Chapter 10

Dryden woke to a banging on the front door. He sprang upright and fumbled blindly for the candle and matches on his bedside table. He lit the candle, eyes pinched from the sudden glare. A tempestuous wind battered the walls as rain thrummed the roof in an antagonistic fury. Water leaked around his room’s lone window and gathered in a puddle on the floor.

The knocking echoed again. Dryden rubbed his eyes then peered through a slit in the curtain. Zaltoras smothered the night sky in a well of black. Whoever rapped on the front door had the veil of shadow protecting their identity.

Why do I feel like it’s Janir?

Setting down the candle, he threw on a hat, a coat, pants, and a pair of gloves. The floorboards groaned as he tiptoed out his room and into the hall. Outside, he found his parents and Monilia huddled at the top of the stairs, terrified expressions highlighted by their own burning candle.

The knocking echoed a third time, followed by a rupturing voice that could’ve been born of thunder. “In the name of Lord Sögman, open this door!”

Dryden’s heart stopped. He snuffed his candle and thrust his hands in his pockets. The man’s thick accent could only belong to one type of person.

“Who’s Lord Sögman?” whispered Monilia.

“I’ve never heard the name,” said Liliana.

Flint turned to the stairs. Heavy lines creased his furrowed brow. “Stay here. I have a bad feeling about this.”

Dryden followed after him. “We shouldn’t let him in. It’s one of those foreigners.”

“He might have a reason to come at night,” said Flint.

“None that are good, I’d imagine,” grumbled Liliana.

“Mother’s right,” urged Dryden. He tried his best to keep from pleading. “If anyone should answer the door, it’s me.”

“Why’s that?” asked Flint.

“They’re after me.”

Flint didn’t answer. His expression remained set in a frown.

The foreigner knocked again.

Monilia spoke in a timid peep. “Dryden…Why do you think that?”

“I ran into Janir yesterday,” said Dryden. “He had proof.”

“Janir is insane,” argued Flint. He motioned for Dryden to return. “Stay with your mother and sister.”

Dryden took a step closer. “I’m not going to hide. The foreigners are looking for trouble.”

“I’m willing to handle it,” snapped Flint. “Do as I say!”

Dryden recoiled. He glanced over his shoulder and met Monilia’s eyes.

Will the foreigners really kill anyone in their way? He pulled a hand from his coat. His gloves covered the gems in his palms. If I have to protect them, I wonder if that power will come back.

The gems hadn’t stopped glowing since Bonial Woods, yet nothing inside of him felt like it had changed. His strength remained as average as it’d been before. Tearing the monster’s head, as Flint had insisted, must’ve been luck, or a weak point in the creature’s body.

The voice from outside thundered again. “Open this door before I break it down!”

Dryden stayed behind, his nerves in a knot while Flint hurried past. He seated himself beside his mother and sister where he could still see a fraction of the front door. The three of them waited in silence, candle snuffed, perched in the shadows.

The rusted hinges moaned as Flint opened the front door. A gust of wind swirled through the house, rattling cupboards and dishware. Standing at the front step were five fully armed foreigners, rain dripping off their onyx armour. Axes hung from their shoulders, and cylindrical helms with flat tops and three long slits hid their faces. Steel greaves and thick chainmail gave the impression they had arrived for war.

The foremost foreigner spoke first. His voice rang with a metallic echo. “I come in the name of Lord Sögman.”

Flint stood with his shoulders squared. “Yes, I heard. How may I help you?”

“It is believed you have a Vohev living here. Lord Sögman has summoned him.”

“Which one of you is Lord Sögman?” asked Flint.

“He is not here. The Vohev must return to our country to meet him.”

A timid bout of thunder rumbled. Flint replied in a slow, tense voice, as if he were afraid of giving the wrong answer. “You must be mistaken. I’ve never heard of a Vohev.”

The foreigner tightened his grip on a twin-headed axe. “Do not insult me with your lies, human. I know you have a Vohev living here. Bring him to me now, or we settle this through violence.”

Flint took a step back. “There’s no need for that! You must understand, I don’t know what a Vohev is.”

The foreigner stomped his foot. His iron boot cracked the front step. “The one with long black hair! The thruin! Bring him here!”

