It was late in the afternoon when a knock on the door echoed throughout the abandoned tower. Cobwebs shivered, and dust fell off. I scrambled to my feet and listened, breathing hard. It went on three times before it stopped. I listened again. Everything was quiet. Too quiet. Then my visitor knocked on the door again, harder this time. What a persistent little devil! My mouth went dry, and I started shaking. That door brought nothing but misfortune and trauma to me. The last time I opened it, a mechanical scarecrow nearly tore my throat out. I didn’t want that to happen again. Not ever. But some unseen force insisted that I should open the confounded thing. And so, I did. I turned the knob and pushed it open.
A tall woman dressed in a crimson habit appeared before me. She had a blindfold over her eyes, and in her tattooed left hand was a book that glowed like a fiery ember. Beads of sweat began to form on my forehead as I stared at the mysterious woman in the dying afternoon light. She did not speak or move. She just stood on the muddy ground like a serpent waiting to strike on its prey. I clenched my trembling fists at my sides.
A soft metallic voice inside my head spoke, “Quint, pray, come forward.” Resisting the phantom voice was a futile effort. It was too strong for me, or I was too docile for it. It began to work on my mind. And before I knew it, I was already standing close to her. She held out her arm, and in her hand rested a brown envelope with a red seal on it. I took it and opened it. Inside was a neatly folded letter which read:
If you wish to live, come to Ekron at once.
There was no signature or imprint of the sender. Shortly after I read the message, the letter burst into flames. I dropped it and watched the words dissolve into ash. I shook my head in confusion. Was it a threat? Ekron? Who sent me the letter? I turned to the blindfolded woman, hoping to get some answers.
“Forgive me, sister, could you tell me what’s going on?” I said.
She nodded and replied, “All will be revealed in Ekron. I am here both as a messenger and executioner. If you refuse to follow what is in the letter, I shall be forced to execute you on sight.”
I gasped and staggered backward. I wanted to run, but I figured I had a better chance if I didn’t. I lowered my head and waited for what was to come. There was silence. A moment later, I heard chains rattling. She touched my shoulder and whispered, “Close your eyes, Quint.” My entire body shut down in a snap, and I drifted into a sea of memories like an explorer with a broken compass.
A loud bang awakened me from my deep slumber. I found myself lying on a rickety bed, drenched in sweat, exhausted, and with a pounding headache. I got up as fast as I could and immediately caught sight of a bald man with a thick mustache sitting on a chair. He wore a dark gray trench coat with sleeves cut up to his shoulders, exposing two huge mechanical arms.
He gave me a forced smile and said, “You’re finally awake. There are two tablets and a glass of water right beside your bed. Take those and you should be right as rain in no time.” He leaned forward and picked up a very large gun. “Don’t worry, it’s not poison or anything.”
I did as I was told and swallowed the tablets. They tasted like raw fish. After a brief moment of silence, the man with the clockwork arms stood up and peered through the tent’s fluttering exit. His jaw tightened as he took out a golden fob watch from his pocket.
“We don’t have much time. I know you have questions,” he said.
His words were the words of a man who couldn’t care less about the plight of others. I wanted to swat an imaginary fly on his shiny head with a hammer.
“Who are you and where am I?” I asked, trying to mask my anger.
He moved to the table where a glass decanter sat, poured three glasses of brownish liquid and handed one to me.
“The name’s Irons, Lieutenant Irons.” He made a quick side glance to the opposite corner of the tent and continued, “You were brought here in Ekron for a reason. Don’t ask me what that is.”
“I hate to be rude, Lieutenant. I wasn’t brought here, I was abducted!”
“Mind your words, boy. You read the telegram, did you not?”
“Yes, but that’s not the point!”
“The matter’s settled then.”
“And what if I refuse?”
Just when Lieutenant Irons was about to remind me of the consequence of insubordination, a voice appeared out of nowhere, “That will be all, Lieutenant.” It was calm as a windless sea, yet powerful enough to pacify the furious lieutenant and make him comply.
I turned to where the voice came from and saw a tall figure standing in the dimly lit corner of the tent. He was wrapped in a flowing black cloak from neck to boots, and within his ashen face blazed two scarlet eyes. He glanced at me for a few seconds and nodded to Irons. “Have your men set up the pylons. We’re almost done here.”
Irons, like a subdued beast, gave a quick nod and stalked outside in silence. When I turned to the man in black, a strange heaviness fell upon me, as if the gravity in the surrounding space had amplified a hundredfold. My body was paralyzed from the neck down; even my fingers were rendered useless. Was I seeing things? Or did the man in black morphed into a black smoke? No, I wasn’t crazy. He must have put something in my drink.
I closed my eyes and opened them again. He was still there. Countless red eyes emerged from his formless face, oozing with maggots and yellow matter. I wanted to scream, run and hide, but I was overcome by terror.
“Why did you kill Abbot Eustace and those monks, Quint?!” said the man in black, his voice deep and hollow. He moved closer to me, writhing and twisting like a black amoeba.
“Kill them? I didn’t kill them. I swear!” I replied, feeling nauseous.
“Well, the guilty ones always say that. I don’t know what you’re playing at, monk, but there are people out there looking for you and something that appears to be in your possession.”
“Who are you? How on earth did you know all these things?”
