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Despite their grim purpose, there was an almost festive air in the war camp. Knights gathered in small groups around cook fires, which camp followers and young pages labored over to produce the evening meal. Across the grassy landscape, the army’s horses idly grazed, rousing a constellation of glowing insects that drifted up to flash against the gloaming of early evening. Sir Martus made his way through the camp, searching for the prince.
“Hail, Martus!” called out Sir Tornavir from a nearby group, raising a tankard. “Will you be playing tonight?”
Martus shrugged. His plate armor muted the gesture. “My violin might not need a rest, but my fingers do.”
“Aye, and our ears besides,” Lady Morane said, though she smiled.
Martus made a rude gesture at his fellow knight. “Where is the prince? I have news for him from the yeomen.”
Sir Tornavir’s face twisted into a bitter grimace. “With the seer. Again.”
Martus sighed and took a seat near the fire; his message for the prince would have to wait.
“The prince has been spending more time with Corum as we move farther north,” Morane muttered, flicking a bit of gristle into the coals. “Doesn’t he know the man is dangerous? He practices works that are too treacherous even to fathom.”
“Don’t talk about him like that,” Tornavir grumbled.
“He does! We’ve all heard the rumors. His art is too unpredictable and he invites it into the prince’s—”
“He means not to talk about the prince like that,” Martus said. “He is a good man not easily swayed by silver tongues. You know it as well as Tornavir, as me, as anyone in our order.”
Tornavir laughed darkly. “Are we still an order? The prince has been exiled. That makes us, what, sell swords?”
“It makes us loyal,” Martus said.
The three knights sat in silence for a moment, staring into the embers. It was Morane who broke their momentary silence.
“We’ll be at the walls of Ardas before long. Do we know what the prince plans when we arrive? Will we fight the northerners?”
“If we need to,” Martus replied. “I hope their commander listens to reason. The Augurs’ path is madness. Surely the soldiers at Ardas must see it too?”
Tornavir drew his dagger and stirred the coals with it. “It’s amazing what people fail to see when things are going in their favor. No, nothing the prince says will change it. I doubt even Baroness Rosaline could force them to see reason. There will be bloodshed.”
It was Martus’ turn to scowl. He did not relish the thought of fighting against Ardasian soldiers, not just because of their reputation as a city of elite infantry with unwavering loyalty to their empire. The idea of fighting them seemed so meaningless.
It was well into the night when the Exiled Prince emerged from his tent at the center of the war camp, the seer Maelgrave slinking in his shadow. Martus excused himself from his fellow knights and moved to intercept.
“My prince,” he said, bowing slightly. “I come with word from the yeomen. Their commanders say they have yet to receive supplies—”
The seer interjected. “Our prince has greater concerns, knight.”
The Exiled Prince put a hand out to restrain Maelgrave. He looked at Martus with tired gray eyes. “Of course, Sir Martus. Tell the yeomen that their relief is on the way. For now, they must hunt and forage to make up for the deficiency.”
Martus clasped a fist over his heart. “At once, my prince.”
As he left, the knight could not help but notice how the prince’s shoulders sagged. Martus was used to the Exiled Prince being a towering man, full of energy. Whatever he and the seer had been speaking about at such great length weighed against the prince’s spirit.
“How is he?” Sir Tornavir asked as Martus returned to the fire.
“Tired,” Martus said. “Tired and distracted by something.”
“Can’t rightly blame him,” Tornavir replied. “He knows that we’re marching off to die.”
Before Martus could respond, Lady Morane spoke with a small, trembling voice.
“What am I seeing?”
The other knights turned to follow her gaze. On the horizon to the northwest, there was a mote of brilliant light, like the first ghost of pre-dawn. Scintillating fingers of purple radiance stabbed behind the Wolfget Mountains. The light grew brighter, and, Martus saw with increasing horror, closer.
The camp fell into disarray as the soldiers saw the brilliant wall of light. It bathed everything in its strange illumination, bright as a midday sun. Then there was a great sundering sound like an earthquake cracking the world's bones, and the light exploded into a roaring wave that streaked forward.
Like a hungry tidal wave, it washed over the world. Crackling sparks of lightning flashed deep in the rushing wall of power. Martus could see trees, boulders, and whole hillsides that it washed over ripped up by its advance. Then, in stunned silence, he watched those bits of the world twisted and reshaped in unbearable, fractal ways as the horrible storm of power raced on. He could not do anything but grab Tornavir and Morane, embrace them, and squeeze his eyes shut. The screaming storm raced toward them.
And then, Martus died.
Time moved on, as time always does, but Martus did not notice its passage.
Martus rose as if from a deep sleep; a hand grasped his arm and helped him to his feet.
“Careful, brother,” said Sir Tornavir. Something about his voice seemed strange and distant.
“We’ve found another one,” came Lady Morane’s familiar voice. She, too, had an odd echo.
“What was that?” Martus asked, the darkness gradually resolving itself into forms. His voice sounded like he had wads of cotton stuck in his ears.
He gasped as his vision cleared. Where once stood the prince’s war camp, there was now a snarled wood. Among the trees were risen skeletal figures, wearing the corroded armor of his knightly order. One of the living dead held his arm in its bony grip and looked at him with two points of baleful light that took the place of its eyes. With muted surprise, he saw that where his hand emerged from the armor, it was similarly stripped of flesh.
“Welcome back, Sir Martus,” the skeletal knight said with Tornavir’s voice. “Come now. The prince will explain everything, but we’ve been resting for too long. There is much still to do.”
The pair headed off. Martus looked at the growing throngs of skeletal figures gathered around. It appeared that the question of supply chains would no longer be an issue.
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