The Horn Blows Into the Morning
rating: +18+x

On the eve of the twentieth of Martch, Arnven fell.

The battle across the Heilas between the three hundred Omega Guard and the animal force numbering a thousand had lasted for countless hours, with many dead on both sides. The strong river currents had provided an advantage to the defenders on the other side, impeding the enemy army while the Omega Guard accosted them with loosed arrows and throwing spears.

But, in the end, it was not enough.

The defenders who chose to stand were overwhelmed and killed.

The hundred-or-so guardsmen who chose to flee ran back to the city in the hope of escaping with their families, many of whom were gathered at the city’s surviving shrines to pray prior to the outbreak of the battle. Though it was in vain for many- especially those who had chosen to gather at the Rivershrine- still more were able to quickly escape, taking their worldly possessions with them. Only the Shrine of Brightshome, sitting at the Hill of the Holy Amulet, still stood, being defended by a token force of a hundred Templars of Jack till the bitter end.

With the opposing forces broken, routed, and fleeing, the enemy army of heathen animals did what victorious armies did- they looted, they killed, they burned. Wolves were roaming the streets, breaking into homes and slaughtering all those who chose to hide within them. Pigeons carrying torches dropped them on dry wooden walls and thatch roofs, setting them alight in moments. Chaos reigned in Arnven, and it seemed to all that it had finally been lost.

This bloody carnage is the scene that the young sorceress Sigurrós and the monk Jaelen were met with upon their exit from the Bloody Boar inn- and one that both were hellbent on stopping.

But when a most holy city has been desecrated and burnt, with many of its people slaughtered- what is there for them to stop?

Night had fallen upon the City of Shrines, yet the scorching fires had made the world bright as day.
Jaelen could smell the stench of blood in the air, accompanied by the omnipresent smell of burning wood and thatch. Screams echoed in the early morning air, followed by the savage roars of cruel beasts.

He had never seen such carnage before.

Jaelen turned to the young woman at his side, her eyes transfixed by the destruction wrought.
“Sigurrós-“ he began.

Her trembling voice came out first.

“I know what I must do.” She said, her fists clenched tight. Her eyes didn’t turn from the scene in front of her. “You know what you must do, too.”

Jaelen could feel himself shaking with fear, but her words seemed to cause him to tremble a little less.

She turned to him, her eyes meeting his. He could tell that she was just as terrified and horrified as he was, but the ironclad drive in his eyes gave him pause.

He looked at his student, his companion for a hundred and fifty days, and his heart began to beat a little slower.

“I do.” He answered, his chest lighter with new resolve.

Gathering his robes about him, Jaelen looked in the direction of the Hill of the Amulet, where the breathtaking Shrine of Brightshome stood strong and defiant amongst the overwhelming plumes of smoke.

If there is any hope for the city, Jaelen thought, it lies with the Templars of Jack.
His destination set, Jaelen took a deep breath-

And ran.

Behind him, Sigurrós was long gone.

Unlike the rest of the city, the Spirit Quarter was miraculously untouched by the invading animals. Being the oldest and most important section of the city, the homes within it were constructed of ancient grey stone, and so were impervious to the ravages of fire that had so easily taken the more feebly-constructed structures in the rest of Arnven. No homes burnt here- and for that Jaelen was glad.

The Hill of the Holy Amulet was impossibly close now- and would soon be there in just a few minutes more- but his legs had already begun to hurt immensely. He had never run this far or this fast before in his life, and he could feel his limbs fatigue with each step that he took towards the shrine.
But the lives in the balance kept him going, his steps and pace impetuous and determined.
In the distance, he could hear the far-off explosions and sudden bursts of wind, as well as the pained cries and shrieks of dying wolf packs.

Sigurrós has definitely started, Jaelen thought as he staggered towards the shrine. Their numbers will be thinned, and when we have to face them it will almost be on equal footing.
Exhausted now beyond anything he could endure, Jaelen felt his knees crumple, sending him falling to the ground.

He could taste soil in his mouth, mingled with ash. His legs cramped now with every miniscule movement, and his arms refused to work no matter how much he willed them to go.
Jaelen lay on the ground for a few minutes, though to him it had felt like an eternity had passed. When his limbs began to work again, he started to summon the strength to sit up, but the sudden sound of horse hooves stopped him in his path.