My heart started beating faster, and I could hardly breathe. Out of the corner of my eye, the man in black waved his arm, and in a split-second, the heaviness disappeared.
He tapped my back gently and said, “I’m many things to many people, monk. But you may call me Salvian. I was the one who sent you the letter. Pray, tell me what happened. Know this, if I sense a lie in your narrative, I’ll make your lungs explode.”
I hesitated to tell him why I ended up in that tower, but I was left with no choice. I took a deep breath and began my story.
“Everything happened so fast. I was supposed to deliver a book to an Abbot Macarius in Nabib the next morning, but something forced me to flee that night,” I said.
“Father Macarius, the Blind Archivist? I didn’t know he’s still alive. Incidentally, why did Abbot Eustace entrust that book to you?” interrupted Salvian. “It seems rather odd to let a monk with no experience whatsoever to handle such a dangerous task.”
“Honestly, I’ve no idea. Probably because I used to be a thief? Good at stealing and hiding things? I don’t know. Have you heard of the infamous Rat Fingers of Samanca? I was, uh –”
Our conversation was suddenly interrupted by a violent shake. Salvian went toward the tent flap and left. A minute later, he came back, nodded at me, and said, “Pray, continue, Quint.”
“Wha- what was that?” I said, with trembling lips.
He gave a dismissive wave of his hand and settled himself in Irons’s chair. His stern look told me not to pursue the matter any further.
I cleared my throat and continued, “Uh…okay…brother Barlow came into my chamber pale as a sheet and told me to get out of the monastery at once. He led me to a secret door behind the altar. But before I entered the door, I saw Abbot Eustace, with my brothers behind him, standing in the nave. He was talking to a masked figure shrouded in black smoke. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but there was terror in his face. He screamed ‘Amaymon’ before the masked stranger cut off his head. Then brother Barlow pushed me into the doorway.”
I squeezed my eyes hard shut, trying to get rid of the image in my head. I went to the decanter and poured a glass of brownish liquid to calm my nerves.
Salvian looked at me as though he was reading my every thought, and said, “Interesting narrative. Why didn’t you go to Nabib?”
“Nabib is a very obscure place, and I’ve lost the map.” I took another deep breath and thought about my words before continuing. “How did you know my abbot and the book?”
“I once stayed in the monastery. This was long before you were born. As for the thing you carry, I know little of it. Except that it’s a compendium of high-level magic and ancient knowledge. We’ll find out more once we get to Nabib.”
“I see. How did you learn what happened at the monastery? And how did you find me?”
“So many damn questions. I have eyes and ears everywhere,” Salvian said, standing up. “Now, where is it?” I nodded and tapped my pocket.
Salvian walked toward me, took an amulet from around his neck, and tried to give it to me. It was a miniature sphere made of solid marble with a white eye etched upon its center. I stepped back away from him and threw the amulet into the bed. He didn’t react, but I could see the displeasure flickering in his eyes.
“I know you monks trust your prayers and beads very much,” Salvian said, while picking up the amulet. “but this will keep you safe. Hold it like your life depends on it.”
He walked up to me again, grabbed my hand, and placed the amulet in my palm. Then he continued, “I never did tell you why I brought you here in Ekron, did I?”
“At this point, I don’t really care,” I said, pretending to sound indifferent.
I knew there had to be a catch. And here it was, dangling in front of me like a bell rope. Salvian turned his back, hands clasped behind him.
“There’s no other way. With so many eyes watching my every move, I had to improvise. Listen, are you familiar with the Lotus Sutra?” Salvian said.
“It’s a prayer to ward off evil and dark magic.” I replied, touching my prayer beads. “Why’d you ask? And are you going to help me?”
Salvian didn’t respond and instead walked back to the tent flap, staring outside with terrified fascination. He turned around, looked at me, and said, “Save your questions later, much later. Come, it’s time for you to see what we’re up against.”
My knees turned to jelly the moment I saw the handiwork of the devil. An obsidian wall that stretched as far as my eyes could see, touching the belly of the somber sky like a black mountain. Its viscous surface was filled with creatures I had never seen before. Some of the creatures bear an uncanny resemblance to a centipede, and others looked like giant bugs with blazing coals for eyes. Their faces appeared and disappeared like bubbles in a boiling cauldron.
I knelt on the ground behind Salvian and prayed. I had never prayed so hard in my entire life. Shortly afterwards, he tapped my shoulder and said, “Get yourself together, Quint. They’re here.”
I got up, and a group of armored men with guns the size of an elephant’s trunk came into my view. They were led by Irons, whom I was not glad to see. He glanced at me before approaching Salvian.
“Quaestor, we’ve installed the anti-magic pylons to buy you some time,” Irons said, shaking his silver flask and gulping its contents. “After that, we’re going to rain fire and brimstone on this goddamn place.”
“On whose authority, Lieutenant? I’m the lead inquisitor of this case, so I expect full compliance from you and your subordinates,” said Salvian.
“My apologies, Quaestor. I didn’t mean to overstep. Praetor Erlembald insists that we carry out his order. Surely you can understand that I’m compelled to obey him.”
“That moron! If we don’t come back before sundown, do what needs to be done.”
“I’m afraid you only have an hour, sir.”
We left Irons and his team without so much as a goodbye and headed straight to the gateway of the wall. The thing was beyond my comprehension. I could only describe it as a colossal door wrought of bones and black matter. A cosmic void trapped inside the carcass of a Leviathan.
