The arrows continued to fall from the cliff faces above Albrihn’s head, but now more of the Hyen-a-khan were leaping over the rocks and charging down almost sheer inclines to partake in the slaughter at the base of the valley. Desperately he turned in the saddle and let fly an arrow that hit its mark and sent one of the snarling dogmen tumbling from its unsteady perch. The cavalrymen around him did likewise, but the enemy on the ground were running towards them, firing arrows of their own. He bit off a curse as he wheeled his stallion around and tried to make sense of the chaotic battlefield. Over on the other side of the gorge, by the narrow stream, Morrow and her squads were caught in a desperate mêlée. The Hyen-a-khan were wary around the burbling water, but bloodlust was driving them forward and the soldiers had drawn swords to fight them back. He heard Morrow let out a cry as she urged her horse forward and led a charge across the stony ground. Some of the creatures were trampled to death, but two managed to grab her harness and he watched in horror as they unbalanced the screaming mount and bore her down to the ground.
“Captain!” Sergeant Hasprit had drawn his own sword, a narrow-bladed cavalry sabre, and was slashing at the face of one stunted dogman who had reached them. The creature went down easily, but more of its fellows were coming fast behind in a disordered rush of bodies. The Hyen-a-khan were intelligent, after a fashion – they could work metal, albeit poorly, and even had a language of a kind. But in battle they fought like wolves, coordinated only until the blood began to flow. They were light skirmishers, and no match for a determined cavalry charge. Albrihn finally discarded his bow and grabbed the pommel of his sword. With a shout he drew the weapon in one smooth motion and held it high over his head. For a moment the whole battlefield seemed to hold its breath, and then he kicked at his horse’s flanks and, as one, his squads followed him into the Hyen-a-khan rabble.
Momentum alone won through as he laid about him with his longsword. It was as fine a blade as any in Atlantis, the weapon of a master, and he’d earned it many times over despite his assertion to Jonis the previous day that he had no business using it. The howls of the dogmen greeted his pell-mell charge and they fell around him in a maelstrom of fur and blood. His warriors followed him, but the arrows still rained from above and more of the foe were joining those on the ground. He heard men and women cry out and the sound of horses falling and dying.
Finally, he reached the embattled cavalrymen by the stream. Morrow was still on the ground, fighting for her life against two of the dogmen with her dagger. As one reached for her she grabbed its arm and yanked it closer before slashing its throat open. Dark blood sprayed everywhere and it let out a bone-chilling screech as it fell backwards. But the other was larger and stronger, perhaps the largest Albrihn had ever seen and it fought with a short-hafted spear and a wickedly barbed sword. It moved nimbly despite its awkward gait, stepping away from her furious slashes and then hurling the spear directly at her. It pierced her shoulder and such was the force with which it was thrown that it pinned her to the very rock. She screamed in pain as her dagger fell from her hand. The huge dogman bared its fangs and reared back to deliver the killing blow with its sword, but now Albrihn pushed forward, riding into the fray, hacking and slashing with a strength born of fury. He was just a few feet away when the dogman saw him and opened its slavering jaws. A pink tongue exactly like a wolf’s lolled from its mouth as it turned its full attention to the mounted Albrihn and said something in its harsh speech that may well have been a challenge. If it was, he acquiesced to it, kicking the horse’s flanks again and riding towards the beast. Their blades met as he manoeuvred deftly around the trapped Morrow. The Hyen-a-khan was as strong as it looked, and taller even than a human warrior. As they locked swords, he could feel the muscle in his opponent’s grip and, as he met its eyes, he saw only the feral intellect of an animal – there was no ounce of mercy or indeed any thought beyond slaking an atavistic hunger. He gritted his teeth as he tried to free his blade, then stepped the horse backwards. One hoof narrowly missed Morrow’s head, but the sudden movement unbalanced the Hyen-a-khan and their swords parted. It danced forward with a disturbingly human motion, intending to slash at the horse’s flanks perhaps, but Albrihn was too fast and his own sword carved a ribbon of blood across the dogman’s crudely armoured torso. It howled in pain and rage, and lunged forward giving Albrihn the opening he needed. He flicked his sword upwards, urging his mount forward as he did to lend momentum to his blow. The blade carved through his enemy’s throat and its head was torn clean off, arcing into the knots of fighters around them.
