Stage One - The Judge who Deserted

170 WA (Winter Age)

It's been nearly two hundred years since the Winter Age had begun.

The youth called Nive Eventide sighed as he reached the gate of the City of Duskfell, on the outskirts of the border of Rhynne, a northern country of mingled races. Here, he could find the tall Elves and their stern faces, the bearded Dwarves that rarely come out from their subterranean hoards, haggling with shopkeepers and buyers alike, and most of all, humans just like him, going about their business as usual. Carts that left ruts on the well-traveled dirt road that led to the Sunset Gate—the western gate, where merchants usually entered the city—went hither and thither, carrying their goods and merchandise. Carriages ambled around him, with the cheaper merchants setting up illegal shops outside and against the city walls, some looking sullen, some looking chilled, and some still energetic, hawking their wares amidst the cacophony of chickens squealing, children playing, horses snorting, and most of all the din of mingled peoples speaking in the universal Winter Speech. People cursing, bartering, laughing, talking and singing mixed with the moaning wind, and the crunch of boots on fresh-fallen snow accented their footsteps. The rickety wooden planks laid over the moat that surrounded the curtain wall gave off old clicking and clop-clopping sounds as passersby and merchants walked on them, the reek of the filthy water below seeping through. It was cold. He hugged himself for warmth and went on, finished with surveying the pandemonium.

Nive, back bent and carrying only a few belongings on his back and a soiled cloak over him, found himself walking toward a petite and red-haired shopkeeper sitting silent behind her stall. He looked over her fruits for sale. Too small, and some were overly ripe, housed on a rickety wooden frame that proclaimed her shop—Queen's. Too generic, he judged again. He found his mouth watering just by looking at her produce, however much he wanted to complain. He hadn't eaten for two days.

"Um, hello?" he tried.

The girl, tanned and with small freckles on her cheeks—the only part of her head visible under her hood—cast a cursory glance at him and snuggled herself with a thin blanket and a cloak that hid most of her body. She sat still on a stool, looking absently at the people trying to get past the guards, them complaining, insulting, threatening, chuckling. "What do you want?" she asked levelly, bored.

"I am… well, trying to look for directions and—"

The girl snorted, trying determinedly not to look at him. "What a fool you are. You going sightseeing?"

"Uh, no, not really." Nive scratched his head and smiled. "I mean, where do I go from here—"

"Obviously you go inside that gate," she interrupted sharply, hissing the last word. She muttered something under her breath.

Nive sensed something was wrong, and glanced over at the gatehouse fortress of the city. It was well built, of mortared stone, aged perhaps but still robust, and six guards that he could see in full body armor inspected each of those who entered, their long and steel-plated poleaxes looking deadly. There were two portcullises drawn up on its arch, and a keystone of what looked like polished stone—almost transparent—crowned it, while immense drum towers, two inside and two outside the walls, lined either way of the road leading to gate. At a casual inspection Nive saw murder holes built on the towers, and all of them were topped by grim-looking crenels. The blue banner of Duskfell, a white crescent dipping on a rippling lake, fluttered not only on the city walls but on those towers as well. Guards manned the parapets of the walls, crossbows and spears in hand, swords in scabbards, looking severe and frigid. Nive noticed the defenses; there was a scorpion looking outward for every ten feet along the city wall, and on the higher towers inside the curtain wall of the city he could see trebuchets standing like scarecrows under the half-light. Whatever Duskfell was it wouldn't be taken by surprise—unless it be taken from the inside. He turned back to the girl.

"They've always permitted me to go inside that damnable city and now they won't even talk to me." She spat and muttered, "Filthy dogs."

"Is there something afoot?"

She looked at him, as if evaluating him, then waved dismissingly. "How should I know? They don't even know me. And yet a fortnight past they gave me a barley stew from the gatehouse and called me by my name."

"And…?" he prompted.

She shot a poisonous look at him. "What do you care?"

He held up his hands and smiled apologetically. "Maybe I should talk to somebody else, then." He bowed. "Thank you for your time."

He had started to walk away to join the throng when she suddenly called out to him, her voice shrill. "Hey, mister!"

Nive stopped and turned around, seeing her wave frantically. "Come here!" she mouthed. He hurried back, unsure and curious.

"What?" he said as he reached her stall, quite breathless.

"If you let me go with you I'll give you some info," she whispered, looking right and left. Her face was flushed. "Please, mister, I really need to see what's happening inside!"

"What? Who will look after this—"

"Just shut up!" she hissed. "Listen, the Conclave has just captured someone they called the Devil King, and they are parading him—"

"I don't think I—"

"No! Listen first!" She clutched at his sleeves that reached to the middle of his forearm, and her eyes glistened feverishly. "I must see that man!"


"Just do as I say, please." She bobbed her head. "My grandfather used to tell me when I was little that… I… I was related to them… and…"

"What does this man look like?" Nive asked, suddenly interested.

"Like me, or somewhat me as makes no matter." She let go and he saw, for the first time. Her arms were covered with what looked like scales, bleached blue and grey, shimmering against the light as if slick with oil. Her long fingers ended in sharp claws, and her eyes were golden, with deep and dark pupils like those of a cat, and her reddish hair was jumbled and dirty, framing a lone small horn on her forehead that jutted like the prow of a ship. The cloak that she was covering herself had effectively disguised her, and he thought with shame that he wasn't paying enough attention to this person that seemed both sad and furious at the world.


