Protected by fortified walls and barren mountainous land, the border town of Wodan spent most of its time in a slumber from which it only awoke for war or the arrival of the equinox. The Frisians loved their festivals, stringing together commemorative dates one after the other and leaping at the slightest excuse for a feast. They loved to trumpet their victories in long-forgotten wars and to commit to memory the heroes of these ancient battles while they copied and corrected their ancient manuscripts. Twice a year and with particular zeal, however, they paid tribute to the gods and their enemies, glorifying and gratifying the former and inflicting torments upon the latter.
Frisia’s greatness needed no proof, but its rulers loved the taste of blood and thirsted after trembling flesh; and it just so happened that this festival, which collected a bloody tribute from even the smallest Frisian town, always began in Wodan, near the southern border of this northern state.
Close to Wodan lay the start of the Gellian tunnel, the great Frisian road to the South, along which the northern regiments had marched through the centuries to subdue the insidious Gells or the Berkans, when these grew brazen in their life of plenty. Although the fortress of Fro on the opposite end of the tunnel belonged to the highlanders, the Wodanites knew that the mere sound of clattering wheels of steel in the tunnel was enough for the Gells to scatter and hide in their burrows and family towers. They could brag and bluster all they liked behind their lofty walls, but even if rumors of war were doing the rounds in all the taverns, these were just the usual spring festivities arriving in Wodan,.
And why just talk about things? A nation without some new victory on the battlefield was like a strongman without a good brawl. Muscles were made for flexing and glory was always in short supply. Frisia’s history taught that all things began in Wodan, except for the not-so-ancient but highly successful war against Baldar, perhaps.
One will never know what Wodan’s burgomaster, Baron Stim, thought about this. The Baron, a gray-haired veteran of that very same Baldarian War, was not in the mood for rumination right now. The guard of honor he was lining up on Wodan’s town square looked more like a ragtag mob of camp followers, even though the buttons and buckles on their decorative armor were polished to a mirror finish. The buglers above the main gate only managed to coax an inarticulate wheezing sound from their shiny bugles, and the rubbish that had just recently been swept into piles was blown all over the square and then whipped into eddies of whirling dirt by the wind. The sergeant of the guard had lost his voice from all the shouting and only waved his arms about, every now and then glancing at the sky in the hope that some rain would deliver him from this ordeal. The crowd of onlookers on the square was starting to spill out of the enclosures erected near the town hall and the burgomaster’s house.
Only two people on the square weren’t taking part in the springtime insanity; this even though one of them was doggedly following in the Baron’s tracks while the other stood on the fortress wall, vigilantly surveying the surroundings. The Sons of the Shadow Clan protected the life of Baron Stim and nothing else seemed to interest them. The Eikons were not an unusual sight in Wodan or any of Frisia’s other cities, but there was unlikely to be a single man in Wodan—or all of Frisia for that matter—who did not stare when he saw these astonishing bodyguards in town or out on some distant road. Not that anyone would have dared to attack a warrior from the Shadow Clan, for they were rumored to be like a deadly wind that surrounds and kills everyone crossing their path.
This wind cost a tiny fortune, and could only be afforded by the most important grandees and the richest merchants, such as the ones whose caravans entered the dangerous Vandil forest or the no less fearsome Hungry Steppe. But no one had ever regretted sending a handsome portion of his income or life endowment to the far-off Island of Shadows, where the fellow-tribesmen of these amazing warriors lived out their lives in seclusion. And yet it was impossible to grow used to the Eikons, their strange, free-flowing clothes, the swords of various lengths hanging from their waistbands or the knots in which they tied back their long black hair. To say nothing of the menacing ornamental scars that snaked down their bodies from their cheekbones and their wrists. Whether these two sets of scarifications joined up to meet somewhere on their bodies was anyone’s guess. It was impossible to get used to these lines cut into living flesh, even if the victims of the impending festivity were subjected to something similar every year. Most surprisingly of all, the presence of the scars did not turn the Eikons into maimed wretches; for it was said that they felt no pain and did not know simple human pleasures. Some even claimed that the flesh patterns were one of the ways in which the Eikons increased their valor, but nothing was reliably known in this regard, as they always appeared in Frisia already fully decked out in this ornamentation.
