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The gates looked more menacing without the blood.
A little bit of red reminded well that the bars were there to keep the monsters out, and not the people in.
The evening was chilly and grey. Sigmund rode up the barren path alone, with his bird circling the walls ahead and a black cloak fluttering at his sides. The east gates of the city loomed in the distance, giant at first, then colossal as he neared, two doors of curved black iron.
A pair of guards stationed at the front, stacked with heavy armor, moved to block him as he came. The swords at their sides were only too visible.
“All of the gates are closed,” the taller man said. He had a mean look through the helmet’s visor, and the size to back it up. “Sage Eris ordered a lockdown on the city. Nobody gets in or out.”
“I have business outside,” he told them. “You can make an exception.”
“Go home,” he ordered.
Sigmund didn’t move. He considered their swords for a moment, two pieces of large steel, and wondered if they would actually use them. “I’m weaponless. What are you going to do to stop me? Cut me down?” He spread his arms under his cloak to show them.
“We’ll block the gate,” he warned. “And maybe send you to the sage herself. You’ll regret it then.”
He tilted his head. “Oh, I will. Perhaps she’ll lecture me to death.”
They didn’t laugh.
“Why is there a lockdown?” he asked. The two didn’t reply, and he trailed his horse closer. Even on horseback, he only came face-to-face with the larger man. “You two don’t even know. You just follow orders.”
The other one drew his weapon. “Stop. Lift your hood.”
That was the end of it. He clicked his tongue. “Bunch of fools you are,” Sigmund said, and he showed them.
The older guard twitched. The other’s reaction was delayed, but he had sense enough to lower his sword. Perhaps they were training them better than he thought.
“Sage Sigmund,” the first one said. He freed himself of his helmet and bowed. The iron had hidden the age in his face. “This is a surprise. It had been so long that your voice was lost to me.” The younger guard followed his example then, hastily bending in clunky armor.
Sigmund eyed him for a moment, then flipped through his memory. “Sir Kraki of House Remis,” he recited. “Water mage. Twenty-three this year, and prefers steel over magic.” He could see his eyes bug out. “You’re fifth in line to the house, single, and graduated as a trainee two years ago. You’ve been shadowing Sir Lewis ever since. Shall I go on?”
The guard stumbled over his words. Beside him, old Sir Lewis burst into laughter and gave him a great clap on the back. “He’s got you there,” he said. “Happens to the best of us.”
“I don’t spend my time in office doodling cats,” he said flatly. “There’s a reason Eris gets to walk around.”
Kraki finally put his tongue together. “Apologies for not recognizing you, Your Holiness. I didn’t expect anyone so young.”
When speaking to a sage, young was the polite synonym for short. The word always seemed to pop up when he met anyone. “This is why I came with my hood down. Enough stalling; just open the gate.” He knew Lewis could recognize his scowl.
The two worked quickly, parting the giant black doors. The old guard gave him a nod as he passed.
“One more thing,” Sigmund said. “Did Eris take in a person today?”
“Yes. Her and two of her friends. They made a commotion coming in, before Sage Eris ordered the lockdown.” He knew to give Sigmund a name without being prompted. “Alma Shuling.”
He repeated the name in his head. It didn’t mean much to him.
Now Lewis looked wary. “It would be my honor to accompany you through the woods, Sage Sigmund, if a sword was needed at your side. The matter cannot be anything good if the unkillable himself has come to investigate.”
“No. The walls need the better protection.” Sigmund turned to Kraki. “If you know what it means to stand here, then guard these gates with your life.” He knew how ominous the words sounded.
“Yes, sir,” Kraki answered.
They were the same age.
He snapped the reins, picking up speed, and behind him the doors of the eastern gate shut with a booming clang. From above, his messenger bird swooped and disappeared. Sigmund let Sky fly ahead.
He and Eris shared a pair of the birds together. The other sage came to him with news that a monster had appeared in the ocean, and that a group of travellers had witnessed it themselves. How true this would prove to be, he wasn’t certain. But it was better for him than Eris to go: if anything happened, the city would still have a leader.
Sigmund rode along the flattened path, passing into thick green woods. The sky was muted and grey, an ominous sign. If a monster truly as big as it had made itself sound appeared, then perhaps the village ahead would already have heard the news—or seen it for themselves.
Yet something still bothered him. The ocean was supposed to be protected: the water dragon Mazu, whom the people worshipped, saw to it herself. Her den sat on the shores of the water, a rocky fortress among the cliffs. Surely the deity would have seen the monster first. What could have happened to her after that?
The questions circled his mind for the long ride. When he turned for a shortcut and the road narrowed, he led his horse carefully, picking through grasses and roots. The trees opened to a hill overlooking part of the village. He tied the reins of the horse to a tree, then went to take a look.
There was something there, in the horizon. A massive wall of fog. What used to be another section of forest was drowned in a grey abyss. It rolled forward in thick clouds, slow like a giant’s steps. Inside, the world seemed to have been swallowed away. Past the forest, only the village lay ahead.
He had to evacuate the people quickly. Sigmund retreated, grabbing for the reins, and whistled for Sky to come. He had to let Eris know. The gates and walls could stop the wild beasts from tearing through, but it couldn’t halt something as intangible as air. Plus, the sheer intensity of it, the way it moved…it couldn’t be natural. Maybe a monster really had come.
The brush of wings shook the leaves above. He stretched out his arm, expecting Sky to land, but instead the tangled body of his bird dropped to the ground like a rock. The horse reared in a whinny.
A shiver ran down his arms. There was a breath in the wind, a whisper, and he spun, crying out, “Who’s there?”
Nothing answered. Then there was the shift of air, the tingle of magic.
Sigmund wasn’t scared yet. “This is high treason to obstruct the work of a sage,” he said out loud. “We may travel unarmed, but don’t think you can take one of us so easily.” He glanced down, observing the way the wings of his messenger bird twisted onto themselves. Its neck was bent.
If Eris was smart, she wouldn’t come looking for him.
It showed itself. A pure white figure drifted through the air, silent as a ghost. The leaves couldn’t touch it. If Sir Lewis had come, he doubted his longsword could have, either; at least he had saved the old man’s life by ordering him to stay by the gate.
The thing flew to him, slow and ominous as the fog, and there was only the cliff at his back, and the horse at his side. He tugged the reins, but found the animal stiff and frozen on the other end, like a rock. Its chest didn’t move.
He swore. “What are you? What do you want?” It was close now, almost enough to reach out and touch him.
The thing spoke, and it sounded like a little girl’s voice. “Sigmund, the Old Ones say you’re unkillable. I’ll break you instead.” A hand reached down, five too-long fingers pale as milk. The corpse of his bird rolled and righted itself in the grass like flesh with puppet-strings.
He couldn’t move. His eyes locked in place as he froze, also, like a statue.
It smiled. “A letter to Eris,” it told him.
The thing reached down, and its cold fingers passed into his head.