Kiren looked out over a city on fire.
Hundreds, maybe thousands of homes had been set ablaze down the slope. The smoke drifted from the houses and made great, dark pillars that sapped the color from the blue sky. The air stung his nostrils, smelling of burnt wood and sizzled flesh.
Screams echoed from the streets below. Corpses littered the ground around him, almost two dozen civilians and a semi-circle of guardsmen who had died protecting them. A woman sprang out of a building wreathed in flames, her skin charred and blackened. The woman’s wail sent chills up Kiren’s spine. He clenched his gut, fearing its contents would come back up.
Goldbrand, the capital of Aribel. A great and powerful city, or so it was said. Its people died as easily as any others, though. They had thought themselves invincible, safe behind their walls, cradled beneath their very own sun. Because of their hubris, they had been utterly unprepared for the horror that now beset them.
An arrow whizzed past Kiren’s ear. He flinched. It struck the fleeing woman in the back and she went down in a pitiful tangle of limbs.
Kiren watched the woman with numb fascination as she tried to dislodge the wooden shaft from her shoulder blade. She failed to reach it, reduced to quiet sobbing as a patch of blood spread across the back of her dress.
“Boy!” Father shouted.
Kiren jolted as if an arrow really had struck him. He spun around. The Villains inched towards the inner wall, which was about five or six meters tall with gates of sturdy oak. Defenders fired volleys down at them, and those revolutionaries who hadn't been able to scavenge shields off the guardsmen fell, stuck full of arrows like grotesquely caricatured porcupines. Those sane enough to avoid the hail of arrows had already taken cover behind buildings and market stands.
Father had no shield. He stood amidst the Villains, shirtless, half a dozen arrows protruding from his broad, hairy chest. He faced away from the fighting, pointing at Kiren with a fat finger. His bull’s nose flared dangerously.
“Boy!” he repeated. “Fetch my mace! Now!”
Kiren’s feet rushed to obey before his conscious mind had even registered the words. Father was testing him, as he often did. The scars marring Kiren’s whole body, some long and fine, others ugly and puckered, were a testament to his many failures.
Kiren ran over to a nearby wagon. It had been pulled by a mule, which now lay slumped against its harness with an arrow protruding from one of its dead eyes.
He jumped onto the wagon and dragged aside a large piece of cloth, uncovering Father’s weapon. A black iron mace, tall as a man, with solid, wedge-shaped flanges. Dried blood stained the edges, brown like rust, from the lives it had already taken this day.
The mace probably weighed as much as Kiren did. He swallowed hard.
He bent down and grabbed two of the flanges, his small hands straining to keep a grip on the cold metal. He lifted with his legs and back, but the weapon hardly budged. He tried again, and again, his chest tightening with ropes of cold dread.
Unmaker spare me. Making him wait at a moment like this…
The mace lifted off the wagon, wood creaking as the weight was taken off, and Kiren staggered off to the side. He looked up.
A hulking brute of a man stood over him, skin made of dull iron. His chest glowed a molten orange, as did his joints, and flames flickered about his slab of a face. He held up the mace in one hand as if it weighed little more than a thistle.
Forge. One of the commanders.
Kiren quickly bowed, fixing his gaze firmly on the ground.
His attention was already taken off Kiren, blissfully.
“Looking for this, weren't you?” Forge said with a voice like snapping steel. “Get on with this, Ripper. Ender wants to preserve our forces for Paragon.”
Forge threw the mace. Kiren followed its short arc as Father caught it in both hands. As he received the weapon, his bulky form ballooned even further. His arms swelled, muscle and tendons squirming beneath the skin. His legs widened, straining against his hose. Even his hands grew, gripping the mace tightly with fingers fat as wrists, knuckles like jagged rocks. He took one hand off the thing and let it rest against his shoulder.
Father ignored Forge. His gaze was fixed on Kiren. Father walked towards him—his pace was slow, but Kiren felt the threat of violence behind every step.
He grabbed Kiren by the collar of his stained shirt with his free arm, lifting him off the wagon.
Kiren kicked and squirmed as he was taken off the ground, but it was no good.
“I'm s-sorry, Father!” Kiren said. “I'll do better! I'm sorry!”
“You sniveling runt,” Father growled. “What do I keep you fed for? Huh? Tell me that.”
He looked as if he was expecting an answer. His grip tightened, constricting Kiren’s collar around his throat. His breaths came in shallow wheezes as he dangled off the ground.
“Ripper!” Forge said, more insistently. “Leave the boy alone. This is not the time. Get that gate torn down, or I'll do it myself.”
“You telling me how to discipline my son?” Father asked. A gap-toothed grin escaped him as he looked over at the man made of red-hot iron. “‘Cause that's what it sounds like.” He did not let up his grip.
“Ripper,” came another voice. Smooth, neutral, almost bored. “We've all grown tired of your games. Remember the purpose I've given you.”
Kiren glanced over. A man in a black cloak stood beside the wagon, a pale hand resting on the wood. Most of his face was hidden beneath the deep folds of a hood. He was shorter than both the men by a wide margin, and yet they seemed to buckle at the very sight of him.