The man poised at the gate tower was Lo Pheng, a warrior-of-peace, and probably the highest-ranking son of the Shadow Clan to be found beyond the shores of his native island. Standing next to Baron Stim was Jang Tao, a warrior-of-courage, who had not yet reached the rank of warrior-of-peace, even though he was older than Lo Pheng.
A chilly spring wind touched Lo Pheng’s face. He could feel both the warmth of the sun behind its cloud cover and the coldness that wafted from the peaks of the Baldar and Silver mountains. He took in the view of the foothills as they welcomed the arrival of spring with a green velvet covering of young grass. One day when the warrior-of-peace plunged head-first into real retirement, he would walk out of his tiny hut in his native village on the Island of Shadows and in the same way catch the heat and the cold with his face as he admired the loveliness of his self-tended garden.
Then he would not see these dark-grey, almost black, bastions, the walls of the Wodan fortress, red-tiled roofs, little hamlets scattered across the slopes of the gorge or the arch of the Gellian tunnel, enormous even at such a distance. Nor would he hear the Uruz bellowing like a new-born baby in the Silver Canyon before gathering all its tributaries ten leagues further to continue the remainder of its journey to the Frisian Sea as a mighty river that continuously converged and diverged with the Road to Gordin. That was if the Eikon warrior ever lived to reach old age and could still see anything at all.
Lo Pheng studied the procession that was already entering the village located outside the town gates. A small squad of bodyguards was marching ahead under a black Frisian flag with three crimson crowns. Behind them trotted a handsome steed—just the right build for a portly rider—in which was seated the guest of honor, Count Pelko Soturi himself. The Count was surrounded by three unobtrusive riders, one up ahead, almost among the bodyguards, one to his side, half a horse’s width from the Count, and one at the back, among the servants. Everything was right and proper. No-one could carry out their duties better than Eikons.
Something out of the ordinary was coming up further down the line, however. Behind a wagon full of servants, a dozen broad-shouldered warriors, their faces and armor covered by black hooded cloaks, were marching in strict file, followed by yet another wagon. Next to them rode a solitary horseman, also robed in black but as small as a child. The second wagon’s coachman couldn’t conceal his height even by sitting on the coach-box. Like the other members of his party, the gaunt old man’s robes were not flamboyant, but something bright shone on his chest. A light shadow of unease had been nagging at Lo Pheng the whole morning and now he knew why. He turned around and, passing the buglers getting ready to sound their triumphal bugles, started climbing down the wall.
Baron Stim’s eyes flitted over the dispassionate face of his chief bodyguard who in his year of service had not shown him a single sign of respect, let alone servility. He raked his fingers through his sweat-plastered gray hair, gave a sigh and resumed his attempt to straighten out the somewhat haphazard line of guardsmen facing the city gate from the square. About a year ago the Baron had asked Lo Pheng point-blank why neither he nor his partner ever bowed their heads at the appearance of their client; or at the raising of the flag; or the sound of the Frisian hymn? Or was that also not stipulated in the contract? Lo Pheng’s response had been odd. He tersely led the Baron to understand that not everything could be stipulated in a contract and that he, Lo Pheng, never bowed his head before anyone, even the Primate of the Temple of Divine Wrath or any of the Frisian kings, because behind—and inside—him lay concealed the power and valor of thousands of great Eikon warriors, and not even the gods were worthy of such an honor.
At the time the Baron had merely given a disheartened frown, had even thought he’d like to see how anyone would dare not to bow his head before the Inquisition, but now he only shook his head in irritation. Fortunately, at that moment the bugles at last blared out from the wall, this time without any wheezing or spluttering. Lo Pheng walked up to Jang Tao and said:
“There are temple warriors in the retinue too, not only the Inquisition.”
“And the three brothers too?” asked Jang Tao.
Lo Pheng didn’t respond. Jang Tao should not have overlooked the most important thing and asked such an obvious question. The warrior-of-courage realized his oversight, nodded and headed for the house of the burgomaster. Lo Pheng took up his position.
