The Fifth

Story time is here! And it’s a long one at just under 24000 words. Time to dive in.

Skywall is an isolated kingdom that is surrounded on all sides by mountains. There are only three routes that lead through the mountains to the neighbouring kingdoms beyond. Two of these routes are main arteries, while the third is a narrow mountain pass that climbs high up the tallest mountain of the range before winding though a treacherous canyon barely a person wide. Few people walk this route anymore because of the frequent rockslides and avalanches that make the path impassable.

The mountains are known by the people of Skywall as the Fifteen Prophets and are capped with snow all year round. They serve as the first and most effective form of defence for Skywall, which has remained a sovereign state for thousands of years precisely because of those towering mountains.

Its rulers, King Heracles and Queen Farah, continue to uphold the Skywallian tradition laid out by their forefathers some eight centuries ago, by refusing to partake or indulge in the clashes of the other nations of the continent. But that is not to say that Skywall is without an army as that would be a lie. In fact, there are some forty thousand men that serve to protect the kingdom as well as the heavy metal gates that can be closed to secure the two main arteries that link Skywall to the kingdoms beyond their borders. While the city of Skywall itself is ringed by a high wall fashioned from black volcanic rocks that were dug from the ground in the first few centuries of the kingdoms founding. This allowed Skywall to construct farms so that they can grow enough crops to keep them self-sufficient, even in times of war when the Twin Gates have needed to be kept sealed for years on end. The crops grown in the kingdom are fed by the mountain waters that run fresh and clear through the flat valley base keeping the soil fertile for the six hundred thousand souls that call Skywall home.

Ishma is but one of the people of Skywall, a teenager of fifteen who is clothed in a simple fur dress, dark brown in colour. She walks, like she often does, through the market eager to see what sights there are to behold. The market is a bustling place crammed with people milling about or selling goods. A vast array of colourful items sit on clear and obvious display as merchants call out their prices to curious customers, while others chant loudly trying to drum up business in hopes of making their months coin in a single day.

Ishma doesn’t know if any of them ever manage such a feat, but she understands why they try. The season has only just changed to spring and this is only the second weekly market since winter’s conclusion.

As a result, the merchants have much time to make up for. Seeing as Skywall goes into a form of nationwide hibernation to weather out the cold icy dark months during. It is during these long months that several feet of snow blankets the kingdom in an unbroken white sheet.

Ishma likes the months of winter, at least from a viewing perspective. Past that she often finds the short hours of daylight, the bitterly cold temperatures and the long lonely nights boring. There is so little to do during the winter months, she thinks to herself as she mills about. Her eyes drinking in all the sights, as well as the roaring sounds, that make market such a curious and joyous experience for her. But she has no plans to buy anything. She is simply looking. There is no harm in looking after all, she tells herself as she smiles and nods at some of the traders who she knows. They smile back, where they can, but those that don’t she holds no grudge against. They are working after all and cannot be aware of every soul that casts them smiles when they are busy trying to make sales and earn their livings.

Ishma looks up and sees the endless brilliant blue of the sky above her. It makes her smile, but the chill in the air continues to make these early weeks of spring cooler than she would like. But among this crowd of tightly packed bodies she seldom feels the chill as her long purple hair reaches down to the small of her back. It used to reach further, she recalls as she tosses her hair back over her shoulder. She quickly regrets the act as she feels one of the seldom bites of cold attack her exposed flesh and pulls her hair forward again so that her shoulder is covered once more.

Before this market her hair had reached down to just below her hips. She prefers it to be at such a length, but her mother insisted that she have some of the length removed now that winter is over. Ishma not wanting to cause an argument agreed, but it had taken her mother several weeks of badgering before she’d relented. However, now she wishes she hadn’t curtailed to her mother.

I think a visit to the gardens is in order today, Ishma thinks to herself as she turns down the next row of stalls. This row, unlike the last, is bathed in herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables. They give off aromatic and distinctive smells that fill Ishma’s nostrils. She loves the smell of the market foods, but somehow this row is even more packed with bodies than the last.