“Forgive me, Lord Ender,” Father said quickly, his tone changed in an instant. “I forgot my place.”
He let go of Kiren. His legs jolted as he hit the ground and he fell over on his back. He held his breath and didn’t dare get up. A man even Father feared was surely not someone you wanted to interrupt.
Ender, leader of the Dark Eye. Kiren had never seen him in person before, only heard the whispers. No one knew his Power. No one still living, anyway.
“Go now, Ripper,” Ender said. He inspected his slender hand with great care, digging out some dirt from underneath a nail. “Carry out my work. I can hardly contain myself for the finale.”
“Yes, Lord. Without delay.”
Ripper stormed off with his mace in hand, shouldering through the ragged line of Villains. A couple arrows thudded into his bulging flesh. They hardly pierced the skin, and a squirming muscle spasm that ran across his torso pushed them out.
Kiren looked up and realized with mute terror that Ender had reached out a hand towards him. He took it, and the cloaked man helped him to his feet. For a brief moment, Kiren caught a glimpse of the man’s eyes. Icy blue, startlingly intense.
“T-thank you, my lord,” Kiren worked out.
“Ripper’s notions of fatherhood confound even the wisest of men,” Ender said. “A child has no place on a battlefield. Go. Stay away until our purpose is done. I'll see to it he doesn't punish you.”
Kiren bowed uncertainly. “Thank you.”
Ender walked past him as if Kiren had ceased to exist. Forge walked ahead of him, blocking any stray arrows that came his way. A small retinue of elite Villains came behind.
Up the slope, wood splintered with mighty cracks. Father heaved his great mace at the gates with two-handed swings as the revolutionaries cheered him on, uttering war cries in every language under Aribel’s sun.
The guards atop the wall stood firm. A captain in bright, hammered-plate armor barked orders and kept the soldiers in line. They fired steady, synchronized volleys at the Villains, deterring them from properly advancing. There were probably fifty archers up there, and they didn’t seem to be in any lack of ammunition. Bundles of arrows were being passed up to the archers and stacked around their feet.
Then, men began dropping. They toppled over the side of the wall, the tendons in the backs of their knees cut. Their bodies hit the pavement like slabs of dead meat.
One of the guards approached the captain, grabbed his breastplate where it ended at his collarbone, and drove his sword through the man’s throat. He drew it back out and the captain managed a few weak, bloody gurgles before going the same way as the others.
The traitor guardsman ripped off his helmet and faced the Villains with a dramatic bow, so impossibly deep that his scalp nearly touched the stone battlement. When he came back up, his face shifted and remolded itself, becoming drawn and pale and narrow, his hair all falling out and disintegrating in the air.
“Salutations to you, Master Ripper,” he said. “Hack away to your heart’s content. For our dark lord.”
Fade, the Skinchanger. The leader of Centucia’s Lions. Another of the Dark Eye’s commanders.
“For our dark lord!” the Villains howled.
The guards wavered. A few had enough presence of mind to go after the traitor, but he slid away from their half-hearted sword strikes and retaliated in kind with dismemberment and decapitations. He wielded the sword in one hand, moving as if it had been a part of him since birth, even though it seemed to be the same simple kind of sharpened steel the guards used.
With a few more heavy swings of his mace, Father cracked open the gates to the inner part of the city. The revolutionaries helped prop it open, and their forces welled through the gap. The defenders atop the wall broke and most of them fled.
They were swiftly hunted down and executed. Fade joined the other commanders, having fulfilled his purpose.
Hundreds of revolutionaries surged through the gates, eager for more blood. Kiren trailed behind them, letting the warriors shove him this way and that as they passed through. He couldn’t match their eagerness. Bile burned at the back of his throat.
I could run. Everyone is caught up in the fighting. Maybe I could…
He shook his head.
No! Stop dreaming, you fool. Father would know. He would find me, and then…
He didn’t want to think about what would happen then.
Rather than get trampled, Kiren moved over to the side of the street. He stumbled over the leg of a charred corpse. A man, judging by the size, clutching a smaller, blackened body. His wife, maybe, or his daughter. Her face had melted down to the bone, so it was impossible to tell which.
A dull explosion shook the ground. Kiren looked ahead, but no matter how far he craned his neck, he couldn’t see anything over the crowds of outlaws.
Their objective loomed further up the hill, at the very peak of the city. A spire of ludicrous proportions, by far the largest building Kiren had seen all his life, topped with a rounded, golden dome that shone so bright it certainly did its name justice. It nearly touched the clouds, seemingly built to outdo the Creator’s own glory.
The Second Sun.
The seat of the empress, and the reason behind all this death.
More explosions sounded, followed by screams. The line of Villains rippled, uncertain. Kiren caught a glimpse of a silhouette soaring through the air, zipping overhead like a bird in flight. His crisp, fluttering cloak bore the white and yellow of Aribel, spread wide like wings.
A Hero. There was no mistaking it.
Paragon’s defenders had arrived.