* * *
“At last, my old friend!” Count Pelko Soturi almost sang the greeting as he slid from his horse in front of the guard of honor and embraced Baron Stim. The Barron had rushed over to assist his guest, whose foot had gotten stuck in the stirrup.
“Well cherish my gizzard! These half-a-thousand leagues from Gordin to your backwater have become a bit much for my old backside, even if I managed to cover four hundred of them in a ship,” the Count grumbled. “Why on earth don’t you make the Uruz deeper for the last hundred leagues or at least move Wodan a hundred leagues to the north? You can’t? Haha. I’m jesting, my dear fellow. I hope you remember how we feasted on the deck after the Battle of Baldar? I still can’t understand how you managed to lure our ship’s cook over to your service? But enough idle talk. I hope the table is laid for lunch. I did send a messenger. Did you remember the preparations I asked for? Just in time for noontide. How much time do we have? Another two hours? Just in time for my gift to arrive. What gift? You’ll see. But to the devils with all the business! We should at least have a bite to eat. Dismiss the guard. Your veterans have been holding their bellies in long enough. Let them do something useful. We have a lot of work ahead of us, Baron. A lot. Incidentally, this time there’s no need for your guards to get themselves dirty. I brought a couple of headsmen with me. Well? Where’s your gratitude?”
* * *
A hustle and bustle filled the modest square across from the town gate. Lo Pheng swept his eyes over the brothers that had arrived with Count Soturi. The broad-shouldered Lee Phang, the seasoned Wan Xin and the pint-sized Liu Chen were all of a very high rank, warriors-of-virtue. He caught the hardly noticeable nod of Wan Xin’s chin, confirming that Baron Stim was now under their guard, and took a closer look at the temple warriors. The warrior’s code of the Shadow Clan stipulated that eyes were not to be directed at the person under protection, but at the dangers that threatened him. Yet the code also contained a passage unknown to the clients of the Shadow Clan. “When you look upon the stream of life, you will see floods and dry spells up ahead. But remember that the disturbance of permanence is just as dangerous as the ordering of chaos,” the primordial mother of the clan had taught Lo Pheng’s distant ancestors. Lo Pheng could not recall a previous occasion when inquisitors and temple warriors arrived in Wodan together. This was something to ponder. And yet not even his own death could disturb the equanimity of a warrior-of-peace. Every waking moment he simply did whatever had to be done, and to ensure that his future actions were the right ones, he needed to understand the intentions of these special guests from the capital.
They were twelve in number. The gaunt beardless old coachman with the insignia of the Inquisition—a strix-encrusted silver medallion bearing two axes in saltire—was rummaging under the canopy of the wagon. The youngish, almost dwarflike, little fellow with the clean-shaven skull, black eyebrows and thin lips was wandering lazily around the square. Judging from his cowl and the apron tied behind his back, he was an executioner. The remaining ones, whom Lo Pheng supposed to be temple warriors, were busy with the horses. Just one of them, a foppish, broad-shouldered man took the liberty of removing his cowl, stopped, put his hands on his hips and returned Lo Pheng’s look with undisguised interest.
“Leave him, Nakoma,” the Inquisitor advised, not suspecting that Lo Pheng could hear every word. “It’s an Eikon like the ones who protect the Count. An expensive buckle on a sturdy belt. Just for decoration. I never could understand why anyone would need an expensive belt if you can gird yourself with a rope?”
Nakoma’s face melted into a smile. “No, This one’s more exceptional than the three who protect the Count, Father Augrin. It’s a pity there isn’t a single Eikon among the sword bearers of the Temple of Divine Wrath. It would be interesting to probe them for weakness.”
A sword bearer of the Temple of Divine Wrath, Lo Pheng thought to himself. So, he had been right. The sentinels of the Primate and the sanctuary guardians of the Temple were the best warriors in Frisia. Sometimes they were referred to as temple warriors. No-one knew who or how many they were or where they got trained. Some even doubted their existence. And yet here they were in Wodan. Why had they left the Temple? What were they scheming? And why was one of them clearly breaking their own rules?