Dryden’s stomach curled. A heaviness crept through his body as he rose and forced his numbing legs to carry him to the main floor. As he neared the bottom of the stairs, he glanced back at his mother and sister. Both wore expressions of uncertainty and dread.

Flint met him halfway and waved him on. “Hurry,” he whispered. “I don’t know what they want, but do as they say, okay? I don’t want them to hurt you.”

Dryden said nothing. He walked along the cold floor, wishing he had put on a pair of socks.

The five foreigners waited on the front steps, still and daunting, like a flock of wraiths from ancient folklore. They weren’t much bigger than Dryden, but they seemed eight feet tall under their glistening armour and lumbering weapons.

The closest of the five, the one who appeared to be the leader, grunted as Dryden stopped before him. “So, you are Dryden?”

One of the other foreigners tossed a dripping burlap sack. It struck Dryden in the chest then hit the ground with a splat. Something rolled out, soaked in a sticky crimson.

Dryden nearly collapsed to his knees. He fought the urge to vomit. Lying at his feet was Janir’s severed head. Lifeless eyes gazed up at him. Where there had once been crooked yellow teeth, there were now bare, swollen gums. His nose bent in a sharp arc, as if the bone had been snapped through.

“Your friend refused to mind his own business,” said the lead foreigner. “He even dared to capture one of our comrades.”

The third foreigner tossed sack drenched in white blood. The head of the man from Janir’s house trickled out. Bruises disfigured his face. Shattered teeth lined his gums.

“Your friend even coaxed secrets out of him.”

Flint stood gawking at the severed heads dripping blood on the floor. Dryden could only stare at the grates in the foreigner’s helm, unable to collect his wits.

Their silence coaxed a tired sigh from the leader. “We don’t mean to break into your home at night like barbarians, but we had to compromise. Just as our comrade told you, Dryden, we came to this town in search of you. Lord Sögman wishes to meet with you in person, so we are here to escort you to our homeland.” He held out a hand. His tone shifted to a sophisticated civility. “I apologize for the manner we meet, but will you accept Lord Sögman’s invitation?”

Dryden choked down a wave of nausea. He answered in a dry croak. “Who are you?”

“Never mind that,” said the foreigner. He motioned to his dead comrade’s bloody face. “You see what will happen if we give out secrets.”

Dryden swallowed a hard lump. “I—I can’t. You killed Janir and Sargan. And those soldiers from Feldamor…”

“I promise you will not be harmed. Lord Sögman commands it.” The foreigner’s grip flexed around the handle of his axe. “Unless you cause us trouble.”

Flint stepped forward. A bead of sweat trickled down his neck. “Where are you taking him? Who’s this Sögman you follow?”

The foreigner’s helm tilted downwards, as if he were sizing up Flint. “Do not pester me with questions, human. I have not come for you.”

“I’m Dryden’s father,” argued Flint. “I won’t let you take him without an explanation.”

The foreigner flung his axe forward. Its blade split the floor between Flint’s feet. “We have not come to negotiate with a worthless farmer! If you try to interfere, I’ll add your head to my collection!”

Movement returned to Dryden’s body. He sprang between the two and glared into the foreigner’s helm. “Forget it! Don’t expect me to go if you threaten my father like that!”

The foreigner growled. “Must you make this difficult?”

“I want answers if I have to go,” said Dryden. “How do you expect me to trust you?”

A bolt of lightning flashed, so bright, Dryden thought he’d been blinded. He blinked until he could see again, only to have the ground tremble under a thunderclap fit to crack the earth.

More lightning followed, their forked bodies like celestial javelins. Thunder encored in a series of deafening booms, enough to make Zaltoras itself quaver. The cloud faded from an ominous black to a dark, hematic red, as if it were a cloth absorbing blood.

The lead foreigner pulled his axe from the floor and turned to look at the sky. “We’ve been spotted…” He waved an arm at his companions and shouted orders in their native language.

The other four leapt into action. They muscled past Flint and Dryden, into the house, where they tore open every door and cupboard they came across.

“What are you doing?” cried Flint.

“Don’t interfere!” barked the foreigner. “Move, and your family dies.”

