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Hate on the Horizon

By Zach Staddon All Rights Reserved ©

Action / Adventure


Arcadia is a fragile land. Ten years ago marked the darkest day in the history of The Kingdoms. On that most detrimental of days a failed mission resulted in the deaths of seven Kingdom Soldiers, while those responsible were never brought to justice. The incident was buried deep in the past and left to be forgotten by all, all but one. Ten years later the past refuses to stay quiet. Now aged at twenty years old soldier Jim Breckson has grown up dedicated to his sworn duty of protecting The Kingdom of Ascendancy. He had never doubted his service to King Mathius until the night Arcadia was changed forevermore. An underground group known as the Conspirators have been secretly plotting against The Kingdoms, all of whom connected to the incident ten years ago, and they plan to unleash their hatred without mercy, and without warning. Suspicions elevated, Jim stands among fellow soldiers Rob and Hopkins, the elite soldiers Fawkes and Kamau, and a young girl from his past the same age as he, Amber, to embark on a dangerous quest after the Conspirators. Nothing is as it seems, and the closer Jim gets to the truth concerning the past, the further his loyalty will sway in the present.

Part One: The Betrayal


For a time, there was peace. Innocent green hills that rose and fell throughout the land of Arcadia were coupled with clear blue lakes spread evenly throughout the countryside. Long swaths of forested area were cut evenly between castles and more than abundant with green vegetation and healthy animals. In the beginning, numerous explorers who had come over long ago had forged paths and created strongholds, digging deep into this new land called Arcadia. As years went by these strongholds grew in both size and number as the originals were expanded upon and new ones were built farther and farther into the land. The strongholds quickly became castles and the castles grew into kingdoms. Since the arrival of the explorers official records were kept on the population of this new land. Arcadia had developed exponentially to now hold seven kingdoms spread throughout the map, with fifty castles placed between them, and countless strongholds dotted around them. Civilization had grown to become accustomed to this environment and learned to adapt along with it. More and more people traveled from their old lands to discover this new land. It was a time of prosperity and good fortune. Neighbors helped neighbors; people greeted others without having met them. Everyone felt valued, accepted, and safe. All of the kingdoms were well-known and respected, and each kingdom had an individual discipline unique to only that kingdom. The Kingdom of Healthiness carries the symbol of the Fawn and concerns itself with the wellbeing of others, The Kingdom of Creation carries the symbol of the Plant and concerns itself with building and entertainment, The Kingdom of Prophecy carries the symbol of the Wolf and concerns itself with the knowledge and understanding of the world around it, The Kingdom of Defense carries the symbol of the Bear and concerns itself solely with the task of defending the land of Arcadia, The Kingdom of Peace carries the symbol of the Dove and concerns itself with freedom for all citizens of the land, and The Kingdom of Knowledge carries the symbol of the Eagle, concerning itself with politics and leadership. Together, these six Kingdoms provide everything the land of Arcadia requires. The food to eat comes from The Kingdom of Creation, the hunters to provide the food come from The Kingdom of Healthiness, political nobles and citizens of the Counsel are raised and taught in both The Kingdom of Peace and The Kingdom of Knowledge, Soldiers and Elites to protect the citizens of Arcadia come from both The Kingdom of Defense and The Kingdom of Prophecy, the large and solid walls that make up each kingdom are built by The Kingdom of Creation, and so on and on it repeats itself as everything in Arcadia is a result of the handiwork of one or more of the six Kingdoms. Finally, there is but one strong and knowledgeable King to lead his subjects. The seventh Kingdom incorporates the other six Kingdom’s disciplines into one governing leader: The Kingdom of Ascendancy. The Kingdom of Ascendancy leads the other six Kingdoms and the whole of Arcadia through the means of Healthiness, Creation, Prophecy, Defense, Peace, and Knowledge. All citizens belong to their native Kingdoms, but over the entire nation all Kingdoms belong under Law and Oath to The Kingdom of Ascendancy. That is to say, if the land of Arcadia were a body, The Kingdom of Ascendancy would be the head to which all other Kingdoms would replace the other body parts. The body uses all parts to survive, but the brain comes first and the rest follow, and some parts are needed more than others. The best and brightest citizens in each discipline from all of the Kingdoms are invited to live and work in The Kingdom of Ascendancy. If you had the luxury of being born into the Kingdom of Ascendancy itself, you had the option of studying any or all disciplines from the Kingdoms. People were happy. Things were going well. Too well. King Mathius’s Royal Advisor had been through it all. He had grown up as a young child without a family or Kingdom and had been lucky to survive in a deteriorating stronghold. When he was old enough he left atop a stolen horse and rode on for days, having no direction in mind. His hunger pained him and the sun shone down hotly from above, and just as he was about to give up all hope his horse pulled over the top of the hill and he glimpsed The Kingdom of Ascendancy in front of him. He was taken in by a wealthy family of nobles, and their influence and power helped him to become something extraordinary. He was very interested in the Council and politics of The Kingdom of Ascendancy, and he was given a seat on the Council at the young age of twenty. In lieu of his upbringing, and although his career did not require it, he had access to advanced teachings from all disciplines of the six Kingdoms. As well he received training from the top Soldiers and Elites of the time and he learned how to fight, retaining the knowledge easily. As he grew older he put in his time and worked his way through the ranks until eventually he was promoted to the King’s Royal Advisor at the age of thirty. The promotion was largely due to him having a hand in King Mathius’s rise to power, and thus began a grand friendship between the two. The Royal Advisor was full of good intentions and he thought very highly of the work Mathius was doing, and likewise Mathius was fond of him. The Royal Advisor had done his job as it was expected of him, but also sat by quietly for years on the other side; taking responsibility for every error the King wished not to be shared publicly. The Royal Advisor understood that this was part of his job and he still remained the same friend he had always been, but even he became bitter sometimes. It was a delicate balance to occasionally be left out of the credit yet help the King look good, as well to always take the fall for the bad. The scale would tilt up one way, and then tilt down the other way, but it always balanced out in the end. One day however, a particularly big fall came the Royal Advisor’s way. Ten years ago to the date it had come to his attention that a criminal group was forming in a stronghold near The Kingdom of Defense. King Mathius naturally allowed the Royal Advisor to deal with it and he did. The Royal Advisor considered his intelligence and sent out ten of the Kingdom’s best Soldiers to capture the criminals. The outcome nearly cost Mathius his title. The Royal Advisor’s information had stated that the group consisted of five criminals, all lightly armed. When the ten Soldiers arrived however they were met with a force of twenty five criminals all heavily armed with axes and crossbows. The false information had been planted and led to the casualties of seven Soldiers, only three made it back alive. King Mathius and the Royal Advisor were questioned immediately, and to defend them both King Mathius assured the public a thorough sweep by the Royal Investigation Squad would get to the heart of the matter quickly. The King and the Royal Advisor were both deemed innocent in the matter and life continued on as it always had, but something in the matter still didn’t feel right, and that caused the Royal Advisor to become suspicious. Things had changed. The Royal Advisor was no longer the same man he had been all those years ago. He was now a man who still possessed the skills of all six Kingdoms, but now he was using his training against those who taught him. He hated to do things like this, but he also knew that if what he found was what he feared, more people than just the King would be in trouble. Behind the King’s back the Royal Advisor looked into the matter as silently as smoke, talking to people of interest who he believed contained the truth as to who planted the false information. Many interrogations showed no results, but one noble in particular broke under his methods and confessed where there lay hidden a paper transaction days before the Soldiers were slaughtered. The Royal Advisor followed the trail and after a short sword fight with two men guarding the door, found the piece of paper which contained details consisting of travelling routes throughout Arcadia. The information regarding the transaction did not interest him at first, for it was the name of the man that had signed off on the paper that caught his attention. What he found decided the rest of his life for him, for he knew the man and he knew the man well. It took the ten years since the incident to develop his plan, but this time was nothing compared to the time he had wasted. This time was worth it. Having access to The Kingdom of Ascendancy and its rooms of interest was a bonus. Every day and every night, the Royal Advisor was busy. Stealing bits of information here and there, he managed to discreetly find his way through to The Kingdoms’ most hushed secrets. He also learned of information regarding the actual castle (strong points, weaknesses, passages, storage facilities, maps and building layouts) the Soldiers (weapons, names, shifts, status, ranks, and age) and information regarding the economy as well (trading partners, profits, deals, robberies, and vault codes). Most importantly however was the stolen list of inmates residing in The Kingdom of Acendancy’s prison hold. This was the most important piece of stolen information for one reason; these inmates shared the same hatred against The Kingdom of Ascendancy that the Royal Advisor had built up against those responsible for the incident. Having been locked up for years, and the majority of them sentenced to life, the Prisoners would have nothing to lose; the perfect weapons to use against The Kingdoms. The Royal Advisor had secretly been scheduling quiet meetings in the dungeons, unbeknownst to anyone but those present. The dungeons were not of use anymore; the Prisoners were held on ground level instead of below ground to ensure ample visibility, so there was nobody left to overhear anything. Other than the Royal Advisor himself there was Markov, an imposing man from The Kingdom of Peace who had a long-time history with the Royal Advisor on the Council, there was Rimshaw, an extremely wise but unhappy old battle commander from The Kingdom of Defense who is fed up with how the system is run, an ex-soldier from outside of The Kingdoms known only as Scar, and two brothers, Mack and Boris, both from The Kingdom of Knowledge, who will do anything for a nice paycheck. There were only the six of them in attendance. “Do we all know why we are gathered here?” The Royal Advisor started, staring ahead through the darkness. Silence ensued before one of the brothers felt the need to break it with a lighter mood. “Sure, for a large sum of gold, right?” Mack laughed good naturedly as Boris eyed him with a hint of confusion. The air evaporated from the enclosed space for several strained seconds before Rimshaw spoke in a tired voice. “Yes, imbeciles, you’ll get your gold once we’re out. But the work must be done first. We’ve all been cooped up inside this ‘paradise’ for far too long, there can be no mistakes.” “Precisely.” The Royal Advisor replied. “It is a simple plan really; we have been over it before. This is our last meeting before tomorrow evening.” He checked the room carefully before continuing. “We break the inmates out first, allowing them to terrorize the citizens and causing a panic. Mack and Boris, it is your job to accomplish this most imperative first step.” Both brothers nodded hastily in agreement. “When it is time, you will break them out and supply weapons, torches, and anything else you deem necessary for a successful emergence.” The Royal Advisor turned to face the next man at the table. “Scar, after the inmates are out and on the move it is up to you to guide them through the layout we discussed. Keep the Kingdom Soldiers out of the way and limit our casualties. We will need every man we can get.” Scar gave a single, solemn nod. “Excellent. Rimshaw, you and Markov will accompany me through the castle. During the distraction, we will be headed straight to the North Tower; the first place he will be sent for protection in the event of an emergency. On our way, we will kill every man, woman, child, or Soldier we may meet. Understood?” The assembly nodded in agreement. “Fine by me,” said Markov. “I’m glad to see the demise of this wretched place.” Boris had been sitting quietly since his brother’s first remark, but suddenly spoke up. “Wouldn’t we just kill Soldiers? I mean, the people are unarmed and wouldn’t pose much of a threat.” The same, heavy silence settled uneasily around the room. “Are you suggesting there is something wrong with my plan?” The Royal Advisor spoke slowly, his voice accompanied by a hint of distaste. “No, of course not.” Boris stammered quickly. “I just” – “I think what you were trying to say was misinterpreted.” Rimshaw broke in once again, glancing sidelong at Boris. “Because you do know that the people will become a threat once they realize we killed their sons, fathers, husbands, and friends. There won’t be an end to their revenge. Everyone must go, and besides, it will make a bigger impression. Neighboring castles and even the six Kingdoms for that matter will know to stay out of our way once they hear the news, if they know what’s good for them.” All eyes were on Boris, and the Royal Advisor spoke again. “That was what you meant, was it not?” Boris had a very unsettling feeling as he felt his throat drying up, but he managed to choke out a response. “Yes, that is what I meant.” “Good.” This time Mack shot Boris a look; and they knew to keep it together. There was another short pause before the Royal Advisor continued. “After we finish with the many corridors and rooms, we find the grand traitor himself. The most talented Soldiers will guard him, known as the Elites. Expect a brutal swordfight upon arrival, and be weary of their rather, inhuman talents.” Rimshaw and Markov nodded, they knew what was expected. “There is, on the other hand, a condition worth mentioning.” Some more air was sucked out of the room as the men clung to his every word. “I am the one who will kill the man. No one else shall even attempt to take him, regardless of the circumstances.” The men around the table let out their breath, they had been expecting worse. Scar remained the same, who had not so much as stirred. He almost looked bored as his eyes surveyed the room and rested on Markov. “I want to see the look on his face as my sword drives deeper into him, as he begs for mercy at my feet, where I will leave him.” The Royal Advisor had been clutching his edge of the table so tightly his knuckles were white. He sat for a moment, then suddenly let go and came back to himself. “Like Rimshaw said before, there can be no mistakes. This plan is simple enough in thought, and we have the element of surprise on our side.” Scar spoke for the first time that night. “Say we do succeed in everything we plan to accomplish, including your assassinating the King. What is your plan for after we are outside The Kingdom, after we are free?” The Royal Advisor allowed the room to consider this before answering. “When we succeed,” the Royal Advisor started. Scar smiled ever so slightly, but allowed him to continue. “And after we leave The Kingdom of Ascendancy in ruins, we will lead our group of criminals over the hills under the cover of darkness. We travel to the horizon, roughly a day’s journey. My sources inform me that there is a newly abandoned castle known as Blacksmear, rumoured to still possess food and supplies from the previous owners. It is perfect for our needs and will serve as our new stronghold until we possess the strength to secure a Kingdom.” The meeting was almost finished. They had covered all they had needed to for tonight, as tomorrow was the day of the attack. Each man around the table decided for the last time. “I am in,” said Scar quietly. “We are most definitely interested in this grand opportunity.” Mack spoke for him and his brother. Rimshaw sighed tiredly. “Ah, I’m young enough to do this adventure one more time.” “Good, very good.” The Royal Advisor surveyed the room, and his eyes rested on his longtime accomplice. “Markov?” Markov glanced up. He had been rather quiet during the meeting as well, but for different reasons than Scar. He smiled reassuringly. “I’m not saying no, so I guess I will be going through with this.” “Splendid.” The Royal Advisor stood, and with him the group rose. “Tomorrow evening, remember your places men. This plan has been ten years in the making.” He moved toward the exit, resting his hand on the door. “Tomorrow, come evening, will be a day of rejoice, of sacrifice, and most importantly accomplishment. Remember this.” And with that he strode out of the cell. The five remaining men stood motionless for a moment, and then they too gathered themselves. Rimshaw spoke first. “Well, the best of luck to us all men. Let us hope all goes well, for it would be a shame to lose any of you.” “Indeed.” Scar replied with a hint of dark sarcasm. Rimshaw gave a dramatic bow in his direction, and left from the cell with the brothers on his heels. Markov moved to exit next but Scar’s gloved hand rested on his shoulder from behind, bringing him to a halt. His grip was light but he radiated power. And danger. “Leaving so quickly?” Markov took a breath and shook Scar’s hand off his shoulder, turning to face him as he did so. “We were dismissed.” Markov took a step toward Scar. “Oh, that’s not a wise move.” Markov, looking directly into Scar’s eyes, answered him evenly. “I wondered if one of you would figure it out.” There was a flurry of movement, and two swords were drawn in an instance. Markov parried Scar’s blow, and returned two quick thrusts to push him back. Scar moved with the push, and suddenly spun around to fling a chair at him. The chair flew into Markov’s chest and tied him up momentarily. He threw it to the side but not before Scar was upon him. Scar stabbed forward and neatly disarmed Markov. He came around to finish his opponent but Markov reacted quickly to block the thrust with his wrist, spinning to elbow Scar roughly in the face. Scar recovered in no time and kicked out, sending him across the room and knocking the air from him. Markov landed painfully, in a crumpled heap in the corner. Scar crossed over to him, standing atop Markov in victory. “Pathetic, as if you thought I didn’t know what you were up to.” Markov was gasping for air, struggling to control his breathing. “You can’t… kill me. I know too much.” He regained more of his composure and continued, while Scar stood with his sword pointed downward. “You need me for the plan, if you kill me now it is over and he will kill you.” Scar glared down at him in silence. “You are the only one who knows, and it will stay that way until after tomorrow night, when I will be gone.” Scar returned his sword to its sheath, clearly disappointed by this new arrival. Markov got to his feet unsteadily, supporting himself against the wall. “I serve no one’s side, I am but a traveler. I neither care for your side or The Kingdoms, I am simply here to see both of you crumble. And remember; if you try to tell the Advisor about me, I will ensure the entire Kingdom of Ascendancy is aware of this plan before it happens, rendering your attempt useless.” Scar smiled coldly. “You have given yourself immunity for now, but mark my words; when the time comes, I will ensure that you fall out of the picture.” With that said Scar shoved roughly past Markov and stalked out of the cell, black cloak swirling behind him.