“Some have tried,” the Inquisitor nodded. “Few have had any luck, and neither those who have, nor those who haven’t, are with us any longer. Remember my words, young man. You can cut a child to pieces in front of an Eikon, but unless he was hired to protect that child, he won’t so much as blink. It is said they have no hearts.”
“And you do?” Nakoma smirked.
“Yes, and on occasion it even aches a bit,” Father Augrin said with a nod and turned to the executioner who was walking along the fortress wall to the right of the gate, prodding the iron spikes sticking out from it. “How is it, Mel?”
“It’ll do,” the executioner answered. “Good iron, sits tightly. If there aren’t enough spikes we’ll add some more. The iron’s a bit on the old side, but in the old days they knew how to make these things. Almost no rust.”
“It’s seven hundred years old,” the Inquisitor said. “Seven hundred. Or more. Wodan is one of Frisia’s oldest fortresses.”
“I need a platform,” the executioner added. “Otherwise I won’t be able to reach the top ones. Not tall enough. And nowhere to put the brazier.”
The Inquisitor motioned with his hand. “Over there. See that dais for the tax collectors? Let’s take it. And there’ll be space for the brazier too. And the cauldron. But first we need to have a bite…”
“But what if it’s his own child?” Nakoma went on, still staring at Lo Pheng as he grasped the horse’s bridle at the tethering post. “If you cut his own child to pieces, would he still not blink? I mean he wasn’t hired to protect his own child either, right? There wouldn’t be a contract. I mean, who needs a contract to protect his own family?”
“Nobody knows,” the Inquisitor answered. “But I’ve heard that Eikon who are hired to serve as protectors don’t have families. No wives, no children.”
“What’s the good of that?” Nakoma asked in surprise.
“One would think you had a family,” the Inquisitor grinned and reached into the cart again.
Nakoma pulled a face. “There’s a lot you don’t know about me…”
“Well then ask him yourself,” the Inquisitor advised from under the canopy.
“I will… one day,” Nakoma hissed through clenched teeth.
“Here’s a problem,” the executioner said, stamping his foot as he approached the cart. “The surface of this square’s uneven.”
“So?” Nakoma asked.
“The blood’s going to pool up,” the executioner explained. “There’s no gutter and no drainage, so the blood will well up. The public doesn’t like it when there’s lots of blood. It gets hard to breath. People faint and get drunk from the smell.”
“Drunk…” Nakoma rolled his eyes dreamily.
The Inquisitor’s head appeared from under the canopy. “Take this,” he said to the executioner and handed him a bundle of iron hooks and a heavy hammer.
* * *
Lo Pheng ascended the wall to the ringing of hammer blows. He took out a small spy glass from under his belt and stared through it at the highway dissolving in the spring haze. He didn’t descend the wall but moved along it to the corner tower where an open walkway led to the house of the burgomaster. The guards stepped aside as soon as they saw the Eikon. Wan Xin stood at the entrance to the walkway.
“How many towns did you pass on your way here from Gordin?” Lo Pheng asked.
“And in each one?”
“Feasts, tributes, women,” Wan Xin answered. “As they do every year. All the executions to the glory of the Temple of Divine Wrath and for the atonement of the wrongdoings of the human race must commence in Wodan. But not as usual. This year there are to be special torments and exuberant blood-letting by the Inquisition. At any rate, Count Soturi can speak of nothing else.”
“Who are they to execute?” asked Lo Pheng.
Wan Xin shrugged. “Every fortress should have some prisoners, or did you forget how it was last year?”
“They executed two,” Lo Pheng said thoughtfully. “Criminals they had set aside especially for the festivities. But the wall to the right of the gates has enough spikes to torture five people simultaneously. And the executioner’s hammering in some extra ones.”
“What difference does it make?” Wan Xin asked. “Perhaps you have more prisoners?”
“There are no suitable prisoners,” Lo Pheng said. “Also, Baron Stim has not planned on executing any of them. But there is a large group moving up the highway. Hundreds of people in chains accompanied by guards. They will be here in an hour’s time.”
“Even if it’s a thousand,” Wan Xin said with a frown. “Count Soturi said something about a ‘little present.’ Perhaps he meant them? What does it change?”
