"About half a day after Yule left, the border guard normal army had finally reached border town Itzes. Despite fighting an exhausting battle at the border just days before they had set out and marched through the night determined to reach the town in time."
"They had expected their hard work to pay off, that they would be able to make it in time, that they could save the townsfolk. They were wrong, the only thing waiting to greet them at Itzes was carrion birds and the rotting smell of decaying bodies."
"Soldiers walked numbly through the bloody streets of Itzes, everywhere they looked dead townsfolk lay. They searched desperately for some survivors but they found none."
"Luna and Zera stood side by side in the townsquare where scores of townsfolk lay punctured with black arrows, the same black arrows they had seen at the border attack."
"Slowly Luna walked over to the fountain in the center, the fountain itself had a couple bloated bodies floating in the red water. She stared at the fountain for a moment then something near her foot caught her attention. It was a piece of parchment folded neatly, one corner was covered with dry blood. She picked it up and unfolded it."
"It was a picture."
"A picture of a boy and girl who sat close together on the fountain in front of her. They were looking away from each other but she could tell that they were obviously enjoying the proximity. She realized this picture must have been drawn the day of the attack, maybe even moments before. She lightly touched the picture and wondered to herself, were the people in this picture dead as well?"
"Luna gently sat on the edge of the fountain and looked up at the heavens as she thought to herself."
"Was this... all her own fault?"
"From a distance Zera stared at Luna with a worried expression, she could tell something had changed in Luna ever since the border attack, something was eating away at her friend."
"Zera, do you think any survived?"
"I'm sure some got away. We've tallied up the dead, only about seven-hundred are accounted for, three-hundred are still missing."
"Pravus said they would capture some and offer them to join. Maybe the rest have already joined by now or been sacrificed."
"We've sent some scouts to follow their tracks into the woods, they should be back shortly to report."
A long moment of silence passed between us as neither of us had anything to say. We had failed our duty of border guard in every sense.
I slowly folded the picture I had been holding and put it into my pocket. Then I turned to look at Zera, she was holding her hands together nervously shooting glances at me, obviously she wanted to say something to me.
"Why did you join the Holy Knights?"
"To serve the Empire of course."
"Why do you want to serve the Empire?"
"Because the Empire is pure, it's the pinnacle of civility on this continent. Holy Knights protect the pureness of the Empire."
The Empire is pure?
I couldn't help but think back to what Bruckus and Pravus had said during that night. Bruckus had been ordered to allow an attack and there was that phrase that Pravus had used.
I had been wracking my brain over that phrase, a quota implied something that had to be met, a target, a goal. So for a war quota, wouldn't that imply the Empire had a goal to have a certain number of wars?
Would a pure country do something like that?
"What if the Empire wasn't as pure as you thought. What if the wars we've been fighting weren't actually for-"
"Holy Knight Luna! Holy Knight Zera! I have a report from the scouts!"
Just as I was about to open up to Zera a soldier had rushed into the town square interrupting me. He stared at us realizing he had interrupted. I waved my hand at him urging him to continue.
He promptly saluted then gave his report.
"Report just in from the scouts, they have found the camp of the scarfed invaders nearby in the mountains and all tracks end there, they got back before getting too close to avoid drawing attention so we have no way of knowing yet what's within."
"Good. We will move out soon to investigate, if that's all-"
"There's more Ma'am, we've found survivors."
I quickly got up and grabbed the man's shirt nearly pulling him off the ground.
"Survivors!?! Where are they, how many, are they hurt? We must protect them!"
The soldier was weakly patting my arm grabbing him and I realized what I was doing. I quickly let go backing off a bit embarrassed.
"Sorry, but helping survivors is our top priority, we must go see them. Quickly take us to them!"
"*cough cough* Y-yes, I'll lead you to them now ma'am."
When the soldier had mentioned survivors I had felt a strand of hope inside my very numb heart. At this moment all I wanted to do was to save someone from this disaster I caused. I quickly moved to follow the soldier but Zera grabbed my arm stopping me, I turned to look at her.
She was staring at me with a pair of very worried eyes.
"Hey, about what you were saying before..."
Thinking about it I probably shouldn't have said that, I shouldn't trust anything that Pravus said, he was insane after all. However, I couldn't ignore Brackus's last words, I would be lying if I said I didn't have doubts about the Empire right now.
But I would find out myself, I wouldn't trust some madman's words. Deep inside I felt like I had a purpose once again. I would find out the truth myself, until then I couldn't give in.
However, Zera didn't have to know so I smiled at her to ease her worries.
"Oh, that was just some hypothetical question, nothing important. Come on, let's go talk to the survivors."
Zera slowly let go of my arm, she still looked a bit worried, but that was fine. We both followed the Soldier to the outskirts of the town where the normal army had set up a temporary camp. We were led inside one white tent which was serving as an infirmary.
Besides soldiers there were three teens inside. All three teens were unconscious lying in beds. One was a very skinny boy, one was a large boy packed full of muscle and the last one was a girl.
