Sunlight flooded the horizon, blissfully bestowing a new dawn unto the Sanctified Lands. A seemingly endless line of people flowed from Haven down the road toward the coast beyond the farmlands. Their faces were marred by confusion and helplessness, and their words were few. Those who had family in the Crows painfully bid their loved ones farewell as they departed from the town’s south entrance. Memories from the massacre decades past weighed heavy on their hearts, knowing full well that this could be their turn to say their final goodbyes.
Though a few days had passed since the meeting with Marcin, preparations had been so plentiful that Ellie felt as though the days had simply blended into one. Dark bags drooped beneath her eyes as she maintained the gate from atop the stairs. Ellie’s tiredness dulled Gerald’s voice as he ordered the rats across the Great Hall. She was able to muster a chuckle when Eingree stormed by with a sack over her shoulder that rustled with the protest of a single rat.
The sound of rapidly approaching hooves drew Ellie’s attention away from the evacuee rats. Mounted on horseback was Janus, who came to a stop at the base of the stairs and, with a tired smile, watched Ellie descend the steps to greet him.
“How have things been faring here?” he asked.
“Elise and the goblins are helping Rehor and Nairi on the east end, but they told me they’ll take longer since they have to move slowly.” She looked to the line of rats gently hopping down the stairs. “Rat Town is mostly evacuated, though it looks like one of the elderly chose not to go peacefully.”
Ellie pointed to Eingree, who stood and waited for the last of the rats to exit the castle as the bag over her shoulder continued to squirm.
“What about in Haven?”
“Evacuations are proceeding smoothly and most of the townspeople are on the road by now. Bedelia, General Delman, and a unit of Crows will remain in town due to the shortage of horses. It’s a perfect opportunity to scout for anyone who may have tried to remain in secret.”
“And I assume Marcin kept to his word?”
“Amazingly, yes. He and his clan have assembled on the north road toward the Maw, alongside the mounted Crows. I’m sure they’re bickering now that the sun has risen, though.”
The two shared in a scoff just before Gerald’s perky voice called out to them from above.
“Miss Ellie! Everyone’s been evacuated, so you can lock the gate!”
Ellie nodded before turning back toward Janus.
“I should depart,” he said. “They’re waiting for me on the plains. Be safe, Ellie.”
“You, too, Janus.”
He watched her as she started for the gate, his lips trembling with hesitation.
“Be sure to stay with the evacuees.”
Only the slightest sound of acknowledgment emit from her, his demand spiking a sense of irritation beneath her skin.
“Did you hear me, Ellie?” His voice grew firm. “Stay with the evacuees.”
“Yes, I heard you. I need to lock the gate.”
Janus glanced at Gerald upon hearing Ellie’s hostile tone, who gave him an understanding nod. With no time left to waste, he returned to the road and departed northward. Ellie thrust her hand into her pocket and fetched the key that Elise had given her the day prior. Giving little consideration to her forcefulness, Ellie slammed the gate shut and locked it tight.
“Idiot. Idiotic, dumb girl,” she grumbled.
Returning the key to her pocket, she stomped down the stairs as Gerald followed behind, keeping a distance between them.
“Miss Ellie, what are you going on about?”
“You heard me, Gerald!” She released an exasperated sigh in an attempt to default her tone. “He was just worried about me and I had to go and snap at him like some bratty child. What if something happens and that’s the last thing I ever say to him?”
“Oh, don’t worry, Lord Janus understands that you’re frustrated. I’m sure that your tone has already rolled right off his back. Besides, it won’t do you any good to think of what-ifs. Just be sure that the next time you see him, it’s with a smile.”
“I know, Gerald. I just feel awful. I want to do more.”
“You’re already doing plenty by helping evacuate the rats. Why, you were there at three o’clock sharp just to be sure everything was in order. Don’t forget that the evacuation is just as important as the battle.”
The corners of Ellie’s mouth tensed in dissatisfaction. He was right, but she continued to linger on the fact that this abomination was here because of her. Helping evacuees on the shore was indeed important, but where she really wanted to be was in Haven, helping Bedelia and the Crows.