“You know it could change everything,” replied Lo Pheng. “Why is the man called Nakoma different from the other temple guards?”
“There’s nothing different about him,” Wan Xin replied. “He’s not quite in his right mind, or perhaps he is some noble offspring whose highbred arrogance hasn’t peeled off yet. He tried to provoke us, but cautiously. Nothing will happen, Lo Pheng. Nothing has happened in the last seven hundred years.”
“If nothing happens, you will see a smile on my face,” said Lo Pheng.
* * *
“I will not give you my prisoners,” Baron Stim muttered an hour later, holding Count Soturi by the elbow. “I only have three young boys in the dungeon. They stole a sheep in the market. Their parents have made good the loss and they’re supposed to be let free tomorrow. Since when have you ever seen somebody get tortured and executed for such a transgression? Nor do I have any slaves for this purpose. You execute one and all that fear turns the others into a bunch of useless stuffed dummies. I wrote a letter to the chancellery in Gordin. I told them we don’t have a single murderer or rapist. I suppose we could have caught some victims on the Gellian side of the border, but I don’t have the army for it. And in any case, there’s peace between us and the Gells. Who needs all of this?”
“The Gods!” the Count exclaimed and held up a menacing finger. “The Gods, cherish my gizzard! Every year it’s the same story with you. Of course I read your messages. Your expenses are nearly those of a Count, I mean this is a border town, after all. Your guard is the very best, almost as good as mine. And you’re almost as old as I am. And yet, you just can’t comprehend that a chicken isn’t placed on the altar to eat, but for the blood that is let out of it.”
“I’ll give you as many chickens as you need,” the baron said dismissively.
“Just listen to that. He’ll give us chickens!” the Count sighed. “Oh, very well. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t come prepared for your squabbles. I brought meat for the sacrifice. No need for your help. Consider it a gift from the Primate of the Temple of Divine Wrath himself. Let’s go disembowel a dozen or so little people and then we can get back to lunch. Our cook—your cook—is making us a truly amazing pot roast. And tomorrow it’s back on the road. Where to next I can’t tell you as yet. Harvest time is starting. But this year it’s going to be different. A special harvest.”
“What do you mean, a dozen or so?” the baron asked in astonishment. “A couple have always been enough! And where did you get so much scum to execute?”
“The Primate says this is a special year,” the Count beamed. “And scum isn’t a prerequisite for the scaffold, you know? The blood of the innocent is far more precious. And you were sorry for some petty thieves! You should be more appreciative of the respect we show you. The first sacrifices, the first festivities—all of it starts in Wodan again. And not just ordinary executions but special ones, filled with grace! You’ll still thank me…”
The Count pushed open the door that led to the outdoor walkway. The Baron stepped out into the light and squinted. His ten personal guards and the four Eikon stood rooted to the spot. He looked down and froze. The square was filling up with people. But while he saw gawking townsmen and travelling merchants from the market thronging to his right, the city guard was driving a crowd through the gate to the dais where the stalls of the tax collectors stood. There was a clanking of chains, groaning and the occasional crack of a whip. A brazier was smoking on the right side of the gate, the firewood crackling under the cauldron, while a scrawny figure in black was jumping around on the tax collectors’ platform, hanging leather nooses onto the hooks sticking out from the wall.
“What on earth are you doing, Your Grace?” the Baron said chokingly. “This isn’t a dozen or so sacrificial victims. It’s a couple of hundred!”
“Well, what did I till you?” the Count grinned. “It’s a special year with special treats… for the gods! Of course, I could pull the wool over your eyes and harp on about how it would be a sin to leave the other towns with leftovers while Wodan enjoys all the respect. And I could also say that if you don’t have murderers and rapists, there’s a shortage elsewhere too. But I won’t. This herd isn’t here for our amusement. The real reason is none of your business. Rejoice that I’m dumping this portion of human meat on your plate without asking for any compensation. You’re getting the benefit and the others are getting a warning they won’t soon forget. Just look at them! The choicest dregs of society! Outlanders, tramps, thieves, murderers, swindlers, harlots, lepers, horse thieves, sots and paupers of all varieties. Surely you won’t deny the need to purify our beloved country?”