Part One:

Morning. Tiny rays of light were peeking through the windows all over the Kingdom. Here and there, groggy citizens pulled themselves from bed, still waking up and preparing for a new day. Just another day in The Kingdom of Ascendancy. For soldier Jim Breckson, it meant another day of the same routine. Jim was the first to wake in his barracks, and he quietly dressed himself, taking care not to wake any of the grumpier old men. They had a short temper in the mornings, and Jim liked them better asleep. After he was in uniform and washed up, Jim left his quarters and stepped outside. He was quite tall for his age and was muscular. With veins running through his arms and powerful legs he looked older than he was. Jim stretched his neck to both sides and glanced over to his right, catching a reflection of himself in a nearby window. His light coloured hair sat smoothly from the back of his head to the front, where it raised slightly at his forehead. He had a well-defined face that emanated strength, yet at the same time depicted compassion. Jim broadened well at the shoulders where his red Soldier’s uniform clung tightly to his biceps and stretched to his waist. His uniform cut into two parts at his thigh and fell like a robe on either side of his legs, exposing the dark charcoal coloured pants that ended in knee high blackened combat boots. The air was cool and soothing this morning, a welcome change from the hot and stuffy room he and the fifty other men shared. The flag above his barracks waved softly in the breeze, an emblazoned golden crown set in the middle of a bright red background, the symbol of the King. It was still early and not many folks were out, leaving room for Jim to walk freely. On busier days, crowds formed and even Soldiers had to be careful not to be swept aside. As he walked Jim gazed up at the great blocks that molded together so seamlessly to make up the looming castle that stretched far overhead. The intricate design of decorated red ivy curled up and around the castle’s charcoal coloured walls, splitting off into individual streams and running first vertically up one side and then tapering off to continue growing horizontally across another side. Gargoyles sat poised on the numerous perches that leapt out from the castle parapets, smiling indefinitely as they stared back at you from unseeing eyes. The grand entrance to the castle began with ten steps of pure white stairs leading to the tremendous oak doors that were operated deep within the castle’s keep. The North Tower soared high above the main castle, and the Ascendent Tower was located opposite the North Tower, yet stood slightly taller than its neighbour. From each spire was visible the flags of The Kingdom of Ascendancy, both attached at the top of each spire. As he passed the entrance to the North Tower Jim nodded to the Soldiers on duty and headed toward the tournament area. This was to be the busiest location of the day by reason of there being a jousting tournament being held later that afternoon. People were running around everywhere; some smoothing out the dirt runways, others setting up seating arrangements in the stands, others still decorating for the arrival of the King and his many guests. Jim would be sure to stop by later and catch a glimpse of the action. The sun was just getting bright enough and he shielded his eyes as he turned away from the harsh glare. Jim’s first stop was the bakery, where he bought five loaves of bread and two muffins. Carrying on down the street, he was stopped by a little girl and her brother who insisted he watch their performance. Jim smiled and set his purchases down as he knelt, telling them certainly and motioning for them to begin. The boy produced a medieval instrument and the girl assumed what Jim guessed to be her beginning dance position, and on his first note she began. The boy played an upbeat tune, tapping his foot to the sound and even getting his shoulders and body into the rhythm. If the boy was good, the girl was extraordinary. She matched the tune move for move, spinning and kicking her way around the cobblestone walkway. Other passerby smiled at the scene and the children both motioned for Jim to join them. Laughing as he rose to his feet, Jim copied the girl’s movements, staying in pace with her as she laughed along with him, and as the boy strung out the last note the entire trio ended in a dramatic pose. The two children stood beaming and the crowd who had chosen to gather around clapped for them. Jim smiled again as he stooped to grab up his possessions, tossing each of the children a shiny silver coin. As the children thanked him and ran off, Jim finally arrived at his morning destination. It took five solid raps on the door before it was opened slightly and a man peered out from behind the gap. “Oh, it’s you Jimmy!” Jim heard something clatter to the ground, probably a knife or some other small weapon. His father was always going on about civil wars and uprisings, and that you could never be too careful, especially these days. Jim usually just smiled and nodded here and there, for there was such a small chance something would actually happen. Everything was always well in The Kingdom of Ascendancy, an uprising would be pointless. Anyway, there would be nowhere to go. The closest populated area was The Kingdom of Defense, a good three to four days journey, and that was at a good pace. “Come in, please, watch your step.” Jim stooped through the low doorway and stepped over the familiar drop inside. Jim took after his father, who had lived in this shack for many years now and still appeared uncomfortable as they both ducked to avoid the low ceiling. Jim’s father took a seat at the table and offered Jim a seat as well. “I’ll stand thanks.” His father smiled. “Tough man eh? Well, suit yourself. When you grow older and your back with you, you’ll understand.” Jim grinned briefly, knowing that was a ways off for him. “So, m’boy, what brings you here?” Jim thought about the question for a moment before he remembered why he was there. “I, uh, picked up some food. Bread and muffins, thought you could use some.” Before his father could answer, a woman entered from the other room. “Thought? We’ve needed bread since last growing season!” Despite her age, his mother was very pretty. She was not very tall compared to his father, but she was well-built and had a bright smile that seemed to fill the room. “Mother!” Jim exclaimed as he walked over to hug her. They hugged briefly and then separated. “Thank God you picked some up. Your father was too lazy or ‘busy’ to even leave the house the past couple of days.” His father chuckled softly. “Jenny! I offered to go up to the market myself, and you told me to stay put.” His mother held a look of pure shock on her face as she tried to recall saying this, but then realized he was fooling her and her face turned red. “James, one of these days you are going to get it!” James smiled mischievously and shot back, “You’ll have to catch me first!” Jenny was already in midstride when Jim cut in. “I hate to interrupt, but I didn’t mean to stay long.” Both parents stopped and looked over at him. “Right, of course. Thank you for the bread!” “No problem, I’ll check in on you two later.” Jim was almost out the door when his father’s voice reached him. “Take care Jim, you have a sword for a reason.” Jim stopped and glanced back. His father’s face was relaxed, yet his eyes held a soft warning. Jim smiled once more. “If the opportunity presents itself, I will try to remember it.” His mother held the same bright smile as she waved, but his father’s face had suddenly clouded over. Jim bowed out of custom, held his father’s gaze a moment longer, and stepped outside into the midmorning light. It was still fairly empty in the streets. Other than a few more passerby starting their mornings, it was still somewhat possible to negotiate the stone walkways. Jim left the marketplace area and instead wandered throughout the grounds. He had a set course to follow as a Soldier, and for the most part he stuck to it. The course was very repetitive, and Jim had found it could be predictable. Occasionally, he followed his own path to where he wanted to go. It made him less of a routine target to any possible enemies, and it gave him a sense of freedom. Jim would sometimes travel by the large Swan Fountain in the main courtyard or he would simply stand off to the side and watch the citizens in their day. Today, Jim neared the Outer Gate, a large golden wall that stretched the perimeter of The Kingdom of Ascendancy. He paused to consider the view. Beyond that magnificent gate, he knew, stretched the whole of Arcadia. There lay six entire Kingdoms, all in their own uniqueness, just waiting to be seen. Jim could only imagine the citizens of those Kingdoms looking out from their walls, and imagining what it were like in the luxurious life of The Kingdom of Ascendancy. Jim had known this Kingdom his entire life, and all he could picture was someday leaving to travel the rest of the land, at least for a little while. You tend to want what you do not have, and for Jim it was his own true freedom. There were many clouds making their presence known. Big, puffy, and white, they were most likely filled to the brim with water, and Jim sighed as he imagined being drenched later that night. The view was still spectacular. The sun broke through and everything was lit up across the land. He could even make out the hills in the distance, all the way to the horizon. The horizon was another interesting thing Jim enjoyed gazing off into, and he held his eyes there only a moment longer before continuing on his way. By now it was almost noon when he arrived back in the square. Trample traffic (Jim’s line for the rush hour of people that stampeded through The Kingdom of Ascendancy) was definitely beginning, and it would only get worse. Jim took a breath and started through the mass of people swarming around him. He had once wondered where all of the people went. Citizens were only allowed into the castle when invited, say for grand dinners or a scheduled event or festivity, and they very rarely were allowed to discuss an urgent event with a noble of higher status. That left the only option for people to flock to the many shops and vendors spread around The Kingdom of Ascendancy. Jim had a strategy for the trample traffic. If you tried to come in shoving, unless you were a giant, you would be sent tumbling back the way you had come. Jim’s agility came in handy for many things, including this. Waiting for a sliver of a gap to open up took patience, but it was the only way to get where you were going without having to make a wide berth around the castle in the opposite direction. A few yards away Jim noticed an older man who was lagging behind a little. Jim walked along the edge of the traffic until the older man was right behind him. Without warning Jim cut diagonally to his left in front of the man. The older fellow was taken completely off guard and stumbled slightly. Jim reached back in the same motion and steadied him with his arm, holding the man upright and continuing to walk with the trample traffic. Jim considered this another successful merge and melted away into the front of the crowd. Suddenly Jim thought he heard his name being called. He didn’t look around immediately; it was far too crowded and he figured whoever was calling would come to him. Sure enough, a figure stepped into view from the side of the traffic on his left side. “Jim!” A rather large man was standing there, dressed identically to Jim and waving him over. Jim waved back and motioned to the crowd around him, implying he wasn’t getting out so quickly. His good friend Rob nodded with a smile and made his way through the traffic effortlessly. Rob was more than just a good size for being only several years older than Jim. He neared giant status, and that combined with the fact he was a Kingdom Soldier too, crowds cleared easily for him. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.” Rob said as they moved with the flow of the crowd once again. “You know you should be patrolling the main courtyard, right?” “Should I be?” Jim replied nonchalantly. “Yes you should be.” Rob said as he cast him a sideways look. “It’s past noon now and that is your position.” Jim nodded. “Ah.” Rob shook his head. “You’re doing that thing again, aren’t you? You know, that thing where you try to be less predictable by having more freedom or something.” Rob was a very by the books type Soldier. He was undoubtedly a very clever and able man, but at the same time very careful. “I perform my duties as they are asked of me, but I also prefer my own schedule.” Jim looked up at him. “Sometimes being yourself helps others in turn.” Rob snorted in amusement. “Whatever you say.” They walked on in silence for a moment, coming to a fork in the path where Rob led the way out of the crowd to stand off to one side. “Out of curiosity, who took my position?” Jim asked. Rob glanced over at him. “No one did. I wanted to find you and” – Jim held up his hand to stop him. “No one took my position?” “No one.” “Why didn’t you?” Rob smiled. “Because then I would have to leave my post to cover for you.” Jim allowed a small smile to creep onto his face. “You’re telling me this as you are currently at your post?” Rob met his eyes immediately. “There are two unmanned positions in The Kingdom.” “Pretty sure” – Rob had already broken into a run, and Jim ran after him. Jim knew the positions did not really matter, as long as Soldiers were patrolling things would be alright, regardless of exactly where they were. For the moment however, Jim knew that these things mattered to Rob, and besides, it gave him something to do. Jim was much faster, but it wasn’t his speed that helped as much as his agility among the trample traffic. Rob went ahead, shouting out orders at people who were in his way. The smarter ones moved quickly, while the others reacted at the last minute. “Move!” Rob bellowed as they neared his first position. The crowd had thinned out enough for Jim to take the lead. He dodged in and out of people, jumping and spinning his way through, all while moving forward. Rob came behind, forcing the civilians to dive for cover as he followed Jim’s lead. Jim turned for a split second to tell Rob. “Around the corner!” He turned back, rounding the corner in a full out sprint only to be met with an overloaded cart hurtling toward him. Instinctively, Jim threw himself to the side, landing on his right shoulder as he somersaulted out of it. As Jim regained his feet and brushed himself off he felt good for a second. Then he remembered he had left a trail. Jim’s head snapped around in time to see Rob fly around the same corner, head down and not stopping. There was the thunderous crack of splintering wood as Rob tore into the cart head on. The driver was thrown aside into a neighboring shop, spilling ingredients and products that rained down on top of him. The cart rolled over in a tremendous cloud of dust, all of the game that had been hanging there now filled with dirt. Rob had barely slowed down, but he stopped as soon as he drew even with Jim. “Things look good down here, what do you say we check your post?” Jim gawked up at him. So much for following the rules. Then again, he probably thought this was abiding by the book, following his own version of the rules. “We should probably check on your mess before we go.” Jim led the way with Rob following behind. People didn’t seem to know exactly what had happened, which was a positive for them. As they approached the wreckage few people paid them attention. A small crowd had gathered to help, and Jim stooped down to pick up some of the fallen products. “Sir! Sir! Are you alright?” Jim noticed the driver of the cart being offered a hand up. He shook his hand away, rising on his own. “I’m fine. Leave it.” The driver pushed past the group and flipped the cart right side up. Jim approached his cart. “Here you are sir; I hope you can still salvage what remains.” The driver turned and their eyes locked. He wore typical hunters clothing forged in The Kingdom of Creation, with a bow slung casually over his shoulder from The Kingdom of Defense. To all appearances, this was a hunter born and raised in The Kingdom of Healthiness. There was also a faint scar running from his right temple to the bottom left side of his chin. “Many thanks, young Soldier.” He accepted the items and dumped them back inside the cart. “Any time.” Jim and Rob bowed and continued forward on their way, but Jim glanced backward once more. The driver had turned his back, and Jim noticed dual mountings attached to his clothing. His outfit was convincing, but it was these two things that caught Jim’s attention. They were currently empty, but Jim knew their function was to hold twin daggers crossed on his back. This was a soldier, and a foreign one at that. It appeared as if with his disguise he did not want to be found out. Jim was interrupted for a second as a posse of riders crossed the path in front of him. After they passed, the hunter was lost from sight. He remembered the scar; that would be useful in finding the man again. Jim finally turned and followed Rob the rest of the way.