Varied chatter among the rats kept the walk entertaining as the residents of the castle made their way toward the crossroads. As they seldom left their cozy little town, every sight on the surface felt to the rats like touring a foreign realm. An excellent distraction during a troubling time.
Near the south entrance to Haven, Ellie spotted Bedelia standing with her family as men and women of many ages passed them by. She was dressed in a suit of steel armor and had her hair tightly braided in a ring around her head. Fastened to her waist was a nondescript sheathed sword, which she rested one hand on as she leaned in to give a parting kiss to Caitriona.
After placing another kiss atop the head of the baby in her wife’s arms, Bedelia knelt beside her daughter that clung to her mother’s skirt. The words she exchanged with her were lost to Ellie’s ears among the commotion.
When she had given her daughter a hug and kiss farewell, Bedelia rose to her feet and turned her attention to Aston. He nodded understandingly to her instructions and solemnly ushered her family toward the coast with the evacuees. Bedelia heaved a heavy sigh as she watched them depart, then returned to Haven.
Tensions along the northern road were high. Any words that were spoken were done so exclusively between Crows or vampires and were never intermingled. Several clusters of these two groups waited atop their horses in their evenly divided units of archers and magicians. Stationed in the plains beside them was a long line of ballistae that were pointed toward the forest on the far end.
Janus eased to a halt near the divided clusters. Though he felt at ease among the Crow archers, there was no denying that his skills were best placed among the vampire magicians. Even so, Janus kept his distance from all as he gazed out at the Maw of the Abyss.
“For having us assemble at this hour, your lot had best make the most of our abilities.”
Hooves trotted toward Janus from beyond his peripheral vision. There was Marcin, who came to a stop beside him with a sneer painted on his face.
“Need I remind you, Lord Marcin, that we are here in the event that the initial plan fails. I doubt a little daylight inconvenience will affect you in a way that would rival the repercussions of the Walker terrorizing our land.”
An irritated huff was all that Marcin could muster as he returned to his fellow vampires. With the nuisance gone, Janus resumed his observation of the plains. General Delman had taken every precaution and kept the plains open to the riders’ skirmish whilst placing as much distance between the ballistae and the Walker’s projected path as possible. Though this ensured minimal damage to the artillery, it unsettled Janus just how much faith they had to place in uncertainties. If the Walker displayed no interest in the town, as they hoped, the battlefield would devolve into utter chaos.
Gray skies eliminated the brief morning light as Ellie walked down the road alongside Gerald, keeping an eye on the line of rats as they hustled toward the farmlands. Just as she started to think that the process was going smoothly, the line came to an abrupt stop due to a disturbance just ahead. His ears perking in curiosity, Gerald gasped when he saw what had caused the disruption.
“Oh no, that’s my brother!”
He raced ahead and shouted to the other rats to move along to the side. As soon as he reached them, Gerald clutched his littlest brother in his arms, soothing him as he cried out from his overwhelming fears. The other youngest siblings had grown restless due to the display, and the eldest members of the family were soon overwhelmed as they attempted to calm them all down.
Ellie watched the line of rats taper off as they passed the noisy family. On the other side of the road, the line of people from Haven had also approached its end. It occurred to Ellie that this momentary distraction could work in her favor. Perhaps others would not notice if she were gone, but Gerald certainly would. Now that his attention had been drawn elsewhere, Ellie determined that if she was going to sneak away to Haven, now was the time.
Slowly and carefully, she stepped backwards down the road in the direction of the town. When not a single person more passed her by and she was certain that Gerald was still thoroughly preoccupied, Ellie darted off into the copse beside the road.
Her journey had barely begun when she spotted Elise and Rehor leading the small caravan from the castle. At the rear was Nairi, and in between were the goblins. Everyone was positioned in a way to easily access the afflicted if any issues arose. Ellie let out a quiet gasp and darted behind the thickest tree she could find. Keeping her back firmly planted against the trunk, she waited breathlessly for them to pass.
Elise came to an abrupt stop and stared out at the copse, having heard the rustling among the brush. Invisible eyes analyzed the hillside as the carts passed by behind her. She was as a predator hunting for prey, remaining perfectly still as she waited for the faintest movement.
