BOOM. An object whistled through the air just above Ash's head and landed on the roof of the stables. The two horses! The wooden building burst into bright orange flames in an instant, shining an angry orange haze onto Kris' deformed face. Ash noticed figures running across the yard, but did not hear the destriers neighing in fear. They must be dead already. What the hell is going on? He saw Brother Gregg running toward the Snow Keep dragging a large log. Ash ran to him, grabbed the log and heaved it over his shoulder.

ASH! Take this to the top of the tower! Run, quickly. Run! RUN!!”

Ash obeyed without a word. He ran as fast as his burden would allow toward a wide crack in the base of the Snow Keep where the heavy iron door had once been. A flash of white light moved rapidly in the air above him on the other side of the high eastern wall. The high-pitched screaming drove cold needles of pain through his eardrums, sharply rising and falling with a chaotic irregularity. Ash also heard a loud sucking sound coming from across the wall, a revolting sound repeated over and over. He could hear the unnerving screams of men above him. Something large scraped against the outer walls of the tower.

Where is Simon?

He reached the opening, climbed through the gap and started bounding up the stairs, two or three steps at a time. His left shoulder ached. He knew where he was taking this beam —to the old ballista atop the roof.

He moved quickly. From the highest vantage point in the Abbey, Ash would see what was on the other side of that wall, making that shrill wailing and those sickening sucking sounds. A dragon, perhaps? Idiot. Idiot! This is real. Not a bedtime fable. The screaming was slightly muffled by the thick stone walls, but that's when the ringing in his ears became painfully noticeable. boom. A loose brick fell on the winding staircase behind him. He was glad he was wasting no time getting up the staircase.

Ash reached the door to the tower's roof and kicked it open. He saw Markov, Dale and one of the Zanon brothers furiously trying to load the ballista. Markov and Dale were in full battle regalia, heavy plate armor emblazoned with the Three Trees symbol of the Abbey. Kurt, another yardling, was leaning over the battlements, clumsily shooting below him with a bow. Ash squinted his eyes. The light is especially strong up here...

Suddenly two of the battlements ten feet to his right flew into the air, arcing over Ash's head and plummeting to the yard below. In an instant, all of the loud booming noises, shouts and screams disappeared completely and Ash was surrounded by deep, leaden silence, as if he had awoken alone in a well at the center of the earth. Ash dropped his log on the stone floor and grabbed his ears.

A brilliant white glow was coming over the gap where the battlements had been. The others stopped what they were doing and simply watched. Except for Markov. The elder knight yelled something to the others that Ash could not hear, drew his sword and took a step back.

A massive, human-shaped being made of pure, pulsing, white-hot light, its naked skin radiating like the surface of a white sun, rose over the far edge of the tower. The being wielded a colossal sword and whip composed of snow-dyed fire. A hot wind slapped him across his face as the being's membranous wings rippled.

Ash could see the thing but could hear nothing. The creature opened its mouth and spoke. Ash's ears, his temple, his eyes were wracked with pain. The stones beneath him rumbled with every word it spoke. Ash stood there, frozen.

Kurt and Dale collapsed to the ground, their fingernails clawing deep into their skulls. The Zanon boy's body stiffened, tiny spots of blood appearing all over his body. Markov dropped the longsword he was holding and clutched his chest, furiously clawing at his steel breastplate. His ears spurt a thick black liquid as he fell to his knees. He shouted at Ash, but Ash could not hear his words. Markov put his hand to his face and screamed the word, f-l-y, before he doubled over, a river of dark red blood pouring from his mouth.

The white devil was now staring at Ash with eyes devoid of light. It's mouth moved as if to speak. The stones beneath Ash rumbled again.

What is it saying?

Ash's hearing came back in a crash. He was sprinting down the stone steps at a break-neck speed, his ears feeling as if two white-hot steel spikes had pierced clean through them. The sounds of explosions and far-off screaming were still muffled, but audible. Ash leapt down the final half-flight and fell flat on his chest. An intense pain shot through his ribs underneath his right arm.

He did not stop moving. He couldn't. His body was operating without input from his brain. An independent entity acting on its own accord.

He ran out of the tower opening and sprinted across the great clearing in the center of the Abbey. He leapt over anonymous burnt corpses. Probably his friends. He did not stop. He could not stop. The light grew brighter above him, and for a split second he was filled with terror as he saw inhuman shades dancing around his shadow on the ground in front of him. He dared not look up. He ran around the back of the cathedral, across the western courtyard and dove for the cover of the armory. Empty. Swept by instinct he grabbed the first sword he could find. His entire body was shaking uncontrollably.

He headed to the southeast wall and peeked out an open window. The great South Gate was destroyed, its intricate gold-plated relief melted into a featureless mass. Dark, horse-sized shapes were pouring through the gap in the rubble.

I am not going to panic.

I. Will. Not. Die. Today.

Crawling on his hands and knees Ash darted around the armory and looked to the northern gate. Three huge, black-and-red forms were there. One leapt on a small human-shaped figure. The bright white light on the other side of the high wall was heading to the north gate. The roof of the bathhouse had collapsed, the kitchens and mess hall in flames. The brewery just next to the smithy was untouched, but the nearby fires from the kitchens were snaking their way across the courtyard. If those fires reach the great vats of alcohol...

Ash was trapped. His lungs ceased working, his chest constricted. Cold sweat drenched his arms and neck. Backing into the armory, he tripped over a hunting spear Klaus had shown him earlier.

The sheep's gate. My only chance.

Ash glanced at the shapes to the south as he made a break for the granary. He did not know if they saw him. He ran across the clearing and behind the granary.

Two figures stood there. Zirev and Simon. They're safe. They're alive.. Oh my God. Never in his life had he ever experienced such bliss. Exhausted and pumped full of adrenaline, Ash dashed for the pair at the gate.

Zirev, bleeding from the shoulder, the left side of his hair singed black, saw him first. He handed Ash a small box.

Protect this with your life, Ashley. Take it east to the Empress. Do it. NOW!”

The box was light, about as wide as a handspan. Simon was tucking something under his vest.

Zirev, you're bleeding! Are you hurt badly?”

Zirev nervously glanced over Ash's shoulder. The reflection in the man's spectacles told him the dark forms had spotted him after all.

Take this. Here. Read it later. No time. Go. Leave. Now.”

Ash's face was soaked, tears streaming down his cheeks.


Zirev slapped Ash across his jawline with surprising strength. A sudden explosion behind Ash turned the prior's spectacles into two impenetrable circles of infernal hellfire.


Simon's face was glistening with sweat, his eyes wide with horror. Ash grabbed him by the arm and started running. They trampled a small patch of unpulled beets, got to the hole in the outer fence and dove to the ground. Simon squirmed through first. Ash glanced back. Dark forms were pouring through the sheep-gate, but Zirev was nowhere to be seen. Ash scuttled forward on his arms through the mud.

The dark things behind him snarled. All around him goats screamed like human children. The mud was past his elbows now. He tried kicking his way out, but his feet slipped in the sludge.

I'm stuck.


I'm dead.

Something grabbed his leg. Ash kicked at it desperately and heard a muffled groan. He kicked again at empty air. A massive hand grabbed him by the neck and lifted his torso from the mud. A deep baritone voice whispered a single word into his ear.