“Here we are.” Rob and Jim entered the second unmanned position, unmanned until now that is. Jim’s eyes quickly swept over the area in front of him. People were moving from shop to shop, purchasing items here and there. Other than the usual chatter and arguments over prices, everything was as it was every day. Jim suddenly had an interesting thought. He leaned over to Rob. “Duck down behind that crate.” Rob turned with a grin. “You have an idea?” “I do, but I have no time to explain.” Jim was whispering now, as if someone had nothing better to do than eavesdrop on two Soldiers. “We’ll see if it works.” Rob didn’t move. “Oh come on!” Then Jim added, “Prove me wrong.” Now Rob looked mildly interested. He considered, and then replied. “Ok, I’ll go along.” Jim nodded. “Great, I’ll head over here and” – “Not so fast.” Jim’s shoulders slumped as Rob continued. “I will help with what I know you’re thinking, but...” Jim knew Rob was careful, and guessed what he would say next. “If this goes badly, you report to the Captain and take full responsibility for the two courtyard catastrophes today, including the damage.” Jim considered for no more than two seconds. “Deal.” He jogged over to the opposite side of the courtyard. Rob chuckled to himself as he crouched behind a stack of crates, hidden from view of the public. Rob had known Jim for a while now, and he was just as if not more reckless than when the two of them had met. He knew it was a good plan, but it was how little time Jim had taken to formulate and act on it that worried Rob. That was just how he was, always moving, whether he was standing still or not. Jim found a spot directly opposite from Rob. He was concealed by a group of people admiring a bright red blanket that was horribly overpriced. As he crouched there, he wondered if they should be hiding. His plan was clever. Anyone wandering about would quickly notice there were no Soldiers in the vicinity, leaving the space open for them to act freely assuming they were not abiding by the law. That was where Jim and Rob came in, and the plan relied mainly on the criminal to actually show up. They would have the element of surprise on their side, and hopefully that was not all. Right when Jim was starting to get a little anxious, trouble arose. Now, when he had said criminal the word was supposed to mean one average fella’ petty theft. What Jim was seeing now was exceptionally different; three large men had stepped into view. They were heading in Jim’s general direction, armed with swords hanging in sheaths at their belts, and moving at a brisk pace. The leader, clean-shaven and muscular, suddenly stopped. The other two men who had been flanking him kept going, apparently oblivious to the fact that their leader had fallen behind. They were now close enough that Jim could make out more of their features. One man, the left flank, was clearly fit for a body guard. He wore big black boots, a beige tunic, and a mess of shaggy blondish hair. He had no expression, and was taller than his other flank yet shorter than the leader. The right flank that was the shortest was just as imposing. He was built like a bull, with bulging biceps and legs more likely to be tree trunks. His hair was buzzed short and his eyes looked as if they had been reduced to slits from glowering. He also wore big black boots, and a beige tunic. Maybe it was dress like your body-guard-buddy day Jim thought with a sense of humour. The two flanks, Shaggy and Bull, reached the middle of the plaza. Jim remembered Rob across the courtyard and craned his neck to try and catch sight of him. His gaze swept the whole area, but with all of the people milling about it was nearly impossible to spot him. People! Jim became aware of the large amount of people who were crammed into this small space, undoubtedly here for the tournament later that afternoon. He glanced around again, afraid he had lost sight of the three men. Sure enough, he had not. The two bodyguards had also split up, on opposite sides of the plaza now. Between the three of them they formed a triangle, the point being the leader. This could not be good Jim thought uneasily as he rose to his feet and made his way over, all the while keeping an eye out for Rob. He no longer cared about the element of surprise, even though they most likely still had it; Jim only cared to stop them. The leader remained motionless, which surprised Jim. Under the cover of the crowd he came within five steps of the flanks when it happened. The leader raised his right hand slightly. Jim’s hand instinctively moved to the handle of his sword. The leader dropped his hand, letting it fall to his side. Jim’s heart lurched as he watched Shaggy and Bull draw identical looking swords. They spun around, holding each blade high and slashing the air. Civilians around them froze, then screamed and ran in different directions. The square instantly became a scene of panic and chaos. People pushed and shoved to get out of the way. Some fell down, went to get up, and were roughly shoved back down again. Jim took advantage of the situation. He pushed through people who had no idea what was going on but were still acting as if they did. The leader was on the move now, effortlessly gliding around people like smoke. Jim had no idea where Rob was, but he was hoping he too would be in on the pursuit by now. The leader found a break in the crowd, and suddenly turned around. Jim pulled up short now that he was exposed. The leader smiled a cruel smile. “Boys, we have a trail.” Jim felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up as Shaggy and Bull circled around and strode up behind him. They carried an old man between them and dropped him, letting him smack his face off the cobblestone where he lay unmoving. The leader regarded the old man. “What have we here?” Shaggy answered him. “He’s the one who knows.” The leader considered. “Well, we have him now, that’s good.” He took a step forward, and then looked to Jim who hadn’t moved. “Son, I advise you not to become caught up in this. We have matters to deal with, so step aside.” Jim did not answer. Instead, he looked past the leader. “Alright then, we’ll have to do this the hard way.” Jim could feel the two men advancing behind him, they had not yet noticed. He remained still, a look of complacency etched into his expression. The leader’s grin slowly diminished, and a look of suspicion crawled into his eyes. Jim could practically reach back and grab the two men behind him. From behind Jim, Bull suddenly called out. “Markov, behind – Jim could wait no longer. “Now!” He dropped to his knees and rolled backward in between Shaggy and Bull. At the same time a fifth figure entered the square. The leader turned and the realization hit him a second before the fist smashed into his face. Markov did not just crumple; he was lifted into the air and projected five feet where he landed awkwardly, blood flowing from his nose and his arm lying at an unnatural angle. He did not move. Rob stood in front of the two men, sword now drawn with a glint in his eye. “Sorry I’m late.” Rob moved forward. “I was admiring you taking care of the situation.” Jim grinned. “Well, I told you I would, did you not believe me?” “Of course not, that’s why I’m here.” “Enough talk!” Shaggy and Bull had their swords drawn again. “We came here for one purpose, him.” Bull nodded in the direction of the old man, who had crawled behind Jim in the distraction. “And now we have him. So if you won’t comply” – “No, we will not comply.” Jim advanced toward them. “He is innocent, and you have no right to him.” Shaggy shook his head in amusement. “Innocent? Do you even know what he has done? What he almost did?” “Boris, that’s enough.” Bull looked incredulously at him like something important had almost been said. “I wasn’t going to say anything more, Mack, jeez!” Jim eyed the two men. He glanced at Rob and they both lunged at the same time. Boris, the blond shaggy one, reacted quickly and blocked Rob’s thrust for his chest. Mack wasn’t as quick and allowed Jim to disarm him, flicking his wrist and sending the sword spinning through the air. In the same movement, Jim spun to his left and jumped, kicking out with his right leg. He connected with Mack’s right shoulder and sent him sprawling to the ground in a crumpled heap. That left Boris. Rob was engaged with him, slashing and dodging each blow. Boris was slightly faster, but Rob was stronger and smarter. He ducked right and came up high, striking Boris’s arm with the blade, effectively disarming him as well. Boris dropped his sword and clutched his wound, trying to stem the bleeding and admitting defeat. Jim and Rob led Boris over to Mack who was pitifully glaring up at them, still trying to catch his breath. “Stay here.” Rob said. As if they would be going anywhere else, Jim thought. The pounding of hooves gradually increased as Jim watched five Ascendant Soldiers round the corner and enter the plaza square. A herd of bystanders were right at their heels, talking and blabbing away to anyone who would listen to their stories. The Soldiers were half-listening as they dismounted and made their way over to the scene. Nice of them to show up now, after all of the fighting was over. Jim kept his thoughts to himself as he switched to his professional being. Captain Ravoy was the first to reach them, followed closely by the others. “Good day gentleman.” “Good day, Captain.” Jim and Rob chorused together. Ravoy surveyed the three men on the ground. The leader, Markov, was just coming to, and suddenly looked alarmed. He went to stand up and Rob shoved him down again. The other two, Mack and Boris, just sat there looking on in dread. Ravoy looked back to Jim and Rob. “You two certainly are fortunate, aren’t you?” Jim was not sure if that was a challenge or a hint, but he answered their Captain evenly. “We were in the right place at the right time sir.” “Captain.” “Captain, my apologies.” Jim could feel Rob’s eyes on him. A voice suddenly rang out over the square. “Captain Ravoy!” Ravoy, and the group, turned to the new arrival. Captain Ravoy snapped to business. “Royal Advisor, sir. We have just apprehended these men.” The Advisor glanced at the men on the ground, then back up to Ravoy. “What exactly have they done?” Ravoy appeared taken aback. “Well, um, they” – “They attempted to take this man with brute force.” Rob finished for Ravoy, facing the Advisor. Everyone turned to look at the old man being revived by the other Soldiers. “I see.” The Royal Advisor pondered this for a moment. Then his gaze fell upon Jim and Rob. “I applaud you two for your heroic efforts.” Jim nodded and secretly found it amusing that the Advisor knew who had actually apprehended the men. “Alas, I shall take them off of your hands.” This surprised Jim. Captain Ravoy spoke up. “Shouldn’t we bring them to the prison? I mean, we need to interrogate them. They may know something.” Boris and Mack looked sick. The other one, Markov, looked relieved? “No need.” The Advisor waved his hand. “I will deal with them, you have my word.” Ravoy appeared to have more to say, but withheld it. An Ascendant Soldier who had been dealing with the old man made his way over to Ravoy. “Excuse me Captain, I have a status on the victim.” “Go ahead.” “The man is conscious but unable to effectively communicate. We will need to take him back to the castle for treatment, as I estimate he will not be able to speak until later tonight.” Ravoy nodded. “Very well, get him mounted up.” He turned to the others. “Good work today men.” Jim and Rob bowed slightly. “Best of luck to you Royal Advisor.” “You as well Captain, you as well.” Ravoy and his Soldiers left with the old man, ignoring the gawking crowd that had formed. Jim and Rob looked across at each other. The Advisor spoke first. “You boys have some talent under that armour.” “Yes sir.” Jim answered, ignoring the fact that it sounded arrogant. The Advisor just laughed, a deep chuckle that held warmth. “Good to know.” Jim nodded. “Only as good as our Captain who taught us, though.” The Advisor nodded vigorously. “That is the rule to remember, and the line you are made to remember!” He laughed again. “Excellent work today, I like to see good Soldiers like you.” Jim and Rob both thanked him, then, feeling as if they had been dismissed, turned and left together. The Advisor watched them go. “Get up!” He turned to confront his three men. “What the hell is this? We have less than half a day’s time until our plan and you choose to start a swordfight that you lost?” No one answered. “Well?” “It was the man.” Markov spoke. “What about him?” “He knew about tonight. Somehow he had figured out what is going to happen.” The Advisor paused, and then replied. “Impossible, but I believe you. Something will have to be done about him, but before he talks. Mack had an idea. “What about an accident? Stage something that would have happened anyway, but to him.” “Not enough time.” Said Boris. “What if we took away the people he would tell?” The Advisor looked annoyed. “Are you suggesting we arrange an “accident” for the entire Kingdom? Because we already have.” Boris continued quickly. “Not like that. Just say we called an emergency meeting for all soldiers. They all go to the spot, and we hold them there. We get to the old man, and continue with the plan with fewer Soldiers in our way.” All three men watched the gears turn in the Advisor’s head. “Brilliant.” He regarded Markov. “You can take care of that?” Markov held a thoughtful expression. “Yes, I can handle that.”

