Chapter 1

Prologue

The strong whiff of winter dominated the air. Three men trudged through the thick muck, using their swords to steady themselves against the incessant wind and snow. Owen, the youngest and strongest of the three, scanned the pitch-black horizons for a sign of refuge, but the ever growing white that swirled around them left him more disoriented. His blood froze, his skin flaked. He slowly turned to his companions.

“We’re lost!” he cried.

“Do you fear the unknown?” Charlie asked with a subtle smile.

Commander Charlie Davis was an old man past sixty, and he had seen the watchers of Astrasia come and go.

“Aren’t you worried Charlie?” replied Dave, Owen’s brother. “I mean, it’s just, we’ve been walking since midday.”

“We’ve been given orders by Lord Stronghold to survey the area,” replied Charlie. “Are you the sort of people that don’t follow orders?”

“I have no problem doing what is asked of me,” replied Owen, who watched his breath rise in a mist before him.

“Then why do you moan?” Charlie wondered.

“It’s because we haven’t seen a checkpoint for miles,” answered Owen. “Nobody from Northend has been to these parts of the forest, I’m sure of it.”

Charlie could see Owen’s bloodshot eyes and grey cheeks and under the black hood of his cloak.

“We’re not far from base camp in Northend; that I can promise you,” reassured Charlie, who was used to walking in darkness with no sense of direction.

Charlie had been a watcher of Astrasia since the age of seventeen, ever since he was proven guilty for the murder of his wife. Whilst his knowledge of woman was poor, he knew a great deal about these woods and what lurked within them. Having lived in this part of Astrasia for over forty years, he sensed nature would claim his life one day, but he was prepared for that. He towered above his companions, both in height and combat experience. He wore black buckled boots, brown gloves and woollen trousers under a cloak made of thick wolf skin. A steel longsword and dagger dangled from a thick leather belt wrapped tight around his waist.

The brothers, Owen and Dave wore similar clothing, but were trusted with no more than a short sword each. They held on tight to their weapons and exchanged nervous looks. Both had been sentenced to Northend for three years over a crime they didn’t commit. This was only their second time beyond the fiery gates, but all the horrible stories of these parts had come rushing back. The brothers had served nearly two and a half years as watchers of Astrasia and were now dreaming of their journey back down south to see their families. The pair had been on numerous missions to survey and map the snowy woods of the north, but something was different this night. There was a sharp edge to the darkness that kept them alert. Ever since they left Northend earlier that day, Owen had felt as though he were being hunted; as if something were following him. Even Charlie could feel it, and wanted nothing more but to see the tall, granite walls of Northend.

As they crossed a violent river, Dave turned to his companions and said, “I see light. Over there!”

Charlie and Owen turned their heads and caught glimpse of a warm, white light glistening beyond the trees in the distance.

“See, always listen to your commander lads,” said Charlie, who led the long walk uphill. Before them stood a wall that went as high as the trees. On it were strange markings they failed to recognize.

“This isn’t base camp,” said Charlie, stepping forward and examining the wall with interest.

“No map shows a village in these woods,” said Dave, whose eyes were dragged to a lantern hanging above an arched wooden door. “Shall we enter?”

Charlie seemed not to hear him. He was busy thinking of a plan of action, for he knew they were truly lost. Owen and Dave had been watchers of Astrasia long enough to understand that something wasn’t quite right when Charlie didn’t immediately reply with a straight answer.

“Commander,” croaked Dave. “What next?”

Charlie looked up at the sky with disinterest. “Let's look inside. There may be somewhere for us to rest beyond these walls.”

One by one, all three walked through the arched wooden door and stepped onto a cobbled street of some hundred stone houses with dark windows looking east. Each home had slated roofs topped with tall brick chimneys. Lanterns facing each other along the street were unlit. There was not a person in sight as they made their way deeper into the village. Down on the road, where it turned sharply to the left, was a collection of pubs. A wide establishment called ‘The Kings Arms’ doors were locked. ‘The Royal Welcome’ was not welcoming in the slightest. Judging by its cracked windows and broken door, ‘The Last Drop’ had served its last drink many years ago.

“This village is deserted,” said Charlie curiously. “Have either of you studied the archives recently?”

Dave had been a writer and historian before his sentence and was no stranger to reading. He stepped forward and answered, “I recently read chapters on northern villages.”

