Emer Jadeth’s train of wagons had just begun to leave the outlying districts of Thorns when the earth began to shake in earnest.
“See to the horses!” Emer shouted as he leaped out of the lead wagon, his soft green robes swirling around him. The horses whickered and stamped the ground uncertainly as the ground rocked under them, little heeding the nervous men and women trying to steady their reigns. Emer jogged down the line. “Fasten down the goods as best you can! We hold here until it’s over!” Reaching the end of the wagons, he turned around and stopped. Barclay, his assistant, had jumped out of the last wagon and was coming close to speak with him.
“Sir, this is no earthquake.”
Emer frowned. “How do you know?”
“There’s no rhythm to an earthquake, sir. I told you when I came back from Gem they had had a tumbler. It was nothing like this.”
“Then what…” Emer trailed off. A shadow overtook them, then, a shadow long and deep and stretching from beyond the city limits into the city’s heart. Explosions began to echo in the distance, and a fell wind brought the rank smell of decay barreling down the street. Looking towards the source of the shadow, Emer was overtaken with the kind of hopeless awe normally reserved in this Age for massive natural disaster. The juggernaught was crawling to its feet, a long-dead monstrosity of a giant humanoid impossibly propelled by some kind of dread magic. It slowly groaned into a standing position, siege weapons mounted across its body flinging massive chunks of masonry into targets below. Every hit muttered a weak aftershock of its coming.
Emer sprinted to the forward wagon. The horses were going berserk, their poor handlers a breath away from imitating them. Emer ran along the line shouting, “Hold! HOLD!” as strong gales began to carry the odor of acrid smoke, of the burning dead. Emer held his cloak to his nose in an effort to ward off the greasy wind and kept shouting orders. Reaching the head wagon, he slung himself onto the driver’s bench. “Let them run, Gregory!” he bellowed. The man nodded and the horses launched into the street, the wagons behind them showing no pause in following.
It was but a scant block later when they ran into the Abyssal. They were not far from the outlying edge closest to the behemoth, and when they reached her the deathknight was in the process of decapitating a plume-helmed Dragon-blooded clad in blue jade. He showed no resistance as she craned a sinuous mailed leg over his shoulder and casually twisted off his head, leaving dark blood welling up from the stump of a ruined neck. In his shock, Emer distantly supposed the Dragon-Blooded must have already been half-dead, standing as he was with such a woman at his back.
The Abyssal slid over her crumpled victim as the Emer’s horses screamed and reared backward. Between the two bulks of twitching horse muscle and sinew, Emer could still clearly see the Abyssal standing in the middle of the cobbled road. Her armor was writhing like an angry oil slick with murky skeletal hands sliding across her hard frame. Gauntlets with skulls worked into the knuckle guard bore impossibly black knives that shimmered in the light. In a contrast that physically sickened Emer, her face was a soft, round heart shape favored by courtesans, with pouting black lips against her supple ashen face. For all the world she looked like the corpse of a king’s courtesan bedecked in the raiment of the eternal Abyss.
Emer’s knuckles hands were bloodless under the constriction of the reigns he was holding against the horses, and a soft buzzing had begun to fill his ears. Locked in the gaze of the white-irised deathknight, his soul writhed. Her stolen doll face quirked in a smirk as she began to slink forward. Emer forced his hands to relax, took a measured breath, and stood up. The horses quieted.
“Ah, my dear” Emer said, his voice somehow retaining its honey despite the raw feeling in his throat. “If you wish to make some purchase, I’m sure we can accommodate you…though you may understand, we are in a bit of a hurry to make our destination. We would appreciate if you could make your perusal short.” Emer took a deep breath and kept his expression as if slightly interested in a potential deal. Mortal weapons would do nothing against such a creature. Words win wars. His mother’s voice bubbled into his ears. He wondered if she would manage to escape. The infinitesimal pause following his offer began to span into infinity as he waited for the Deathknight’s reply.
Her peal of laughter was like icicles rattling Emer’s bones. It was viciously interrupted by a blast of magnificent sunlight that seemed to suffuse the area from nowhere, banishing all natural darkness before it. Emer raised his arm to shield his eyes and realized the source of the massive glow was originating from his own body. Overhead blazed a massive golden shield, a dark wreath as its ensign. The Deathknight recoiled in surprise.
In her moment of surprise, she was unprepared for the sudden blast of wind that ripped her off the ground, and Emer heard her voice for the first time. It sounded akin to the bone-chime he had once bought from a Northern merchant; while beautiful, it set his skin to crawling. She was uttering a foul curse at the Dragon-Blooded who had taken an opportune moment to strike her and was now flying back into the city main, his windy aura flaring violently enough to rip off windows and weathercocks. The Abyssal righted herself on her elevated perch on a nearby house and stole a glance back at Emer. Despite the distance, he could feel her cold gaze. I am coming for you, it promised. Your skin will crawl again. Crawl off your bones.