Evening was setting in, the sun fading away while darkness crept further, eager to replace the empty brightness. Jim was now alone. He’d bid farewell to Rob shortly after their chat with the Advisor. Rob had had other matters to attend to, and so they had departed company. It was eerily quiet. Jim liked to wander the Kingdom, especially in the evening because people started to clear out for good. It wasn’t like the morning when Jim knew more would be coming for sure later on. Even so, in the evenings there was still the usual chatter, but not tonight. There were people still around, but they all appeared silent. Jim found it increasingly surprising that the people were all in a group. He approached them, adjusting the sheath of his sword. It was a habit that had grown on him whenever he felt unsafe or unsure. He would touch the hilt of his sword or run his hand across the sheath. Jim drew closer to discover they were not silent, but rather whispering quickly in hushed tones. He noticed a couple off to one side, heads bent and whispering silently. “Excuse me.” Both of them nearly jumped to their feet at the sound of his voice. Then they saw the red of his uniform and sword, and the frantic looks in their eyes diminished. “What is going on here? Why is everyone so quiet?” The man and woman gave one another a quick look, as if they were unsure to trust Jim. The man answered. “It’s the stables. A boy was found dead out behind one of the horse barns.” He quickly surveyed the area before continuing in his hushed tone. “And get this; all of the horses are gone! They’ve vanished into thin air, without a trace, and nobodies got a clue as to where or why.” Jim was about to ask more questions when a voice rang out over the square. “All civilians, you are to go directly back to your homes, immediately!” No one argued, and the flood of people began moving in different directions. The couple scurried off, leaving Jim biting his tongue. A boy dead? All of the Kingdom’s horses gone? Impossible, Jim thought. Nevertheless, things seemed to have gone from weird to weirder today. The voice called out again. “All Soldiers, follow me!” Jim was now aware of the many soldiers who were spread around the square, and they obediently followed the man towards – towards what? Jim was glad for once of his height. He craned his neck to get a glimpse of where they were going and nearly did a double take. It was Markov! The man every Soldier was following, it was the leader from the fight earlier today. Jim could not believe it, but it could not be a coincidence that he had noticed the man. A strong urge from inside Jim told him not to follow, and he did not. This urge came from the same place of why he did not always act by the books, because sometimes the books did not account for traps. There was no time to try and explain to his fellow soldiers; Jim knew they were not in any danger. They were simply being led somewhere, out of the way. Jim turned and followed the civilians instead, ignoring the quizzical looks he got. He walked as far as he dared with the civilians, and then decided to find a place to think. Jim turned off onto a side alley and jogged the length to the other side. He guessed he was around the middle point of The Kingdom of Ascendancy, and he ducked down behind a stone column. This is silence, Jim thought, not even the wind dared to blow. Gathering himself briefly, Jim sorted out what he knew. No one knew where the horses were, or why a stable boy was found dead behind one of the horse barns. Were they linked? Jim thought so, and he had a feeling he would find out. Also, someone obviously wanted the streets empty, because the civilians and soldiers were both being called away. The more he thought about everything, the more uneasy he felt. But what could he do? Jim was no use to anyone just sitting here. He stood up and took a step, then stopped. Whatever he had thought about doing a second ago disappeared. Jim had heard voices and he was positive they were important. He silently made his way to the next street. Jim poked his head around the corner and stared. The other two men from the skirmish were there in front of him, Mack and Boris. The events of the day were becoming clearer, with many more clues surely forthcoming. Jim was suddenly curious how these three men had escaped the Royal Advisor. From what Jim knew the Advisor was a powerful man and he was well respected. For God’s sake he was the King’s right hand man; surely he could keep three men in his custody. Jim’s suspicions were elevated. The two walked in rhythm, like they owned the place. Jim edged around the corner to follow them and froze. Mack and Boris were approaching the Kingdom Prison.

Rob continued forward. Soldiers on both sides of him were grumbling quietly to each other. No one seemed to have any idea where they were going, or why they even had somewhere to be? “It’s most likely a briefing,” said an Ascendancy Soldier in front of him. Hopkins was a middle-aged swordsman with scraggly black hair, and a good sense of humour. “Just to make sure we’re all on the same page with what has happened.” The group around Rob began to all talk at once about what page they thought everyone was on. An older Soldier beside Rob spoke up. “If this is a briefing, as you say, then why is there only one speaker leading us? We’ve all been to briefings before and there is always more than one person who talks. Christ, the meetings last forever.” The group of men started right back up about how long they thought meetings took. Rob considered the older Soldier’s words, and he found that odd as well. Hopkins answered. “Well, maybe it’s not a briefing, but then what is it?” The double file line came to a stop. Rob looked ahead and saw they had been led to an older building he had never seen before. The Ascendant Soldiers at the front headed inside. Rob shuffled forward with the group. The leader had stepped aside to let everyone in, and Rob began to feel uneasy. He had recognized the older man beside him, but couldn’t quite place him. He got a look at the leader at the front, and realized with surprise he was the same man from the plaza earlier that day. Rob continued to move forward with the line, and he kept his expression calm. Ten steps. He kept walking. Rob was at the very back of the line, beside that man. Five steps. Rob noticed the open door; there was a bar on the other side of it. Three steps. Something was wrong. Two, one. Rob stepped onto the threshold of the door and stopped. He suddenly remembered who the old man beside him was. Knowing it was too late; Rob turned and drew back his fist. They were both ready. Markov grabbed his wrist, while Rimshaw kicked out his knee and with a great show of effort shoved him roughly inside. As the door slammed shut and the bar slid into place, Rob had one last thought fleet through his mind. I knew he was retired.

Jim remained hidden. He had followed Mack and Boris the length of the street, and was watching them approach the Kingdom Prison. Jim now crouched down behind a wagon, no more than twenty feet from the two brothers. He could hear everything. There were two Ascendant Guards in front of the main doors, and they each drew their weapons at the sight of the two brothers. “You there, state your business!” One of the Guards called out. “No civilians on the streets, King’s orders.” Mack spoke as they drew even with the Guards. “We’re terribly sorry to trouble you good sirs, but we was wondering if you could perhaps provide us with a key?” Jim could see the confusion between the two Guards, but that second was all the brothers needed. Mack ducked as Boris produced a whip out of nowhere and swung it at the Guards. The rope wrapped tightly around both of their necks and Boris pulled with two hands to flip the Guards over simultaneously, breaking their necks and crumpling them onto the ground. Jim watched on in horror, unable to move as Mack bent down to retrieve the keys from the Guard’s belt. “I did try asking nicely. You brought the stuff, right?” “What stuff, Mack?” “The only ‘stuff’ you were supposed to bring, dimwad! The weapons!” “Oh, right. Yeah I brought them. Scar had a cartload of them today, they’re in that wagon.” Jim remembered the man with the scar earlier today. He had had a cart, but it was disguised with hunting goods. Mack trotted up to the prison door with Boris behind him. After glancing quickly at the brothers Jim began to search through the wagon. Swords, spears, battle axes, maces, daggers, and even several bows with packets of arrows were included inside. There was over ten of each type of weapon, and Jim could only imagine what someone would need that many weapons for. The answer came quickly enough. Mack produced the set of keys and turned them in the lock. The metal-bar door swung open soundlessly as Mack drew a dagger from his belt and stepped inside. Boris stood quietly, scanning the empty street for any signs of movement. Jim was stuck. He could take Boris now, but he did not know how long Mack would be. He could take them two on one, but he could not risk them setting off an alarm or calling for back up. If he was captured now he would be unable to help The Kingdom with whatever plan they were about to unleash. Jim sat debating for no more than five seconds before a muffled cry came from inside the prison, followed by a thump. Jim strained to hear something more, but silence had ensued once again. Moments later Mack emerged, nodded at Boris, and gave a whistle. Jim sat gripped with fear as he watched the plan unfold faster than he could have imagined. One by one, all of the Prisoners stepped outside. They all looked relaxed, as if they had been expecting it. Jim acted fast as he stole underneath the wagon. Mere seconds later the sound of dozens of boots surrounded the wagon as the prisoners ransacked and secured their favourite weapons. Jim’s heart was pounding. He could feel the men around him, and he dreaded what was to take place next. He watched from below as torches were lit and the prisoners spread out in every direction, swallowed up by the shadows. Within moments, the first screams rang out into the night.