He heard the sound of heavy metal greaves hit the soft ground, and felt relief as the good stranger lifted him to his feet.

To his surprise, when he turned up his head to look at his savior, he was met with the face of one of the Lord Bright’s Templars.

“How has the city treated you, brother?” The Templar’s voice was kind. “An untethered scion of the Foundation is a rare sight in Arnven, and no doubt have I that the bloody heathens have not made your journey here easy.”

“I…” Jaelen said, gasping for air. “I have come for the Horn of the Dragon.”

Everywhere Sigurrós went, death seemed to greet her.

The parts of the city closest to the Heilas were the first and hardest hit. The streets carried nothing but the blood and bodies of the slaughtered smallfolk, and most of the houses had already been burnt to the ground. The animals were mostly absent from that part of the city, too, aside from a few wolves and a lion that were certainly killed by the fleeing guardsmen.

The Rivershrine which had once dominated the area close to the banks was left ruined, though its stone foundations still remained. It was the first place that Sigurrós had made sure to go, for the halls were still slick with the blood of those she had slaughtered. Though she had no time to spare, she took a few moments to ask the Lord Bright to give paradise to those faithful servants that she had killed, her heart heavy with guilt and sorrow.

It seemed that not a single sign of life remained among the ruins, and so she moved on.

The Agathan Quarter was the next place that she went to, and it was here that many of the animals still roved. Packs of them lurked at every corner, and she was hard-pressed to dispatch them while she walked.

Having once been the affluent part of the city where merchants from all over came, went, and plied their trade, gold in the Agathan Quarter was not hard to come by. Seth had told her before that it was in the Agathan that the animals would hit hardest, and warned her to stay away from there when the heathens came. “No matter how much they try to hide it,” he once told her, “the animals will go to where the gold is.”

At least that much wasn’t a lie, Sigurrós thought. And to think that he had once set me on the path to destroy the Foundation. She had thought much of Seth while Jaelen taught her at the inn, and as the mysteries of the world were revealed to her, her feelings towards him grew ever bitter.
When she arrived at the ruins of the Shrine of Saint Rights at the top of Agatha’s Hill, she came to face again the destruction and slaughter that she had wrought, and that bitterness soon quickly gave in to guilt mixed with anger. She swore, at the base of the Shrine’s scorched pillars, to avenge her own wrongdoings. She swore, underneath the shrine’s ruined painted ceiling, to make amends for the dead.

And she swore, as she began to fly away from the ruins, to kill Seth.

But nothing else remained for her in the Agathan Quarter besides the ghosts of guilt and the quickly retreating footsteps of terrified animals, and so she moved on.

The third of the city’s four quarters, the Altostown was the most impoverished before the heathens arrived. When the fiends descended and wreaked havoc on the city, it was the place that saw the most slaughter. She had already smelled the stench of blood from far away, and was sickened to find what remained of those who had lived there.

Unlike the other quarters, who had seen the ravaging wrought by packs of wolves and herds of deer, the Altostown had only felt the cruel jaws of bears, lions, and tigers. As the section of the city that housed the most folk, the terrified people of the Altostown had attracted the attention of the cruelest elements of the descending heathen army, coming to slaughter all those who they deemed unworthy of living.

When they came, every street of the Altostown was strewn with the blood, bones, limbs, and guts of the slaughtered. Not a single stone of the quarter was spared the spilling of blood and the rending of flesh, and all who remained were killed along with their kin.

When Sigurrós descended, the feasting animals made no sign that they had noticed her. Each of the hundreds of predators that had descended on the Altostown were indulging in the flesh of the faithful dead, and the air was full of the sounds of animals devouring their kills with glee.

Shock overcame Sigurrós as she watched the slaughter taking place before her eyes, and she felt sickened to her stomach. All pretenses of killing those who were responsible were washed away as the witch fell to her feet and threw up on the wet ground.

Only then did the surrounding animals seem to notice her, slowly plodding towards the girl with bloodied claws and teeth. Their sensitive snouts had sensed the prospect of an easy meal, as their maws drew open in preparation for the new course of their savage feast.

Then, suddenly, Sigurrós screamed.

From her, a wall of fire sprung into existence, burning all of the killers around her with a savage relish that matched their own. Half of the Altostown burst into flames in an instant, reducing all within them to nothing but ash and smoke.