Flint paled. Dryden stood stiff-limbed, eyes locked on the leader as the other foreigners’ footsteps clunked through the house. The stairs leading to the bedrooms gave its familiar whine, then something made of glass shattered. A shout from one of the foreigners tumbled to the front door.

“Kriuśką! Come here!”

A scuffle ensued. Liliana yelped.

“Got you!” came the voice of a foreigner. “Get moving!”

Dryden checked over his shoulder. Monilia and Liliana hurried down the stairs, led by the hair. Both walked barefoot and shivered at the knees. Tears misted their eyes.

Dryden’s chest tightened. The sight nearly bore a hole in his heart. Every fibre yearned to beat the foreigners senseless, but something inside insisted it’d be wiser to avoid confrontation, so he watched uselessly as the foreigners dragged his mother and sister to the front door.

“It seems that’s everyone,” said the one holding Monilia.

Their leader nodded. “Good. We better act fast.” He stepped outside and unhooked a spiral horn fastened to a belt. Lifting his helm no higher than his mouth, he blew a signal that seemed to pierce every corner of the sky—a near match to the raging thunder.

He lowered his helm and returned to the group. “Now we wait.” His voice sounded grim, like someone awaiting a bad omen.

All nine of them stood in silence while thunder crackled. Dryden ached for a sip of water to wet his dry lips. His throat burned, but it hardly bothered him compared to the sight of his mother and sister bound by the hair. He longed to give his coat to Monilia, who wore little more than a light shirt, but the soldiers looked ready to strike if he moved without permission.

Instead, he tried to pass her a reassuring smile, but her tear-stained cheeks and wide, frightened eyes shattered his composure. Watching her suffer from an arm’s length away, unable to do anything about it, left him sick.

His gaze fell to the floor. He swore under his breath.

A sequence of lightning lit a bulk of land visible through the front door. It sparked life into the lead foreigner, who murmured something in his own language as he moved outside.

Dark shapes emerged from beyond the hills. Footsteps rumbled. Flashes of lightning revealed an ensemble of foreigners swarming around the house like a flood of onyx steel. Monsters identical to the one Dryden had killed lumbered alongside, shrieking and yanking at chains wrapped around their necks.

Thousands of lightning bolts flashed in rapid sequence. Thunder roared again. By the time Dryden blinked away the shock of the light, an army of soldiers had surrounded the house.

The lead foreigner turned to the men once they’d drawn within earshot. He shouted commands over the rain and thunder, his words indecipherable beneath the unfamiliar language.

Interrupting him was a bout of thunder that exploded like a ruptured mountainside. Dryden didn’t budge in spite of his ringing ears. He kept still, dumbstruck as a sheet of white light divided Zaltoras in two. It poured out, pure as a lily, flanked by streaks of lightning.

Something funneled from inside. More lightning flashed. A cluster of winged figures, garbed in white robes, descended to the earth.

Their numbers doubled the foreigners. Neither man nor monster moved as the winged ones landed among them, passed by uninterrupted, and approached the house.

One, who by his walk seemed to be the leader, stopped at the front door with six more in his company. “I come in the name of Lord Vathos.” He spoke with a glazed look in his eyes, as if his mind were continually wandering.

“I know that,” said the lead foreigner. “You’ve come for the Vohev. You see you are too late, do you not?”

The winged man outstretched his arm. His gaze remained blank. “I command you, in the name of the Almighty Lord Vathos, to hand over the Vohev.”

The foreigner scoffed. “Do you think I’m intimidated? What can Vathos do in his little shelter? I could put an arrow through your throat with a wave of the hand. A snap of the finger, and my men will drown yours in a pool of their own blood.”

The winged man stiffened. “Vathos does not want bloodshed.”

“Then you should leave.” The foreigner gestured to his army. “My men aren’t afraid to kill.”

“We do not need fatalities to settle this.”

The foreigner laughed. “How should we then? A match of checkers?”

“This is no game.”

“Then leave.”

The foreigner held up his hand. One of the other four snatched Flint. He and the ones holding Monilia and Lilliana pressed curved daggers to their necks.

Dryden sprang for their defence, but the last foreigner seized him by the arms and pinned them behind his back. He tried to break free, only to have a knee driven into his spine. He dropped to the ground, winded from the blow.