The Advisor’s plan had hit the first step, confusion. More and more screams were able to be heard throughout The Kingdom of Ascendancy. Jim was now aware of two things. One, the longer he sat there the less chance he had to help The Kingdom. And two, his back was getting sore. Jim knew that something was very wrong now. He stood slowly, his hand dangling beside his hilt. Realizing he had been holding his breath he let it out, and headed for trouble. Jim walked slowly down the next alleyway, keeping an eye out to where all of the Prisoners had gone. He stepped around the corner and nearly ran into a man. The man’s eyes widened in surprise, and he stared at the Soldier who shouldn’t be there. Jim reacted instinctively, pulling his sword out to go on the offensive. The man fumbled to grab his weapon and Jim neatly disarmed him at the blade, flicking the dagger out of his reach and sidestepping around to establish a chokehold with his outstretched arm. Jim cleanly kicked out both of his knees from behind and silently choked him into unconsciousness, dragging him behind a stash of barrels and out of sight. Jim had extensive training, and it was now that his initial fear and surprise had worn off that he was ready to fight. Jim moved to tuck his sword away, thought better of it, and decided to keep it out. He would need it. Jim continued past the barrels, all senses on high alert. His eyes swept over each area as he moved. Quietly, stealthily, and carefully, Jim took in everything through the cover of darkness. He needed to get to the courtyard; from there he could find her and decide on where to go next, depending on the situation at hand. His breathing was controlled. Jim was not scared, only aware. He had now come to the entrance, and pulled up short as he saw the fire of torchlight. Peering into the courtyard he could make out ten, no, fifteen or so men spread around the inside. Jim knew even more were loose around the area of the Kingdom, and could be called in at any time. He had to figure out some way to get across, and he would need to tread carefully. The men were all armed, of course. Their attention was fixated on the middle of the yard, toward the center fountain. Jim followed their gaze to the fountain, and the breath caught in his throat. There, tied to the statue of the fountain, was a young woman. The thick rope across her middle effectively strapped her arms to her sides, but her legs could move freely. She was beautiful, he observed, with long, straight auburn brown hair that fell a little ways past her shoulders. Her eyes, he knew, were striking in a soft sort of way. They each held the colour of the sky, not directly overhead, but the blue that pales only slightly as you look off into the distance on a clear day. Her face was slender, and made her look younger than Jim might have guessed, but he knew she was the same age as he. She was thin, but not small, that would be a dangerous miscalculation. Her form proved such that she may possibly be extremely agile and incredibly strong. Her attitude, Jim knew, depended on the situation. As of right now, it was yet to be determined. She appeared calm, yet how could anyone truly be at rest in a situation like this? Jim knew he could not realistically save her on his own. Even on a good day with more luck than a thousand horseshoes, he would be taken down. Jim did not care to calculate the odds, however; she was in danger and that was the bottom line. He would learn as much as he could, and then he would step in. Jim tuned in to the voices. “You’ve been a bad girl, missy. A real bad girl.” A couple of the Prisoners gathered around chuckled, but the girl remained silent. She met the man’s eyes steadily. “What, don’t get me wrong. You actually thought a few years of training and a little dagger would save your skin?” The men were laughing now. Jim felt the attitude in the air change. If the girl had been in trouble before, she was in real danger now. The man had everyone’s attention at this point. “I’ve had my eye on you for more than a few years now, I’ll tell you that honey.” He stopped within a few inches of the girl. The other men watched on eagerly. “And now there are no bars between us.” Jim knew it was not quite time yet. He glanced around him quickly to make sure no other Prisoners were stalking him from behind. Suddenly there was a commotion. Jim turned back around to find the man clutching his face. “She bit me!” He spluttered madly. “The little hag bit me!” The girl wore a triumphant smile, but it quickly changed to a look of concern. The enraged man spun to face her. “Vlorn! Hold her!” In the blink of an eye another man stepped forward and pinned her back against the fountain. She struggled roughly as Vlorn fought to hold her still. The first man stepped forward again. “You’re getting to be a bit of a problem missy, and do you know how we fix problems?” The Prisoners grinned and whispered amongst themselves. In answer to his own question, the man drew out a wicked looking knife, unlike any Jim had seen before. The points were obviously handmade, dotted around the blade randomly. They were all razor sharp, and gleamed softly in the torch lit night. Jim needed to act now; he could not help her if she was dead. He stood slowly and moved around the outside of the court yard, behind the cover of shops and stalls. The girl was a fighter. Vlorn had let her go, and as the first man approached she reared back and sprung forward as far as the rope allowed her. The kick was well aimed, but Jim was not the only one who had anticipated the move. The man dodged left and swiped across with the knife, opening a small slit across her leg. Jim could feel the searing pain as she cried out, almost going limp had it not been for the rope to hold her in place. The men cheered and began egging him on. “C’mon Tags, finish her off!” “Finish her!” “Kill her!” Tags grinned menacingly, nodding at Vlorn. These men were sick, pure evil Jim thought as he watched Vlorn run his hand across her midsection before he tilted her chin back slowly. Jim knew the connection he had with this girl. He knew who she was, better than anyone else. It was up to him and him alone to save her, and he knew he could do it. He stood and vaulted over top of the nearest stall, landing lightly on his feet. Jim rose to his full height and walked slowly into the center of the plaza toward the scene. He was painfully exposed but nobody had noticed; they were all fixated on the girl. He stopped and folded his hands behind his back, standing stalk still. Tags held the knife to her throat, and Vlorn watched over her shoulder. “Good evening.” All eyes turned sharply toward him, yet no one moved. Jim drew his sword, raising it high in the air as if examining it in great detail, and then returning it to his side. Tags withdrew the knife from her throat, and Vlorn let go of her chin to regard Jim. “I believe a lady should not be tied in such a manner, if at all.” Jim projected his voice as the Prisoners moved to surround him on all sides. There were two behind him, one on either side of him, and four directly in front of him, plus Tags and Vlorn. Ten in total, with many more around the Kingdom. “How did you get out?” Tags snarled. Jim played the conversation. “The trick is never getting in. Now, if you may, I will ask once for you to release the lady.” Tags smiled, clearly amused. “Kill him. We’ll bring her to the boss after we’re done here” Jim was aware of the Prisoners around him brandishing their weapons, but he looked at the girl closely for the first time since he had dropped in. To his surprise she stared right back at him, a thoughtful expression played out on her face. Her leg was still bleeding faintly, and the gash looked painful, but she seemed to have forgotten it. For the moment she was interested in him. Jim turned his eyes away from her and switched his attention back to the Prisoners around him. He was ready. The first Prisoner lunged behind him quietly, sword in hand. Jim crouched under the swipe and reached backward to grab the man’s wrist. He twisted it quickly, snapping the bone and spinning around while rising to his feet, kicking upward to the man’s chin and sending him reeling backward. One down, nine more to go. The fight was on.

The door would not budge. The bolt on the other side proved to be durable as well as unbreakable. Rob sighed in frustration after his umpteenth attempt to smash in the door. He took a few steps back to let some other men try, and to let off some steam. The two men, Rimshaw and Markov, had tricked them. That much was obvious. Rob and the other hundred or so Kingdom Soldiers crammed into the one room building had heard screams, footsteps, and the clash of metal. All while they were trapped. This was deliberate, Rob now knew. Months of planning at least had been put into this one night. There had to be a way to help The Kingdom, Rob thought. There had to be a way to foil the plan. No, he thought again, that couldn’t work. If everything went the way they had planned it, anything they did try would be futile! Rob took a breath and sat down. Then he had an interesting thought. They were helping this plan by doing exactly what they were doing right now. Himself overthinking and getting upset, combined with everyone else focusing their strength and energy on the door. To foil this plan they would have to go off plan. “Everyone stop!” For the big man he was, everyone was startled into silence. “It’s not the door that we will get through. It’s” – He remembered walking up and seeing how old and run down the building really was. It just didn’t appear so from the inside. Rob pushed through several people and drew his sword, causing even more Soldiers to give him room. In a great arc of both strength and accuracy, he stabbed forward into the wall. To his great surprise and relief, the blade sailed straight through. There was a second of shocked silence where Rob pulled his blade out, and then stabbed it back through a different spot, before the men picked up on Rob’s demonstration. Laughter and cheers filled the air as swords, maces, and axes were drawn and swung to cut and hack through the weakening wall. Within a minute, the hundred or so Soldiers piled through the gap and into the night, cheers and war cries piercing the evil darkness. All were ready to do battle, and none prepared to die. Rob lead from the front of the pack, and he already knew where to find Jim. In the middle of this mess.

Jim did not underestimate his opponents. After the first man fell back, two more took his place. Jim brought his sword up to parry one blow, then to block another from the side. He faked a thrust one way, then stabbed forward another, missing the unsuspecting Prisoner by mere inches. They were both on guard now, keeping visual contact and giving no clues as to their next move. Well then, Jim thought, he would have to show them his own. He jumped forward, tying up the first man with his sword. As the second prepared to strike Jim pushed off from the first man and flicked his sword up as the second man brought his blade down. They stood locked in combat, and Jim twisted behind him to put the second Prisoner in between him and the approaching first Prisoner. Jim lifted his foot and pulled a concealed dagger from his boot, still meeting his attacker’s eyes. The man had noticed the move but was helpless to defend his partner. Without notice, Jim stepped quickly to one side. The man, having no equal weight to push on stumbled forward and lost his balance. Jim stabbed him through the back with the dagger and pulled it out again to throw it at the remaining Prisoner. He too fell roughly to the ground. Jim turned to face the next set. He raised his sword, but stopped as he realized the Prisoner in front of him wasn’t moving. His eyes widened and his weapon clattered to the stones below. Jim noticed an arrow sticking out of his chest as he sank to the ground. Jim followed the arrow’s trajectory to a nearby ledge above them, and smiled broadly. A Kingdom Archer, poised on the overhang, gave him a wave and prepared the next arrow. Several more Archers appeared across the overhang. The fight was evening out. The four Prisoners around him began to back up, unsure of how to react. “Get him you imbeciles! Dodge the arrows!” Jim sincerely hoped they would try. The Archers took up aim. If the men stayed still much longer, Jim thought, the Archers were guaranteed not to miss. Tags and Vlorn were still beside the girl, and Vlorn drew his weapon to place it beside her neck. He was using her as leverage against the arrows, and Jim waved his hand at the Archers to call them off briefly. Jim and the Prisoners were caught in a deadlock; they each had something that would end the other. Jim slowly took steps forward as the Prisoners took steps backward, neither side willing to make any sudden movements. And that is when it happened. A tremendous noise was suddenly audible around the corner. Jim and everyone present in the square listened intently. The first red uniform burst through the entrance, followed closely by many more. Jim was fully relieved once again as he watched every Kingdom Soldier file in and draw their weapon, ready to defend their home. Through all of the Soldiers, Rob marched forward, grinning like never before. “Glad you could make it.” Jim greeted him sarcastically. “Always in time to clean up your mess.” Rob replied meaningfully. The two turned towards Tags and his remaining men. Tags raised his voice dramatically. “It’s not over yet boys, is it? Oh no!” He shouted defiantly. “It’s time to make the red bleed red!” He laughed uncontrollably as the Kingdom Soldiers watched a small army of the rest of the Prisoners march in from the opposite side of the square, swords drawn, hate in their eyes. This scene was a piece of living history for everyone. Not once in the existence of The Kingdoms had there been a full scale attack on any of the seven Kingdoms, let alone The Kingdom of Ascendancy. This force of Prisoners was not only the first organized group to penetrate the Kingdom of Ascendancy’s defenses; they were the first to do it from within. Jim looked over to Rob, whose face reflected his thoughts. Many men would die on both sides Jim knew. But as he looked to the girl and at his fellow soldiers, he promised himself he would do his very best. Both sides could smell the tension sifting through the air between them. Jim led the call: “For The Kingdoms!” He had no time to lose. As soon as the words left his mouth Jim raced forward, legs pumping and heart beating madly. A sea of red and black cascaded from the outside to the center. Just as he thought he would be caught in the middle of both sides and rendered unable to move, Jim veered sharply to the left. He surprised the closest man and Jim’s sword slashed across his chest. Jim leapt over the flailing man and brought his sword around to block a high swipe. He twisted away as two more swords slashed through the empty air he had just occupied. More men appeared in front of him. Jim knew if he continued to stay in the middle like this he would be brought down quite brutally. He needed to get to the outside and fight inward. Only then would he have a chance. Jim began to fight his way through. His mind was clear, not overwhelmed by the countless people and danger that surrounded him. Every swipe in his direction was redirected with a flick of the wrist. Jim parried high and stabbed out to the side, all the while moving forward. He was almost there; he could see a break in the fighting ahead. Jim felt an immediate disturbance behind him and dropped into a roll as a blade seared by overhead. He stood, turning before they could react and struck out twice. One blow collided with the left Prisoner’s shoulder, the next connected with the other’s leg, effectively crumpling them both. A great yell rang out as a Kingdom Soldier was slashed across the inner thigh and elbowed to the ground several steps away. Jim was already moving to his aid as the Prisoner’s spear was stabbing downward. Jim’s blade sailed through the shaft of the Prisoner’s spear and came around again to slash him across the shoulder. Helping the Soldier to his feet Jim yelled “Watch your inside parry!” and kept on his way. Jim now had an open lane through to the outside. He ran, pushing as hard as he could. Just as Jim was within stepping distance, the hilt of a sword came around and caught him across the head in midstride. Jim was knocked off his feet and thrown to the ground, all of the air rushing out of him. He gazed up at the attacker, a large man with unkempt hair and a grizzled beard. Jim had no time to regain his feet as the large prisoner lunged forward. He swung the sword dangerously close to Jim’s face, in which Jim narrowly avoided by twisting his head tightly to one side. In the same movement the Prisoner swung again aiming for Jim’s midsection. Jim rolled several times over to his left, putting as much distance between him and the blade as he could. The man smiled cruelly as he followed Jim and raised the sword to strike a final blow. Jim kicked upwards and made contact with the hilt, sending the weapon spinning from his control. The man yelled as he was put off balance momentarily. Jim sprang into a kip up and faced the Prisoner head on. The man reached down and grabbed two spears from the nearby bodies. Twirling them expertly around him he advanced on the weaponless Soldier. Jim held his ground, legs spread apart and balanced, waiting for the Prisoner to make the first move. The man did, cocking his arm back he stepped and threw the first spear viciously. Jim easily stepped to the side allowing the spear head to fly past him, and at the last second reached out to catch the wooden handle of the spear. The Prisoner bound forward with his second spear, thrusting it forward at Jim’s chest. Jim brought his spear around and deflected the blow, tying him up and smacking him across the face his own spear. The larger man stumbled back and Jim stepped forward to drive his spear through the Prisoner’s chest. Jim braced his foot on the Prisoner as he struggled to pull it back out. The man’s face contorted in pain as he began to lose strength, and Jim finally managed to pull the spearhead free while his opponent toppled to the ground in a tremendous heap. Jim stood catching his breath; he looked on for a moment before dropping the spear and stooping to grab up his sword again. There was nothing easy about war, and this was no different. Soldiers battled, weapons clashed, lives were lost; no one was guaranteed survival, and if you did not kill your enemy, they would kill you. He set his mind and dashed forward to rejoin the fight.