As we got closer to the abominable thing, it throbbed and let out a wail that caused the hairs at the back of my neck to rise and shiver. My mouth went dry, and I felt a hot bile rise in my throat. I covered my ears to drown out the alien noise, but it was a futile effort. It grew louder and louder until everything around me started to spin. I staggered and almost fell to the ground, but Salvian caught me in time. He held my head, forced open my mouth, and shoved black leaves in it.
“Chew it! It’ll make you feel better,” he said, almost like a command. I quickly chew and swallowed the leaves.
Then I looked at him with tears in my eyes and said, “I can’t do it, Salvian. This is just too much for me. Let me out of here!”
“Steel yourself!” Salvian said, touching his forehead. “I don’t have time to explain everything. Listen, you can either die a coward out there or take your chances here with me.”
“Do I even have a choice?”
“You’re a fugitive. I could kill you right now and nobody would care. So, enough of this nonsense and let’s get to work.”
Salvian was right. I was screwed. I nodded in agreement, and the two of us directed our attention to the enormous eye that surfaced at the center of the door. Salvian went forward, pointed his fingers at my pocket, and said, “Take out your prayer beads.”
I took out the prayer beads and a ghostly blue mist emanated from them. My hand jerked, and the beads almost fell from my grasp. Salvian clicked his tongue. “Keep them close to you, no matter what. Are we clear on that?” he said, without looking at me.
“Sorry. I’m not used to seeing my beads glow like fireflies,” I said, squeezing them tightly.
“I hear you. I just need you to focus. Listen, whatever happens, don’t stop chanting the sutra until I remove this from you.”
Salvian drew a piece of black cloth from his cloak and wrapped it around my eyes. Before I could draw breath, everything around me went dark. Salvian grabbed my robe and whispered into my ear, “Time to pray, Quint.”
We marched toward the door like religious pilgrims in a procession. Our pace was slow, and each step we took was more arduous than the last. My hands and knees hurt, and half of my face had gone numb and swollen. The thick smell of decay and rotting flesh in the air made me sick and want to vomit.
A dark shadow had fallen upon me, and Salvian wasn’t there to help. He went completely silent, and I could have sworn he was dead. I stopped and tried to listen without breaking off my chant. All I heard were screams and the sound of metal colliding with flesh. I thought we were done for, but when a hand rested on my head, I gritted my teeth and knew it was time to move.
Even deprived of sight, I could tell that we were an arm’s reach away from the portal. The wails had turned into screams and the throbbing became even more violent. It was like stepping into a raging storm. My prayer beads were getting heavier and heavier until I couldn’t lift them anymore. When they fell out of my hand, something wrapped around my body and pulled me into nothingness.
I woke up with my blindfold gone underneath a dead tree. Salvian lay on the ground nearby. He turned around and raised his hand. He let out a low groan as he scrambled to his feet. He tottered like a drunken man before staggering towards me. Traces of blood were on his long gray hair and tattered cloak. What misfortune befell him during our crossing, I could only imagine. He sat next to me and drew a small leather pouch from his pocket. After he took a sip from the pouch, he tossed it toward me.
“So, this is what I signed up for, huh? Demonic walls, monsters, and a freaking magic tonic,” I asked.
“Is that the Rat Finger speaking?” he muttered.
While I was trying to make sense of my environment, Salvian disappeared behind an old tower mill surrounded by blackened trees and undergrowth. Even from afar, I could sense something malevolent lurking behind its crumbling walls.
It was nearly sundown and Salvian had not come back yet. The cold mist was creeping closer and closer, swirling like a white phantom over the grass-filled ground and broken remnants of some forgotten temple. After half an hour, he came out from among the trees and beckoned me to join him. When I reached his side, he placed a finger to his lips and pointed out a narrow winding path covered in dried leaves, pine needles, and gigantic footprints about one or two feet deep.
We followed its twists and turns until we reached the bottom of a clearing. Salvian held out his arm and said, “Wait here. Don’t come out until I tell you to.” He crawled up to the edge of the clearing and vanished into the brush. Several minutes later, he appeared and signaled me to climb up.
My heart jumped to my throat as I gazed upon what appeared to be human and giant humanoid corpses. They were scattered all over the place. Some of the human corpses were crucified and exposed to view. Bruises and gruesome wounds covered their bloodless bodies. Their twisted faces showed a level of brutality that surpassed even the horror of dying. The black-armored humanoid giants kneeling beneath them were missing their heads. It was indeed a sight that wrung my heart and nearly broke my spirit.
I turned around, took a deep breath despite the stench, and said in a panting whisper, “What in heaven’s name do you think happened here?” Salvian nodded and tapped the small of my back. He didn’t even flinch. He just looked at the corpses with cold, calculating interest. And it baffled me.
“Two murders were carried out here,” he said, moving closer to the cadavers, “as evidenced by the wounds and bruises on the bodies. The first one was obviously done by these headless giants or Berserkers in the old tongue. Barbarians of the wild northern lands. These savages know nothing about mercy and don’t understand other things than violence and chaos. Something important must’ve pulled them here.”
“Like what?” I interjected.