Albrihn let the dogman’s carcass fall then wheeled around again. He leant down and pulled the spear from Morrow’s shoulder. She cried out in agony and he flung it away contemptuously before grabbing her proffered hand and heaving her right up onto the saddle in front of him. He held her tightly as he galloped away. “With me!” he called out. “Back to the city guard!” Though his soldiers had taken a heavy toll on the Hyen-a-khan they were badly outnumbered by those now pouring down from above, and still deadly arrows continue to fall upon them. A quick glance told him he’d lost maybe a third of the Company, and a greater number had had their mounts cut from underneath them. Some of their comrades gathered up the stragglers as Albirhn had Morrow, but others were mercilessly cut down by the ravening dogmen. There was nothing he could do. He led the survivors out of the chaos, towards the block of city guard who huddled at the mouth of the valley around the towering form of the Cyclops. A few Hyen-a-khan had tried to attack them but their bodies now lay on the rocks bristling with arrows. They’d evidently stayed away after that.
He galloped up to Tayne who was watching him over her shield with wide eyes. “What happened?”
“Bastards are smarter than I thought,” he grunted. He let Morrow clamber down from the saddle and she and the other wounded were admitted through the ranks of the phalanx. “I never thought they’d have those kinds of numbers.”
“We need to kill the ones up in the hills,” one of Tayne’s sergeants suggested.
“How? They have too much cover. Some of them have come down, but the rest can stay there as long as they like, picking us off one by one.” He squinted up at the rocks. The sleet had stopped for now, but it was craggy, dangerous terrain. “We’d never ferret them all out.”
“Flee then,” Tayne said, “we’re outnumbered.”
“We’ve also lost half our horses,” Hasprit said. One side of his face was slick with blood. It was impossible to tell if it was his own or not.
“Right,” Albrihn nodded, “they’ll chase us down.” Even now, the howling mob was surging towards them, having dealt with the fallen soldiers in the valley. He pushed that thought from his mind.
“What then?” Tayne demanded. “Take a stand here? Can we fight them off?”
“Not easily.” He rubbed his horse’s neck to calm the beast and then looked up at the Cyclops. Its glowering back helmet was as forbidding as ever. Jonis watched him from its side. Her knuckles were white where she gripped her long spear. “It’s time,” he said as he began to dismount.
Tayne looked over her shoulder and evidently realised what he was suggesting. Her head whipped around. “Are you insane?”
“No, but I am desperate.” He could hear the Hyen-a-khan racing towards them, and see the fear in the eyes of the city guard. They weren’t use to this kind of fighting, as well-drilled as they were. He had little confidence they’d withstand the dogmen’s onslaught, and that was no slight against their prowess. “Everyone fall back,” he said as he pushed through the ranks, “get behind it.” He came face to face with Jonis. Her jaw was set. “How many times have you done this?” he asked her in a low voice.
“This would be the first. This Cyclops hasn’t been deployed in battle for some centuries.”
“Then he’ll at least have worked up an appetite.” He gestured with his sword as the battered cavalrymen supporting their injured comrades and the frightened city guard fell in behind the Cyclops. The creature lumbered forwards at Jonin’s urging. There was something different about the set of its heavy limbs, as if it could sense what was to come. The Hyen-a-khan still ran heedlessly towards them. They could have no idea what awaited them.
“Once this is done,” Jonis said, “there’s no going back.”
“I thought you wanted to use him,” Albrihn said.
“I do. I just want to make sure you’re aware of the consequences.”
“I told you: I’ve seen one in battle before.”
“All right then.” She gripped her spear and went to follow her brother, but then stopped and reached out, squeezing his arm gently. He gave her a grim smile and she moved forward behind the Cyclops. The enemy were close now, just a few hundred paces away, charging and howling as they waved their crude weapons. A few arrows still clattered against the rocks around them, but now the dogmen had the scent of their prey and had only lust for carnage in their bestial minds. Jonis and Jonin halted the slow stride of the Cyclops and it settled into a ready stance, massive leathery fists clenched before it.
