***

The scene begins as our hero takes a trip to the King’s Temple and ends with the first sighting of a demon, resulting in the absolute end of Phalax’s world.

***

The glorious shine from the stronghold dimly illuminated the yard but still provided more than enough light for Phalax to make out the hundreds of giant, wooden spikes set into the ground in small clusters, tips protruding toward the wall Phalax had just walked through. These spikes were set in place to slow a siege, allowing archers and other artillery to rain missiles down on the attacking force from the safety of castle balconies. Security had been an extremely important obsession for the Altair family. Phalax walked a zigzagging path toward the east side of the castle that was barely wide enough to accommodate two wagons pulled side by side. As he walked, he thought of the castle’s history, and the events that had led to the founding of Baronfall and Cavia.

Generations ago, settlers north of the Arrow Tip Mountains had braved the stony maze to find Baronfall. The country was empty other than the Deth Uk barbarians who existed in the Arrows. Along their journey to the mountains, they had passed through several other cities north of the Arrows and collected more travelers, each group somehow different than all the others in the party. Eventually, thousands of settlers were working as a single unit, surviving the harsh mountains until at last they looked out over an empty land, rife with possibility, a massive sea sitting at its southern end.

Those were the people who had tamed these lands, Phalanx recalled, during which time wars for dominance broke out. Cavia was the first city to rise from the ground, too small to contain the settlers for long. Among those who survived the wars were those chosen to rule. The wars were short, quick battles that ended without much bloodshed. The Altair family was among the war leaders and so took Cavia’s throne. The others spread out to form Arnamos, Durthlem, and Nemere. The latter became a place where many of those who wanted to lead went, operating as a patchwork of small dominions ruled in unison.

After many prosperous years, Cavia continued to grow, the castle was built, and the Altair family ensured that their seat of power would remain theirs, constructing a network of defenses and guards. The spikes were one such defense, along with the Watch, the military, and the King’s Guard. Ever since the wars to settle the rights of dominion, peace had ruled over Baronfall, the cities working together, continuing in the spirit of shared adventure. Cavia and the other cities eventually developed a culture of mixed ethnicities, foods, songs, religions, ideas. Despite the differences in the populace, equality reigned. In fact, there were no slaves, only those who decided to work for others as their servants, earning honest pay for honest work.

Phalax weaved through the field of giant spears, aimed at a building sitting to the east of the castle. A temple dedicated to his righteous god, Malkor. The temple’s main entrance faced the castle and a short stone path connected the two. A courtyard sprawled across the area between the castle and temple, full of stone benches, intricate statues of the king and his predecessors, greenery, and beautiful flowers surrounding a fountain. Four warriors of the King’s Guard, clad in brilliant, white, full-plate armor, and equipped with the finest weapons in the city, stood before the large doors serving as the back entrance to the castle.

Phalax didn’t bother using the stone walkway but rather headed straight for the temple entrance at an angle. The building was two stories tall, almost two-hundred feet long from the front entrance to its back wall, and just over a hundred feet in width. A winged shield sigil jutted out of the wooden doors, half of the sigil affixed to each door to account for the whole. That particular temple was unlike the others dedicated to Malkor. It boasted the support of the king’s own wealth, setting it apart from any other temple in the city.

Phalax pushed the doors open and was surprised when he didn’t come face to face with a priest or two. He shut the door and walked to the small table on his right where a small bowl held a few pieces of silver. He pulled a small coin purse from his belt and deposited two silver coins into the bowl. He expected a priest to hear the sound and come strolling over to him, but the sanctuary remained quiet.

Phalax shrugged and made his way down a central aisle and toward the statue of his god at the back of the room. The light from the castle didn’t reach the interior of the structure and the temple was instead dimly lit by candles and two separate, blazing hearths, one to either side of the statues of the god. The statue portrayed a classic image of Malkor, a giant knight, clad in armor from head to toe, feathered wings sprouting from his back, and holding a giant shield with two hands, warding off an invisible foe.

Phalax assumed that the priest was most likely sleeping in his quarters in the upper story somewhere, and decided not to bother the man. Instead, he stopped and knelt down before the ornately sculpted statue and prayed. When he reopened his eyes he brought his gaze from the floor to his god’s face and a cold shock of surprise paralyzed him.

Two thin lines of crimson had taken the place of its eyes and a malevolent grin of the same color and thinness spanned half of Malkor’s helmeted head. Phalax sprang to his feet and searched the temple as he pulled his short-sword from his belt. Something behind the statue covered in gray cloth caught his attention.

Phalax turned a tight circle and then backed up toward the left wall. His back hit the wall and from that angle he could just see a dead man’s head lying in a pool of his own blood. The body explained the absence of the priest, but not who had killed him, or if the killer was still in the temple. Phalax’s eyes darted between the rows of pews but in the dim light he couldn’t make out much, and therefore couldn’t rule out the possibility that the killer could be lying in wait anywhere within the sanctuary.

As he began to move along the wall and back toward the exit, he stopped cold when he noticed a small splatter of blood on the floor. It was followed by another leading in between the pews. He then knew that the killer wasn’t smart enough to wipe his blade after the kill. He felt a surge of heat and his blood pumped faster as he savored the idea that he would track down the killer and avenge the fallen servant of Malkor. He began to move toward the exit again, but this time with a quicker pace. His eyes inspected every inch of every pew as he moved past them and he was crestfallen when the trail of blood abruptly stopped.

Nothing caught his attention as he made his way to the exit, and he began to relax, believing that the killer had gone. He passed the small bowl of silver and then turned to look back at the statue of his god just before he exited the building. He let out a small gasp of fear as his eyes drank in the vision of a small creature perched atop the shield his god was holding. It looked like a hairless, red monkey, but with long, pointed ears sprouting from its bulbous head. The creature was holding the dead priest’s fingers and using them as paint brushes to further decorate the visage of Malkor.

The finger the abomination was holding must have run dry for it threw the severed digit down in disgust and screeched at it. Phalax took a step backward and was paralyzed as the thing’s yellow eyes lifted from the floor to pierce him with its gaze. He felt like a child and wanted nothing more than to be back in the house he grew up in with his parents. A scream leveled him to his knees and the vile thing smiled. Phalax realized the noise was in his mind because the screaming visage of his mother flashed before his eyes. He reached forward and as his fingers fell through the illusion of his mother, it split apart and was whisked away.

His head fell to the ground and he couldn’t breathe. He heard the creature screech and laugh, and knew that it had moved within feet of him. He also heard a guard yell out. They were far away and he was immobilized, suffocating. The distance between himself and the guards ensured that they would be unable to save him if the creature had the mind to kill him.

He had to break the hex if he was going to survive. He heard the creature purr and wanted nothing more than to snap its jaw from its head. His muscles twitched slightly and he grabbed ahold of himself. He blamed the abomination for the death of his parents and his world went black—from anger or lack of air, he didn’t know, but he felt like hot liquid poured from and into every orifice in his body.

His vision flooded with red and he lurched forward, frantically pawing the air to get a hold of the devilish creature. He grabbed a fistful of hair and swung his right hand. His fist smashed into the jaw of the creature and he felt it ripped away from his grasp. He fell on all fours and sprang forward, but landed on empty ground and began groping the air to find the creature.

Suddenly, he felt a tremendous force slam into the side of his head. He collapsed, his vision blurry, and he could vaguely decipher multiple figures moving before him.

A hand grabbed his chin and his upturned gaze met with a blurred visage of a creature that looked somewhat human. Phalax began to raise his fist when another blow hit him and he fell into complete unconsciousness.