The Royal Advisor smiled to himself. From his position in the Ascendency Tower he could oversee all of the fighting, and all of the chaos. Fires blazing in the distance could only get bigger, the clash of swords louder, and the pools of blood deeper. The Advisor stepped out of the shadows. This was his moment. All of his years of planning, all of the sneaking about and secrecy was for this one night. He looked across the courtyard to the North Tower, which currently housed the King in his personal quarters. The fool’s tower, the Advisor thought bitterly. Justice would be done tonight, he knew. Revenge was in the air, and the Advisor would end it there. He sensed their presence before they spoke. “Are you ready, sir?” He half turned towards them, choosing his words carefully. “Yes. Lead the way.” The Royal Advisor followed behind Rimshaw and Markov, heading in the direction of the North Tower.

This was much easier. Jim blocked a wild slash to the left, hopped over a falling body, and then dealt a vicious uppercut himself. Well, definitely not easy, but at least no one was attacking him from behind anymore. He swung left and then slashed high, ducked past a high swipe and recovered to block low again. It was like a dance; if you knew all of the steps you did well. Or in this case you survived. If you did not know the steps, or if you missed one, that was fairly self-explanatory in a fight. Fortunately, Jim was a great dancer. He suddenly turned and locked swords with another opponent. Jim had time to observe he was more of a boy, not large in size, and he looked far younger than the others. The boy in front of him gave the appearance of being a tough killer, but Jim knew he most likely looked the same way in combat too. There was still a glimmer of hope in saving this boy, perhaps all he needed was a chance to get away from it. Jim pushed against him with all of his strength to drive the kid back. Humiliated, the boy dug in and fought back. Locked in combat once again, Jim leaned into his push even more. The kid answered immediately with his own reserve of power, strain etched into his expression. Just as Jim thought his sword might snap, he pushed forward again and stepped aside. The boy was caught off guard and launched forward, landing sprawled on the ground. He had incredible reaction timing, but so did Jim. Before the kid could scramble up Jim stepped on his back to hold him down and grab up his sword before the latter could grasp it. He lay back, defeated. “Hasn’t someone ever told you your sword is your life?” The kid did not answer, he just sat there. Jim sighed. “Go.” Around them the battle raged on, but there they were, the quiet in the storm. The kid studied him. “I lost.” Jim nodded. “Yes, you did. But in my books that means you get up and continue on, not give up.” The kid nodded, and then looked confused. “Go where? I have nothing left, nowhere to go or anyone to see.” “That is up to you, not me.” Jim answered. “Go where you are needed.” Before the kid could answer Jim was alerted to yelling and screaming over the din of the battle. He whipped around, instantly spotting the trouble. A great fire was beginning, the flames licking at the bottom of the Swan Fountain. Jim looked to the kid. “Here.” He stooped to grab the boy’s sword and tossed it to him. “Good luck.” “Help! Help me!” A new voice sang through the noise. Jim’s heart lurched as he remembered the girl was still tied up. “Please, somebody!” She tried frantically to kick at the ropes, squirming and wriggling, anything to get free. Jim was already on the move, sword tucked away so he could run faster. More bodies had piled up, and Jim had less of a time getting across the square. He reached the side and called out. “Stay still, I’m coming to help you.” The flames were only just beginning, but already were heating up. Jim sheathed his sword and moved to step through the flames when the girl called out. “Behind you!” Jim turned in time to witness the point of a halberd thrust straight at his neck. He flexed his face backward and grabbed the weapon to point it away from him, locking his attacker in place. Jim then brought his free leg around and kneed him in the stomach, wrenching the halberd out of his grip and turning to bury the weapon in the Prisoner’s abdomen. Jim saw in dismay that the entanglement had allowed for the flames to rise to a point that he could not step over, and he figured there was only one way of getting through. “Hold on!” Jim turned, only to come face to face with disaster again. Tags, flanked by Vlorn and another man, advanced around him. They already had their swords drawn, and Jim knew he did not have time for this. “Didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?” Tags smiled mischievously. “There’s a reason they call me Tags,” he said as he swept his hand across a necklace with the names of men he’d killed. “I’m going to kill you, but first, I’m going to make you watch your precious wretch burn .” Jim said nothing; he needed to get a running start at that fountain. He could already feel the heat climbing up his back. The men continually moved forward, and Jim seemed to be able to feel the hate sifting through them. As they drew within striking range, and Jim knew time was running out, help arrived. Jim had barely grasped the handle of his sword when two flashes of red flew onto the scene. The swish of a blade and the thump of a body, and Jim’s confidence was restored once again. Rob, accompanied by Hopkins, stepped up to meet Tags and Vlorn. Rob wasted no time. “Three on one doesn’t seem fair to me.” Keeping direct eye contact he added, “How about we do this properly?” Tags scowled, raising his sword in the classic stance. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” With a great yell he lunged at Rob, while Hopkins bravely engaged Vlorn. Jim had some time to make up. He gave himself some space, and then judged the distance. Making sure to take a breath, Jim leaned back and took off. His legs were pumping, heart beating rapidly, while his arms swung in perfect motion. Jim did not think; he watched the flames ahead, mesmerized by the shimmering ring of heat surrounding the girl. The girl. Even from this distance, his eyes concentrated on hers. He felt that hers were concentrated back on him too. And in that moment Jim was sure. Sure of what, he did not know. But he was willing to find out. Jim took the last step and leapt into the air. Right when his feet left the ground he twisted around, as if trying to clear an imaginary line. His head and back cleared the flames, and as he twisted again to land his boots just skimmed the highest point of the fire. Jim would have had a hard landing, but the water inside the fountain lightened his fall and extinguished his boots. A dripping wet but intact Soldier rose to his feet. As he stared at the girl he saw with pride she was smiling back at him. They studied each other for a moment, and without knowing the other’s thoughts, each agreed the other was still quite attractive. But, naturally, they each snapped to business. “Need a hand?” She grinned. “That would be helpful. And seeing as you’re right here.” Jim smiled as he sloshed around to the other side of the fountain. “Yes, I just happened to wander through.” Working quickly, he drew his sword and cut through the thick rope holding her in place. She dropped, landing on her feet with a splash. Jim hurried back around, aware of the fire again. She brushed herself off, and then met his eyes. Jim held out his hand. “James Breckson.” “Amber.” They each smiled. He glanced around. “I had a plan for getting in, not out.” Amber nodded, and then replied. “We are standing in water.” Jim grinned. “I suppose it’s worth a try.” They both began splashing, using whatever they could to move the water. Kicking, lifting, pushing, they splashed armloads of water onto the ever growing fire, to no avail. Amber finally stopped them. “It’s no use, the fire’s too strong.” She sighed, slumping against the fountain itself. The heat was starting to get to both of them, sweat trickling down their faces, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to breathe. But something had triggered inside of Jim, an idea. He walked over to the fountain and placed his hands on it. He wandered around it, quickly finding what he was looking for. “What are you doing?” Amber stepped closer, watching him carefully. “Getting us out of here.” Jim answered. When Amber looked confused he explained. “Whoever built the fountain did a splendid job, The Kingdom of Creation constructed it properly and everything.” The heat was making it harder to concentrate, so he cut to the chase. “Weather and age have taken their toll. The bottom is cracked and broke, not enough to see from afar, but enough to feel.” Amber was catching on, suddenly not looking so drowsy from the heat, which was getting worse. “So it should have a weakened base, is what you’re saying?” “Exactly.” Jim replied. “It should.” They both moved to one side of the fountain, opposite from the cracked base. “On three we push, and do not stop, because this may be our only option.” Amber nodded, and then said, “I’ve already gotten my second chance.” They both positioned themselves beside each other and stood low, bracing their feet as best they could for stability. Amber started. “One.” Jim looked sideways at her. “Two.” They finished together. “Three!” Jim pushed, pushed with everything he had. He didn’t know what would happen if they could not move it, but he did know that he had made a promise to do his very best. And he knew he had not done that yet. Jim gritted his teeth and dug down, straining every muscle to help. Amber was not quite as strong as Jim, but she more than hold her own. Amber kept herself fit, and thrived from being healthy and able bodied. She was exerting an equal amount of effort as Jim, and both were tiring. They had both been pushing for what felt like forever, and the fountain had not moved an inch. They were desperate, and reaching the limits of their strength. The fire was huge now, raging high above them both. Their clothes were drenched, and faces damp with perspiration. Hope was running out as quickly as their supply of air, and the first wisps of smoke began to trickle down to their level. Jim started to cough and Amber with him. The more they coughed, the weaker their pushes were. The smoke was getting thicker much faster. Jim knew they could not give up, would not give up. “Just a… little further,” he urged. One more burst, he thought, one more. Unbeknownst between the two of them, they each gave their last effort. And a large crack was audible over the noise. They both heard it, instantly recharging their confidence. “Again!” Jim threw his whole body into it. It moved again, and Amber joined him, launching her slender form into the statue. More and more cracks were heard. One final push and it started to tip precariously. Jim and Amber allowed gravity to do the rest. The fountain came crashing down, landing astride the flames and forming a path. “Come on!” Jim helped her up and then climbed up himself. Keeping his eyes on Amber, they ran across the fallen statue between the two walls of fire and jumped to safety on the other side. Bodies were everywhere, and there was still some fighting, but they were alive. Jim was taking a second to catch his breath, and he turned as Amber threw her arms around him. “You saved my life.” Jim was not sure how to respond, so he replied, “Anytime.” They embraced for a moment, and then pulled apart. “We have still got a battle ahead of us.” Jim paused. “Of course we do. We’re not letting these bastards get away with this! This is our home, your home, as if that very fountain doesn’t represent our childhood memories.” Amber was crouching to find a weapon. Jim sighed. “I just think it would be safer for you to sit this one out. You know, stay here where no one can harm you.” She looked up at him incredulously. “To hell with that! You saved me, so now you’re stuck with me. ” She selected a short sword and slipped a dagger into her boot. Amber stood with a look of determination and adventure on her face. Jim gave in. “Fine, but stay close to me.” He added, “You had better know how to use that.” Amber smiled, patting her newly acquired sword. They headed back into the fray, following the clash of swords and the smell of death.

It was almost time. Scar looked around for the Advisor. He should be arriving here soon, Scar thought. This brought them to the last part of the plan. Two Ascendant Soldiers approached him; one took his left, the other his right. They planned to flank him. Scar had seen this maneuver deployed many times on the battlefield, and he watched carefully as the two advanced with an unspoken connection. People felt safer with an advantage on their side. He shook his head slowly, it would not save them. The first Soldier pulled back to strike, but Scar moved first. He appeared still, but with a flick of his wrist he threw a dagger, burying the blade deep into the Soldier’s chest. The other Soldier hesitated for only a second, but one second two late. With incredible speed Scar drew his sword and lunged forward. The Soldier managed to bring his weapon up to parry the blow, and Scar unleashed a torrent of strikes to drive the man back. The Soldier barely managed to keep up with the speed of the blows, and Scar sliced him deep across the neck. They both lay still and Scar left them there. He spotted the Advisor, accompanied by Rimshaw and Markov. Scar made his way over to them. “Are you ready sir?” The Advisor was all business. “Yes, but the plan is going to have to change slightly.” Scar raised an eyebrow. “Slightly?” The Advisor nodded. “You will lead the men back to the exit now, instead of waiting for us before you leave.” Scar looked quizzical, “Why?” Rimshaw expanded on the answer. “Instead of meeting here and then going to the gate, the three of us will rendezvous with you at the gate.” “Precisely.” The Advisor continued. Scar’s question had not been answered, but he did not ask again. The Advisor turned toward Markov. “Markov, go to the tower now and take care of the old man. Rendezvous with Rimshaw and I after it is done.” Markov nodded to the Advisor, eyed Scar and stole away into the darkness. The Advisor then turned at the sound behind him. The steady pounding of boots could be heard approaching their position, and a second late the red uniforms came marching around the corner. He turned back around. “If I were you, I would go now.” The trio strode off into the shadows, leaving Scar and his remaining men flat footed against the advancing Ascendant Soldiers. Scar was not one to look cowardly, but he did not disobey orders either. He called to the men. “Fall back! We need to reach the Outer Gate!” None argued as the Prisoner army turned their backs and fled.