Together, the two siblings reached up to the great locking mechanisms on its back connected to the chains that ran from its helmet. Their movements were practiced, ritualistic. The locks were activated by means of a complex series of twists on the fastenings and when they fell open the chains unfurled rapidly, spooling around the monster’s feet. The Keepers stepped away as the helmet began to open. It was segmented, obviously kept in place by the chains, so that now as they fell away it parted with a groaning of ancient metal. Part of him wanted to look away, to not see the terror he had ordered unleashed, but some of his soldiers still lay dying in that valley and their fate would be the same as that of the Hyen-a-khan. He owed it to them to watch this. The helmet opened like some black, terrible flower, collapsing into a ring of iron like a collar around the Cyclops’s neck. What was underneath was not a head like Albrihn had seen on any human or animal. Instead it was an indistinguishable fleshy mass. His stomach lurched as, like the helmet before it, it began to segment, resolving itself into an indeterminate number of fleshy tentacles that parted with a sucking noise like a starfish freeing itself from a rock. The hideous pale lump dripped with mucus as the writhing pseudopods reached out hungrily revealing at their heart something that was neither mouth nor eye, but something far more horrific. Albrihn had to fight every instinct to avert his gaze as, from that hideous maw, an unearthly light began to shine. A sound like the continents being carved by the gods echoed across the valley and even the Hyen-a-khan faltered as the soldiers around him clamped their hands to their ears and let out cries of terror. He remained stoic, gripping the handle of his sword determinedly as he watched.
The Cyclops spread its great fists, lunging forward as its monstrous gaping maw splayed open. Now the eldritch light covered the whole valley, casting everything into sharp contrasts of black and white. The roar filled the air, reaching deafening volume, the sound of the Chaos that the old legends he was told as a child said had been all there was of the universe before the gods had wrought the world. This monster was no divine creation though: it was a primordial force of destruction, and ancient instincts warred within him as stared. The Hyen-a-khan had stopped now, gripped with the same numb fear that permeated even their primitive intelligences. The Cyclops leant forward again, and now it began: an abyssal wind tearing across the rocks, pulling everything towards the dripping vortex it had in place of a head. The dogmen screeched and tried to run, but it was if their bodies were turned into flames – stripped apart piece by piece, torn to shreds by the infernal hurricane. They were peeled apart, fur from flesh, flesh from bone, until the blackness of their howling souls was all that remained, and even that was sucked in, swirling towards the mouth of the Cyclops until there was nothing left at all. Horses and soldiers were ripped apart too and then the very rocks began to crack and spilt apart and the Hyen-a-khan still hiding up on the hills were also destroyed.
When it was done and all that was left was the yawning silence and the distant scream that Albrihn prayed was only the natural wind of the world, Jonis and Jonin stepped forward again and began to reattach the chains. The Cyclops had slumped down to its knees. Its stomach appeared distended and he fancied for a moment he could see something writhing beneath its flesh. The trapped spirits of the slain that would satiate its hunger for perhaps centuries to come. He finally turned away and walked away from the horrible scene. Of the Hyen-a-khan, nothing at all remained.
In the heart of the Imperial Enclave, in a windowless chamber hung with relics of ancient battles – not mementoes to the glory of Atlantis, but rather trophies won in terrible wars that served as a reminder of the price paid by the ancestors of the greatest nation in the world – the Emperor held council with his most trusted advisors. They were the highest nobles in Atlas, lords and ladies of towering lineage, wielders of unmatched power across the great lands of Atlantis. Foremost among them was Lord Saffrey who sat at the right hand of the Emperor. They spoke of matters of state, Saffrey taking the lead as the aging monarch sheltered in his thick robes, peering at the men and women he neither liked not trusted from his sunken face. The door opposite the great obsidian table opened with a bang and a figure strode in. He carried a sack and still wore a sword at his hip. The palace guards moved to stop him, but one cold glance stopped them in their tracks.