Within a few moments, the blood-splattered houses were reduced to smoking ruins, and almost all of the savage animals that had come to indulge in the slaughter were vaporized in the blink of an eye.

Her arms buckled under her, and as she felt her face hit the soil, Sigurrós began to cry.

She knew not how long she stayed on the sodden ground, but when she came back to her senses, she noticed a tall figure standing over her.

Seth’s corpselike face greeted her, his only remaining eye bloodshot as his ruined jaw opened and his broken voice came tumbling out.

“What…” he said, his voice hoarse, “What have you done?”

A tense air suffused the atmosphere in the Shrine of the Brightshome as Jaelen stood before the hundred assembled Templars. His rescuer, a tall armored woman standing nearly six feet tall named Galahania, addressed them beside him.

“The Horn of the Dragon may be our final chance at saving the city.” Galahania said, her voice strong and commanding. “They will be called from far and wide, drawing them into the entrance of the Shrine. Then we shall wait, with spear and shield at the ready, while they crash against us like waves against the steadfast-“

“What you are saying is ludicrous!” A templar opposite them roared. “There are more than seven hundred of them out there. Our battle-fellows stand with the strength of one century- think about that!”

He brought his fist crashing down against a nearby wooden table, the sound reverberating across the hollow interior of the shrine.

“One hundred Templars against the whole Great Heathen Army! You may compare us to waiting rocks on the beach, but water is an eternal enemy. Even stones will soon be ground into sand, and even the most hardened Templars cannot hope to stand against a thousand heathens!”

This drew a few nods and murmurs from some of the battle-fellows, though many of the other Templars stood watching and silent.

Galahania delivered her rebuttal. “Melbrecht, you have not seen what I and many of the horsemen have seen. The fiends are busy roving around the city, taking what they want and killing who they can. They are disorganized, exhausted, bloodied. A fight here on the steps of the Shrine will eliminate their advantage of numbers, and wholly destroy the threat of the animals to the city.“

The man named Melbrecht sounded his objection once again. “Our duty, Galahania, is not to the city, but to the shrine! We are Templars, the waiting fists of Lord Bright, the guardians of his holy ground. We care not for the wellbeing of the smallfolk, but for the sanctity of our most holy shrine! We house precious texts, ancient Procedures, the powerful weapons of the ancients, and yes, relics of sanctity.”

He pointed up to the highest part of the shrine’s roof, where a horn was stored in a small pocket of ancient glass.

“The Horn of the Dragon, the Horn of Saint Alto, has been left undisturbed for more than half a thousand years! It dates back all the way to the slaying of the Great Dragon by Saint Alto during the time of the Great Breach, and to do anything to disturb it is sacrilege!”

Galahania turned to open her mouth once again, but to her surprise it was the young Jaelen who spoke first.

“Do you dare speak of sacrilege?” The monk said, his voice lowered to a guttural growl. “Think of the burnt down Rivershrine, the slaughtered priests in the Shrine of Saint Rights, the relics lost in the Parish of Clef, and the massacred laity all over the city. What they have done to our people and our holy places are more sacrilegious than any faithful scion of the Foundation can ever manage!

“This horn is a way to bring all of that to a halt, to bring all of this-“ he gestured to the open door behind him. “-to a stop. War has come to our city, to our lands, and it is our duty to our Lord in His Amulet to turn them back! Do you want the burning of our shrines and the wholesale slaughter of our brothers in faith to go unanswered? Do you want our city to be burnt down till there is nothing left? Blow the horn, I say! Bright wills it! Bright wills it!

Then, as if the Spirit of Bright descended down upon the assembled mass of Templars, each took up the ancient cant in a heartbeat.

“BRIGHT WILLS IT!” they shouted as they donned their sacred armor and drew their spears.

“BRIGHT WILLS IT!” they shouted as they took the Horn of the Great Dragon from its sacred place.

“Bright wills it,” said Jaelen as he blew Saint Alto’s Horn, flooding the morning air with the mournful sound of a dragon’s roar.

All around the city, from the untouched Spirit Quarter to the remains of the half-destroyed Altostown, animals heard the cry and answered with their own. Wolves, tigers, bears, raccoons, pigeons and rats all took up the cry, breaking the dead silence of the city with the remorseful cries of the damned.
Then, as if Bright himself commanded them, every single one of the invading heathens stomped, ran, and flew towards the Shrine on top of the Amulet’s Hill, heeding the call of the long-dead Great Dragon.