The foreigners tightened their arms around Flint, Lilliana, and Monilia. Dryden raised his head, glowering and baring his teeth. “I swear, if you hurt them, I’ll kill every single one of you then tear Sögman’s head off with my bare hands!”

The lead foreigner chuckled. “How touching.” He turned to the winged man. “You wouldn’t want to cause this Vohev so much pain, would you?”

The winged man’s face remained a blank canvas. He spoke in a flat voice devoid of emotion. “Do not toy with the lives of the innocent.”

“I have not come to toy with anybody,” said the foreigner. “But take this as a warning: If you interfere…”

His voice trailed off. He looked in the direction of Dryden’s family.

Dryden followed his gaze. Flint was staring at the floor. Colour had returned to his face, though it couldn’t hide a terrified expression. Liliana scowled at the lead foreigner, tears streaming down her cheeks. Monilia watched Dryden with misty eyes, her knees trembling.

Dryden felt like vomiting. His only family—the ones who had chosen to accept a thruin into their home—stood just two strides away, yet he could do nothing to close the gap.

Surrender! he told himself. Mitigate! Do anything! You have to save them!

“I’ll meet with Sögman!” he blurted. “And Vathos too! I’ll do anything! We can settle this without fighting! Don’t bring my family into it!”

The foreigner pinning him in place jabbed a knee into his back. He gave an airy croak then slumped forward.

“Heroic words,” said the lead foreigner, who stood with a hand on his hip, watching Dryden. “But there is only one solution.” He spoke to the winged man. “Leave now, and the family lives.”

“Do not bring innocent lives into this,” demanded the winged man.

The foreigner raised his right hand, fingers outstretched. “Leave now, and the family lives.”

The winged man shook his head. “We will not depart without the Vohev.”

“Is that your final decision?”

A stretch of near unbearable silence passed. Dryden tried to beg the winged man to yield, but he couldn’t raise his voice beyond a whisper.

“Please…don’t let them die…”

The winged man lowered his head. An answer came in a low, empty voice. “I will not sway.”

The foreigner nodded. “Then you have brought this fate upon them.”

He clenched his fist. The foreigners holding Flint, Liliana, and Monilia drew their blades across their throats. Blood gushed out. The bodies collapsed in a heap, face first against the floor.

Dryden screamed. Everything fell to a haze. He couldn’t hear the drum of rain, the roar of thunder, or see the flashes of lightning. Only his family remained visible. Their blood glistened on the floor. Their limbs convulsed.

A surge careened through his body as flames erupted from his hands. He lurched himself free, lunged at the one who had killed Monilia, and tackled him to the floor. The helm chimed as he pounded it with his fists, punching until blood oozed from the slits.

The lead foreigner shouted from somewhere behind him. “Zatrz mai! Wrytach Vohev!”

Dryden whirled around. He splashed through a puddle of Monilia’s blood and reared a fist at the leader.

Before it could connect, something caught him in the side of the head. His vision blurred as he fell through the open door and tumbled down the front step. Rain extinguished the fire in his hands.

The world diluted into a muddled haze. Thunder buzzed in his ears. He tried to climb back to his feet, but he couldn’t find any ground to stand on.

A yelp escaped his lips as a heavy object crashed on top of him. He blinked until he could make out the figure of a dead foreigner sprawled across him, an arrow jutting from his throat.

Someone with sharp-toed boots stepped on his arm. Another kicked him in the back. The cry of brandished weapons pierced the air.

“Don’t leave him there!” shouted the familiar voice of the lead foreigner, this time in Velian. “Bring him to safety!”

Bodies thronged towards Dryden. A foreigner stooped to take him, then dropped as a well-placed arrow put him to rest.

Dryden flipped onto his stomach. He dug his fingers into the front step and pulled himself closer to the door, where he could see his family’s limp bodies.

No…Don’t leave me…Please…

They looked strange. He almost didn’t recognize them, lying on their faces, bathed in their own blood. It couldn’t be real. They couldn’t actually be dead.

He clawed at the doorframe, but a foreigner seized him by the collar, hurled him backwards, and dragged him across the ground. Moments later, a winged man struck the foreigner in the back of the head. He grabbed Dryden, only to fall as several arrows burrowed into his back.

