Skaine crept through the bushes. He was careful not to stir a single branch. In the distance he could see the glimmer of the enemyís campfires. None of the others had come this far. Eight scouts had been sent to find out about the Devoutsí position and he was the last one alive. Brark was the first to die: he had stumbled upon a bearís resting place in the woods. His screams had attracted a Devout patrol and the three others who had tried to rescue the unfortunate Brark hadnít got a chance against them.
Skaine had watched it all from his hiding place in the undergrowth. He hadnít tried to help his fellow. He knew that during wartime everybody was on his own. So he had remained still, afraid to even move a muscle. And he had beheld what the Devout had done to the last of the three. He had seen how they had skinned him alive and how they had made him swallow his own organs after they had cut them from his body all the time laughing with hideous delight.
During the next days the others had died too. He hadnít witnessed their deaths but he had heard their screams echo through the woods or he had stumbled upon their mutilated bodies. He had found Díhaneís cold, naked corpse too. They had known each other since their childhood and only then , standing above her lifeless hull had he realised what he had been feeling for her.
He forced these thoughts out of his mind. They were of no importance. Chronomancer Gomez himself had given him a task and this was the only thing that mattered. Skaine was to spy out the exact composition of the force and report it back to him.
Carefully he removed all the small twigs that might snap when he crept over them out of his way and silently moved on.
Suddenly the leaves on his right side started to rustle. The noise was too close, there was no sense in trying to hide or to run. In one fluent motion he spun around and drew his sword. Itís blade was blackened so that itís reflections wouldnít give him away. He brought the it down on the figure that stood behind him and then he stopped the blow.
He was looking at Díhane. It took only a wink of an eye before he realised his terrible mistake, before he saw that the face was the only part of her body that hadnít been stripped of all flesh, but this was enough time for the Risen to sever his swordhand at the wrist.
Once again screams filled with untold pain echoed through the wood.
"What do you want, ThaÓg?"
"Weíve caught the last of the scouts. He is dead."
"Are you sure he was the last one?"
"Yes, my Lord. They were eight. Two women and six men. Just like the traitor had said."
"Excellent. In three days our demons shall feast on Firstborn flesh again. - You may go now."
"Thank you, my Lord."
"And ThaÓg ..."
"See to it, that the traitor gets his proper Ďrewardí. I have no more use for the whining cur."
"As you command Lord Timmary."
Daena writhed in agony. Spasms of pain wracked her sweat covered body. She wasnít prepared for this. Of course she had heard stories and the elders had showed her what to do and how to breathe but no one had told her about the pain. An old reassuring voice whispered in her ear, "Easy now, push, push, donít forget to breathe, steady, donít worry, youíre doing great."
"I can see the head now, just a little longer. It will be over soon."
She gathered all her remaining strength, tried to forget the pain, tried to focus on the voices and then it was over. The midwife held the baby at itís tiny legs and softly patted it on the back until the infant started to cry. Exhausted but happy she closed her eyes but before she could let sleep overtake her, there was one more thing she needed to know.
The midwife smiled at her, "Congratulations, it is a ..." suddenly the expression on her face changed to utter horror, "... oh my ... the One King protect us all."
Sleep was forgotten. She tried to get up. Wanted to ask what was wrong with her baby.
Suddenly the door burst open and menacing hooded figure carrying a huge axe strode in. The midwife who still held the screaming infant spun round and almost dropped the baby.
"I am Kunack, Judge of the Seven Towers, I make law and I carry out the judgement. You will immediately hand over this abomination or you will suffer the consequences."
Daena tried to get up, to protect her baby from the Judge, she wanted to scream at him to leave her child alone, but she could not. The exhaustion was to much for her and she felt a strange sudden calm overtake her as she lapsed into darkness.
The Judge took the crying baby from the shivering midwife.
"You ... you ... wonít kill me, sire?"
"My Truthbringer is only for the guilty and you old woman have not committed any crime."
"I saw the mark on his head. Is, is he really ..."
"He is a spawn of evil, tainted by the Dark Lord himself, destined to be a great leader of his unholy armies and the mark serves as a proof."
"But why Daena? I know her and the father of this ... this ... child, he is a Knight and as true and faithful as any."
"The parents cannot be blamed for the Dark Lordís schemes. Chronomancer Gomez himself has foreseen the birth of this child and what horrible deeds it was going to commit. He has sent me to take care of the boy."
With these words the Judge left the small hut, holding the child Ė that bore a little red cross with a semicircle connecting the upper ends Devout symbol carved into his forehead- in his arm. 5 members of the Iron Guard were waiting for him outside.
"This place has been tainted by the forces of evil. It must be cleansed with the power of the flame. Burn it to the ground and let none of itís inhabitants escape.
"It shall be done as you say.
The flow of time was unclear. Multiple possibility threads were colliding and entangling with each other. It was impossible for Gomez to determine the clear outcome of the events of the next few days. Although one thing was certain: Streams of blood would soil the earth around Aransale.
There was a knock on the massive portal of the conference hall in which he sat.
"You may enter, Kunack."
"The child has been born as you have predicted. I have taken him to the Black Sisters as you have told me to." "Very good. You should go now and prepare Aransaleís men for the attack."
"There is one thing, Chronomancer."
"If this child could really get as powerful as one of the Dark Prophets, then why should I not kill him now?"
"Simple Kunack, the Dark Lord wants this child. So we can use him as a bait. We will use the boy to control the enemyís armies. He will send them after the child and this will keep them from attacking more important places and will make their attacks predictable. The child poses no threat to us while he is young. We can still eliminate him, when he gets older."
Abruptly the Chronomancer turned to the left, "You may step forward, Ezekiel."
The surprised Judge watched as the Nightwalker came forth from the shadows.
