“What do we do now?” Paas softly asked.

            Around them, they could see other people emerging from their tents to stare at the huge gates which had been closed. The walls were close to thirty feet high, making it nearly impossible to scale.

            “What the fuck just happened?” Batuset asked, coming to stand beside Atty.

            “They closed the gates between the sections.”


            “Hell if I know.”

            “Maybe it’s supposed to be a protective measure,” Paxton commented.

            “Protection against what?” Batuset countered.

            Dardin Tabb jogged up to join them. “We have six men unaccounted for,” he told the battle lord. Atty glanced at Mastin.

            “I’ll take roll immediately, my lady,” the man announced. Giving Paxton a nod, the two men hurried away to check on their own troops.

            “Hey, Atty.”

            She turned to look at Twoson.

            “Didn’t Highcliff say he was planning on attending a play this evening?” The man cast his eyes upward. “Looks like the theater is going to be a bit empty, wouldn’t you say? Considering the sun’s just now setting.”

            Paas snorted. “If there even was a play planned for tonight.”

            Atty caught sight of Renken running toward her. His hand was on the hilt, but his sword remained sheathed. “Garet?”

            “I went to check. The gates leading into the next section are closed, too.”

            “What about those men caught on the wrong side when they closed the gates?” Batuset growled. “They sure didn’t give anyone enough time to get back to their own camps. There’d better be a damn good reason why they shut us in like this without adequate notice.”

            A memory dropped over her like a cold blanket. Atty staggered and reached out for support. Renken grabbed her hands to keep her from falling. Shaking her head to clear the momentary haze, she stared at him wide-eyed.

            “Those men near the kitchen. What they said. ‘Make sure everything is ready when they give us the signal to close the gates.’”

            He glanced at the huge wall as the implication dawned on him. “Ohhh, shit. The signal… That’s what we heard before the gates were shut.”

            Batuset drew his sword. “Dardin, have the men arm themselves. Tell them to—”

            “Hey! Where is everyone?” someone yelled, pointing upward.

            Atty glanced at the parapet. At the empty catwalk. Renken also noticed the unexpected evacuation. “Where are the soldiers? Where did they go?”

            “Good question,” Batuset replied. “Why all of a sudden did he remove the guards?”

            The walls effectively blocked most of the wind, but not the snow, which continued to fall. A fine layer of powder already covered the ground, making each footstep crunch loudly. The sound of people talking and milling about echoed within the enclosed area, making it difficult to hear anything that might be going on in the sections in front of and behind them.

            A large man with a dark scowl ambled up to where they were standing. “The name’s Achery. I’m the Battle Lord of Saint Conesus, north of here.”

            Batuset held out a hand in greeting. “Zane Batuset, Battle Lord of Foster City.” He pointed to Atty. “This is Atrilan D’Jacques, the Battle Lady of Alta Novis.”

            Achery’s thick brows lifted slightly. “Alta Novis? So you’re the Mutah huntress.”

            Rather than acknowledge him, she waved at the abandoned battlements. “What do you make of all this?”

            The man shook his head. “I was about to ask you the same question.”

            “You’ve been here a few days, right?” Renken inquired.

            Archery stared at the ex-mercenary. “You’re D’Jacques?”

            “No. Name’s Renken. The battle lord is in his tent at the moment.”


            Atty explained. “My husband fell ill during the trip. Our physician gave him something to help him get better. When did you arrive at Rocky Gorge?”

            “Day before yesterday.”

            “Did they close these gates either of those nights?” Renken continued.

            Again, Achery shook his head. “No. In fact, I was just discussing that with Morisee. He’s the battle lord of Valkerson, a few day’s ride from my compound. We traveled here together. We noticed the main gates were shut after dark, but not between these sections. I commented to Morisee that Highcliff seemed pretty trusting that nothing would happen between Normals and Mutah during the summit.”

            “But you have no idea why they would shut the between gates tonight?” Atty asked.

            “No idea at all.”

            “What’s your feeling about this summit?” Renken asked outright.

            The battle lord appeared taken aback by the man’s brash questioning. Atty smiled at the man. “Forgive him. He’s rather outspoken.”

            “No need to apologize for him,” Achery replied. “I’m not accustomed to someone so forthright. Does he question your authority in the same manner?”

            Atty’s smiled widened. “Once you get used to him, you realize he’s like another voice of reason, making you stop and think about what you’re about to do before you do it.” She tilted her head slightly. Even though Renken’s question had caught the man off-guard, it had been enough to allow her to get a sense of where the man’s loyalties lay. That, and the fact that he was comfortable being around her, eased her worry.

            “You’re here to push for more treaties with the Mutah,” she flatly announced.

            Achery appeared nonplussed by her statement. “That I am. Me and about six other battle lords, that I know of.”

            “May I ask what changed your mind?”

            The battle lord’s face softened. “His name is Deneel. He’s my son and heir. Up until last year, I’ve never been able to father any children. As you can see, I’m well up in years, and I hadn’t taken any woman to wife until a couple of years ago. I’d given up having any progeny until one day Dr. Bothrite approached me with a concoction he said he’d gotten from a Mutah doctor who had asked to stay overnight. Bothrite said the drink would help me produce more sperm. At first, I was very skeptical, but Bothrite assured me he wouldn’t have suggested it if he didn’t believe it was safe. So I took it. I drank that awful tasting stuff for eight straight days. And then, a few weeks later, my loving wife discovered she was pregnant.”

            Batuset cleared his throat. “Excuse me for asking this, but are you certain you’re the boy’s father?”

            Instead of becoming angry by the question, Achery chuckled. “I will admit I had my moments of doubt. But I love Farress, and I trusted her. And when Deneel was born, I knew the truth. If you saw my boy, you wouldn’t have any doubts as to his heritage.” His gaze returned to Atty. “I am indebted to Mutah for what that drug accomplished. Without it, I would have died without an heir. That little boy is my whole world, and I want him to grow up without the hatred and violence I had to face when I was younger. Thanks to you and D’Jacques, I have that chance to make a better future for my son.”

            Atty smiled warmly at the man. He was sincere in his revelation, which made her feel a little more hopeful about the possibility of a successful summit. She started to reply when Mastin and Paxton ran up to report.

            “Eight men are missing,” Mastin told her.

            “I have eleven still unaccounted for myself,” Achery added.

            “Along with my six.” Batuset glared at the empty catwalks. “If every battle lord is missing soldiers, that’s a goodly number trapped on the other side of this blasted wall.”

            Atty glanced up at the tall structure, when the lashed tree trunks were suddenly enveloped in a red mist. She sniffed, and a rancid tang bit into her nostrils like tiny teeth. Without being aware of what she was doing, the ballock slid into her palm and she backed toward the tent.

            Paxton saw her reaction first. “Atty?”

            “My bow. Get me my bow!” she snapped as a shriek came from somewhere to their right. At the same moment, several people screamed and pointed toward the sky. “Everyone, at arms!”

            “Get inside your tents!” Batuset yelled, giving her a shove. “Get undercover!”

            “Atty, go!” Renken also pushed her toward the door flap.

            The smell grew stronger. Pungent, caustic, and filled with blood. With it came the sound of thousands of leathery wings. The sky went completely dark as the creatures descended, filling the heavens with black death.

            Someone shrieked, “Bats!”, and the world exploded in chaos.