Ishma wonders if every citizen of Skywall is here in the market. She doubts it would be big enough for such an event, but she isn’t sure. The market is vast, but surely not enough to contain the entire kingdoms populace. Either way it doesn’t much matter to her. She is here to browse, while she watches the world go by. Ishma takes note of the joy on the people’s faces as the world returns to its frenetic pace now that the snows have thawed and trickled away.

Many of these traders’ goods have been bought from beyond the boundaries of the Fifteen Prophets and the Twin Gates. This is not because the people of Skywall have no food of their own, but because the winter crops are dull and lack colour and aromatic scents. Everything here is purely to get the people to spend as much of their coin as possible and Ishma knows that they will as she stops to gaze at some fabulous crimson silk scarves. It is not the norm for garments to be down this row but it does happen from time to time. Usually it is either because the merchant was late to the market or the volume of merchants was just too great to keep them contained with the usual rows.

Ishma however, runs her fingers through the fabric, the softness of which still surprises her to this day, as a smile stretches across her face. Her vibrant green eyes stare at the thin sheer material in the moments before she departs the stall. The merchant never even saw her presence, but if he had he would have lamented his lost sale. Not that any sale would have taken place as it is still too early in the year for adorning yourself in silk, Ishma thinks as she manages to find a gap in the crowds. The respite from the mass of bodies offers her some relief. She doesn’t know why but standing and walking amongst such crowds always leaves her desperate for some space. Maybe that’s just me, she thinks as she casts her gaze around her only to see many other men and women doing much the same as her. Not just me then, she thinks as she smiles and chuckles to herself.

Ishma is stood at the centre of the market near a towering statue of one of the long dead founders of Skywall. The face of the statue has been eroded by the rains as has much of the detail that once would have covered its form. Instead, it is simply a mass now, barely distinguishable but still obviously the statue of a person holding a battle axe high above their head. The plaque below however is still fully legible and gives details of who the statue is in honour of, Ashraf Sarai. After that it gives details of what he did for the founding of Skywall and the dates that it is believed the statue originated from.

Ishma has no idea if the dates are correct and doubts that even the historians of Skywall can say they are with much certainty. History is often muddy, she thinks as she casts her eyes over the rest of the market. Plenty left to see, smell and hear she thinks with a smile. Maybe the gardens will have to wait for today. There is always tomorrow, Ishma thinks slightly disappointed. She doesn’t want to miss the sight of the new buds as they spring into colour now that the seasons have changed. It has become something of a yearly tradition for her, much like her visits to the market. But sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day, she thinks as she rejoins the throngs of people to wind her way down the next row.

However, Ishma never manages to reach the next row of the market with its swarm of people who are busily going about their lives because there is a sudden and thunderous boom that erupts. Ishma, like all those around her, covers her head with her arms as she bends double. She doesn’t know why she does it, though she is sure it’s a natural reaction.

Ishma doesn’t know what is going on, or what that boom was. Was it a clap of thunder? She asks herself before dismissing such an idea immediately as she knows there is not a single cloud in the sky. A rockslide perhaps? She reasons. While possible something tells her that the sound was not that of rocks tumbling down one of the Fifteen Prophets. She can’t explain why, but there is a feeling deep in her gut that screams that she is in danger. But in danger from what? She asks herself as screams begin to fill the air.

Ishma blinks several times confused. Why are there screams? She doesn’t know but she has to find out, she tells herself as she rises back to her full height of six feet. She is tall not just for her age but for a young woman in general and that is one of the reasons so many people in Skywall recognise her. But that doesn’t matter now, she thinks as she takes her arms from over her head, no longer shielding herself from whatever she thought she needed shielding from. But the screams continue to echo off the walls of the buildings that lie at the edge of the vast open space that is the market. The echoes make it impossible for Ishma to tell from which direction they are truly coming from. But she has to know what is going on as she feels the need to help whoever it is that is clearly in need. A voice in her head tells her to simply go in the other direction, the direction she had been heading in before. But it says no more than that, so she sees no reason to listen to it. I won’t just run because a part of me is afraid, she says to herself as she turns and heads back the way she came. She has no idea if she is going the right way, but it doesn’t take long before she gets her answer as the people around her surge in the opposite direction. They’re panicking, Ishma thinks, but she doesn’t know why. Is it because of the boom? Or have they seen something? She doesn’t know, but she continues to push against the tidal wave of people.