The Battle of the Horn has just begun.

“He’s done it,” Sigurrós said with an exhausted smile as the deep roar filled the morning. “He’s done it.”

A horrified expression came over Seth’s mutilated face as he realized just what the sound was. “No,” He said, disbelief coloring his features. “No, no, no, NO!”

He turned to the prone Sigurrós, forcing her to her feet. “Did you tell them to blow the dragon's skull? Did you?”

The beaten girl answered with a smile. “It was never my idea. It was his.”

“Who?” The corpse-man shouted, raising his broken fist in the air. He brought it crashing down on Sigurrós’ face, beating her as he spoke. “The monk? The one I told you to be careful around? The one I told you never to believe?”

Sigurrós pushed him far away with a single word, sending him to a nearby wall with an audible crack.

“What he speaks, heathen, is true! Lord Bright watches over us all, and so do His saints! Jaelen has showed me the truth behind the world, the truth behind everything!”

She said each word with certainty and conviction, punctuating every sentence with a shout. Anger filled her every word, intermingled with the fear and guilt that were now being brought to the fore in full force.

“He has kept me safe, he has given me life, he has given me purpose! You are not worthy to speak his name, you are not worthy to even breathe the same air he does. You are nothing compared to him, Seth. Nothing.

Silence filled the void between them as Seth’s crumpled form remained unmoving. A cold breeze blew through the morning air, sending ash flying in all directions.

Then, slowly, Seth rose, facing Sigurrós as he shakily brought himself to his feet. She could hear the man wheezing as he fought for every breath, fending off unconsciousness as he drew himself up to meet her.

“If… only…” he said between stolen breaths, “you… could… hear yourself now.”

His one bloodshot eye met hers as he continued to speak through his shattered jaw, each word interrupted with a wheeze.

“I saved you from them.” He said, staggering forward. “They had you bound by their words, and I saved you from them.

“I was the one who kept you safe, who kept you warm, who taught you all that you knew.

“I was the one who taught you to write, to read, to speak.

“Every minute of my existence was… and is… agonizing. I craved, and crave, death. Before you left me, you told me that you would find a way to heal me, to save me.

“The next time I saw you, you were an ancient woman who remembered nothing but a single word.
“I tried to save you from that…” he drew a long, deep breath. “I tried to save you. But you remembered nothing about me. You remembered nothing about how we escaped, how I taught you as you grew, or how you ended up this way."

“When I woke you up… whispered those words in your ears, your eyes showed warmth, some sort of recognition… but not from the girl that I raised. Not the woman I loved and cared for like she was my own daughter.”

Then Seth chuckled- a broken and pitiful laugh.

“Once, you called me father.

His eye met hers once again, filling with a misplaced warmth as he remembered the girl that he once loved.

Then, they retreated, never to return.

“Now, you call me heathen. Murderer."

“You are no daughter of mine-“

His bony pointer finger drew up to her face, trembling yet sure in its accusation.

And I am no father of yours.”’

He took one more step towards her, but his leg gave under him with a snap, causing him to fall to the bloodstained ground.

Then, summoning the last of his strength, he drew his head up to meet his dead eye with hers once more.

“I’ve craved death for thousands of years. I chased it. I wanted it. When I was imprisoned in that tomb, I wanted it so much more than ever before."

“You gave me the will to live, so long ago, when you first told me that one single word."

Sigurrós took a step forward, crouching down on tired knees to touch the scarred face of the broken man before her.

“Kill me now, witch.” He said, poisoning the air with his very words. “Kill me now and grant me mercy. This is the least you could ever do.”

At the crack of dawn, Sigurrós began to summon magic from her fingers, then laid her hand on the head of the man who she once called her father.

Then, with a single word, she gave him the death that he had craved for so long.

It was a few minutes later when Sigurrós realized that she was crying.

The battle lasted for seven hours, exhausting every single one of the Templars as the five hundred remaining animals in the city crashed upon their shields and fell with a single thrust of their spear.

Many of them were wounded, some of them dead, but every single one of them knew of their duty to Bright and the Saints above, and so they held with all their might.