“What did you read Dave?” asked Charlie. “The history of this particular region escapes me. Tell me everything you know.”

“There’s not much to tell. These forests aren't really mapped. There’s small villages twenty miles east of Northend. The population is extremely low, and they live off any good land they can farm.”

“You’ve read the entire chapter?”

“Well, no,” Dave admitted. “Only parts.”

“Were there any accounts of disease? Anything at all?”

“A few died years ago from harsh flu’s. There might have been a case of bone fever not too far back.”

“Bone fever?” said Owen, shifting uncomfortably on the spot. “There hasn’t been bone fever in Astrasia for decades.”

“You certain you read that boy?” asked Charlie.

Dave nodded and looked around him. The gloomy village was unappetizing to say the least. Owen coughed and shivered.

“You cold?” asked Charlie.

“Very,” replied Owen. “It’s this bloody wind.” The young watcher turned to his brother and adjusted his cloak.

“Do you think bone fever claimed this village?” Charlie asked casually.

Dave shrugged. “It’s hard to tell. It would explain nobody being around. How long does it take to claim your mind?”

“Anyone with bone fever in the past had no more than one month before they turned,” said Charlie with certainty. “But the weather in these parts is harsh and would speed the sickness, there’s no doubt about that. See lads, the real enemy is the cold. It burns you from within and quickly takes over your body, until you’ve completely lost the will to live. But if you’ve been marked by a wendigo, or the undead, as was common in my day, the best thing you can do, for the safety of your loved ones is to end your life right there and then. Unfortunately, that is not the case with this village.”

“What makes you say that?” asked Owen.

“I don’t see any bodies, and that troubles me,” Charlie muttered. “Something’s not right here. I can feel it.”

A menacing chill ran through Dave and Owen’s backs for they could feel it too. They were both fully grown men with years of combat experience between them, but now they felt like lost, little boys.

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“Come, there’s nothing for us here but loss and decay,” Charlie announced, as he led his companions back into the dark depths of the forest. The sky had turned deep blue and faded to purple. A full moon was surrounded by a cluster of bright stars. Owen was grateful for the light.

“Where should we go now?” he asked.

“We need to walk away from the moon,” replied Charlie. “They further south we go now, the better.”

After that, all three watchers of Astrasia walked for hours in complete silence. The moon had risen a little, but the cold was now unbearable. For much of the walk the land was kind, but at last filled with rocks and roots to trip you up. Owen’s breathing was heavy and the feeling in his fingers, toes and ears had gone. All he wanted to do was lie down and sleep.

“I can’t take another step!” he exclaimed.

Charlie turned around to see Owen on his knees, almost hidden by the white snow.

“Watcher, I am over three times your age. Pick yourself up so we can continue,” Charlie ordered.

“But no end is in sight!” Owen shouted.

“As watchers of Astrasia and servants of the realm, we have an obligation to watch over these parts. Without us, all matter of darkness and evil spread freely.”

“I know our duty,” said Owen. Fear had made him impertinent. “I can’t bear this cold.”

“Not to worry. You’ll be in the comfort of your warm bed within the next hour.”

Charlie paused for a moment, staring off into the distance. A sinister wind made his cloak stir violently behind him as he held tight onto the grip of his longsword.

“What was that?” he asked.

The noise that followed was the dying cries of a bear somewhere off in the distance.

Owen gave a disdainful smile and turned to his brother. “Can you carry me?”

“I haven’t got the strength for it,” said Dave, who could feel his legs start to buckle. “Charlie, do you have any leftover food for Owen?”

Charlie did not answer. His eyes were fixed on the twisting trees to the west where the noise had come from. When the bear cried once more, Charlie drew his longsword from its sheath. It glistened under the moonlight and looked altogether powerful. The grip was made with brown leather and had a deer engraved at its cross guard. Charlie could see his own grey and depleted face reflected in the blade.

“Something's killing that bear,” he warned. “We need a fire.”

“You’re insane! The cold has poisoned your mind!” cried Owen. “Whatever killed that bear will come straight for us!”

“Do you want the cold to claim your life?” Charlie roared. “Dave, take this and pour a single drop over some dry wood.”

Charlie handed his companion a small flask containing a thin, red liquid. Dave could see Charlie’s mouth become a hard line and immediately did what instructed by his commander.