“Is there no other way?” the Baron whispered. “Last year was different. We hanged a couple of murderers, and that was enough.”
“Well, this year you don’t even have a single murderer,” the Count said with a shrug. “So what are we even talking about? It is the rites of the Temple of Divine Wrath that determine things, not I. My dear Stim, I am but a humble civil servant who does what he is told and doesn’t ask too many questions. Just like these Eikon. See that red-haired girl down there? I’ve already had her amply flogged for her sharp tongue. Well, if I want to, I can pluck her from that crowd and rip her throat out with my teeth, and the Eikon will still protect me. Do you still not understand why you need the warriors of the Shadow Clan? Not for protection. You need them as an example of how one serves one’s masters. Understood?”
“As clear as day,” the Baron muttered.
“Chin up, old friend!” the Count said, giving the Baron a poke in the ribs. Then he leaned over and added with a whisper: “Soon the sound of Frisian armor will be all about. Our legions are already on the march and they’ll be passing through your town. The hour of our military triumph is at hand. Get it?”
The Baron went pale. “You mean…”
“Don’t hurry, old friend,” the Count said with a wink. “All in good time.” And leaning over the parapet he shouted: “You may begin, Father Augrin.”
* * *
Lo Pheng stood on the walkway close by the town’s walls, right above the heads of the poor wretches who had been hoarded into a hastily prepared enclosure railed in by poles. The smell of blood, rot and excrement rose up to meet him. A mere three dozen members of the royal guard were overseeing the hundreds of chained prisoners. There were also a couple of hundred Wodanite archers, but they lined up on the square and stood motionless in front of the families and neighbors who had grown quiet in terror or anticipation of the horrifying entertainment. The sky above Wodan looked clear, but to Lo Pheng it felt as if storm clouds were gathering above the fortress.
The Eikon didn’t know if what he feared would happen; but he knew what to do if it did. That was what the sages and elders warned him and every one of the warriors about during their final years of training. That was what every shadow warrior was actually being taught when he learned to kill and not be killed, to maintain his detachment and to instill horror and respect in every corner of Terminum. This was the essence of every Eikon—the thousand-year-old blood feud over the love of his birthplace, the death of his loved ones and the diminishment of his clan. Perhaps the time had come. Perhaps.
* * *
The ceremony was well underway. The Inquisitor had already sung the sacrificial hymn. It reminded the subjects of the Triarchy and the faithful worshippers of the Temple of Divine Wrath that every sacrifice was pleasing to the gods. An innocent victim was more pleasing, because it had no selfishness. It was the only sacrifice capable of achieving forgiveness and postponing the end of the world.
The shackles from the first ten prisoners already lay silent on the ground. The Gordin guards had hanged the wretches spread-eagled from the hooks. One of those wretches was the lithe red-haired girl with the whip marks across her face and shoulders—personally selected by the Count. In the brazier, terrifying hooks and pincers glowed bright red and steam was beginning to rise above the cauldron. The Inquisitor gave the sign. The executioner dipped a ladle into the cauldron and splashed a dollop of boiling water over the outermost prisoner, a black-skinned Vandil, who squealed like a scalded pig before the slaughter and immediately went limp and drooped from the straps as the children—both those among the prisoners and the onlookers on the square—wailed and cried.
The most dreadful part of the ceremony still lay ahead when the red-haired girl suddenly stopped spluttering, stopped crying out her innocence and all at once began to sing. She sang in the same language they used to conduct service in the Temple of Divine Wrath and, rumor had it, in the Temples of Divine Retribution in distant Berkana. She sang in the language nobody except the temple priests knew. Legend had it this was the language of the terrible warriors in white masks sent by the wrathful gods, who appeared near the sacred stones every couple of centuries. She sang in a clear, resonant voice with the intonations and tones only the most experienced temple singers could master. It was the kind of voice that worshippers in the capital cities thronged to hear. She sang, she pealed, she brimmed over with such an exquisitely pure melody that silence fell over the guards, who had just now been hurling obscenities. The same silence also fell over the Count, who scarcely a minute before had demanded: “Rip out the pagan filth’s tongue!” It fell over the children wailing in the crowd and over the moaning prisoners.