“Ah, was probably just some scared little critter, Elise,” Smaul said, patting her bony shoulder as he walked by. “Don’t pay it too much mind.”
“Perhaps.” Her shoulders loosened as she stood up straight. Though her body turned back toward the road, Elise’s gaze lingering on the copse before tearing away her attention completely and returning to her station among the caravan.
Ellie’s heart pounded violently in her chest. Perhaps she could outrun Gerald if he had spotted her, but if Elise had, her escape was over. So for a time, she listened. The caravan moved further down the road, the grinding of its wheels quieting with its distance. Ellie peeked out cautiously to verify that they were far enough ahead. With the caravan gone, she was free to continue on toward Haven undisturbed.
Along the western wall that barricaded the town from the plains, Bedelia stood among the Crows that were stationed at the ballistae readied for a probable last stand. Words were hardly exchanged among them as tensions ran high. From the stone stairs beside her, Bedelia heard the hurried footsteps of the last few Crows to join them at the wall.
“How do you fare?” General Delman asked, having just arrived.
“As well as can be, given the situation. Any townspeople spotted in the streets?”
“None so far. I believe we’ve successfully evacuated everyone.”
The two approached the parapet and stared out at the plains. The line of ballistae created an almost perfect path from the town to the Maw, with a sizable gap to compensate for the Walker potentially being larger than anticipated.
“This has to be every artillery weapon in the whole damned land,” she said.
“The southern settlement lent us every one they had, but refused us anything else. They’re so absorbed in their own issues that they honestly don’t believe they’re in any harm.”
“Well, at least they were willing to part with these.”
“There was something else.” General Delman gestured to a few nearby barrels. “They sent along a shipment of fire powder. Not much, but enough to cause some damage.”
Bedelia and General Delman watched with bated breath as the Crows finished loading the ballistae and as the riders in the distance fell into position.
“It’s almost time,” he uttered.
Due to the danger involved in the first phase, General Delman had devised a method of unleashing the ballistae bolts without needing any Crows atop the tower, in the event that the Walker reacted violently. Now they needed only to wait and see if their plan would be a success.
A small rumbling shook the land. Immediately upon the vibration’s surge, a magic flare was aimed toward the sky near the base of the watchtower. Haven was far enough away that the sound of ballistae bolts being fired could not be heard, but they knew from the signal that it had begun. An uncomfortable silence washed over the land as everyone held their breaths in anticipation. Surely, if their plan had worked, then they need only wait for the quake from the Walker’s corpse falling back into Blackest Pitch.
And indeed, there was a quake. But it was accompanied by the rise of a horrid, spider-like leg reaching beyond the Maw’s peak and piercing into the mountainsides. Another rose opposite of it, then another until eight legs lifted the tenebrous mass of the Walker from the dark haze that trailed behind it. Its mandibles opened to reveal the unblinking grin that comprised most of the Walker’s being just moments before collapsing the full weight of its body upon the tower, absolutely destroying it.
There was not a single person at the wall whose mouth was not agape as the horrifying entity made itself fully known. With body and legs of an amorphous arachnid but an almost deformed humanoid head, the Walker stared across the land with motionless eyes. Bulbous, yellow cocoons dangled from it side and underbelly. A few of the pods had ruptured after the collision, seeping out a viscous substance that now trailed the Walker’s wake alongside the remnants of Blackest Pitch that wispily clung to its form.
“Gods,” General Delman cursed behind his mask. “Please let the Crows have made it away from the crumbling tower.”
“We can only hope.”
Bedelia’s words barely passed her lips as her eyes remained fixed on the terrible visage of the Walker. It was repulsive enough to observe from the tower, but now that it’s entire body was visible, it dawned on her the true horror that was descending into their land.
“It may have been a few thousand years since I last laid eyes on it, but it’s certainly an uglier bastard than I remember!”
The boom of Marcin’s voice carried across the riders as they gazed upon the looming abomination in horror. The way the Walker stood motionless upon its perch gave Janus cause for suspicion. The creature had taken so long to reach the Sanctified Lands that it was possible that the final ascent up the mountain had winded it.