Charlie’s hood shadowed his face, but Owen could see the uneasiness in his eyes filled with fear and confusion. At that moment, he decided he no longer trusted the judgement of his immediate superior. Owen stood up and drew his sword. It was a short, unattractive blade stained with mud. The grip was heavily discoloured.

Owen stared at Charlie and muttered, “There’ll be no fire here.”

Charlie took it for acquiescence and looked east. “Very well young man, your life is your own, but so is your death.”

Dave returned the flask to Charlie and asked, “Should we put the bear out of its pain?”

“It might still be under attack. We should just continue south,” Owen suggested.

“A thick, warm bear skin to cover us through the night is the best chance we have of survival,” explained Charlie, who started walking to where the cries were coming from. “Follow me if you want to live.”

Owen and Dave looked at each other with expressionless faces. They both knew the weather had plagued their minds, but what other options did they have?

The brothers battled their way through a thicket and started walking west downhill. They reached a small basin where the ground was damp and muddy, clustered with twisting thorn shrubs. A fully-grown bear lay flat amongst the bushes, its guts spread out all over. The thin snow was coloured dark red, and the bear was in its final moments.

“The gods have no mercy,” said Charlie as he slowly approached the bear and raised his sword. With one clean strike, he stabbed the bear in its heart.

Owen and Dave covered their ears as the bear cried for a final time, before closing its eyes to rest.

“What did this?” asked Dave.

“This is not a wolf attack, nor a mountain lion,” said Charlie, who ran his hand across the bears warm brown fur. “Do you see any tracks?”

They all looked around and saw nothing but flat, blood stained snow.

Then, a high-pitched ringing sound echoed throughout the forest, and the watchers raised their swords.

“Quick, get behind me!” Charlie whispered urgently. “We’re not alone.”

Dave followed his commander, but Owen did not move. His eyes swept over the forest around them. He looked up at the deep blue sky and began to weep, for he had lost all matter of hope and was now as prepared to die.

“Fool, take shelter!” Charlie commanded. “I won’t have a young lad like you die on my watch.”

Disinclined, Owen obeyed.

Charlie glared at him with disapproval. “Whatever made that sound is no friend of ours. Both of you, search the trees for any sign of movement.”

The watchers examined the trees but only saw falling leaves and rustled branches. The wind was cruel and blowing towards them. Fear seemed to rattle Owen like a clawed hand. He curled into a ball and lay flat against the bears warm underside.

“Owen!” Dave cried.

“He needs to rest,” said Charlie, who removed his cloak and placed it over his cold companion. “Tell him to keep his chest warm. His hands will take care of themselves.”

“Where are you going?” asked Dave.

“Keep your brother safe. I’m off to survey the area,” replied Charlie, who walked up to a cluster of white pine trees and was lost among the needles. Soon his arms were covered with sap, but he kept both hands on the grip of his longsword. He murmured to himself and took time with every step forwards.

Then, he heard a branch fall to the west and he called out suddenly, “I know you’re there! Whatever you are!”

Charlie saw movement out of the corner of his eyes. A tall, light figure glided through the trees. He turned his head to face it, but it was gone. Strong moonlight was shining through the rustling leaves. Perhaps that is what he saw. Had his mind been poisoned by the cold? Charlie opened his mouth to call for Owen, but no words came out. His throat was stiff and dry, so he coughed.

As Charlie continued to circle the basement, a horrid, rotting smell filled the air. He was forced to cover his mouth and narrow his eyes. When a strong gust of wind blew right beside him, he heard the high-pitched scream for the second time.

“Show yourself!” Charlie demanded. He was turning in a small circle, trying to cover every angle as best as he could. With sword firmly in hand, Charlie watched a shadowy figure emerged from a cluster of thorn bushes. He immediately knew what it was. It stood over seven feet tall. Its legs were muscular like that of a deer, but its head was that of a fully-grown wolf. Charlie could see the beasts heart beating behind its exposed ribcage. It’s back seemed to snap forwards as it reached its head. Sharp antlers covered in blood rested above its deep red eyes. Its arms were long and bony, with claws like knives. Thick black and yellow slime was dripping from its mouth. It was now very clear what had killed the bear and made all those high-pitched sounds. Standing in front of Charlie was a wendigo.