It’s exhausting trying to walk against their flow, she notes as she begs for them to make way, but none of them heed her calls. Whatever has them terrified is overruling their capacity for reason. Is it simple mob mentality? She hopes not. People could be in real need, she thinks when all of a sudden she hears more screams. This time she is sure they are coming from behind her, except she heard no boom. What’s going on? Ishma asks herself as the people around her change direction again. Except now none of them are moving as a single cohesive mass like they were before. Instead, they race in any direction they deem fit. As a result people are shoved to the floor and trampled. Ishma’s eyes go wide. She can’t believe the insanity she is witnessing as she herself is nearly knocked to the floor while trying to rush toward an elderly man. But she regains her balance only to find she has no sight of the man and no idea in which direction has had been faced. She feels devastated as she is carried this way and that by a tide of terrified people desperate and afraid. But of what? She asks herself moments before she catches sight of the answer. When she does she understands why the people are so frantic and afraid.

Dozens upon dozens of black armour clad figures brandishing swords, axe’s, war hammers and maces are cutting their way through the people unlucky enough to have been unable to flee in time. The faces of the armoured figures are hidden and their armour is splattered with blood, but Ishma can tell by their cackles of joy that they are enjoying slaughtering the innocents before them. She knows she should run but she can’t bring herself to. She doesn’t know why. Is it fear? Is it defiance? She hasn’t got a clue as a voice in her head tells her she can’t stay here and as if on cue one of the armoured attackers looks in her direction.

Ishma knows without a doubt in her mind that he is looking straight at her and she can imagine him smiling beneath that full faced helmet. The faceplate of the helmet is carved with a bearded face screaming in agony. Ishma doesn’t know how or what these figures are as the one that has laid eyes on her calls to the others. Several more look toward Ishma as she begins to back away. She demands that her legs run, but this is the only response they are willing to give. She curses them for their failing her as a couple more of the black metal screaming face helmets join the first and head straight for her.

They’ll catch me before long, she says pleading and begging her legs to conform to her demands to run, as she continues to back away. I won’t survive if you don’t do as I say; she urges them as the figures continue to close the gap rapidly.

Ishma has tuned the screams of the people of Skywall out. She knows they are there, all around her, but she can’t think of them now. She has to run, like they ran for their lives, but as they continue to try and escape the market more black armoured figures swarm the open space to cut down the citizens mercilessly.

The people of Skywall don’t understand. They aren’t at war. So why are these people attacking them? They don’t know, but as more of these figures pour into the market they realise they don’t care. They all, each and every one of them, just wants to escape with their lives. But as they think that more and more of them are cut down. It’s a massacre, but it’s one that is not contained to the marketplace, as all across Skywall the figures, who are part of a vast army, are doing the same. They show no mercy as they slaughter anyone who stands in their path. They don’t care about the citizens; they simply want to claim the land for their ruler, their War-King.

Ishma doesn’t know this and even if she did she would be powerless to do anything to stop it as her legs finally comply and allow her to do more than simply back away slowly.

Ishma knows where she must head, home. She knows these streets like the back of her hand and hopes that’ll give her an advantage. There are so many questions racing around her head, but none of them matter now. What matters is her escaping the men pursuing her. She glances over her shoulder and sure enough the four men are still in pursuit. Their heavy looking armour makes them slower than her and she’s thankful for that as she zips down a narrow street.