She was currently being treated by a field doctor.
"We found these three in the woods ma'am. The large muscled boy had been carrying both of them and as soon as he had seen us he had dropped from exhaustion. The skinny boy's wounds were reserved to a broken leg however the girl had more serious wounds. She had taken an arrow to the lung and was on the verge of dying, she's receiving care now and should be able to make it."
I let out a breath of relief, thank goodness they would survive.
"Good work soldier, let them rest for now. I will talk with them once they awaken."
But just three survivors, surely there must be more. Maybe there were still some in the camp, there was no time to waste.
"Gather the troops, we march on the scarfed soldier camp."
Zera stared at me a bit wide eyed for a moment then smiled.
It seems I had gotten rid of her worries. In a few minutes two hundred troops had been put together and we began marching towards the forest where the scarfed camp was.
I was leading the column of soldiers as we marched and Zera was in the middle of the marching troops, she shouldn't be in the front after all. The camp wasn't too far from the town and soon we reached the foot of the cliff where the camp was. It was only a short stretch to reach the top but I stopped there to rouse the troops. I turned to the troops drawing out my sword holding it high.
"Soldiers! Atop of this cliff is the foe who struck us silently in the night. Atop this cliff is the foe who murders children in their homes! Atop this cliff is our most hated enemy!"
I paused and all the soldiers looked at me seriously, some looked exhausted but all had an anger in their eyes. After all, under their watch hundreds of Empire citizens had died.
"So what will you do when you see them? .... Kill them, KILL THEM ALL!"
"Follow me for revenge!"
I led the charge of soldiers up the cliff. The soldiers behind me all let out war cries as we rushed up the cliff. I was prepared to strike down enemies and I hoped there were some who could still be saved. But as we rushed out into the camp once again things were not as expected.
There were no enemies to fight.
There were no townsfolk to save.
There was only that thing.
defeat. A few even passed out. In all honesty it was very un-soldier like, but I couldn't blame them.
In front of me was a 50 meter high spiraling staircase. That in itself would have been a very unique sight here in the forest, the horrible part was that it was built entirely with bodies.
I could see bodies of scarfed soldiers and bodies of townsfolk bent and intertwined to form this horrible structure. In some places hands of limbs stuck out and even worse sometimes faces stuck out. Some had twisted smiles, those were the scarfed soldiers and some had faces filled with fear or despair, those were the townsfolk.
Even worse, a horrible smell emanated from the structure, one that rivaled even the bloodiest of battlefields. Even I had a hard time keeping my composure and Zera who stood beside me was staring at the structure with eyes full of fear. I softly called out to her.
"What in god's name are we looking at?"
"It seems to be a structure of... bodies, a lot of bodies."
"How many would you estimate?"
"Based on the size and what I can see, I'd say nearly five-hundred bodies. My guess is it's all the scarfed soldiers and the rest of the missing townsfolk..."
I took a deep breath as I put my sword back into its sheath. It didn't look like we would be finding any more survivors. We were both still staring at the structure, I ordered the soldiers to search for survivors just to give them something to take their mind off what they were seeing, I doubted they would find anyone.
"Why would they do this?"
Zera's eyes hadn't left the structure but she responded with a theory.
"I read about a similar practice back in trainee school, although ... I don't know if it fits this."
"Tell me, we must determine the purpose."
"Back in the early times of the Empire, the Empire army once came across some nomadic tribes near the border. Usually this wouldn't be anything worth noting but these tribes had an unusual practice. The practice would involve sacrificing people and using their bodies to make structures."
"Mmm, did the Empire determine the purpose?"
"Yes, those tribes usually had very powerful magical weapons. It was determined that the sacrifice was being done to embed the power from the sacrifices into the weapon resulting in magical weapons with powerful capabilities."
"Tsk. Always for power. So, could those tribes be behind this?"
"No, those tribes were all wiped out."
"By the Empire?"
"By themselves. The weapons, although powerful, would have a negative mental effect on their holders usually causing them to go mad or urge them to kill more. The weapons forced their holders into continuous bloodshed until the tribes were completely wiped out. The weapons rivaled contractual power so the Empire had collected them all and sealed them, never to be used."
"Hmmm, so why did you think what we see now doesn't match?"
"Well... the tribal sacrifices usually only involved a handful of people, the largest sacrifice recorded was ten people."
A feeling of understanding washed over me. If a sacrifice of ten people could create weapons that rivaled contractual powers and drove an entire society to destroy itself.
What weapon would come from a sacrifice of five hundred people?
"Say... If this structure was a similar practice, how strong would the weapon that came out of it be?"
"There's no way to be certain, but I'd have to say it would rival an Inquisitor at least."
A cold sweat had begun to form on my back, this was truly dangerous.
"How can we know for sure if it was used to make a weapon?"
"We would have to thoroughly investigate the structure, especially the places we can't see. Someone will have to go up to the top..."
I craned my neck to look up to the top. Someone would have to walk up this thing?
No, not someone, me.
I resolved myself, this was my responsibility, I had to see it through.