His heart felt like a block of ice in his chest as he clamored back down to the driving bench, grabbing the reigns and whipping the horses into action, his man Gregory silent as a stone beside him. Neither said a word as they raced past the deserted city gates.
Emer looked at himself in the mirror. It was an old mirror, perhaps even a relic of the First Age, a calligraphy of occult script unknown to him crossing frame and glass. There was still enough untouched surface so that he could see himself, however: Tall and wiry, his skin was lightly tanned in the fashion common for citizens of the Eastern Threshold. His plain green cloak and muted brown clothing did no justice to the amount of wealth enjoyed; even though Thorns had fallen apart around him, he still had a healthy fortune tucked away in Great Forks and on his wagon train. Emer found the trappings of wealth impractical to pursue on the road and preferred this more humble raiment instead. The chest at the back of his wagon held his valuable stitches; just as silk and jewels had no place on the road, his dusty tunic and favorite cloak had no place in court.
No place in court. Just like the former ruler of Thorns had had no place on the Throne. Emer clenched his leather-bound fist. The younger son of the old Autocrat had involved the Realm to overthrow his brother, and in return had invaded the Scavenger Lands with Thorn’s troops. The Jadeth clan had quietly discouraged the invasion, funneling information to the other Scavanger Lands through the Guild, with whom the Jadeths were quite well acquainted. A mercantile family by nature, the Jadeths had had family members in both the bureaucracy and the officer’s corps. Emer had received his education from a host of cousins and relations-by-marriage, from combat training with his favorite cousin Yaniva to an introduction to the social graces by his aunt Diedre. Emer was his parent’s only child, and was thus doted upon more than a male in the family typically would have been. Growing into a successful businessman, Emer coordinated a great deal of the collusion between his family, the Guild, and the Scavenger Lands.
Even after his disastrous defeat, the Autocrat of Thorns remained entrenched in power, shored up as he was by the Dragon Blooded of the Realm. The Jadeths continued to plot and scheme with the Guild to remove the Autocrat, moving very carefully to avoid the notice of the Realm and the Autocrat’s forces. Emer had just been leaving Thorns for another trading expedition-and rendezvous with the Guild-when the corpse giant had struck. Now, they were about eleven days away from Puyo, Thorns only forty miles behind from a day of riding. Emer had no idea how fast the dead could travel, but he wagered they’d be spending their time consolidating their position rather than pursuing him. In the meantime, he had to talk to his people. Turning around, Emer pulled aside a flap covering the back of the wagon and jumped out into the forest clearing.
The wagon company numbered a little over fifty, including Emer’s young twin cousins, Maree and Lillian. Though their father had married into the family, both retained the last name Jadeth, as their father had adopted the family surname like all spouses of Jadeth family members. Emer had been tasked with showing them the mercantile trade without exposing them to the family’s clandestine deals with the Guild. The two dark-haired maidens were a bit wide-eyed at the world, but they were good workers and attentive students. Emer would have been overjoyed to have them along, had it not been for the nature of their current plight.
His company sat, stood and leaned about in the circle of wagons they had assembled in the clearing. The sky above was cloaked in grey clouds, and Emer felt the tiny chills of raindrops begin to mark his face.
“We are the survivors of the greatest calamity of this Age” he began, his voice echoing through the clearing. “In that, we are both blessed and cursed. Our city is taken by demons and the dead. To return would be folly. To stay where we are now is also dangerous, but we must rest before we press on.” Emer paused to draw air deep into his lungs.
“You all saw the sun shine from me. To some of you, this might mark me as Anathema, some evil of legends told by the Immaculate Order. You have all known me for some time, and I feel no different now. I will lead you to Puyo if you wish, or you can set out apart from me." Emer waited a beat.
“Obviously, we are most likely safer if we stick together.”
A series of sidelong glances made their way among the traders in the silence. After several long moments, Gregory stepped forward. The lead driver was a wide, husky man with a beard to match his belly. He coughed and spit out some phlegm on the ground.
“Ahh, next to that harpie, Mister Jadeth, a bit ‘o sunlight didn’t seem so evil.” Gregory looked embarrassed.
“Uh, wot I mean to say is, she didn’ seem too happy to see you, and I know she was a bad ‘un fer sure. So, uh, just tell me when my watch is.”
Gregory stepped back among the murmuring traders. Emer smiled, slightly.
“Allright then. Anybody who wishes to leave may do so. The rest of us will set up camp.”