, though, and the shapes of half-men fell away to flickering flames. “This land is dead,” the westerner said. He gestured with the stick toward the sounds of the battle, and a series of flaming streaks rocketed through the sky, arcing through the night before falling out of sight. The sound of explosions washed over them. “Not dying. It is claimed by the Abomination, and no man can give life to something dead.”
“We will stop the Serpent,” Adven said wearily. It sounded ridiculous to his ears, but the sight of his slain son gave the words strength. Anger was trickling into his veins, giving his tired mind clarity. Focus. “The People are heirs of this land; it is our birthright.”
The profitos shrugged, looking into his fire, glimpsing the future, and Adven took to his feet again, taking one last, lingering look at his slain child’s face. Turning, he walked from the light, and into the hell of the night.
* * *
The Abomination grew until it seemed to encompass all of the world.
A heaviness that fell on them all, slowly seeping from the Mouth of the World, pushing down the canyons, swallowing everything in its path. The darkness that came with the heaviness could be felt, and Adven pushed his way into the murkiness.
Something shrieked with an inhuman voice, and he flinched back, instincts delayed by exhaustion. A spear he’d taken from a dead Man of the Moon was raised to ward off the shrouded monster, but he screamed as something hit him in the face, cutting and tearing with what seemed to be a thousand little barbs.
His face seemed to be afire, but he screamed in raw agony and rage, all of the emotion of his dead son bursting to the surface. How dare these things come against the Heirs of Spoven?
The monster seemed to recoil from the sound coming from Adven, as if it had never heard something so terrifying, and the Man of the Moon slammed into the reeking, foul creature, burying the tip of his spear into it with all his strength. The thing floundered under his weight, defying mortal death, but Adven looked into the dark pits it had for eyes with the only one he had left, and slammed his foot down on it.
Something crunched under the weight of him, and the thing shuddered and shook, its body contorting into shapes no mortal man could hope to emulate. The eyes, dark and pitiless, shifted hues, everything from the pale colorless eyes of a Raven, to the bright emerald of a Temoran’s, before finally settling on orbs that were as dull as ashes.
Adven screamed into the heaviness, withdrawing the spear. The monsters could be killed, and the Serpent would not take his land. The Abomination would burn before his eyes.
Blood dripped down his face, and he felt he would vomit if there was anything left in his stomach. Instead, he just screamed again, rushing for where a creature was circling a pair of People.
It was like no battle he’d ever imagined. No shieldwalls. No firing lines like the Easterlings preferred. Not even a single pike square. The Abomination drove warriors apart, isolating them into little clusters or solitary men who could hardly stand before them.
Even as he rushed to his kinsman, he saw the blurred shape of a fiend rushing at him from the corner of his remaining eye. It slashed at him, and he felt his sides suddenly flame with pain. But he threw his weight against the monster and fell to the rocky ground with it.
The ground was rough with brush and ancient stone, and they gouged and tore at him while he slammed his fists into the thing. His spear had been lost in the scramble, and every blow seemed to cut and abrade his hands, but he roared in the thing’s face, fury and desperation mixing together.
The thing roared back at him, strangely like a man, but not, and squirmed and bit as it tried to free a hand. Fear surged through Adven, but he held the creature fast and gouged at its eyes. It screeched in pain as he jabbed a thumb into the orb, and flailed so wildly that the Man was sent flying.
He landed against rough stones, and cried out as his back twinged with pain. The monster staggered to its feet, clawing at its own face against the pain, and Adven laughed bitterly at the sight. The sound seemed to return the thing’s focus, though, and it started toward him.
Adven picked himself up, this time holding a jagged rock in his hand, and continued laughing. The thing circled him warily, just as Adven would have, if confronted with a foe that screamed one moment then laughed the next.
A pistol shot rang out, deep and splitting, and the monster whirled about. Another Man of the Moon stood, holding an old Easterling-made cavalry pistol, flinching back before the monster’s fury.
Adven lunged at the thing’s turned back, throwing his weight behind the rock, and felt a gratifying crunch as the creature’s skull was stove in. It staggered, crying in pain, and Adven swung again, willing it to die with every blow.
It crumpled to the ground, contorting in death, as its one good eye flashed between hues, and Adven staggered back, holding the rock still. It was covered in dark, bloody ashes, and he tossed it aside after a moment.
The side of his face felt like someone was stripping the flesh one layer at a time, but he drove on through the pain. It gave him something to focus on beside the encroaching feeling of dread.
The Man of the Moon who had fired the pistol was shakily reloading, glancing around and peering into the heaviness, and Adven stared at him for only a moment. His attention then shifted to finding his lost spear, and he kicked through the brush, his one eye seeing only vague outlines.
Spear once again in hand, Adven turned as the other Man of the Moon cried out in alarm. A quartet of the creatures were standing at the edge of their vision, their unblinking eyes staring at the men with palpable menace.
The Man of the Moon raised his pistol, drawing his sword with his other hand, but before he could squeeze the trigger, something else made its way out of the heaviness.
“Ah, friend of Spoven,” something vile and twisted said, coming out of the darkness in a flowing shape. The Man beside Adven squeezed the trigger, the report of the pistol nearly deafening the both of them. But when the smoke cleared away, the vile and twisted figure was still approaching.
It looked like a man, and the pale face contrasted sharply with the darkened monsters, but Adven could feel that whatever it was, it was certainly not a man. The way it moved was fluid and meandering, but it came to a stop a span of feet from the two men, its unblinking eyes firmly fixed on Adven, utterly ignoring the other one. The chieftain returned the stare, hatred and bile clawing its way up his throat, and he tightened the grip on his spear.
The thing quirked its head, and a small smile appeared on the thin, bloodless lips, revealing hints of sharpened teeth. “Can you feel it?” it asked. “The weight of the future?”
The Man of the Moon beside Adven roared a shaky curse and swung his sword, but one of the creatures grabbed his sword-arm, throwing him into the darkness. Two of the creatures rushed after him, and screams sounded through the night, mingling to join all the others.
Adven snarled in anger, lunging forward with his spear; he would kill i—
The thing calmly reached forward, catching Adven by the throat, and lifting the flailing man off of the ground. His spear wildly stabbed at the thing’s face, but only trickles of ashes came from the cuts, and the figure didn’t seem to notice them. With its other hand, it plucked the spear from Adven’s grasp with inhuman strength.
“You are a fool,” it said drawing Adven closer to his face and squeezing until the man was clawing at the grip around his throat, tearing his nails against the immovable hand. It smiled more fully, the needle teeth seeming to glow in the darkness. “A man, through and through.”
Adven choked, trying to spit into its face, and it laughed at the effort. The sound was cruel and mocking.
“This land is mine. From the Sea of Neshmain to Zovin Herah, it is mine.” It quirked its head again, the smile growing more sickly by the moment. “But you may live. My father has decreed it, and you will know that the One Without Creation is lord of all, eventually.” Adven’s struggling redoubled, as the man realized who it was talking of, and another cruel laugh escaped its lips. “But not yet, it seems.”
The pressure around his throat was steady and crushing, and Adven kicked his legs, his burning lungs crying for relief. The figure’s smile remained small and sickly, as the heavy darkness all around them seemed to fill Adven’s vision, clouding his eyes.
“Remember this, friend of Spoven;” the vile and twisted words echoed through his mind, before unconsciousness took him, “you have lost to the Serpent.”
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