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CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Flooded and cloaked men swung heavy scythes at the tall grass and bushes that had grown close to the outer walls of the city. Often they would peer over their shoulders toward the Qurth, watching for movement in the trees, fearful of being caught unawares. Two guard towers flanked the wall, protruding to provide archers with a swath of crossfire upon approaching attackers. Clearing the field of possible cover was difficult in the rain, but any precautions they could take before the impending attack might provide an advantage. Atop the wall, gleaming spearheads glistened as rain trickled across their blades, propped against the battlements and waiting for warrior hands to wield them. Those warriors, Hunters of the Hidden Circle sworn to uphold the prophecies of the oracles, lined the walls, armed and armored in direct defiance of the most recent prophecy. Prayers for guidance had been whispered by them all. Doubt had brought them to this point, but faith would see them through, even at the cost of their lives. On the ground, behind the barred gates, archers stood waiting for the call, shivering despite heavy cloaks and layers of leather armor. The wind had picked up, blowing colder and whipping their cloaks in every direction. Icy rain stabbed at exposed skin, the cold slicing straight to the bone. Many citizens joined the hunters. They carried weapons of farm implements and polished old swords left behind by generations before. Many more stood bundled in open doorways, shouting for the defenders to lay down their arms and return to their homes. The hunters ignored these protests and maintained their posts. No one was faulted for following Sameska's edict of passiveness, and no one was forced to renounce it openly. More than a few defenders shook their heads and wrung their hands over the conflict that had seemingly sprung from nowhere. They had known for some time that things were off balance inside the temple. Obeying the instinct to defend themselves felt inherently right. Elisandrya rode briskly through the streets on a brown mare, feeling the loss of Morningstar deeply. She inspected the north and south gates, observing more battle-ready hunters at both. Messengers had been sent on the fastest steeds to Splondar in the northeast and to Sprynt, the northernmost city of the Blacksaddle Baronies in the south. She knew that aid from either would be unlikely, considering the virulent reputation of the blush, and that any assistance might arrive too late to do any good. As she rode, several people approached Elisandrya from their homes, pleading for surrender and pointing emphatically at the enraged and strengthening storm above as a sign of Savras's displeasure, then ducking back into cottages to attend to frightened children. Eli was speechless, newly realizing the damage Sameska's manipulations had caused and might continue to cause. She stood high in her saddle, looking east down the main road toward the temple, her eyes hopeful. But she saw no oracles coming to join the defenders, no sign of her sister whose face she both longed and dreaded to see. She sensed the quiet rift between them deepening over the outcome of this battle. She still hoped that at any moment, Dreslya would appear with her fellow oracles, marching in a procession down the main street to solidify the defenses of Brookhollow by uniting sword and spell. "Without their magic," she said under her breath, "one needn't be a prophet to foresee this battle's conclusion." The strident tones of a watchman's horn split the air, dashing her thoughts apart. Three quick blasts pealed through the thunder and rain from the northern gate, a signal of movement outside; something approached the city under cover of darkness. Eli patted the hilt of the sword at her side, checked the curve of her borrowed bow, and kicked the shivering mare's flanks. She took a moment to offer a prayer for guidance, indulging her diminishing doubt and seeking any sign that she had been wrong. Not expecting an answer, she was stunned when an image formed behind her eyes, appearing for an instant and then dissolving, leaving behind an inexplicable sense of calm. She saw tall waves of wind-blown grass on an endless plain covered in an aura of emerald flame.



***** | Bloodwalk | *****