“I don’t know yet. Only these dead villagers can answer that question.” He trailed off, eyes fixed on the ground. He knelt next to the headless giants and continued, “This second murder is still a mystery to me. No footprints or tracks. But the style of killing bears a strong resemblance to the one in…”
He suddenly paused, looked at the trees swaying overhead, and smirked. “Our mystery assassin seems to be a clever and skilled man. He knew the clearing’s limited space would put the Berserkers at a considerable disadvantage. Like a spider, he waited for the savages to land on his web. Then took them all out with toxin-laced daggers. Remarkable!”
“Serves them right! Why do you think these heartless bastards were killed with poisoned daggers?” I said, putting my hands in my pockets and shifting my gaze to the dark corners of the glade. Salvian sighed and rose to his feet. He looked around for a few more seconds, before turning his attention to me. He seemed worried and distraught. I wanted to say something, but I lacked the fortitude to do so. So, I kept quiet and listened.
“It’s possible he’s still here,” he said as he held my arm and walked me closer to the dead barbarians. “Come take a closer look. Notice the short yet deep cuts in their necks, wrists, and bellies? They suggest a dagger has been used instead of a sword or lance. While the discoloration on the surface of their skin and fingers tells us they were poisoned. Anything else you want to know?”
“No. It’s almost like you were there when it happened. Anyhow, what about the villagers? Can we at least bury them?”
“We don’t have much time, Quint. Let’s leave these bodies for now and follow that trail.”
We descended into a path, which ran along a lotus-covered pond, and pushed ourselves against the thick layers of dead branches and rotten vegetation. Sharp thorns punctured my hands and knees as we continued to push deeper into the undergrowth. The white mist permeating around them made it even more difficult for us to see what lay ahead.
After pulling the last dried vines out of the way, we found ourselves before a graveyard of tower mills and scorched thatch huts. We stopped, caught our breath, and looked at each other with puzzled expressions. Salvian knelt down, placed his ear on the ground and listened. When he got up, he said, “Ancient dark magic was at work here. See that tower mill?”
“It looks so old and deserted.” I replied.
“Because it is. That’s the center of the village where we might find the source of this cursed wall. Be on guard. I sense great evil in there. Follow me!”
We hurried to the innermost part of the village, passed several blackened brick walls and charred remains of livestock, then we turned behind a ruined temple where we found a half-human, half-spider chained inside a glowing circle. The beast was about seven feet tall and bore the image of a faceless woman. Its skin was milky white, it had eight black eyes clustered around its bony chest. Under its massive body were four huge, scaly legs that ended in pointed tips. The beast hissed, revealing its razor-sharp teeth and two blood-red tongues. I instinctively backed away from the unspeakable thing until I was at a safe distance. Salvian stood still and held his gaze, focusing on nothing but the pale albino creature.
After a brief moment, he walked around the pulsating circle three times, sprinkling gray ash along its line and mumbling some old forgotten words. He threw the rest of the ash at the creature’s face, which caused it to scream in agony. And then he spoke to me without turning his head. “This right here is the shaman of Ekron, or used to be, before she changed into a chimera. The conjurer and source of this infernal wall around us.”
“A chimera? What happened to her?” I asked while backing up a few more steps.
“It’s a creature born out of a failed ritual. Sorcery has rules, especially the high-level ones. Break one of them, and you’ll face horrible consequences. Something must’ve forced her to –”
Salvian went silent, still, dragging his gaze to the creature’s neck where a necklace with a ring attached to it rested. He tapped his spindly fingers together, and studied the curious pendant with great interest. His prolonged silence and rather serious demeanor made me a little nervous. I pretended to cough to break the heavy atmosphere and said, “Is everything all right, Salvian?”
“This is much bigger than I thought it would be. That ring right there is the Ring of Solomonte. One of the three powerful artifacts of the Lord Warlock Solomonte. It gives its user the power to summon and control the four dark kings of the Undying Fire. Now I know why she sealed herself in,” said Salvian.
The ring, with its jagged blood-red gems, began to quiver and emit a dim purple light as Salvian reached for it. A low-pitched vibration filled the air as darkness crept in around us. It only stopped when Salvian pulled back his hand. The creature went into a murderous rage and tried to bite him. Bits of cloth floating down.
“Demons, you mean. This is absurd. They can’t enter the physical world,” I said.
“Yes, they can. There are doors everywhere. You just have to find the right key.”
I clenched my teeth and shook my head. These freakish revelations were just too much for me to handle. Dark kings, chimeras, humanoids, and hidden portals. I wasn’t ready for them at all. I wondered if my companion was human, vampire, or somewhere in between.
“Is it possible to break the seal and end her suffering?” I said.
“We can certainly break this one. The seal only works on her enemies and the people she saw before casting it. Begin the Lotus chant, Quint. It’s time to end this,” said Salvian.
I started chanting the Lotus mantra faster and louder before pressing each bead so hard I almost broke them. Salvian conjured a long black sword out of thin air and raised it above his head, preparing to deliver a powerful strike to the chimera’s head. Just as he was close to striking the beast, a battle axe flew toward us. We ducked and managed to avoid it, but the gust of wind created by its rapid motion blew us down. We landed hard on the ground. It took me a few seconds to gain my bearings. Salvian stood up fast and parried the next attack, then hurled crimson orbs into one of the dilapidated huts. There was a huge explosion, and a giant plume of black smoke rose into the air.