“We’ve got runners!” On a normal day, this phrase was used to alert nearby Soldiers of a theft or petty crime, and that the thief was getting away. In this case, it was still somewhat of the same idea, only on a bigger scale. The Ascendant Soldier’s steady rhythm of marching was trampled as they broke into a run after the Prisoners. Jim, Amber, and Rob had all met up, and they led the chase in a straight line down the main path. They managed to catch up with the stragglers, drawing their swords. The Prisoners in the rear turned to defend, continually stepping backward. Jim was at the height of his battle, striking out and deflecting every which way. If it hadn’t been for what he’d seen, Jim would have stayed by his friends for the remainder of the fight. The man he was battling left his sword hand open and Jim lashed out, cutting a large gash out of his arm. The Prisoner cried out, landing on one knee. Jim hardly noticed as his instincts kicked in and he slashed the defenseless Prisoner across the chest. And that is when he just happened to turn his head to the right. His gaze singled in on three forms approaching the North Tower, and he suddenly realized it was very cold. As he looked closer he recognized two of them immediately. One was the leader from the courtyard earlier that day, and the other was the Royal Advisor. Jim had never seen the third man before. They stood before the door now, and the Advisor pulled out a key ring. They stepped inside and disappeared. “Jim?” He came to, and noticed Rob and Amber looking at him. All three of them were standing still, with the other soldiers rushing past them in pursuit of the Prisoners. Jim didn’t know how to tell them, but he could not afford to waste time if what he thought was going to happen, did. “I’ll see you both soon. Stay together.” Jim took off towards the North Tower, leaving the other two speechless as they watched him go. Jim’s mind was buzzing uncontrollably as he sprinted across the expanse and bolted through the open door inside. He headed left, and took the steps two at a time. A long time ago, Jim’s father had been invited to a dinner with the King himself. James had brought his wife and Jim along, telling them that he and the King had a good history together. It had been a grand dinner, and at one point his father had excused himself to speak with the King in private. Jim, being the curious youngster he was, slipped out and followed them at length. He never found out what the meeting had been about, but what Jim recalled now was the path he took to get there. He raced through the corridors, memories of every time he’d been called here flashing before his eyes. And that was when he found the first body. All of his momentum rushed past him as Jim slowed to a halt and knelt down beside her. She lay on her side, head pitched forward with blonde hair hanging loosely around her. Jim’s breathing turned shallow, and his hands trembled as he reached out to the girl. She was young, only a child, and wore a simple dress. Jim carefully grasped her under the arms and moved her to a sitting position propped up against the wall. Her head slumped forward and Jim caught it, supporting it as well. He did not know what he was supposed to be doing, but it was something that he knew felt proper, respectable. Jim carefully brushed aside her hair. Why, he thought. Why must this young girl be taken so soon, and in such a brutal way? A dark stain was visible running down her stomach. As he gazed into her recently lifeless eyes, he saw his friends reflected there. Rob, Amber, Hopkins, even his mother and father. Were they alright? The battle was no doubt still raging on outside. What if one of them met the same – no, that would not happen. Rob, Hopkins, his father, and especially Amber were talented fighters, and Jim knew his old man would go down protecting his wife. Jim trusted them with his life, he would see them again. He slowly rose, taking a final look at the young girl in front of him. The Prisoners would pay for what they had done tonight. They would pay with their lives. As he turned down the hall his surroundings looked familiar to what he remembered from before. Jim froze. A clatter, followed by a muffled cry and then silence came from beyond. He took a step forward, then another. There was several more seconds of strangled silence, where Jim’s hand moved to the hilt of his sword. An explosion rocked the hall, causing Jim to stumble into a wall. Yells and shouts echoed down the corridor as Jim regained control. He broke into a sprint, racing around the last corridor. Semi-relief flooded him as he recognized the door at the far end; the part that remained discouraging was that the door was sitting at an unnatural angle, barely hanging by its last hinge. Jim neared the door in full stride, prepared to put all of his training to the test again. At the right moment he stepped left, then a quick right-left and leapt into the air, bringing all of his momentum with him. Before Jim hit the door he raised his leg in the classic pose. His boot connected with the weakened door and busted it from its last hinge, sending it crashing to the floor inside. Jim landed astride the fallen door and drew his sword. Chaos. That was the only word to describe the scene inside the room. Several of the Elite Protectors lay dead around the room and only three remained. Markov was battling two singlehandedly while Rimshaw occupied Jim’s Captain, Ravoy. His first instinct was to help his Captain, for the Elites could surely handle themselves. But as Jim moved toward Ravoy he suddenly turned his head, alerted to movement. He stared open-mouthed as he watched the Advisor and King Mathius dueling across the far side of the room, twirling and stabbing at one another’s defenses. This was madness, Jim could not conceive it. The Advisor and King had known each other for decades, what was happening? Was this what the whole night was all about, a secret hatred between the two? Jim was shaken from his thoughts as he noticed the King slip slightly on a block. Time slowed down as Jim watched the Advisor uppercut his sword away and lash out again, knocking the King down as Jim moved to intercept. The Advisor raised his sword well above his head and prepared to strike a finishing blow. Ravoy was tied up, the Elites were on the wrong side of an imposing Markov, and Jim was the only one close enough to help. Perhaps it was because Jim had been using his reflexes all night, the instincts were still fresh in his head. He propelled himself forward in two large strides, closing the distance while rearing back to strike. His sword came around with an incredible force, causing a sickening clash as the Advisor’s sword was torn from his grasp, sent spinning across the room and out of reach. Jim positioned himself between the two men and thrust his sword toward the Advisor. The Advisor’s stunned expression slowly turned into a look of anger, and then came to rest in a face of calm. The other two duels stopped immediately as everyone took notice of this new development. The Advisor shook his head slowly. “You are foolish, boy.” Jim, Ravoy and the two Elites escorted the defeated Conspirators over to the back wall. Jim kept his sword at the Advisor’s neck while the Advisor continued to speak. “I am giving you one chance to take your weapon off of me.” “Your attack is over.” Jim spoke bravely as he stared down the men. “Our Soldiers will recapture the Prisoners outside, and you will be joining them in familiar surroundings soon enough.” The King was on his feet now, and was flanked by the two Elites, while Ravoy and Jim stood on either side in front of them. The Advisor shook his head, smiling quietly. “Of the men in this room, we are not the ones deserving of a cell.” Jim looked him straight in the eye. “I believe you are mistaken.” The Advisor returned his sharp gaze. “We will see.” Ravoy stepped forward, moving to draw his sword. “Come quietly, there is nowhere to go.” Before anyone could react, Rimshaw produced a liquid and spread it across the floor in a semicircular ring, dropping an object atop it. One second Ravoy was there, the next he was stumbling backward as a small fire erupted and separated the King and his protectors from the Conspirators. Jim stumbled as well, losing control of his balance. The Advisor was already moving. He lashed out through the fire, knocking away Jim’s sword. As Jim rose to block, the Advisor changed mid punch to kick instead. Jim doubled over, and the Advisor delivered a vicious uppercut to the side of his head. Jim went down painfully, landing on his left arm. As Jim turned to look at the battle, he watched in horror as Markov drew back and gave the window a hard kick. The glass smashed apart, and air rushed in. He heard the Elites yell “Down!” and all Jim could do was press his head into the floor. The flames seared his back as they enveloped the room briefly, forcing everyone to hit the floor. When Jim looked back up, the Conspirators were gone.