To his dismay, it wasn’t long before the Walker began its descent down the mountainside, causing a landslide beneath it. The archers and magicians wasted no time and began firing upon the monstrosity with a hail of arrows and flame. It was almost insulting that—for how much energy went into their first assault—the Walker was completely unfazed by their efforts. From its perspective, they may as well have been nothing more than pesky gnats.
With one leg after the other, the Walker rested its tainted form upon their pure land. The mere sight of it repulsed Janus and twisted his expression into a snarl. Numerous ballistae bolts jutted from the creature’s flesh, yet it did not recoil in pain.
Janus thrust one arm outward toward the Walker, directing the archers under his command to resume their assault on the creature in hopes that it would take its toll in due time.
“Show this abomination the strength of the denizens of the Sanctified Lands!”
An impressive hail of arrows and fire overwhelmed the Walker, yet it was still far from suitable enough to distract the creature’s lifeless eyes from shifting toward the Northern Territory.
Wedged in between two barrels in an alley was Ellie. She pinched the bridge of her nose and struggled to fathom how she made it so far into Haven without being noticed by the Crows. The only logical explanation was likely tied into the earlier tremors and the commotion she heard at the west wall.
Ellie brought her hand to her forehead with a firm slap. What was she thinking, sneaking off to Haven? What could she possibly accomplish that the Crows couldn’t? Though she knew she should have remained with the evacuees, Ellie was far too committed to her decision now. There had to be something she could do. Anything.
A voice yelled out from the end of the alley the moment Ellie peeked out of her hiding spot. She stared at the source of the yell—a Crow—as though she had just been caught committing a grave sin. They were frozen in place as they watched one another, but the moment that Ellie attempted to flee, the Crow lunged across the alley and grabbed her wrist.
“Let go!” she demanded.
“Wait, you’re Lord Janus’s ward, aren’t you? What in the hells are you doing here?”
“I said ‘let go’!”
She flailed her arm in an attempt to snap away his grip, but it was no use.
“Gods damn it all, what am I supposed to do?” the Crow groaned behind his beaked mask. “That’s it. I’ll take you to General Delman and Mayor Bedelia.”
Ellie whined as the Crow led her through the alley and into the eerily empty streets toward the west wall. Though she wasn’t in any danger, the oncoming lecture she knew Bedelia would have for her might as well have been comparable to being in a dangerous situation.
Upon reaching the wall, the Crow dragged Ellie up the stairs as she purposely staggered back the moment she saw Bedelia’s profile. There was no avoiding it now, no matter how desperately she wished she could break free and disappear.
“Mayor Bedelia,” the Crow called.
Though she and General Delman were reluctant to tear their gazes from the plains, they turned to the Crow that had demanded their attention. Bedelia’s face immediately shifted to one of shock and anger upon seeing his charge.
“Ellie? What in the hells? Why is she here, Crow?”
“I found her in the alley, Mayor. Knowing who she was, I thought it best to bring her to you.”
Bedelia stormed forward with ferocious steps, the terrifying look on her face unabated.
“You’re supposed to be with the evacuees! What were you thinking, breaking away from them and coming here? You’re not a combatant!”
“I know! I—I don’t know! I don’t know what I was thinking. I just didn’t want to do sit by and do nothing.”
“Now is not the time to try and prove you worth, Ellie.”
“I know, I’m stupid, I’m sorry.”
Through the form of a heavy sigh, Bedelia’s annoyance was partially released from her as she brought her hand to her forehead.
“Get her out of here, Crow. Take her out of town and all the way to the coast, if you must.”
“Understood,” he said.
“Bedelia!” General Delman shouted. “It stirs!”
The Walker finished its silent observation of Marcin’s domain and began slowly scanning the horizon toward the south. The scent of charred rot permeated the air as arrows whistled by and pierced the abomination’s flesh. A few ballistae bolts fired into the cocoons shielding the Walker’s torso, snapping them off and splattering them into the ground as putrid bile seeped out from within.
“Something’s wrong,” Marcin called, his voice jostling Janus from his concentration. “The damn thing couldn’t take its eyes off of us when it stalked us during the pilgrimage. Now it’s as though we don’t even exist!”