When the smoke and debris cleared, a barbarian wearing a skull helm emerged. He was about eight feet tall, and he towered over us like a giant bear. Half of his upper body was covered in gray bone armor, the other half in battle scars and tattoos. Seven bleached skulls, suspended on his spiky belt, rattled as he began his approach. Salvian turned to me and yelled, “Get out of here. Quickly!”
I ran and hid behind a broken wall. The barbarian stretched out his arm and the battle axe flew back into his hand. He swung it in one wide sweep, cleaving the air and releasing a blast of energy which split the earth into huge cracks and sent Salvian crashing through a nearby tower mill. Salvian screamed as a piece of wood pierced his right shoulder. He clenched his teeth and pulled it out swiftly. Ribbons of blood trickled from his puncture wound. He forced himself to stand and staggered forward. He paused, breathing hard, then grinned at the barbarian who stood in silent confusion.
“Did I amuse you, sorcerer?” screamed the barbarian, hand squeezing the hilt of the axe hard enough to turn his knuckles white.
“You must be desperate to come down here, Gutvorm. Did your father know about this secret excursion of yours? said Salvian.
“How’d you know my name? You meddling fool!”
“It is my business to know things. Let’s leave it at that. What’s your interest with the Ring of Solomonte?”
Gutvorm’s eyes went dark after he heard what Salvian said. He took a step backward, lowered his head, and growled, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, filth!”
“Don’t play dumb with me. You’re going to use the ring to supplant your father, aren’t you? You scheming little rat!”
Gutvorm rushed forward and lunged his battle axe at Salvian’s head. Salvian ducked and spun around like a dervish before striking Gutvorm’s leg with his sword. The barbarian screamed and bled. He tried to counter Salvian’s attack with a kick at the stomach, but the sorcerer was quick enough to block it. Salvian balled his fist and plunged it into Gutvorm’s midriff before he could move. Then came the loud crunching sound of bones breaking, punctuated by a short gasp and a heavy thud.
Gutvorm dropped to the ground.
Salvian clutched his stomach and fell to his knees beside the motionless giant, blood dripping from his nostrils and mouth. There was not a moment to lose. I quickly jumped to my feet and bolted straight away; my eyes locked on Salvian.
I had almost reached my companion when something snatched me from behind and yanked me away. Its rough hand tightened around the back of my neck as it lifted me off the ground. I kicked backward and attempted to pull its sinewy arm away. It was no use. The more I fought, the harder it was for me to breathe.
So I stopped moving, reached for my pocket, and tossed the book to Salvian, who was gazing at the strange figure with wild eyes. He leaped and caught the book mid-flight before summoning his sword, which vibrated with a startling force and caused a disturbance in the atmosphere. The enigmatic figure’s grip grew tighter again, blocking my airway as it tried to use me as a shield. Salvian stood in silence, watching my captor’s next move. There was a chilling viciousness behind my companion’s calm exterior. He moved closer to us as he spoke, “Let him go or I will kill you.”
“I wish it’s that easy, sorcerer,” replied the strange figure, his voice sounded muffled as if he were in a cave. He backed away, placed a dagger to my throat, and continued, “Take one more step, and I will cut him open. Don’t test me.”
He was not bluffing. Not in the very least. His sharp blade digging into my skin proved that he was ready to kill me at any moment. And Salvian knew it, too. My mind started to race at the thought of dying in the middle of nowhere, alone and with no kith or kin to bury me. Tears started to well up around the rims of my eyes as I gazed at Salvian. He didn’t seem to notice me. His eyes were glued at my captor.
“Calm yourself, monk. He’s just a man in a stupid mask,” Salvian said, shooting a glance at the amulet in my neck.
I grabbed the amulet, clenching my fist around it. My heart began to beat at an erratic rhythm, and my body burst into strands of white smoke, rendering myself formless. Salvian waved his hand in the air, and a series of dark purple chains shot out from his fingers, the bladed tips moving at a very high speed, passing through my hollow chest before hitting the masked figure at my back. Blood sprayed the air as one of the chains ripped into the masked figure’s neck. He gave a gurgling cry and fell back dead.
Salvian ran to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Are you all right, Quint?” I nodded and realized that the amulet’s magic had worn off, revealing my torn brown habit and bruised arms. Salvian smiled, which surprised me. He rubbed my hair and said, “Come, let’s take a look at the body and see who’s behind that mask.”
Salvian removed a black raven mask from the dead stranger’s face and handed it to me. Beneath the mask was a disfigured face of man. He had a strange mark on his forehead and a huge scar underneath his eye. His gaping mouth revealed crooked teeth and pale gums stained by blood. Salvian crouched next to the corpse and turned the dead man’s head. He rose, looking around. He stopped his gaze at a decrepit tower mill behind the chained beast and conjured his sword. “Someone’s watching us,” Salvian said, hands shaking.
“Who?” I said, palms sweating.
“This corpse right here is merely a puppet. See that twin-headed raven mark on his forehead? That’s the puppeteer’s emblem. And he’s hiding somewhere in that tower.”
“Shit! What do we do now?”
“Take Gutvorm’s dagger and stay behind me.”