I just have to keep going, she tells herself. I can’t stop. I have to get away from these…things. She has no idea what or who they really are. Answers, she hopes, will come later. First I have to survive and evade them, she reminds herself as she takes a sharp right. Maybe that will throw them off, she dares to hope now that she can hear no more chants and taunts from behind her. But as she glances again over her shoulder her optimism vanishes. They’re still on her tail. Further than they were before, but still with her. Ishma curses her luck as she turns back to find more of the black armoured figures ahead of her. They’re finishing up a round of butchering the innocent, cackling as they do, when the calls in a tongue Ishma doesn’t understand draw their attention. The men chasing her have alerted these new villains to her presence and block her pathway forward.

She can’t believe how empty these few streets that she has sprinted down are. Where is everyone? Ishma asks herself as she dives left down an alley. Cries and roars erupt from behind her. Her pursuers are clearly angered by her continued success in evading them as screams blast out from some of the buildings around her.

Are they killing people in their homes? Ishma wonders with a mixture of confusion and disbelief. Who are these barbarians? That doesn’t matter now; the voice in her head says chastising her for dwelling on things that can be answered if she survives. If? What do you mean if? She fires back mentally. Exactly that the voice replies. If you don’t concentrate then your chances of survival will remain an if, the voice in her head adds. She wants to argue with it, but on some level she knows that it’s right, even though she doesn’t want to admit it. But the voice makes no further attempts to antagonise her and she’s thankful for that as she tunes back into her current surroundings. The calls in a tongue she doesn’t understand still spouted angrily from behind her as she takes another right. Getting close, she notes as she races down this wider street. But she doesn’t get far as she follows the bend in the road round only to find a mound of bodies ringed by a half dozen of the black armoured figures ahead of her.

Ishma comes to a grinding halt. Her eyes go wide as her hand subconsciously comes up to cover her mouth. She can’t believe the sight before her. Men and women piled atop one another and all of them civilians. Not a soldier amongst them. Ishma feels sick. These armoured figures are monsters, she thinks as more corpses are tossed onto the growing mound. At first Ishma doesn’t realise how the bodies are being added to the mound but after a short time she takes note of it and it is at this point that her stomach drops.

They’re getting the children to carry the bodies? She can’t believe it. Slaughtering the innocent is barbaric, but getting their own children to dispose of the bodies, that is…she doesn’t have the words for how vile it makes her feel. Several of the figures get ready to put lit torches to the mound while the children are made to watch. They’re all in shackles which limit the reach of both their arms and legs from one another.

Ishma feels a lump in her throat that she can’t swallow as the congregation of figures turn toward her. The ones pursuing her have called for this new group’s attention and they’ve got it.

What do I do now? Ishma asks herself as she focuses back on her surroundings and does everything she can to ignore the sight of the mound of bodies and the children shackled.

She spots a new alley. She doesn’t quite remember where it leads, but it’s her only option so she dives down it, accelerating as she goes. She has to keep ahead of the figures who she can hear bellowing behind her. They’re a lot closer than they had been before and Ishma curses herself for stopping as long as she had. It was a stupid thing to do, and she knows it, but she couldn’t believe the sight that she’d seen. In fact, she still can’t believe it as the alley quickly becomes a haphazardly zigzagging mess of a route littered with discarded flotsam coated in layers of filth. She wonders when was the last time anyone came down this route as rats scurry off. They’re in shock due to the sudden appearance of the much larger people. That proves that this pathway is seldom ventured down, Ishma concludes as she spies a fork in the route ahead. It’s a fifty-fifty as to which I should take, but home she believes is off to her left. Left it is then she decides moments before she makes a sharp turn. The figures behind her struggle to slow their pace enough and take the turn in a similar manner to Ishma, which is why a couple go toppling over one another. But as Ishma glances behind her she finds there are still more pursuers than she would like. She thinks she counts eight.

