Prologue (Scene 1)
Pre-dawn light spilled over the peaks of the Barrier Mountains sitting on the distant horizon. The haze of death lay over hectares of razed fields; and the unnatural silence of the morning was broken only by the cracks and pops of a now-ruined farmhouse reduced to a smoking heap of rubble and ashes.
Rissa awoke in pain. Her head throbbed like she had hit it against the old stone wall she found herself laying against. When she moved her hand to see if there was any blood from the knock, the agony in her arm forced her eyes open through a caked layer of dirt and ash. She swallowed down a scream, and through the pounding on her temple she forced herself to examine the wound.
It was an arrow. The sight of the faded grains of the shaft erupting from her weathered skin was surreal. It was broken off about a hand’s length from her arm, but after trying to move it again with the support of her good hand, she discovered that it went all the way through the bones and muscles and was firmly embedded into the earth.
Without waiting to second-guess herself, Rissa dug the fingers of her good hand into the ground beneath her arm, scraping away enough to grab the arrow. There was no holding back her screams while her arm was forced to move while she worked at the dirt. After an eternity, she made enough space to grab the slender piece of wood with as much strength as she could muster. In a single swift jerk, she flung her arm up and off the shaft, and collapsed into unconsciousness from the pain.
She came to with the noon sun pressing against her face like a thick blanket of nettles. Her body ached for water so hard that she almost forgot the fire burning through her arm. She crawled one-handed to her knees, and tried to blink away the crust of grime from her eyes so she could look around and get her bearings.
Creeping columns of smoke crawled up from accross the barren fields that had just yesterday been a half-grown wheat crop. It took her several minutes to put together where she was. The next step had to be to get to the farmhouse, to see if there were any survivors. Slowly, she put her feet beneath her and, using the stones of the wall to push against, she gingerly stood upright. Moving seemed to help push back the dessicated feeling of dehydration, but her right arm was going to be useless. Gods forbid if it began to fester…
Between the arrow wound and her head injury, Rissa stumbled along beside the wall for the better part of an hour before she reached the remains of the farmhouse. Broken, half-burned timbers lay strewn across a pile of heat cracked masonry and pitch-blackened soil. Embers still burned in the heart of the ruins, and the smoke wafted around like Tursan revelling in the wake of his destruction.
Then the wind picked up for just a moment, and Rissa thought she could make out erect poles through the smoke. She scrambled around the rubble, tripping over the alien terrain, and sobbing for what she was afraid she had seen.
There were three poles. They had been hastily hewn from thick sapplings. Their branches were removed, but much of the bark remained. A body had been secured to each one, its hands bound above its head and its feet suspended just inches from the ground. The farm’s owner, Lantia, her husband Flevin, and their eight year old son Sebastian had been strung up and killed. Their throats torn out, no doubt, as sacrifice to the Tessods’ demonic god of conquest.
Rissa felt like she’d been kicked in the gut by a mule. She clawed at her eyes with her good hand to stop the dry swelling of tears from burning in the acrid smoke. She looked up to the deep, cloudless blue of the sky, and uttered a prayer for her owners’ souls.
“Zaer, protect these souls on their road to Everlasting Paradise.”
It stuck in her throat, only half spoken.
The middle aged farm-hand turned away from the corpses. The image of her destroyed life was seared into her mind’s eye. Memories of her years of service in Lantia’s household flashed over it. The market days. The honest, hard work in the fields. Sebastian’s unbounded youth. She could just imagine him calling for her from across a distance. Or very quietly.
She spun back to face the murdered family, forgetting the hot poker burning her arm, and almost passed out again from the sudden reminder. She rode out the wave, and quickly opened her eyes again. She stepped towards Sebastian’s small body, careful over the broken ground. He hung limply from the pole between his parents.
Rissa realized she was holding her breath, and let it go in three shuddering wheezes. Had she imagined the boy’s voice? She swallowed repeatedly, trying to moisten and clear the smoke from her throat despite her intense thirst.
“Sebastian?” she managed to force out, after more than a couple tries.
The boy’s eyes shot open. He stared at her, his face contorted in pain and concentration, and an ugly cut across his throat beginning to bleed anew.
“Help,” he pleaded. “Uncle… Peter…. Dersa.”


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