The lead foreigner’s voice boomed. “Show them we are serious! I want a group to burn this whole town to the ground! Kill everyone and everything! No woman, child, or animal shall be left alive! Show Vathos what happens when he interferes!”

Shouts rang out in reply.

“I want another group to get the Vohev,” continued the leader. “Don’t let him escape! Don’t let Vathos’s men take him!”

Burn Byromar down?

Dryden tried to rise to his feet. The ground wavered. He took a cautious step forward, fought to remain balanced, then crumpled as a winged man barged into him. A foreigner stabbed the winged man and kicked another as they closed in. Both armies swarmed from every direction. Arrows whirred through the sky like birds. Monsters shrieked.

In the distance, an orange flash erupted with a rush of wind. Flames leapt upwards, undeterred by the rainfall. The nearby trees shrank under the harsh glow. Dryden gawked as a thick cloud of smoke swallowed the sky and strangled the air with a stench of burning oil.

They—they really are setting the town on fire. Thoughts of Wismire and Deletha, Haley, Martron and the others ravaged his mind. I need to help them!

He pulled himself to his hands and knees, and began to crawl through the warfare. An arrow flew past him. A second grazed the back of his arm. He dropped to his stomach, grimacing as blood soaked through his sleeve.

One of the foreigners pointed in his direction and shouted. “Widzę tlaz! Zra Vohev!”

Cursing, Dryden dragged himself towards the shadow of a nearby thicket.

I need a plan!

He craned his neck. A dead foreigner, lying an arm’s length away, wore a knee-length cape. While the two armies blotted each other’s path, swords flashing under the glare of fire, Dryden reached for the carcass. Tearing the cape from the armour, he wrapped himself in the fabric then yanked the helm off.

Beneath it, he met a pair of crystal eyes that gazed into nothingness. White blood pooled around the mouth and nose. The man’s pointed ears confirmed a thruin heritage. He looked no older than Dryden, with a fair complexion, one that seemed out of place among such hedonistic violence.

Sick to his stomach, Dryden turned away from the corpse. He slipped on the man’s helm, crinkling his nose from the foul smell of sweat. His breath echoed inside the metal as he laboured to his feet and searched for an opening in the swarm of bodies.

He spotted a gap and ran towards it, wavering with each step, but managing to stay upright. Nobody seemed to notice him as he sped to a large patch of trees waiting ahead—a perfect place to lose anyone who might’ve seen through his disguise.

If I can get away from the fight, I can try to beat the other soldiers to each house. Once I wake the first family—

His knee buckled. A torrent of pain branched through his right leg as he collapsed. The entire head of an arrow lay pierced in his calf. He tried rising, but his leg refused to hold his weight.

“Not now!”

He wheezed through his teeth. The slightest movement sent a blistering agony up his body. “I can’t stop!”

Desperation forced him to try standing, but the pain eating through his muscles sent him back to his knees. He checked over his shoulder.

The two armies had veered the opposite direction. A stray arrow must’ve hit him. Of all the foul luck! I need to move. Fight the pain...

He tried in vain to lift himself. Why now? Come on, you weakling! Stand up!

Another attempt proved his leg was useless. Even if I manage to stand, how am I going to outrun the soldiers?

Rage enflamed his heart. He slammed his fists against the ground. “Damn it! They’re going to kill everyone, and it’s all your fault! Why won’t you stand?”

Blood drizzled down his leg as he slumped forward and crawled into the forest, fingers clawing at the wet dirt, rain dripping down his back. Like a sickly leper, he groveled through the foliage to a fallen tree. Taking one of the branches, he snapped it from the rotting trunk. With the branch as a support, he hoisted himself upright, gagging from the aggravated pain.

His right leg dragged behind as he limped clear of the fallen tree. Drooping branches closed around him like a protective shield, dispelling the threat of swords and arrows.

He removed the helm, relieved to be rid of the awful stench. The chaos of the fight must’ve kept both the foreigners and the winged men preoccupied, for nobody seemed aware that he’d skulked into the shadows. Hindered by little more than his useless leg, he hobbled towards the burning glow visible through the curtain of leaves.

He pushed his way into a clearing recognizable as his neighbours’ property. Waves of heat greeted him; fire raged in the shape of a dancing crown. Timber beams cackled and hissed as the rain fought in vain to tame the monument of flames.