The Inquisitor and his headsman stood transfixed. Even Lo Pheng forgot about everything. For one second. For one instance. For a long, eternal instance in which a thought crossed his mind.
There will be a time when this voice too has fallen silent. And the ten lives, or however many the Inquisitor and his executioner want to cut short today. The rain will come and wash the blood from the stones. I, Lo Pheng, the warrior-of-peace, will continue my service in the name of the clan and of their thousand-year-old vengeance. But nothing will be the same, because I will not be able to forget this voice or return the vanished peace to my heart.
But then a monster appeared amid the nine temple warriors.
* * *
It resembled a corpse that had crawled out of its crypt, crushed the gravestones with its monstrous shoulders and torn apart the sepulchral chains with its powerful arms, disturbing the rot so that it permeated its skin and colored it grey. The creature’s dirty hair was braided and tied up with leather ribbons in a heavy, clotted mess. He wore vambraces of scale armor on his forearms. A terrifying sword that looked like a carving knife hung from his belt. His loins were concealed by a fluttering skirt that looked as if it had been stitched together from a dozen butchers’ withered aprons. On his skin-wrapped skull a pair of eyebrows stirred, but underneath them were only two splits of impenetrable darkness.
“The time has come,” the monster rasped. The girl choked, hissed and fell silent. The prisoners hanging from the wall went limp. Guards and condemned alike fell in a rattle of chainmail, weapons and shackles. The gawking onlookers toppled in a rustle of garments. The Count and the Baron collapsed insensibly. Father Augrin squatted on his haunches and gave a barely audible whimper, all the while clutching the emblem of the inquisition on his chest. The executioner keeled over onto the brazier, squealed and tumbled from the dais. Only the nine temple warriors and the four Eikons remained standing.
“Now,” Lo Pheng whispered. He took hold of the stone barrier to stay on his feet and felt the ornamental scars on his skin set his body alight. “Now.”
“Foolish child,” the monster droned as it made its way from the burgomaster’s house to the scaffold. “Who brushes away the cup just when the sweetness is about to fall into your mouth? Songs must be sung after the great sacrifice, not instead of it! You have many doubts, humans. Too many doubts. Only agony, human agony, can bring you freedom and salvation!”
“Now.” Lo Pheng gathered himself up and gritted his teeth. “Jang Tao. Warrior-of-courage. Don’t disappoint us,” he whispered.
“The time has come,” the monster gurgled, as it heaved onto the creaking scaffold. “But the agony of death is pointless if that agony is meagre! Open the gates of suffering in the body of another and the gates of the gods will open up for you!”
The monster licked a finger and stared for an instant at the limp body of the Vandil and at the red-haired girl suspended next to him, who was still hissing something inaudible. Then it made its choice and drew a sign with its finger on the chest of the black man. It was a vertical line touched in the middle by a triangle. No sooner had the monster lifted its finger than the sign blazed up and began to sink into the body. The poor wretch awoke and started screaming in pain.
“The time has come!” the monster roared and threw up its arms, which was the moment when Lo Pheng’s voice rang out.
A bow twanged and an Eikon arrow pierced the monster’s breast.
“Steel,” Lo Pheng whispered.
“The time has come!” the monster bellowed, plucking the arrow from its chest. “I will kill the insolent human!”
“Brothers!” Lo Pheng shouted.
They leapt down from the walkway in unison. The warrior-of-peace and the warriors-of-virtue. They were among the best of the clan. They landed on their feet like wild two-legged cats. They bared their swords which were feared by all the warriors of Terminum. Lo Pheng, Lee Phang, Wan Xin and Liu Chen. Together, the four were as deadly as a company of the best Frisian swordsmen. They jumped to stop the nine temple warriors who were being propelled by the will of the monster towards Jang Tao and to attack the monster, knowing that they could not defeat it.
The skirmish was swift. Even though the swordsmen had been trained by the best Frisian teachers, the Eikon swords cut through the pride of the Temple of Divine Wrath as if through wild roadside grass. The Eikon weren’t too fast for them, they had just been that tiny bit faster and more precise in their movements than their adversaries, who now lay at their feet choking in their blood. But this merely amused the monster and the grey falchion that flashed above its head left no doubt about this.