Saffrey rose to his feet. “What is the meaning of this intrusion? How dare you come before the Emperor armed! Seize him and…”
Captain Albrihn reached the table and wordlessly upended the sack, letting the bloody object within roll out onto the table. It came to rest just before the Emperor. It was a mutilated head: neither man nor wolf, but somewhere in between, misshapen and foul. Saffrey stared at it uncomprehendingly. His mouth opened and closed a few times. Finally he said, “What…what is this? What are you…”
“Leave us,” the Emperor barked suddenly.
Saffrey stared as the lords and ladies filed out, not even giving Albrihn a backward glance. “Sire, I don’t…”
“I said leave us!”
The Emperor’s tone made Saffrey jump, but he still hesitated before the gimlet stare of his lord finally sent him hurrying away. He did give the captain an accusing look as he passed, but his gaze also lingered on the gruesome trophy he’d brought. Visibly paling at it, he continued on his way out of the chamber.
“You too,” the Emperor told the guards. They closed the doors behind them, leaving him alone with Albrihn. “So…” he said.
Albirhn held his hand out. “You knew what I’d find, didn’t you?”
“I did,” the old man admitted.
“You could have told me. I lost almost thirty soldiers.”
“It might have been nothing.”
“Tell me everything.”
The Emperor looked at him. His expression darkened. “You think I owe you an explanation? A common soldier?”
“I owe the families of the dead an explanation. I’d like it to be the truth.”
“I’m certain you would.” The Emperor looked at the head before him. He drummed his gnarled fingers against the table. “Rumours reached me a long time ago of a new threat.”
“How long ago?”
“Years. You think I sent you to the mainlands for gold? I heard of dangerous things in the north of the world. Strange happenings. Despite how it may appear, we are not completely isolated in Atlantis. I have eyes and ears across the sea, and diplomatic relations with many kings and lords there. Tales of beasts that walked as men became more and more common, and of ice creeping down from the peak of the world. Yes, Albrihn, I know you’ve noticed it too. The very land is changing. I have consulted magisters and sages from across all the lands of the world. They all agree that a terrible new age is coming.”
Albrihn shook his head. “I don’t understand…”
“Ice, Captain. The old tales tell us that the gods made the world as it is today, unchanging and eternal, but do any of us truly believe that? This realm is unimaginably old, and it has not always been as it is now. The petrified bones of ancient beasts tell us that well enough. Once, perhaps, these lands were much warmer, covered in forest, or desert perhaps. Who can say? But what I have discovered is this: we have been fortunate for many long aeons. Fortunate to live in a time and place where the climate is kindly. That is changing. We are being betrayed, and it cannot be stopped. The ice of the north is slowly, very slowly, moving south. It may yet cover the entire world, trapping us forever in an age of ice and snow.”
“Is it? I think not. This is just the beginning. Crops die, the weather worsens, storms and chaos surge down from the roof of the world. This is not a cataclysm we have a hope of surviving, at least not fully intact.”
“What does any of this have to do with the Hyen-a-khan?”
“They are driven forth by the ice, Albrihn. We believe they are native to the furthest frozen wastes of the north, but even they cannot survive the cold that is coming. And so they surge south, into the lands of men. They are but a symptom.”
“And now,” Albrihn said softly, “they have reached Atlantis.”
“Yes indeed. And that is why I sent you and your warriors to the mainlands, to learn all you could of this new threat, in preparation for this day. The ice is bad enough, but before that we will know a great tumult of war and grief. We must survive this, so that Atlantis might continue to exist as the new age comes upon us. This country is the flower of mankind, the greatest civilisation in the world. We cannot allow it to be destroyed.” He pointed with a spindly finger. “You must save us.”
Albirhn was taken aback. “I’m a soldier, not a saviour.”
“This is a time of war. There’s no difference.”
He saluted smartly with his fist across his chest. “What would you have of me, sire?”
“Go to Talos.”
“Talos?” The most northern Province of Atlantis was a dark and bleak country.
