Morning came bleak and cold to the survivors of the Cataclysm of Hadon, as the early risers rose from their sleeping grounds. There had been no time to pack; many of the poor, even some of the better-off had been sleeping on mats of coarse cloth, under the stark sky.
The unnatural fear that had been hammered into them upon hearing the Horn of the Dark had not entirely departed. In the mad rush out the South Gates many had died terribly, and not entirely from the cold machinations of the Dark Ones. The frenzied rush to escape the doomed city had taken its toll. Thousands were slaughtered like animals, in the most horrific of ways - women were crushed under stampeding hordes, their babies beaten into bloody pulps by heaving feet.
Acen Thallae, blacksmith's apprentice, had been one of those lucky few who had managed to mantain their position at the front of the mass of escaping refugees. His proximity to the head of that serpent of people was the only thing that had saved him from the dagger of Dark Ones' host, plunging with swift deadly silence into the flank of the refugee mass. Thallae remembered with a distant, deadened horror how a man's pulverized flesh had sloughed onto his back as he ran and ran, remembered how a woman, eyes beseeching, had thrust a screaming babe into his filthy arms, her begging and crying for him to save her baby's life, for she was bleeding and weak with exhaustion.
Thallae never found out what happened to that woman; whether she had been mauled, stabbed, or driven to madness by the slimy visages of the Dark Ones, was a thing out of his knowledge. All he knew was the reality of her trust in those final mad moments, of his responsibility. He looked now into the brown, liquid eyes of the squalling babe, cradled in his muscular arms.
Let it not be said that Acen Thallae was one who broke promises easily.
Thallae had also lost his mother; too ill and frail, she had no means of escape. Her last whisper to her beloved son was a plea for him to escape safely. She had chosen, then, to die quietly in his arms, and for the first time in his adult life, he had wept. Cradling her frail body his arms he cried out his sorrow, then remembering his last promise to her, took the body out, buried her swiftly, and departed as speedily as he could.
Gathering up what possessions he had now, Thallae set his emotions loose. Another tear slid down his face and fell onto the parched earth.
"Come on! Make haste, you flea-gotten slowfoots! We cannot remain in one place too long!"
Eleindant Makor Vash, nominal leader of the Two Hundred, was a wary man. It was whispered that the voices of the Dark Ones had more than unhinged him; he had become paranoid to a fault. The Eleindant was the troop leader in charge of the fleeing refugees during the massacre of Hadon. In the evacuation he and his squad had, too, been carried away, and not by the mass of escaping men and women.
As a sad consequence what surviving men still attached to Vash were viewed with a certain surly suspicion. Among the rowdier denizens of the sorry troop they were called the Yellowguts, not without some venomous disdain. Vash himself had doubts about the guts of those same men, cold blue eye roving mercilessly whenever he stared down at his charges, mouth quivering under the bristling bushy moustache.
Truth to tell, Vash's company had an original quantity of three hundred men. Now, there were twenty-two. The rest had fallen to the Dark Ones, dying while defending the same civilians who now held them in such resentful loathing.
Such justice in Theredras, thought Vash silently. His one eye stared down at the milling, desperate crowd and beheld Thallae among the masses. His lip twisted in sneering contempt.
It seemed ages before they were ready, and only because of the threatening glow on the horizon. Heads turned unconsciously to stare at the angry roiling luminescence. Mouths muttered warding incantations out of pure reflex. The procession began their long trudge again, trekking across the Roth Plains to the east to find safe haven.
Vash's deputy, Nompidi, came up nervously to him. "Lord Eleindant, my men wish to know where we head."
Vash did not so much as turn his head. "To the East."
Nompidi wringed his hands. "My Lord, the East is vast, and they must know where exactly we are headed. They grow surly and mutinous, trudging without a clear direction - I implore you, my lord, to tell where you intend for us to head-"
Vash cut him off with a brusque wave. "Then you will tell them that I will attempt to head northfarthings, toward the Ilushidan city of Knoros. Failing that, we shall see."
Nompidi's eyes widened. "But my Lord, the Ilushids are not exactly friendly to Jadeon. We have threatened to go to war no less than thrice during the past-"
Vash cut him off again, this time with a snarl. "You will tell your men this, Nompidi, and another whimper out of you and I will have you butchered."
Now Nompidi's eyes turned strange. He said, almost as if he were dreaming, "I am afraid, my Lord, that your support base wears thin. We do not need to defer to your authority. I would most tactfully advise you on that particular matter."
And Vash did not respond, for Nompidi, insofar as he could see, was right. Nompidi fell back to the men, and Vash thought he could almost hear the snapping jaws of slavering dogs. His fist clenched in quivering fury.
The long serpent of refugees continued their slithering across the parched plains. Thallae trudged along near the back, avoiding Vash as best as he could. The woman's baby was crying continually, and it was starting to irritate him. But he stuck to his ethic.
Soon they passed the walls of an enormous city. It had clearly been abandoned for some time; its walls were caked with plants and crumbling into the dust of time. Thallae wondered at the temerity of the city's builders; constructing their many-splendored citadel in such a hostile, formless land. They camped near the city's gates for the night.
As the darkness descended Thallae could not help but feel a sense of unease. The great yawning gates of the abandoned city seemed to come alive with malicious intent, beckoning him to enter into the murky darkness within. Cold drafts of air passed out from the cavernous entrances. The place was so vast, and yet so empty, that Thallae imagined the whispers of thousands of tormented ghosts filling the walls.
He woke with a start in the middle of the night. The baby was sleeping soundly. The maw of the city still stood there, aloof. Thallae felt drawn to it, and, as though sleepwalking, he made his way up into the entrance, past the ruined gates, into the city. Cold, musty, eeriely quiet it was on the inside, as Thallae made his way through the streets. His unease became mixed with a growing dread, and the whispers of restless ghosts began filling his head, as he spun wildly, rooted to the spot, seeing nothing but ghostly-white buildings everywhere. The sounds became louder, and Thallae was convinced it was not just some mere hallucination, for he could hear the distinct notes of each voice. And what they were urgently intoning.
We have been denied so long....Give us your blood!
Whimpering, Thallae fled as the susurrations of laughing spirits resounded in his skull.
The procession wore on for six days. On the evening of the seventh, Vash, leading the refugees, rounded a hillock and...
Stood still as the sight of a glittering pearly-white city greeted his eyes. They had come to Knoros at last.