"This place is not safe Gomez, if I had been sent by the enemy you would probably be a rotting carcass by now."
"Donít forget that I have seen you and that I am far from defenceless, report now."
"The enemy really thinks that we have only sent out those 8 scouts and none of them have spotted me. The Devout commander knows nothing about our reinforcements and he doesnít know about the child either. It is mere coincidence that his army will attack this city at this point of time."
"As you should know Ezekiel, I do not believe in coincidences. The Black Sisters will take the boy to the North in tomorrow. When will the Devout attack?"
The Nightwalker raised an eyebrow. It was unusual that a Chronomancer asked a question about time, "Their commander plans to assault the city in three days."
"Very well, our reinforcements will arrive in two days. We will outnumber them three to one. So the Devout shouldnít stand a chance. But still. There is something wrong with the stream of time. I cannot discern any outcome of the battle, I can only see that much more of our blood is going to be spilled than should be possible if we utterly crush them. Ezekiel you are dismissed. Remain near the enemyís camp. Alert me as soon as anything unforeseen happens. Do not try to assassinate their commander for if you should fail, the Devout might sense our trap."
The Nightwalker disappeared and left the city again. Unseen by anybody outside of the conference hall.
"I did not know that there is a Nightwalker among your forces, Chronomancer."
"Well, I guess he would be a bad one if you did, Kunack. Before you go and prepare the troops, there is one other thing I need to tell you. During the battle, one of the soldiers under your command will flee, do not hinder him."
"He must be either a tremendous coward or a fool if he is going to try to flee when a Judge is nearby!"
"Perhaps he is, but you must not, under no circumstances, prevent him from doing so. I do not know why, but I know that it is vital for the future of us all."
The Withered Moon had just risen, throwing a sick, yellow light on the land below when a lone figure, shrouded in black mists, entered the camp of the Devout army. Ignoring the screaming and howling of tortured prisoners and worse things, the it headed straight for the commanderís tent. Two Cursed stood on guard before its entrance ready to defend their master against any intruder who dared to disturb their master. As they beheld the stranger striding towards them, both bowed their heads lowered their axes and stepped aside.
The Necromancer who had been meditating slowly raised his withered, deformed head. A Dark Messenger stood before him. Its gleaming red eyes, bereft of any emotion, seemed to pierce Timmaryís frail body.
"I BEAR A MESSAGE FOR YOU FROM OUR LORD."
ThaÓg moved through the night forest as silent as a shadow. He was sure that there was no enemy nearby. They had killed all the Firstborn Scouts after all. But only the foolish abandoned caution at any point of time and ThaÓg was no fool.
The Dark Messenger had urged his master to attack Aransale as soon as possible and so he had reconsidered his plans. Timmary had sent him to intercept the Vulture mercenaries with whom the Necromancer had formed an alliance and redirect their forces against the approaching Firstborn reinforcements.
ThaÓg despised the Vultures. Driven only by their lust for gold they sold their arms to anybody who was willing to pay them in gold. Not like ThaÓgís own Clan who had allied with the Dark One after the other traitorous cowards had conspired to destroy the proud and noble Jackals. Nevertheless, it was better to have Vulture allies than none at all.
He was moving round a small clearing to remain in the cover of the undergrowth when suddenly pain pierced his left arm. The hilt of a small throwing dagger was protruding from his upper arm. ThaÓg dropped to the ground to avoid getting hit by further missiles and waited for his invisible attacker to show himself. Blood gushed forth from the small wound as he pulled the black-bladed dagger out of it. It was clearly a Firstborn weapon and dread filled ThaÓg as he realised who his enemy had to be. At that moment the Nightwalker stepped into the clearing.
"Ha, you think your little toy can kill me, Firstborn? I will show you the power of the Jackal clan."
Determined to die fighting if he had to, ThaÓg jumped to his feet and charged the assassin. But before he could reach him he lost control over his limbs, stumbled and hit the ground in front of the motionless Nightwalkerís feet.
"I doubted that this small dagger would hurt you, but the snakeberry extract I put on the blade seems work quiet well on you."
The Nightwalker pulled another knife from his belt.
"I assume that you are not familiar with the effects the snakeberry, so let me give you a brief overview. The poison paralyses your body for six hours. However you are able to speak during that period and - whatís more important to me Ė feel pain. There are also some long term side effects but I can guarantee you that they wonít trouble you. Oh, by the way, did you know that we Nightwalkers are also trained in the process of information retrieval?"
Ezekiel held the point of the knife against the Jackal Scoutís eye and applied just a little pressure.
Darkness still engulfed the land when the Black Sisters left Aransale. The ground around the city walls had been cleared from all vegetation to provide no cover from the for attackers from the cityís archers and crossbowmen. After the Nightwalker had returned to Gomez with the Jackalís head and the news that the Devout attack was only a matter of hours, he had immediately given orders to the Sisters to carry the infant to safety.
From the edge of the wood Timmary watched them with satisfaction. Everything happened they way the Dark Messenger had told him. The death of his Scout had come as a surprise to him but ThaÓg was replaceable. He waited until the Firstborn had almost reached the edge of the wood, Then he gave the sign.
Risen Archers sprang up from their hiding places and peppered the group with arrows. Two of the Sisters immediately went down. The others turned and ran for the city. On Aransaleís walls lookouts were sounding horns and the cities gates slowly opened. But before the warrior maidens could reach it, Demon Wings descended on them engaging them in a ferocious melee. Timmary gesticulated with his staff and the two dead Sisters slowly stoop up. Raising their two handed blades, the undead elite warriors charged their former comrades. But before they could reach them, their leader decapitated two of the Demon Wings with a mighty swing, snatched the child and ran on. Filled with rage Timmary watched as she reached the city and its gates closed behind her while the others were chopped down by his undead.