"Alright, I will go up."
Zera looked at me like I was crazy.
"B-but its... "
I patted her on her shoulder and began walking towards the structure.
The closer I got to the structure the stronger the smell of rotting bodies became. When I reached the first step my face had gone pale already, but I couldn't quit here, so I took the first step. Blood gushed out from where I stepped and a cold feeling of dread flooded into me. As I continued to step I tried my hardest to keep my eyes up and not focus on the structure.
After I got about halfway up the structure I realized the surroundings had become dark and a heavy pressure filled the air. As I looked down I couldn't see anything but the structure anymore.
What was this feeling?
It was as if the pressure from all the dead beneath me was crying out against me trying to drag me down. It was as if this pressure was trying to pull me into the structure.
I couldn't move anymore, this pressure was too intense, however, I couldn't stop here. I grit my teeth as I chanted out.
"My lord! Grant me the strength to surpass this evil."
A blue glow emanated from my limbs and a little bit of power returned to them. I struggled up the next few steps but with each step the pressure increased. The sky had gone black and one time I swear I saw something within the structure move. But when I looked towards where I had seen the movement I couldn't see it anymore.
I needed more power!
Quickly I called out chanting four more times, I used all my power enhancement chants just to struggle up the structure, and I was able to just barely reach the top. Wasn't this pressure too overbearing?
As I reached the top I saw a cloaked woman kneeling there with arms extended upwards. It was as if she was presenting a weapon however I could clearly see there was nothing there.
Dammit, this clearly meant something was taken away from here.
I had found out what I needed and I turned to leave but something grabbed my leg.
I looked down with horror as I saw a hand from the structure floor had grabbed a hold of my ankle, but it wasn't just one, the floor was squirming with limbs as they began to reach out and grab a hold of my legs.
I heard robes shuffling and looked back to see the cloaked woman slowly lifting her head to look at me. Her eyes were gone, probably pecked out by carrion birds, but I could still feel her looking at me and what was worse was she had a soft smile which creaked open as she began to talk in a raspy voice which could only belong to the dead.
"Where are you going so soon..."
Then the cloaked woman's arms creaked and snapped forward grabbing onto my shoulders as she pushed her face close to mine.
"You should stay awhile..."
Then I felt more and more hands reaching up from the structure beginning to weigh me down, but I couldn't look away from the horror speaking to me.
"In fact you should stay forever, this monument is part yours..."
The Cloaked Woman leaned into an embrace and I winced a bit as I smelt her up close. But despite my discomfort the Cloaked Woman whispered closely into my ear in a darkly sweet raspy voice.
"Aren't these townsfolk all dead because of you?"
My eyes opened to their limit as I pushed her back quickly with all my strength denying her claims by yelling out.
I quickly drew my sword and decapitated the woman sending her head flying. And as soon as her head was gone the sky returned to its normal color and the hands I had felt grabbing onto me disappeared. In fact, it didn't even look like the cloaked woman had moved from her position, despite missing her head, she was still kneeling and her hands were held up.
But nonetheless I stood there gripping my sword taking deep breaths as cold sweat poured from my forehead, everything I had seen seemed so real...
I shook my head and shakily made my way down the structure, the sooner I was back on normal ground the better. When I finally made it down I felt a sense of relief like no other.
Zera was waiting for me at the bottom and she quickly rushed to me.
"Luna! Are you alright, you were up there for so long and we heard screaming... w-what happened?"
I replied to her in a quiet voice.
"Burn it to the ground! Quickly!"
"Okay, okay... You soldiers there, get on it. Come with me over here Luna."
Zera told some soldiers to burn the structure and led me faraway to a nearby fallen tree where I sat down.
"What happened up there, did you find traces of an item?"
"Yes, there was once an item up there for sure, but it's gone now, someone has taken it."
"This isn't good, an item from a sacrifice of five-hundred souls is on the loose in the Empire..."
"A monster is on the loose in the Empire. Only a monster could make something like that and only a monster could walk up it and take whatever was there. A powerful monster is on the loose."
Zera stared at me for a moment silently studying me, then she spoke up.
"Did you.... see anything up there?"
"I saw a lot of things up there... nothing you would want to know about."
I got up from the bench finally recovering some of my energy and I saw the soldiers had lit the base of the structure on fire. For some reason seeing the structure lit on fire gave me a sense of relief.
"It was said that those who wielded the sacrificial weapons would see visions of horrible sights that would drive them mad, what you saw up there was probably residual energy left behind from the item."
"You mean the item itself would cause worse?"
"Yes. What you saw was most likely only a fraction of what the real item could cause. Whoever took the weapon must have gone mad the minute they picked it up."
"Perhaps, or maybe they were already crazy."
We both stared on silently watching smoke begin to rise from the mass of bodies. Unfortunately, burning these towns folks bodies was the best they could do for them.
Silently in the back of my head the cloaked woman's words rang out softly. I could still hear her words clearly even though the structure was burning.
'Aren't these townsfolk all dead because of you?'