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Charlie’s heart stopped beating and he dared not breath. Moonlight shone down on the clearing between him and the wendigo. The wind was silenced, but it had never been colder.

“We weren’t alone after all,” Charlie said, removed the flask containing the thick red liquid from his pocket. He popped it open and let a single droplet fall onto the blade of his longsword. Then, he held it up to his face so that the blade touched his nose.

“Ignis,” he whispered, and his sword caught fire like a log covered in oil. With it blazing in front of him, Charlie pointed it directly at the beast.

“I’ve killed many of your kind before!” he warned.

The wendigo’s bony feet crunched the dry show as it moved in closer. In its hand was a longsword like none that Charlie had ever seen. It was made entirely out of clear, white bone. The surface of the blade was scaly and razor sharp. It looked much too heavy for a man to carry.

Charlie took a deep breath and could feel an unexpected confidence grow under him. He approached the beast bravely. “And so, it begins.”

The heavy word of the wendigo came shivering through the air, and Charlie met it with steel. There was no sound of metal when the blades met. There was no sound at all.

Charlie clashed with the wendigo a second, third and fourth time before he fell back. His strong arm had never been in such pain and he knew it was dislocated.

“Owen! Dave! Come give me a hand over here!” he yelled, before the wendigo gave another high, thin cry.

At once, Charlie saw what must have been twenty wendigos emerge silently from the shadows. Each was as tall, muscular, and frightening as the one in front of him. To his east, west, north and south, all around him, the wendigos stood patient and silent. Each carried bony longswords and daggers but made no move to interfere.

“Fair fight,” said Charlie, forcing a smile. He always wanted to be laughing in his final moments.

With his fiery blade in his left hand, Charlie met the wendigo’s sword once more, and fell to his knees. He was panting from the effort and watched his breath steam in the moonlight. The fire around his blade was out, and darkness was growing around him.

Charlie looked up at the wendigo’s large red eyes and saw them blink. With his last burst of energy, he snatched his longsword up from the ground and swung it around in a sidearm slash with all his weight behind it. The wendigo parried it with ease and sank his heavy blade right through Charlie’s chest.

Again, Charlie fell to his knees and cried out in agonizing pain. His blood was flowing freely from the gaping hole in his back. He breaths were very short and painful.

The wendigo’s moved forward together, as if following a signal. Charlie bowed his head and said with all his might, “Long live King Jovren.”

The wendigo’s all raised their swords and stabbed freely at Charlie. It was a cruel butchery only meant for vicious beasts. The slicing and stabbing was ended with a cry from the largest wendigo. Charlie’s body lay face down in the bloodstained snow. His sword was shattered and was now a pile of steel cuttings. The large wendigo heaved Charlie’s limp body from the ground and carried him out to the basin. The other wendigos followed in a clustered group.

Dave was busy skinning the bear when he saw them.

“Owen! Wendigo’s!” he cried, getting to his feet. “Come no further!”

The wendigo carrying Charlie lifted his lifeless body into the air and threw him across the basin.

Dave watched his dead commander land in front of him. His clothes were tattered, and his face was bloody and grey. A bone from his right arm stuck out, and both of his knees were bent backwards.

“Owen, run!” yelled Dave, drawing both of their swords and raising them firmly into the air. “You must make it to Northend and send word to Lord Stronghold.”

Owen opened his eyes and found the courage to stand up and look at their enemy. He knew if he guessed right and ran back towards Northend, he had a chance of survival, but he had to hurry.

“I’m not leaving you!” Owen managed to say.

“We go alone now brother, both of us,” screamed Dave, who prepared his stance. “I know I don’t have as far to go as you. Word that the wendigo’s have returned must be known, and you will be the one to spread it.”

“I’ll come back for you,” said Owen, who gave his brother a look of sorrow and eternal gratitude, before limping downhill further south.

“You go brother,” screamed Dave, meeting the bony blade of a wendigo. “You go live a full life for the both of us.”

Owen disappeared into the darkness of the trees while Dave entered battle. He fought as best as he could and gave honour and bravery to his memory. He managed to cut off the heads of two wendigos before he fell to his knees, shrieking with blood welling between his fingers. Lying flat on the snow, gazing up, his view of the night sky began to disappear from him. Surrounded by pack of deadly wendigo’s, Dave had finally given into death, and steadily slipped into nothingness.

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