We moved forward and placed ourselves at a spitting distance from the tower mill. A moment later, the door swung open, revealing a pitch-black darkness beyond. No one came out, but we could hear a hard panting breath within the chasm. The floorboards creaked, and a voice, which sounded hollow and pained, spoke from the gloom, “You’re a fool, sorcerer, if you think your filthy magic will work against me!” He laughed and added, “If you hand over the book and the ring, I will make it quick and easy for the both of you. You won’t feel a single thing. I promise.”
“I don’t have time to play games with you, pilgrim. Reveal yourself,” replied Salvian, while signaling me to back up.
“As you wish, my friend.”
A face emerged from the murky shadow. I immediately recognized the aquiline features and long gray beard. Abbot Eustace. He jumped from the platform with his eyeballs rolled up in a grotesque trance. His head was attached to a barbarian’s body, armless and strapped with explosives. A nasty grin stretched across his face. I closed my eyes and slammed my fist into the ground. I was about to lunge for the door when Salvian flicked my forehead.
“He’s trying to get to you. Can’t you see that?” Salvian whispered, while holding my right arm tight.
“Look at what he did to Abbot Eustace! That son of a –” I said, my hands clasping the dry earth under me.
“Bitch, I know. You need to calm down. Stay exactly where you are.”
Salvian walked closer to the door with no weapon in his hand. He stopped, took a yellowish stone from his robe, and placed it on the ground. He raised his hands with open palms and spoke, “I can’t do magic without the stone. But you already know that, don’t you?” There was no response, just the sound of floorboards creaking followed by a muffled thump. A few seconds later, an hourglass landed at Salvian’s feet.
“You want to talk? You have five minutes, sorcerer.” said the voice from the shadows.
“I know you’re trapped in here as well. In less than an hour, this entire village will be swallowed up in whole. Only I and this stupid monk right there can stop this thing. So, here’s my proposition. Take the book and let us do our job.”
“And the ring?”
“We don’t know what’ll happen if I remove the ring from its neck.”
The voice from the shadows fell silent again. I listened for any sound of movement within the tower. There was none. I looked at the gaping door, the darkness beyond, and all the possible exit routes from which he could escape. Not a sign of him. I was beginning to fear that he might appear from behind and slit my throat this time. The chill of the air and the soft blowing of the wind made my teeth chatter and my limbs ache.
Salvian remained stationary, darting his eyes from the lifeless puppet to the chained beast. What was he planning? I couldn’t figure it out. I crouched down behind a collapsed thatch roof and continued to observe. Suddenly, the chained beast let out a high-pitched shriek. Its body writhing as it tried to free itself. The ground began to shake. Small pebbles and rocks float before my very eyes.
“Time’s running out, pilgrim,” Salvian shouted.
No response still. Our enemy seemed to be toying with us. Salvian tightened his jaw and fists. He was about to pick up the stone when footsteps echoed within the tower. They were getting closer to the doorway. And closer. Salvian tensed his body, preparing for the enemy to come out. The footsteps stopped.
“I’m afraid being trusting is not my strongest suit. Bring the monk to my marionette, and you got yourself a deal.” said the phantom voice.
“How do I know you won’t harm him?” replied Salvian.
“You won’t. Tick tock, sorcerer, tick tock!”
Salvian came to me and asked if I would do it. I said that I would. He walked me to where the horrid thing stood and left me there. He went back to the tower mill, picked up his stone, and waited. Moments later, a tall figure in a beak mask emerged from the doorway. He wore a black leather overcoat and a wide-brimmed hat. Attached to his belt were two gilded daggers, some sort of potion bottles, and explosives. He bowed in a sweeping manner and said, “You may begin your quackery.”
Salvian touched his stone and conjured a black chain with a bladed tip which pierced through the masked man’s heart. It quivered and emitted a dark red light. The masked man dropped where he stood. Salvian, who was engulfed in black flames, chanted the words, “I bind you to the unbreakable chain of Faust for three days. You’ll distance yourself from us. Break this vow and death will come to you. Do you agree?” The masked man grabbed the chain and nodded.
“The faceless king you serve is lying to you. To all of us,” the masked man said, as he rose to his feet. “That fading mark on your back and the inexplicable vibrations? You know of what I speak of.”
“I serve no one,” said Salvian
“Indeed. Now, where’s my book?”
Salvian pulled the chain from the masked man’s heart and handed him the book. He turned to me and pointed to the chimera. We ran towards it. Both of us were out of breath, and I was shaking. Upon reaching the spot, I took my prayer beads and began chanting the holy sutra. Salvian held out his hand and, once again, conjured his sword. He mumbled some strange words, which I believe were incantations, and swung his sword in a wide arc, cleaving the beast’s head from its neck. He removed the ring, which hung on a necklace, from the beast’s neck and slid it into his robe pocket.
A piercing wail resonated through the quiet village. Then the dark walls behind us started to fade, leaving a clear sky and a faint glimmer of light. The ground ceased to tremble, and the rocks were no longer floating. Salvian and I sat on a fallen tree gazing at the platform with no sign of the masked man or the monstrosity he called marionette. We stood up, looked around, and spotted a dagger flying in our direction. We dodged it with a quick sway of our bodies. It landed on the tree. Attached to its hilt was a piece of paper. Salvian picked up the paper and read its contents to me out loud, “I’m afraid I can’t stop my marionette from doing what it’s supposed to do. Not part of the contract. Good riddance, my friends.”