A piercing scream echoed from nearby. Dryden spun to find the silhouette of a woman at the peak of a nearby hill. She stumbled over her skirt, scrambled to her feet, then careened towards him. Three foreigners appeared shortly after. Their double-edged swords shimmered under the fire’s leer. They chased the woman like a pack of hounds, steel boots splashing through the mud.

Dryden looked down at the gems in his palms. Both glowed through the burnt and tattered remains of his gloves.

Do something…Save one life, at least. Just one.

The woman shrieked. Dryden outstretched his arm and searched his conscience for the same energy that had consumed him in the house and in Bonial Woods.

Nothing happened.

The foreigners closed in on the woman.

“Help me!” she cried. “Someone!”

Dryden clenched his fist. Damn it! Do something!

He dug his fingers into his palm until blood dripped from the gem. Sweat trickled down his neck, all to little effect.

Why isn’t this working? I just did it! What changed?

The foreigners neared the woman, yet his body refused to act as it had before. Safe from a distance, he did nothing but watch as one foreigner leapt forward. His blade caught the woman’s back. A curdling scream shook the clearing.

The woman tripped over herself. She barely hit the ground before another foreigner plunged his sword through her chest. Her cries quieted.

Dryden’s arm dropped to his side. He stood, paralyzed by anger as the foreigners collected their breath no more than a stone’s throw away.

“What an ordeal,” said the tallest of the three. Though he spoke in Velian, his thick accent muddled every word. “We must have chased her across half the town.”

The killer wiped his blade on his sleeve then slid it back into the scabbard. “Some of these farmers have quick feet.” He looked up and took a step backwards, as if he’d been startled. “Hey, there’s another!”

The third foreigner raised his sword. “He looks wounded. This should be easier.”

He moved forward, but the tall one pulled him back. “Wait! That’s the Vohev!”

“Is it?” The killer edged closer. “He’s in poor condition.”

“Let’s find a place to hide him until the Vathonians are gone,” said the third foreigner.

The group prowled towards Dryden. Reflections from the blazing house bounced off their armour. Dryden stood rooted in place, fury choking up his senses. He forgot about the arrow in his leg and the chill from the rain. His mind whirled with thoughts on how brutally he could kill these three men.

The killer gave a chuckle. “What’s wrong? Are you too scared to move?”

Dryden glared. I’ll fight with or without the power in my hands. They won’t go unpunished.

“Seems like a dumb one,” said the tall one. He reached with his free hand, yet Dryden kept still, waiting, motionless and tensed.

As the foreigner’s fingers glazed his shoulder, Dryden crouched with his good leg, snatched the man by the waist, and flung him over his shoulder. He spun around and pulled the sword free as the foreigner crashed to the ground.

The other two cursed. One sprang forward, but Dryden turned and slashed at him. Sparks leapt off his breastplate. He tried stabbing at a seam, but his leg gave out the moment he shifted his weight. The sword fell. He dropped to his knees.

“Kędnzi!” The killer kicked Dryden in the ribs. The arrow’s shaft snapped as he skidded across the mud. Its tip lodged deeper into his calf.

Dryden cried out. He tried to rise, but an iron boot cracked against his hip and sent him tumbling towards the dead woman’s body. He recognized her face. It was Benna, the baker’s wife. She had given him a wooden toy once when he was younger, for no reason other than kindness. He always admired her for that, and how she always smiled when she saw him.

And what do I do in return? I let these foreigners slaughter her like a pig.

The tall foreigner pulled himself off the ground with a snarl. “I ought to kill the Vohev for that!”

He pressed his boot on Dryden’s face. Mud dripped into his mouth. The foreigner twisted his foot back and forth.

Dryden grabbed him by the ankle, but the moment he moved, the foreigner pressed down harder. “Any more out of you and I’ll break your jaw.”

The weight of the boot bent Dryden’s neck in an awkward position. He let go then laid his hands flat, as if surrendering. The foreigner lessened the pressure.

“What do you want from me?” asked Dryden.

“Never mind that,” said the foreigner with a scoff.

“How does Sögman know who I am?”

The foreigner dug his heel into Dryden’s cheek. “Keep quiet!”