"What am I?" She laughed bitterly. "Some half-breed, I guess. I've met a few people like me, but most were dragged off by their human overlords to become slaves."

"Was your grandfather… human?"

"Yes. He… he raised me alone. I never knew my parents, and he was always angry when I asked. The closest I've gotten to knowing my parents was… well, that was what I told. He said I was in some way related to these Devils, as they say. They call themselves the Elders, I was told."


"Yes, and from what I've heard so far, these people are led by the Devil King." She seized her skirts, crumpling it. "I don't even know what they look like, but since I know I'm a half-breed, well… that would probably make them look like hideous monsters."

Nive was silent for a while, letting the noise wash over him and digesting the thought, staring at her thoughtfully. She might be pretty in a way, but with her appearance, no one would look at her twice. Maybe not even go close to her. Finally he spoke. "Do you think you're hideous, then?"

"No, I just thought that… if they're pure, instead of me who has mixed—" She scowled at him. "I need to go and see."

He smiled. "All right. But promise me you don't go starting trouble by yourself. And stay with me."

At once she looked up, and she smiled tremulously, the saddest and the most heartbreaking smile Nive had ever seen. "Thank you, sir. I—I'm called Morgan."

Several minutes later Nive walked purposefully along the flagstoned Merchant's Way that led, straight as an arrow, to the heart of the city, a half-eaten apple courtesy of Morgan in his hand. A grateful half-breed followed him excitedly, looking this way and that, but his mind was fixed on the road ahead, shouldering and dodging bystanders. A grim set was on his face, and he held his body erect, expecting the unexpected, while his cloak fanned behind and around him, tattered at the edges, frayed and worn.

"Hey, wait up!" Morgan said, but he ignored her. He had done his part in getting her into the city, but now he must act on the trust that was given to him. And he reminded himself...

He was once a Judge—one of the elite agents of the Vicars of the Conclave, who had now amassed a large army from different nations, contrary to the proposed peace and disarmament policies of Queen Riognach of Harmonia. But it was not only to control the Outer Kingdoms, and to force the Winter Wars again, that the Conclave was strengthening its forces—it was to combat the last of the Elder Race, the ones who were damned and deformed for their use of a forbidden magic a long, long time ago. Since about twenty years ago, the Elders had been notoriously active, pillaging, raiding, and destroying whole brigades of seasoned soldiers and men. The Conclave thus revised the ranks of the Judges as the generals of their popular army, and at once warriors from across Nithelice flocked to them to try their hands on becoming a leader of renown.

Morgan was a proof of the Elder Race's disrepute. Back when he was still serving as a Judge, he discovered with horror that the monstrous Elder Race, naturally furtive, were laying with human women, or even in some cases Elven women, to beget half-human children known as Deimos. The Elder Race must and would be exterminated, but the Deimos, they judged, would be sent to captivity and quarantined before they could commit a crime against humanity. And it was a wonder that Morgan had escaped so far, but he knew that now her last day as a free person was over. He was practically sending her to her prison and to live out her days in utter slavery.

For almost two hundred years the Conclave had battled with the Elder Race, from mountain summits to the deepest bowels of the earth, from deserted castles to exorcising humans unfortunate enough to have inhaled the breath of an Elder, which caused them to go mad. The Judges were not only created to oversee the now-obsolete Winter Wars, but also as the vanguards against the subversive movement of the Elder Race. He was one of them, and he had witnessed not only once how powerful an Elder was. He had seen one of them tear out a comrade with its bare hands, while one smashed a small fishing village to bits, and had seen one utilize a force believed to have been sealed long ago.

The Elves, who, according to history was as much to blame for the Winter the proliferation of the Elders as the Humans, was once the Conclave's staunchest ally, lending their powers of sorcery to vanquish these devils. But it was different now; the Elves had already made the East their stronghold, and the war with the Elders forgotten. And now... before he left the Judges the Vicars had outlined a plan to initiate an assault on Harmonia, believed to be where the majority of the Elders were hiding. He thought it a front for an invasion of an otherwise peaceful and defenseless country—his homeland that he had all but forgotten—which was why he had forsaken the Order that had taught him all he knew; the Order that made him, once, a hero.

And now, the Devil King was captured—or claimed to have been captured. He wanted to laugh. He had no illusions that even with all of the Judges combined they would be able to defeat it, much less chain that beast and parade it onto a city. Even a lowly Elder peon could boast power equal to an Elven mage—and an Elven mage could tear a building to the ground in a single spell.

It didn't matter if he wasn't a Judge, or a Judge who had deserted his comrades. Duskfell is rushing headlong into its ruin if it was bringing an Elder, a Merihim, inside its impenetrable walls. The Conclave had stripped him of all his honors, his privileges, his way of life, his pride—but the one thing that they didn't strip him of is being a Judge, the oath to protect the people from the malice of the Elders.

He had sworn an oath. And he will keep it, Judge or no Judge. He had failed a people once, and he shall never do so, again.