There was a sudden movement in the bushes behind the tower mill. A pair of glowing yellow eyes appeared in the darkness. The monster emerged and charged at us like a crazed animal. We stood paralyzed for a moment. I staggered backwards. Salvian pushed me to the side before he took off. He reached the monster within seconds and stabbed its knee with a dagger. It roared and crashed back down. The monster rose back to its feet without any sign of fatigue. It grunted and began to charge at Salvian again, this time with much ferocity. The sorcerer transformed into a black mist, rolled through the air, and sliced the monster’s leathery shoulders. An explosion of dark energy shook the ground and sent a shockwave throughout the entire village. I was thrown into the air with my feet over my head, tumbled into the undergrowth, and fell back limp. I labored to rise. There was no sign of Salvian. I looked again and found the masked man gliding in the air like a raven. He landed next to Gutvorm, who was lying unconscious on the ground. He crouched over the barbarian and, without hesitation, drove a dagger to his chest. He turned to me before disappearing into the darkness.
Soon after, Salvian reappeared a few feet away from the monster’s mangled body, part of his robe burnt away, exposing a blackened arm. He looked up at the sky and collapsed, the dead leaves a soft balm to his wounded body. I ran to him at once and tried to lift him, but he was too heavy for me to carry. So, I ripped off the hood of my habit, folded it, and tucked it under his head. He was paler than before, and his fiery eyes had dimmed a bit. I met his gaze. “We did it, Salvian. We took down the wall.” I said, holding back my tears.
“Don’t look at me like that, Quint. Gutvorm is dead, isn’t he?” Salvian said.
“How did – never mind.”
“He’s trying to stir up a war. That fool! Listen, someone’s coming. Hide!”
My heart was racing as I hid inside one of the huts. I crawled over to the window and peeked behind the curtains. There was a towering figure standing next to Salvian. He was clad in burnished armor of bronze scales. A battered helm rested on his head, and an enormous cross was strapped on his back. He knelt on the ground and poured water into Salvian’s mouth.
“You look pathetic, Quaestor. Where’s the boy?” said the armored man, his voice deep and resonant.
“What boy? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Salvian as he endeavored to get up with one hand.
“On your head be it. I’ve instructed Lieutenant Irons and his team to look for the monk. After that, they’ll take you to the infirmary.”
Rinaud rose from his knees and scanned the area for any signs of me. His armor creaked as he turned his head left and right. Something about the way he stood reminded me of a watchtower perched on top of a rocky shore. He pulled out a curious device the size of an envelope folded in half from his pocket and whispered on it.
Irons appeared next to him shortly after. The man leaned close to Iron’s ear. They both turned around and vanished into the growing fog, leaving Salvian sitting on the ground. The village became deathly quiet. Not a single soul uttered a sound. The only thing I heard was my breathing, fast and shallow. Salvian seemed to have fainted or fallen asleep.
Night was almost upon us. The sky had gone deep purple, and the leafless trees started to look like giant skeletons. My head felt heavy, and my eyes wanted to shut. Everything that transpired over the past hour had taken a toll on me. The only thing that kept me awake was the thought of being captured. I had to get out of the village at once. It was the best course of action to take. Salvian would no longer be under suspicion, and I would be far away in some unknown land, never to be found again.
As I was planning my escape, Rinaud burst through the wall of the hut and seized me like a piece of parchment. Fragmented bricks and dried grass flew everywhere; some of them pelted my face and arms. Rinaud tied my hands behind my back and threw me out of the door.
“Think you can hide from me, little rat?!” Rinaud said, putting his steel boot on my face. “You’re under arrest, you murderous bastard. Lieutenant, bring the murderer to the Wind Cutter.”
Irons carried me to a place where a giant dragonfly wrought of steel waited. It was about ten feet high with two huge, bloated eyes and four translucent wings protruding from its massive body. Attached to its long tail were two wind blades shaped like sickles. Irons placed his hand on the surface of its eye, and it opened into a small chamber filled with dark steam, two well-worn seats, weapons, and boxes. He tossed me inside, shot my neck with something sharp, and locked me in. Everything after that was a complete blank.
A splash of cold water jolted me awake. I gasped for air and tried to move, but the chains around my wrists and ankles kept me firmly in place. Irons stood before me with a gas-lit lantern and a glowing metal rod, his blank face menacing in the faint light. Looming behind him were Rinaud and a hooded figure.
I looked around the place cautiously, hoping to find any sign of Salvian. There was none. All I saw were big chains with shackles hanging on the damp, moss-covered walls and skeletons on the cracked floor. Irons grunted and said, “If you’re looking for the sorcerer, don’t bother. He’s gone. You’re all alone, boy!” My ribs cracked under Iron’s metal rod, sending a paralyzing pain throughout my body. I convulsed and vomited. He attempted to swing again, but the hooded figure stopped him. “Lieutenant Irons! Let me speak to the boy,” the hooded figure said. His voice sounded familiar. Irons stepped aside and let the hooded figure pass. He turned to Rinaud and Irons and continued, “Gentlemen, if you could leave us for a moment?” The two soldiers looked at each other with astonishment before nodding their heads and walking in silence. He removed his hood. My eyes went wide as the shaft of light lit his skull-like features. Brother Barlow smiled at me. He dragged a chair in front of me and sat on it.