“More troubling rumours come from there. You must find out how these creatures reached our island, for the ones you destroyed are not the only ones here, of that I’m certain. You must throw them back into the ocean. Atlantis must survive.” His fist came down with surprising force onto the arm of his chair.
“I will do what I can.”
“Of course you will. The age of men is crumbling, Captain Albrihn. I will not let us be swept under by an age of wolves. The ice may come, but we will face it unbowed. Is that understood?”
He bowed slightly, hand on the pommel of his sword. “It is, sire.”
“Then go. And do your duty. Here.” He reached within his robes and tossed something onto the table beside the decapitated head of the Hyen-a-khan. Albirhn walked around the table and picked it up. “The Imperial Seal,” the Emperor explained, “let no man counterman your orders. You go in my name, Captain.”
He looked at it. It was a simple thing – a strip of leather marked with the great star of Atlantis. “You expect me to encounter resistance?”
“As I say, rumours come from Talos. There is unrest. Be prepared.”
“I shall.” He bowed again and left.
A short while later he found Vion in the White Garden. She stood on the edge of a lawn, her hands cupped before her. She turned as he approached. “Captain,” she said demurely.
“Vion.” He reached for her, but she pulled away. Her expression was sad. “What is it?”
“You’re leaving again.”
“Yes. For Talos. That upsets you?”
She laughed. “I don’t know. I missed you, Rayke, when you were gone.”
“I’ll return soon.”
“And…you were right.”
He frowned. “About what?”
“About the city. And the land. It’s dying.”
“I know.” He wondered whether he should tell her what her father had told him. Chances are she’d find out soon enough – she knew about his mission to Talos anyway.
“Look.” She pointed across the lawn. There were a few dark shapes lying on the grass near the dark shrubs. In the evening gloom he couldn’t make out what they were. “The fowl,” she explained.
“What happened to them?”
“Mainlands grain. Infected with some parasite. They’re all dead.”
“Funny,” she said with a hollow laugh as she rubbed her arms. She wore only a thin robe against the chill. “I can’t help thinking about the old prophecy.”
“It’s just a tale.”
“Will Atlas fall?” she asked, turning to him suddenly. He enfolded her in his arms.
“The Emperor still sits on his throne. His heir is strong. If it falls, it won’t be any time soon.”
“How did we let this happen?” she asked.
“I don’t think there’s anything we could have done, Vion.”
“Perhaps not.” She leant up and kissed him softly. “Come back soon, Captain Albrihn. Atlas needs you.”
“And it needs you, my princess. Before the end, whenever it comes, I think the people will need to see that.”
“Maybe.” He held her hand and then, after a few moments longer, slipped from her arms and left the garden without looking back.
At the gates of the city, the Seventh rode out. Snow fell from the sky though it was barely winter. Albrihn’s hood was up, but his cloak did almost nothing to guard against the cold. Weather like this was unusual in Atlas, but he sensed it would become more and more common as the years went by. Morrow was by his side, more or less recovered from her injuries now. The mood was sombre and there was little chatter as the hooves of their horses clattered on the paved street. He looked around as they passed beneath the great arch and was surprised to see someone else riding up beside them. Her gait was not so assured as that of his troops, but he knew she could handle herself. She fell in beside him.
“I thought I might join your little expedition, Captain,” Jonis said.
“Don’t you have duties?” he asked with a smile.
“My Cyclops won’t need to feed again for a long time. I’ve been given permission to take a leave of absence. Jonin can handle things while I’m gone.”
Albrihn grimaced at the thought of the spectral meal that was even now working its way through the Cyclops’s bizarre, unknowable anatomy. “Another sword is always useful.”
“Of course,” she said. “I’ve never been to Talos.”
“Neither have I.”
“I hear it’s an inhospitable land.”
He looked up at the snow falling from the sky, beginning to cover the ground. In the hovels of the outer city, commoners shivered in the freezing air. Few fires burned now. “No,” he said softly, “and neither will anywhere else be soon enough.” The twilight closed in around them as the slow column rode out through the snow, north to Talos and whatever they would find there.
The story continues in Age of Winter.