Jim and the two Elites approached the broken window. Ravoy went to the King. “Are you alright your majesty?” The King stood as strong and defiant as ever. “I am, thanks to the likes of my fine Soldiers.” There was no sign of the Conspirators, only the downward view of the dark rooves below. The Elites signaled to Jim. “Well, they didn’t go up. That means we go down.” Jim did not need to be told twice. Ravoy stayed with the King as the three Soldiers leapt out of the window. Jim landed lightly on the shingles below and immediately sprung towards an outlying rod. He grabbed the smooth wood for only a second before propelling himself forward by swinging off and down to the next roof. Jim hit the next roof below and rolled out of it, sprinting towards the next area. The Elites were having no problems keeping up, naturally. Their enhanced abilities gave them an edge in both agility and strength, and their features were always set in grim determination. Jim glanced sideways as he leapt over top of a gap and noticed the large sea of red. The Kingdom Soldiers had pushed the Prisoners back to the Inner Gate, and the Prisoners were retreating into the field toward the horse barns. Jim signaled back to his allies and drew his sword, approaching the edge of the roof and running alongside it. The closest Elite to him called out, “There, our front line, right in the heart of it.” Jim came to the end of the roof and summoned his strength as he leapt over the edge and down. The three Soldiers descended in perfect synchronization to land among the Prisoners. The majority were all turning to run into the field, but three of them were caught between the advancing Kingdom Soldiers and the three new arrivals. Jim recognized two of them; one was simply another Prisoner, but the other two were Tags, the Prisoner who had tried to kill Amber, and Mack, who had been directly responsible for releasing the Prisoners. Jim had no mercy for either one of them. Tags engaged Jim immediately and Jim’s downward momentum allowed him to duck under the swing of the sword. Tags recovered to fire two more shots at Jim before locking swords and pushing off and around him. Jim was not about to let him get away. He leapt forward and struck out at his Now that he was off balance, Jim rose and buried his blade into his shoulder. Pulling the blade out roughly, Jim proceeded with a sharp blow of the elbow. Tags fell heavily to the cobblestone and frantically dragged himself away from the approaching Soldier. Mack took one look at the advancing line of Soldiers and the powerful Elites and fled past Jim, leaving his two men behind. The Elites easily double teamed and overpowered the last Prisoner caught in between while Jim raised his sword to finish Tags, when he was stopped by a gentle hand on his shoulder. Amber moved in front of him as Tags continued to crawl desperately farther from them. The frantic look in Tag’s eyes was replaced by a glint as he watched Jim step back and Amber take his place. Laughing, he taunted, “What, the great Kingdom of Ascendancy is reduced to employing female civilians to do their dirty work? Well, by all means do your job you little - .”Amber silenced him with a single downward thrust of her short sword. Tags was cut off and left behind as the rest of the Kingdom Soldiers caught up and continued their pursuit, formulating a plan on the go. Jim nodded toward several familiar faces, glad to see them alright, but the focus was on the event at hand. “Quiet, everyone, please!” Jim shouted to be heard. “I need to make this quick.” The Prisoners were already getting further away, and Jim couldn’t let them escape. “Has anyone seen Rob?” Everyone began shouting at the same time for Rob, and it was a wonder he suddenly appeared. “For God’s sake, I’m right here.” Rob pulled up beside Jim alongside Amber and Hopkins as they pushed forward in tight pursuit. “What’s the plan now, genius?” Jim knew what was at stake, he did not smile. “The Prisoners are headed straight for the stables.” Jim reported. The sound of their boots pounding across the cobblestone disappeared as they transferred to the soft grass. “Beyond the stables are the Outer Gates, which means, which means they will be forced to turn around.” Amber met his gaze as she ran alongside him. “Why come all this way only to be apprehended before you finish the job?” Jim answered her gravely. “I think that is the part we are all willing to find out.” They approached the clearing and several seconds later the sea of red burst into the horse meadow from atop the peak, running downhill to meet the Prisoners. The Prisoners were all grouped together at the far end, standing arm to arm. Jim was joined by Rob and Amber, who both surveyed the field and looked to Jim. “Spread out.” Jim called to the men. “Form a right flank and a left flank; add more on the left so we can push them toward the barns.” Jim had no idea why he had assumed the leadership role, but no one was arguing and he was past caring. “Advisor!” Jim yelled across the expanse. “I know you hold yourself and your plan in the highest respects, so to surrender now would be a crippling blow for all you stand for.” Jim slowly walked forward, one foot at a time, keeping his eyes on the Conspirators in front of him. The Kingdom Soldiers had created a perimeter, and had drawn no weapons so far, they simply stood still and awaiting action. Jim tried again. “We have you cornered with no way out, and a final standoff here would be too costly to either side.” The Advisor decided to call back. “You have fought valiantly for what you have been led to believe in, and I commend you on that.” He paused to allow his words to sink in. “But ask yourselves, is it worth it? Do the hardest thing and allow us parting. It will not seem right at this moment in time but it is for the greater good.” Jim was frozen on the spot, glancing to his side knowing none would heed the words of a liar. Jim proudly yelled back. “None will join you! None of us standing here will heed your words! Not after you have taken our loved ones and burned our home. We will not break!” Cheers erupted from the Kingdom Soldiers, and battle cries could be heard from miles away. The courage and morale of these soldiers was undeniable, far beyond that of any other Kingdom throughout the land. Slowly the shouts and cheers died down to a heavy silence across the field. The night sky loomed over top of both sides, the only light coming from the torchlight and the stars. Whispers of wind flitted through the area, as if trying to be purposefully quiet for the conflict at hand. The Advisor spoke one last time. “So be it, for it is unfortunate you do not yet understand.” The Elites took over, and the taller one spoke to the Kingdom Soldiers. “Enough of this! Swords out men, let’s take them!” The Kingdom Soldiers drew their weapons and began to move in on the Conspirators. Jim did not draw his weapon. Instead, he stood still as the Soldiers pushed past intent on their targets. There was something still out of place; it had all come to end too quickly. Amber paused as she noticed Jim, and she looked concerned as she approached. “What is it?” Then Jim remembered. The stables, the boy, the horses. And now here were all of the Prisoners conveniently beside the very thing that would make sense; a ride. Amber rested her hand on his shoulder as she stared into his eyes curiously. Jim could only take her hand and turn her around. The ground was already vibrating as Jim and Amber looked on in disbelief. “Everyone down! Look out!” A wall of horses cascaded over the hill and plowed down on them from above, led by a lone rider in front. The Kingdom Soldiers turned sharply in surprise at this unexpected turn of events. Within mere seconds the horses were upon them. Jim pushed Amber down and threw himself to the ground over top of her. There they lay, heads covered and pressed into the damp earth of the field. Hooves thudded down left and right around Jim’s head, missing him by less than a hand’s width. The continuous echo of pounding hooves seemed to carry on forever, until the last horse galloped through. Jim sprang to his feet and extended a hand to Amber, pulling her to her feet. Rob strode forward to stand beside them. His uniform was dirty, his hair wild and he appeared very tired. Jim imagined he looked the same. Ahead of them, the Conspirators were mounting the horses. Their plan had come full circle, and the Soldiers were struggling to keep up with each new development. The Advisor took the front and readily spurred his horse forward, leading his newly recruited troops through the final stage of the escape. Again the wall of horses charged toward them, but this time the Soldiers were prepared. “Form a pack!” Jim yelled. “Together and back!” The Kingdom Soldiers reacted instantly to their training. All of the Soldiers clustered together, with the more experienced forming a ring around the outside. One Soldier moved to stand beside Jim, and Amber moved him with her eyes, signaling he take a spot in the middle of the ring. They had hardly any time to prepare anything more before the Prisoners were upon them again. The Advisor came within range and threw a knife with accuracy, dropping one of their Soldiers who was replaced as soon as he fell. The Advisor was going to get past their group before the Archers were ready. Jim left the ring momentarily to intercept the incoming Conspirator with his sword, only to be stopped as the Advisor easily parried the swipe and rode off into the night. Jim silently cursed as he returned to the pack to face the incoming horses. Jim called the attack and the first row ducked, allowing the Kingdom Archers a clear shot. The first three arrows launched into the darkness. The first shot missed its mark but the second two arrows connected and two riders went down. The archers could only squeeze off two more arrows before the riders came into striking range. They hit hard, using the horses as weapons too. A Soldier was slashed to the ground as a Prisoner tore past. Two more Soldiers were crumpled underneath a galloping horse. “Closer together!” The battle was beginning to favor the Prisoners, and Jim would not let that continue. The Conspirator who had led the horses in had been Boris, who had now picked up Mack on the back of his horse as they rode by together. “Target those riders!” Jim shouted as he pointed to the brothers. Boris heard the call and he snapped his reigns forward while Mack leaned into him. The Kingdom Archers turned sharply and let loose their arrows, all of which missed their mark as the brothers’ horse galloped past. The Archers turned back to focus on other targets, but one Archer loaded another arrow and took up aim at the back of the retreating horse. Steadying his shot he pulled back and fired, sending the arrow shooting through the expanding distance between them. This arrow hit its mark, burying deep into the shoulder of Mack as he twitched on impact. “Mack!” Boris turned in surprise as Mack lost his grip and began to slide off of the horse. Boris extended his hand backward as their horse galloped onward, reaching out to the weakening Mack. “No! Stay with me!” Mack looked at him first with surprise, and then with a mixed sense of understanding and tiredness. “No!” Boris screamed as his brother let go and fell off of the back of their horse, landing among the darkness and bodies behind. Boris was instinctively turning around when he noticed the other Prisoners surrounding him, all headed in the same direction. He could not go back. Mack was already past saving, and if he could not continue on, than Boris would continue on, on his own. He steadied the reigns and galloped ahead with the rest of the Prisoners. The rider in front of Jim raised an axe and swung hard. Jim nimbly stepped aside and reached up with one hand, grasping the man’s leg and pulling him off. The Prisoner landed hard on his stomach, and Jim finished the job by stabbing downward through his back. The lone horse stopped a short distance away and began to nibble the grass. Jim ran forward and leapt astride the horse, steadying the reigns and turning it around. He noticed Amber out of the corner of his eye. One man attempted to spear her, but she was even more flexible then Jim. She raised her hips up and arched her back, missing the spearhead’s sharp point. Amber then used the horse’s neck to swing her body up and around, kicking the man off and landing seated atop the horse. Jim nodded at her. “Impressive.” “It must seem that way.” Amber spurred her horse forward with Jim right behind her. Two more Prisoners engaged them from the side. One carried a mace, while the other carried a deadly weapon commonly known as a morning star. It had a spiked ball and chain attached to a wooden handle, proving dangerous in the right hands. Or, in this case Jim thought, the wrong ones. Jim intercepted the morning star while Amber handled the mace. The man swung viciously but Jim parried with his sword, causing the chain to wrap around his blade and tie them up. Amber ducked under a swipe and quickly sliced through the mace, butt-ending her foe to the ground. Her horse reared up and crushed the Prisoner underneath as she trotted over to help Jim. Jim was struggling to pull his sword free while the horses circled each other. The angle made it impossible for either man to lash out, and the Prisoner used his free hand to grab his knife. He aimed to strike at Jim, but his eyes travelled past the Soldier in front of him at the last minute. Before Jim could react the knife was spinning through the air, and Amber did not see it coming. The blade caught her under the right shoulder and buried itself deep. She cried out in shock, and limply slid off her horse, unmoving as she hit the ground. “Amber!” Jim yelled out to her. He turned violently and reefed on his sword, instantly pulling it loose from the chain. The Prisoner aimed to attack but Jim was too fast. He slashed the man’s arm and kicked him hard across the face, already moving to Amber’s position before the man fell to the ground. Jim was halfway to dismounting when a figure dashed in from the side to her aid. Rob checked the wound quickly and looked up at him. “I’ve got her, you get going after them!” He gestured in the vague direction of the fleeing Prisoners. Jim hesitated, for she still lay motionless with her eyes closed and the knife wedged in her shoulder. Rob noticed he had not moved and became agitated. “Go!” Then he added. “She’ll be fine.” Jim took a breath and nodded. He took one last look at Amber lying there, gave Rob a quick salute, and then galloped off into the night.

Jim knew he had trusted Rob with his life at that moment, and he was positive Amber would turn out to be fine. There was not anything he could have done. He had been tied up with that Prisoner, and he had been expecting the man to strike out at him with the knife. But at the last second his eyes had flitted over Jim’s shoulder, and the knife spun past Jim into her. He watched it happen again; she cried out as blade dug in, and her eyes looked to his right as she slid off her horse, landing roughly on her back. Her head lolled to one side and she did not move. He remembered the anger he had felt in that moment. Every action towards the man responsible had been out of protection for her. Jim had needed to show himself that he was capable of being there for her, yet there she had lain on the ground. This was a memory Jim would never forget, for it helped him remember why he was doing this.

Jim was gaining on them. He had caught the tail end of the Prisoners, and drew his sword again as they turned to greet him. Jim swung wildly, hoping to keep them off balance. The Prisoners did not so much as flinch as they blocked and returned the attack, striking from all sides. Jim pulled back and attempted to pull up beside one of them, but each one of his efforts was flawed as the men in front cut him off. Jim knew they were almost home free. Once this convoy reached the Outer Gates and beyond, there was no hope of continuing the chase. An army such as themselves could withstand the dangers of the forest, but lone riders had little chance of surviving even until the morning, let alone several days of travel. But still Jim would not give in. He would take them all the way, as far as he could. Suddenly to his right he saw a streak of red, and a moment later a flash of silver as one Prisoner cried out and was detached from his mount. Jim grinned broadly. “Hopkins!” He yelled over the din. Hopkins beamed over at him. “Hey there, Jimmy boy, thought you could use a little hand!” A second rider appeared and Jim recognized him as a Kingdom Archer, falling into position with him and Hopkins. The Archer carried a bow with arrows strapped to his back, and he also wielded a short sword. Jim nodded to him and answered Hopkins. “Could I ever!” The chase was quickly picking up in intensity. Each rider was spurring their horse to the breaking point, intent on galloping faster. The closer each rider got to the gate, the more trees and low hanging branches loomed in front of them. Thunder boomed overhead and the rain started to come in heavy sheets. The cold precipitation soaked through their clothing and equipment and froze Jim’s body, but he was too focused to notice. Jim, Hopkins, and the Archer formed a triangle around the back of the Prisoners. As Hopkins drew one man’s attention from the right, Jim cut him down from the left. The Archer balanced expertly and drew his bow, clutching an arrow and firing it with accuracy to drop a Prisoner ahead. The Advisor reached the Outer Gate first, turning from the front to check their progress. Even through the pounding rain and cracking of thunder, he was surprised to see three red horsemen in pursuit. “They just don’t give up.” The Advisor muttered to himself. He signaled to his men. “Continue on, do not stop until we land deep in neutral territory.” The Prisoners took off past him, leaving The Advisor stationary to talk with Scar. The figure in black pulled up beside him, glancing first to the pursuit down the hill and then to the Advisor. The Advisor spoke four solemn words. “Take care of them.” Scar nodded and the Advisor turned to follow his men past the Outer Gates. Scar snapped his reigns and took off to confront the three Soldiers. Jim locked swords and then swiped high as yet another Prisoner fell to the ground. He watched as Hopkins and the Archer teamed up to take one more Prisoner. The Prisoner swung high and Hopkins ducked, and in the same movement the Prisoner turned to parry the Archer’s thrust. This left him off balance for Jim’s third and final strike, which wiped him clean off the saddle. Jim spurred his horse forward as the three continued the chase. Jim turned to yell at Hopkins. “They’ve made it past the gate; we can still try to take out as many as possible, try to keep up!” Hopkins moved to shout a smart remark, but his face suddenly filled with alarm and Jim soon saw why. “Look out!” He turned quickly and was met with the fast approaching sight of a tree branch looming ahead. Jim barely had time to throw his body against his horse, scraping under the obstacle. Hopkins however was right behind Jim, and he had wasted his effort trying to warn Jim first. The branch swept down from above and caught Hopkins mid-chest, tearing him off the horse and slamming him to the ground below. Jim and the Archer were helpless but to continue on, leaving Hopkins to catch his breath among the mud behind them. Throughout all of the distractions, the rain, the noise, the speed, Jim felt something. He focused solely on his surroundings, letting his mind go blank as his horse raced forward. Jim’s hand was already reaching for his sword as his eyes fixed on the incoming silhouette. The Archer turned in time to parry, but the assailant’s horse slammed into his and threw the Archer off balance. Immediately the assailant’s blade was drawn and slashed across the Archer’s chest, sending him crashing to the ground below. The black-clad assailant was already moving on and Jim had his sword ready as they clashed simultaneously. Jim swung dangerously quick, sparring and stabbing at his opponent with immense precision. The assailant was not large, but Jim could tell he was quietly powerful. He gave off that feeling that too many men had underestimated him before, and had paid the price. Jim drew his blade back to one side, and then countered quickly to his opposite, hoping to throw his assailant off. The cloaked figure barely flinched as their swords clashed again. They locked blades as their horses pounded through the mud, galloping side by side. Lightning flashed and in that instant Jim got a glimpse of the face underneath the hood. His face was illuminated briefly from the darkness, and a familiar scar ran down his face. It was him! The same “hunter” from earlier today, when Rob had caused the catastrophe in the courtyard. Scar took advantage of the young Soldier’s surprise and swiftly kicked out, landing a blow on Jim’s horse. The horse whinnied fiercely and lost step for a moment, throwing Jim off balance. Scar then lashed out, entangling their blades and effectively disarming Jim as his sword spun through the air and landed out of reach behind them. As Scar prepared to strike the final blow, Jim knew it was time to regroup. Even if he could defeat this man with the scar, he had little hope of taking on the rest of them. The Conspirators had won this battle, Jim conceded, but he also knew they would meet again. All of these thoughts were thought in the space of a second. Jim took one last look at the man, and suddenly rolled backwards off of his steed, feeling the blade sweep through the empty space overtop of his horse. Jim landed smoothly, burying his boots into the well-soaked earth, and rose defiantly to watch the slowly fading figure. The man sheathed his weapon, turned to regard him once more, and took off around the corner to catch up with his allies. Finally alone, Jim felt the tiredness of the day hit him with gale force. He called to his waiting horse and somehow possessed the strength to mount it. Two main things circulated through his mind: Whether Amber was alright, and how many casualties The Kingdom of Ascendancy had suffered tonight. Jim made a quick note to recover his fallen sword, and with his heart heavy, slowly trotted back towards The Kingdom.

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