“This prison tower is one of a kind, brother Quint. Do you know why? You won’t notice it, but these walls around us are in constant motion, moving randomly like pieces of a puzzle. Astonishing, isn’t it?” Brother Barlow said, while moving the lantern back and forth. “Oh! I would be remiss if I failed to warn you about the dragon sitting at the top of this tower. Try not to do anything stupid.”
“What’s the meaning of this? I thought you’re dead,” I said.
He stood up and turned his back to me, facing the prison cell door. His hands were clenched behind his back.
“Blame it on the old man!” he yelled and paused to catch his breath before speaking again. “He left me no choice, but to bargain with the masked demon.”
“Good heavens! What did Abbot Eustace do to you?”
“Eustace accused me of stealing the book and threatened to banish me from the monastery.”
He came forward, tapped my face, and removed the shackles from my hands. I tottered back and forth before dropping to the ground. He just stared at me and went back to his chair, leaning forward with hunched shoulders.
“I’m sorry, brother. But someone has to take the fall,” Barlow said, looking at the window behind me. “Your friend, the sorcerer is not coming back. So just hand me the book and I’ll make sure your execution is swift and painless.”
“It’s no longer in my possession. The masked man took it during our encounter in Ekron.” I replied, while massaging my wrist.
“Tut, tut! That’s very unfortunate. I’ll give you two days to reconsider your answer.”
Barlow grinned at me like a serpent and sauntered toward the cell door, slowly fading into the darkness.
I was alone in the prison cell, famished, bruised, and wounded. I pressed my ribs with shaking fingertips and lied on the floor with my eyes wide open, waiting for the rats or whatever foul vermin that lurked within to end my suffering. A foolish way to die, no doubt about it. But I was tired – tired of running and praying to a deaf god. I just wanted everything to end. With Salvian gone, there was nothing left for me but torture and pain.
The rabid squeaking grew louder and closer, and a foul smell hung in the air. Innumerable tiny red eyes and silvery whiskers danced under the faint moonlight. I held my breath as a horde of giant rats charged toward me. All looked like they had not eaten for days. One of the rats, perhaps the biggest of the bunch, jumped at me and managed to sink its teeth into my leg. I screamed, rolled over, and slammed my leg against the wall until it let go. Breathless, I looked around.
The rats had stopped advancing; their eyes fixed on the darkest side of the wall as if staring at something more horrendous than them. They squealed and scurried back into the darkness. Everything went silent and cold. Ice formed around the skeletons and began to spread. It crept over the floor and around the walls. The floor began to shake, and the darkness on the other side cracked open like an egg, revealing fissures of fiery orange light. From it emerged a three-skulled creature. Its colossal body looked like a cluster of limestones sculpted into weird formations over the years. It stood with its calcified feet apart, and its four long arms dangled to the floor. The creature turned, walked in my direction, and stopped right in front of me. Black smoke slithered through its six hollow eye sockets.
“I’m Kurson. Great King of the East Fire. I am here at the behest of the sorcerer who wields the ring of Solomonte.” said the creature, its voice sounded like multiple voices speaking at the same time.
“How? Where is he?” I said.
“Above this tower fighting a knight and taming a dragon. Lie on the floor, mortal. Let the ice heal your wounds.”
The ice shards spread across my body from neck to toe, wrapping me like a cocoon. My dark wounds and fractures began to heal. My mind grew clear, and the only sound I heard was my breathing. Everything was still for a moment, and it felt good.
Loud footsteps echoed in the prison hall, and my cell door was flung open. There stood Irons, Barlow, and three prison guards. All of them were armed except Barlow. They entered the cell with their weapons aimed at me and the creature. Green light beams crisscrossed around us like the strands of a spider’s web. Barlow stepped forward and spat on the floor.
“This boy is clearly a servant of the Lord Necromancer. Fire at will!” Barlow shouted.
There was an explosion of shadows, and the demon vanished. A huge ice wall rose and covered half of the prison cell, separating me from my enemies. Irons and his men opened fire, and hundreds of bullets rained down the ice wall. Just seconds after the onslaught, cracks began to appear, and the muted roar of gunshots grew louder. The demon popped back into existence and dropped to the ground.
“I can’t hold it much longer,” the demon muttered.
The ice shards on my body had melted and turned into wisps of vapor. The demon was getting weaker, and his power was waning. A section of the wall behind me exploded. A blast of wind entered the prison cell. Chunks of concrete and metal flew all over the place. The demon was gone. And I was sucked outside and thrown into the open sky, spinning away like a top thousands of feet above the desert.
The prison tower looked like a crooked black finger beneath me. I screamed and closed my eyes, tears flying into the air. My heart raced at an incredible pace as I began to descend through the air. A strong gust of wind slapped my face without warning, causing my body to twist and sway. I opened my eyes in an attempt to regain a bit of control.
Out of the blinding sunlight came a massive shadow, and when I squinted toward it, I realized it was a dragon heading my way. The enormous serpent was covered in copper scales, and each one gleamed like a finely honed shield under the morning light. It roared, spread its leathery wings wide, and dove towards me.
Moments before impact, it grabbed me with its claws and hurled me on its back before it soared again. And there, sitting in front of me, was Salvian. He raised his hand, and the dragon sped towards the horizon. The prison tower was getting smaller and smaller until it shrank into a tiny dot and disappeared from my view.