There was a murmur amongst the gathered crowd as the winged beast landed in Hearthglen square, an armoured knight easing himself down from the saddle. His features were masked by his greathelm, a large sword slung over his back and clad in clanking platemail. The beast beat its wings once and snapped at a nearby villager, rearing its pincered tail and regarding the townsfolk as one imagines a wolf might regard a flock of sheep.
A soldier dashed forward and Sir Ingram handed off the wyvern’s reins, stepping forward to address the gathered villagers. He stopped and surveyed the nearby buildings, before speaking. “There was word of a dragon sighting.”
The crowd continued to murmur, before a young woman spoke up. “Yes, m’lord. Came fe the forest, attacked the ship, then a mighty storm kicked up and it fled whence it came. No sightings of it since, sir.”
“Aye, sir. Sailed up mere minutes ‘fore, straight to the forest, or close as it could get. They were armed, sir, soldiers an’ all. Scalars, by the look.”
“Aye. Lots of them. Garrett and a couple others reckon they were led by Rell’s Heroes, sir. Saw two matching the princes’ description and…there was that storm, sir.”
Under his helm, Ingram narrowed his eyes. He’d read the missive, but he’d wanted to hear it from them. “And where is the ship now?”
The young woman turned to look at the rest of the crowd before replying, her expression fallen. “It left, sir. Mayhaps an hour ago?” The woman winced as Ingram let out a grunt of exasperation. “The beast did a number on the ship, sir, they’ll be slow, I should imagine. Might be as they can be caught yet.”
Ingram paced a moment, biting his lip as he thought. “What of the dragon?”
“Not sure, m’lord. Struan and Toric said they’d seen ‘em loading the ship up with gold and the like, though. From a distance.”
Ingram looked towards the forest, eyes narrowed and fists clenched. After a moment he spoke again. “Are there any damages? Any injuries?”
The crowd continued to murmur, before the woman spoke. “…No sir. They…dragon left us alone, m’lord. Explains some missing livestock, more than likely, but that’s about the whole of it.”
Ingram sighed. “Thank you, Miss..?”
“Caldwell, sir. Fiona Caldwell.”
Ingram exhaled, the gravitas he had arrived with deflating somewhat. “Thank you, Miss Caldwell. You said it returned to the forest?”
Ingram turned to face the troops accompanying him, made a gesture towards the treeline, and the soldiers began to mobilize. Taking the wyvern’s reins again, he clambered up into the saddle, and addressed the villagers. “We’ll take a scout of the area and form a plan from there. A garrison will be stationed in the village that you may rest easy should the beast return, and these thieves will be pursued under the full extent of Rellic law.”
The wyvern beat its wings.
“Justice will be done.”
A brazier burned, illuminating the dark stone walls of the long room with teal-green flame. Two figures stood before an imposing throne, hands steepled as they observed. Above the font hovered a skeletal form, flesh welding itself to the bones as the flames licked at them. Before the brazier was a length of red cloth, atop which lay a severed pale arm, each long finger of the hand bearing a fourth segment. A smile crept over both faces as the figures watched, the severed appendage slowly rising as the skeleton neared completion.
“The Riven…” intoned the Keeper of the Throne, as the arm rose into the air, drifting slowly into the orbit of the effigy. The fingers began to twitch.
“…shall be mended,” replied the Keeper of Seals. As if to punctuate his sentence, the arm latched itself onto the waiting stump, the brazier burning brighter and taller until the room was filled with teal light. The effigy floated forward, four shadowy arms spread wide before the backdrop of light, and dropped to hands and knees on the floor. The brazier extinguished itself, its job finished, and the room grew dark for a moment, before dimly glowing eyes looked up to regard the two courtiers.
The Pale King breathed his first in eras.
A tall man clad in gleaming silver armour stood on the cliff edge, looking out at the snowy plains below him, dotted with tents and campfires. The bustle of the military encampment drifted up on the cold winds as he observed the trundling of his war machine. Behind him were two figures enveloped in red robes that whipped about in the winds — a horned aeonian and an oselan.
“They’ve been sighted in Meriden once more. Liable to sail back to the temple, if we struck again we could seize the Shield once more,” said the aeonian. His usually crimson skin came up more of a raw pink in the frozen sunlight. He itched at the long scar running down his face.
The man looked down at his ill-fitting armour and turned from the cliff edge. “Forget the Shield. I no longer desire it.”
“You no longer—” the aeonian began, his eyes wide, “you no longer desire it?”
“Yes,” said the armoured man as he began to stride back towards the large command tent in the distance, “we have now more pressing matters. The hour of action draws near.”
The aeonian followed. “We have had more pressing matters for some time, yet we have been gallivanting across the land in pursuit of your vanity project for months! Such valuable time we have wasted! We’d be at Meriden’s ga—”
He stopped speaking as he was fixed with a steely glare. Lidda the oselan watched.
“I should watch your tongue, fiend,” said the armoured man, moving so he was inches away from the aeonian’s crimson nose, “lest I cut it out.”
The oselan raised an eyebrow as she watched the proceedings.
The aeonian did not speak for a moment, but held the man’s gaze. “Forgive me,” he said, his jaw clenched, “I have such passion for our cause I should hate to see our time and efforts misused. I did not mean to question your leadership.”
The man smiled. “There’s a good boy,” he said, letting his words hang in the air for a moment before striding off towards the tent once more. The aeonian looked towards the oselan with exasperation, but was met with raised eyebrows. They followed the man.
“If not the Shield, then,” began the oselan as she ducked under the tent’s flap in pursuit, “what is our next move, pray tell?”
“Our next move,” said the man, leant over a desk detailing troop movements and fortifications, “is to march. But not yet. Just a few moments longer will ensure our greatest chance of victory.” He tapped a gauntleted finger on the desk three times as he did so, punctuating his sentence.
The two Bishops did not respond.
“Their war is almost upon them, it is plain to see. We shall let them wear themselves thin, and then…” he said, sliding a piece from the north of the map to the centre to finish his point wordlessly.
“And until then?”
“We continue as we have. Keep watching. Keep recruiting. If an opportunity to better our odds presents itself, take it.”
“And if this war of theirs doesn’t come to pass?” asked the oselan.
“It will. The killings have been…effective. See to it there are more. If they will not willingly leap towards their doom,” he said, turning to face his lieutenants.
“We shall push them.”
Hunger eased their steed to a halt, climbing down from the thin horse’s saddle. It stamped the ground, and Hunger ran long, withered fingers down the beast’s face to soothe it. Ahead lay a treacherous climb, and a cave mouth above, and sounds of battle could be heard in the distance from all around.
Hunger began the climb.
Around the cave mouth lay the chains of the third Seal, the great stone door that it had long held shut now open with its breaking. The Horseman entered.
The path was long, and through inky darkness, and once through Hunger regarded the far wall. They stood motionless for a long time, taking it in, before speaking a raspy whisper.
“The Seals must break.”
“The Seals cannot break.”
There was a sound of pacing — thin boots on a rough floor.
A heavy book was thrust onto the table, its pages whirring past as they were scanned before it was just as quickly slammed shut and discarded over one shoulder.
“No. No, no, no…”
Fingers tapped on the table in perfect rhythm, reverberating around the study.
“They are not under Her influence. Why have I not seen them?”
A cry of exasperation filled the room, and an hourglass fell on the floor, shattering as it was knocked aside, sand spilling into the cracks of the bricks, never to flow again. A pair of golden eyes regarded it for a moment which stretched out for both an eternity and an instant.
“They will not stand in my way.”