When the sun rose high into the morning sky, barely thirty of the one hundred templars were left alive in the shrine.

Melbrecht, the dissenter, had given brave account of himself- though he had been gravely injured in the fighting, and was on the edge of death.

Galahania, the noble hero, had held the shield positions of three men after the two Templars on her opposite sides fell. In time, however, she was pulled down by a large bear and killed.

Many others had been mauled badly by the attacking animals, with some suffering from broken bones or ribs. Others lost fingers, hands, or even arms to the maws and claws of the heathen invaders.

Those who were well enough to walk began aiding their fellow Templars, stripping off their armor without a word to administer healing water to their injured brothers and sisters.

They had had their last stand, saving their Shrine and their city. Though the cost was steep, it was something that they had all been ready to pay, from the newly-anointed battle-fellows to the most hardened Templars.

Jaelen, meanwhile, only wished that his plan hadn’t gotten so many killed.

He was lucky enough to come out of the battle missing only a few fingers, and had chosen to stay with the Templars and help with aiding the fellows that could be saved. His work with his fellow monks had prepared him especially for this purpose, and he was instrumental in the work of helping those who needed it.

But as he worked, his thoughts only dwelled on the fate of Sigurrós. Did she find Seth? He thought. Is she alright? Have they harmed her? Is she dead? Is she-

“Jaelen.” A familiar voice said.

He looked up- and there she was, whole and safe.

“Sigurrós!” He shouted, springing to his feet and enveloping her in his arms. “Oh Saints, Oh thank Bright… you’re safe.”

Tears welled up in his eyes and he embraced her even tighter. “I thought you’d died… I was thinking about you the entire time.”

“I killed him,” came her answer, crying into his shoulder. “He said I once called him father, that… that…”

“Shhh…” He said, looking into her eyes. “You’re safe now. You are.”

Her voice went down to nothing more than a whisper. “I didn’t want to kill him, I didn’t want to, but I did.”

“It isn’t your fault.” Jaelen whispered as she held her. “It isn’t your fault.”

“It never was.”

And so did Arnven rise once again, free from the claws of the fiends that sought to destroy it. Their leader, the corpse-man named Seth, had disappeared before the Battle of the Horn, leaving the animals that had assaulted the Shrine leaderless and disorganized. When the valiant last stand of the Templars of Jack came to an end, only thirty of their number survived. In time, they would come to reform the Order, heading the forces of the City of Shrines under a new name- The Order of the Horn.

It would be days before the nobles, smallfolk and freemen of Arnven would find it safe to return to the city- but in place of the ruins that they expected to see, they found a city more glorious than it had before. Sigurrós, then only seventeen years of age, had single-handedly restored the city in the aftermath of the battle, starting from the burnt-out husks of the River Quarter all the way to the ruined Altostown.

It seemed that hope had returned to the City of Shrines, as people began to rebuild the lives that they had lost. Merchants once again plied their trade in the Agathan Quarter, selling the wares that they had escaped with and salvaging what they could of their former lives. The nobles returned to their old lives in the Spirit Quarter, gathering in and around the Brightshome to thank the Lord and the Saints for their salvation. What was left of the peasants in the Altostown and the freemen in the River Quarter once again populated the streets, though in smaller numbers than they had been before.

As life began to return to normal, it was Sigurrós that led the remaining people of Arnven to a new beginning, restoring the shrines that had been destroyed and leaving them more grandiose and breathtaking than ever before. She was seen as a savior, a divine sorceress, a leader- and with the old Tribunal of the Shrines that had once led the city in tatters, she bravely took the reins of leadership as the High Priestess of Arnven, with her dear companion and teacher, brother Jaelen, by her side.

Had this been any other way, we would have finished our story there- with Arnven slowly rebuilding towards a new beginning.

Yet reality is crueler than fantasy, as most would agree. Only a year and a half after the Fall of Arnven and the subsequent Battle of the Horn, a great fire was seen in the northeast, tearing through the lands of the animals and purging them all. The Foundation had finally destroyed their enemies, and with the rumors that one of the Council of Thirteen was leading an army to Arnven, it seemed as if the City of Shrines’ reprieve would soon be cut short.

Asser Clef, now Doctor Cardinal of the Holy Foundation and the new Thirteenth vicar of Bright, had received the letter of Brother Jaelen.

And he was coming to kill the Witch.

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