In spite of the pain, Dryden continued to pester him with questions. “What’s a Vohev? That’s why you’re after me, isn’t it?”

“You’re a curious one,” grumbled the foreigner. “Lord Sögman will have all the answers you want. It would have been an honourable meeting had you come with us, but now we’ll have to drag you to our country like a caged dog.”

Dryden fidgeted beneath the cold steel. He could barely speak with the heel grinding his face into the ground. “I agreed to go, but you still killed my family.”

“You can thank Vathos for that.”

Anger seared Dryden’s blood. He pounded the ground with clenched fists. “It was you who killed them! You! Not Vathos! You’re the murderers! Vathos didn’t want bloodshed!”

A beam collapsed in the house, launching sparks and small chunks of timber across the property. Two of the foreigners recoiled, as if they were intimidated by the flames.

“We shouldn’t idle,” said the killer. “Lord Sögman will have us hanged if we lose the Vohev.”

The other two said nothing. Both stood facing the shadows as lightning flashed. Thunder drummed in tow.

“Did you see that?” said the third foreigner. He pointed a finger. “I saw something in the distance.”

The others crowded around Dryden with their swords drawn. Lightning flickered again. Dryden shifted as much as he could, but wasn’t able to see what they were staring at.

“It’s a man,” said the killer.

The third foreigner took a step back. “Be careful. He has a sword.”

The killer raised his own weapon and laughed. “Are you afraid of a country peasant just because he is armed?”

He disappeared from Dryden’s sight. His footsteps splashed through the rain. A hiss of air sounded, then the killer cried out. Something thumped to the ground. Gasps escaped the other foreigners. The tall one lifted his boot off Dryden’s face.

Dryden scrambled to an upright position. The killer lay flat on his back, his severed head off to the side, drenched in blood. Beside him stood a man shrouded in a dark green cloak. Face hidden by a hood, he stepped over the headless corpse and held out his sword, as if inviting the remaining foreigners to attack him.

The tall one gave a worried murmur. “Flank him from both sides.”

“What about the Vohev?” asked the other.

“He can’t go anywhere. We’ll only be a moment.”

They charged, swords gleaming. Both slashed at the same time, but the man stooped below the blades and truncated the tall one’s arm in a motion almost too quick to see.

Blood erupted alongside the foreigner’s screaming. The hooded figure slit the back of his knees. He barely hit the ground before the third foreigner swung his sword. The hooded man blocked the attack, ducked, then dismembered the last foreigner’s hand.

He too, had his tendons cut. The hooded man threw their weapons into the fire then left them to writhe in the rain as he approached Dryden with an outstretched arm. “Let’s get you out of here.”

His voice sounded strangely familiar. Dryden took his hand, rose to his feet, and leaned on his shoulder for support. Together, they inched towards the darkness.

“Are you with Vathos?” asked Dryden.

His question prompted a quiet noise, almost like a chuckle. “No, I’m nothing more than a simple old man.”

“Where are you taking me?”

“Away from Byromar.”

Dryden broke away. “I can’t go. I have to help.”

The man took a hold of him and pulled him back. “You can barely walk. How are you going to stop an army from attacking Byromar?”

A sudden well of tears sprung up. Dryden pinched his eyes shut. “It’s better than fleeing like a coward!” he cried.

The man shook his head. “I saw the group burning houses. You can’t beat that many people, even with two good legs.”

Dryden cringed at the words. He replied through clenched teeth. “I’d rather die than abandon my friends and family!”

“Would you?”

The man pushed Dryden towards the roaring flames. He fell, doubled over by the pain in his leg.

“Why don’t you crawl into that inferno?” said the man. “It’ll save you the trouble of finding a soldier to kill you.”

Dryden stared at the fire. The burning house crackled and sparked as walls collapsed into rubble.

There has to be something I can do. I can’t just run away!

The man rested a hand on his shoulder. “There’s too many of them.”

Dryden clenched his fists. Hot tears streamed down his cheeks. “But this is my fault! People are dying because of me. Is running away all I can do?”

“For now.” The man hoisted Dryden to his feet and dragged him away from the hazy cloud of smoke. The two foreigners moaned.

Dryden cursed. He blinked away the tears. Is this the last I’ll ever see of Byromar?

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