Janus’s eyes bore into the Walker as a horrible pit gaped in his stomach. It was undeniably looking for something, but what? The evacuees? Lady Soleil? Or…
The Walker’s head stopped the moment its eyes met Haven’s wall. Its stare went on for seemingly an eternity, the Walker’s pupils now dilating as though it were focusing its vision. Slowly, the once half-lidded eyes opened fully and its teeth parted with a determined huff, revealing pitch black tar seeping from its jaws. When they clenched back shut, the Walker’s tangled mess of limbs gradually began pulling it across the plains toward the town.
Bedelia snapped her widened gaze back to Ellie and the Crow.
“Get her out of here. Now.”
The Crow yanked Ellie toward the stairs. They had hardly descended more than a few steps before everyone positioned at the wall gasped at the sight of the Walker reaching one leg beneath its body. A row of cocoons magnetized into a socket inside the leg, which the Walker then lunged at the town.
The Crows barely had a moment to react to General Delman’s cry before the cocoons bombarded the wall and the buildings beyond it. The horrid sound of crumbling stone and agonized screams rang through Ellie’s ears as she and the Crow were sent flying through the alley.
Structures crumbled behind them and created a clear divide between the main street and the chaos at the wall. Ellie had been pinned against the stone by the Crow as he attempted to shelter her from debris.
“Are you okay?” she asked, her voice trembling.
“I’m supposed to ask that,” he complained.
When the Crow sat up, his face was met with the cool morning air through a hole in his mask made by the beak that was snapped off in the commotion.
“Damn it.” He reached behind his head and unfastened the mask before throwing the remains to the street. “Nothing says ‘bad luck’ like breaking your mask in your first month.”
The young man helped Ellie to her feet, who then promptly dusted herself off. With concern painting their brows, they turned back toward the rubble and darted their eyes around for any signs of life.
“We have to get out of here,” the Crow said.
“But what if they need our help?”
“No. No, I—I have my orders. We have to move on.”
A thunderous boom yanked their attention away from the chaos. Nestled into the stone street was one of the cocoons, rancid bile bleeding from a fracture on its surface. Deafening slams came from within as the fracture grew until the prison burst wide open.
A sickly appendage grasped the jagged edge and pulled forth a humanoid silhouette. As the secretion oozed off its leathery skin, the grotesque form revealed itself with hollow eye sockets aimed toward the pair. The abomination convulsed with every motion, as if something was trying to desperately escape from within.
It lurched out from the cocoon and began staggering toward them, prompting the Crow to position himself in front of Ellie and draw his sword. Though he wore a brave face, it was not enough to stop the trembling of his knees announcing that he was just as frightened as Ellie.
“Stay close,” he said with a wavering voice. “Looks like we’ll have to fight our way out.”
As fragments of rock rolled down the debris, Bedelia pushed herself up from the cold stone and gripped her rib with a wince as she felt the crested pain from a fracture course through her. She glanced all around, finding General Delman leaning his back against a wall as he used it to push himself to a stand. His mask was gone and blood had trailed down his face from his forehead.
“Delman,” she coughed, raising to a quivering knee.
“Why,” he panted. “Why can’t I ever stop it?”
A few paces from him were several Crows, their lifeless bodies mangled beneath the rubble. Tears welled in Bedelia’s eyes as memories of the massacre came clawing back. She knew how much each of the Crows meant to General Delman and how many he’d lost that day. But they both knew full well that they needed to keep going for those who still lived.
The rot permeating the air made it difficult to breathe, but Bedelia mustered the energy to drag her body toward General Delman and grip him by the shoulders.
“Delman, we have to find survivors.”
“Yes.” He grasped at one of her hands and kept his eyes fixed on the smoky sky. “Find survivors, and protect the town.”
They scanned the area for anyone else that hadn’t been crushed or blown away from the shock of the impact. When they determined that any other Crows must have been pushed into the streets, Bedelia and General Delman started for the alley. Solemnly, he stopped and took one last look at those who had lost their lives, swearing that he would return to give them the honor they deserved.
The pair had barely set foot into the main street when they were greeted by several cocoons that had cracked open and now spewed forth hostile monstrosities. The visage of these vile beings settled into Bedelia and General Delman just how gravely they underestimated what the Walker was capable of, and that it had only just begun.