“Gold,” Lo Pheng whispered as a new arrow entered the grey body in a yellow flash. “No.”
Wan Xin, cut almost entirely in half, fell down at the monster’s feet.
“Silver,” Lo Pheng whispered as another arrow pierced the monster’s grey cheek. But no sooner had the monster plucked the arrow from its flesh than the wound closed up and disappeared. “No.”
Lee Phang’s head rolled towards the gate.
“Sacred wood,” Lo Pheng whispered when the next arrow bounced off the monster’s shoulder, and Liu Chen the half-pint flew sideways, his hand crushed.
“Lead,” said Lo Pheng and threw himself in the path of the grey falchion sword. A shot rang out but it didn’t stop the monster. The musket bullet ripped the grey chest but the wound closed up, just as Lo Pheng’s sword slammed into the monster’s throat. But here, too, the gaping hole coalesced in an instant. The monstrous counterblow from the grey hand almost knocked the warrior-of-peace unconscious. The son of the shadow clan only avoided breaking his bones by falling onto the trembling body of the Inquisitor, but his Eikon sword shattered into pieces.
“Jang Tao…” Lo Pheng rasped as he swallowed the blood gushing down his throat. He could feel the sparks of valor from his ancestors dwindle and turn to ash.
The monster spread its arms and roared: “Jang Tao! Come to me!”
On the third floor of the burgomaster’s house a window flew open and in it appeared the warrior-of-courage with a musket in his hands.
“The messenger of the gods orders you to kill yourself, Jang Tao!” the monster thundered. The warrior-of-courage obediently dropped his musket, took his knife from his belt, slit his throat and plummeted headfirst into the Wodan carriage-way below.
“Jang Tao,” Lo Pheng whispered. He swallowed blood, leaned against the unconscious Inquisitor and tried to raise himself.
“Not bad at all,” he heard the grinding voice directly above his head. He fumbled for the Inquisitor’s emblem on Father Augrin’s chest, and when the monstrous hand grabbed the warrior-of-peace by his braided queue he writhed himself free and lunged as far as he could reach. A blood-curling roar filled the Wodan square. With an effort, Lo Pheng got onto his feet. Clutching its smoking hand, the roaring monster began to retreat until it tumbled backwards. For a brief moment it turned into Nakoma. Then it went completely black and crumbled into ashes as it expelled its fleeing shade.
Liu Chen walked up to him, clutching his crippled hand. “So silver worked?” he asked with a groan.
Lo Pheng shook his head and swallowed back the blood in his mouth. He held out the sizzling, slime-covered emblem of the Inquisition in which the strixes were rapidly fading.
Liu Chen understood. “We need to return home. We need to take this important news back to the Council of Elders.”
“First we need to free the prisoners,” Lo Pheng said, clutching his chest as he started to cough. “We will have to flee, so let our pursuers have more fugitives to worry about.”
“What about him?” Liu Chen asked, pointing at the heap of ashes. “Dead?”
“No,” Lo Pheng answered after the briefest pause. “That’s not how they die… But now we know what kills them. They are vulnerable. Hand me his sword.”
Liu Chen frowned. “It’s useless as a weapon. Too heavy. To say nothing of the size.”
“It really is heavy,” Lo Pheng grumbled as he picked up the falchion. “And hot too, for some reason. Especially the handle. But my sword didn’t withstand the blow, and this blade doesn’t even have a nick on it. How would it perform in a fight?”
He raised the demon’s sword as if he’d been holding it for years and cut off the knot of black hair at the back of his head… the knot of hair that had just now been clutched by that terrible hand. His remaining hair, no longer held back, tumbled over his forehead and ears.
“What are you doing?” Liu Chen cried out in astonishment.
“I am paying the price for breaching my contract,” Lo Pheng answered. “I am no longer a warrior-of-peace. But I am still an Eikon. Bind your hand. It looks broken. I’ll grab Jang Tao’s musket and one of the brothers’ swords. But remember, we have little time.”