Did they all come after me? She asks herself as she hurdles some of the discarded items that litter the narrow dark and damp alleyway. The walls of the buildings tower high above her and blot out much of the blue sky and the sun that would otherwise be shining down on her. It’s why she feels sudden shivers ripple across her skin, but she pays no mind to them. She just has to keep going, even though she can feel her legs beginning to grow heavy. She isn’t sure how long she’s been running, but it doesn’t surprise her that her body is starting to weaken. At no point had she believed that she would have to run for her life around her home city. She is sure none of the other citizens had either as she wonders how many lives these figures may have claimed. She dreads to think too deeply on the prospect as her eyes go wide at the view ahead of her. She remembers this alleyway now and sighs deeply as she remembers that the exit to it isn’t really an exit at all. Instead it is simply a very narrow gap between two walls. She’d tried to weasel her way through it once but she’d had to give it up as a bad job. There was no way she was going to fit through it. That had been years ago when she’d been smaller, so how would she be able to achieve it now? She doesn’t know. But what other options do I have? She asks herself as she looks around her while still hurtling as fast as her legs will take her. The rumbles of her pursuers have thinned. She doesn’t know if that is because some of them have given up on the chase or if they are simply concentrating on their target. Not that either matters she knows as she quickly concludes that there is no other way out. She curses herself for not remembering this avenue, this passage. She knows this city so well but in the heat and panic of the moment had made a mistake that may yet cost her, her life.

No, I can make it, Ishma tells herself as she dares to slow. She can’t hit the gap at full speed. If she does she will likely knock herself out and then she really will be done for. But as she slows the figures accelerate. It’s like they are anticipating her movements. But they can’t know, she tells herself. They don’t know this city. If they did then they would have caught her by now. Maybe they think I’m simply struggling to maintain my pace, she tells herself as aims for the gap which is a little wider than her own front to back measurement. But as a result of her slowed pace and concentration on her goal the figures are now almost on top of her.

That is why several of them launch themselves at Ishma, but as they sail through the air towards her she reaches and passes through the gap leaving them to slam painfully into the stone walls. The others meanwhile reach and struggle to try and worm their way far enough into the gap to grasp hold of her. One of them manages to get a hold of the strap of her dress, but Ishma refuses to comply with their desperate ravenous pulls as they scream and shout.

“Let go!” Ishma spits as she grabs hold of the strap of her fur dress and wrenches it out of the armoured figures gauntled hand. She has no idea how she has managed the feat, but wastes no time as she continues forward through the ever decreasing gap ahead. The smooth stone of the walls pressing against her back and chest as her hands brace against the wall in front of her body trying to help guide her along. Her head is turned toward the gap and the light shining through it ahead of her. She can’t turn her head to see the figures and even if she could she wouldn’t. This is her chance to escape and she intends to take it. Even as she winces and let’s out cries of pain while squeezing herself ever further forward, slowly.

Ishma is close now. In fact, she is so close that if she were to reach her arm out ahead of her she could almost wrap her fingers around the corner of the wall. Freedom and safety are nearly mine, she thinks as she feels something wrap around her leg. Her eyes go wide in surprise. She doesn’t know what it is or how the figures have achieved it but she physically can’t look. In many ways she wishes she could, but she can’t as it pulls at her ankle.

“No! Get off me!” Ishma cries as she feels herself lose ground. She stretches her arm out to try and wrap her fingers around the edge of the wall but she can’t. She isn’t close enough. I refuse for this to be how it ends, she swears as she tries to grab at whatever has been wrapped around her ankle. It’s awkward but after several attempts she manages it and to her relief it isn’t a hand. That is what she’d expected, but it’s something else. Long, leathery to the touch and flexible. A whip, she decides as she fights to find the end. But as she seeks it out blindly she is hauled further and further from her goal.

Several of the black armoured figures have hold of the end of the whip. They have no intention of giving up their prize as they pull the girl back towards them. They shout and cheer in their native tongue, sure that they will be victorious. This girl, as tall and as athletic as she is, is no match for them. They outnumber her. They have more physical strength than her. She will be within their grasp soon and they lick their lips cruelly in anticipation. Not that Ishma, even if she could look round, would be able to see as their faces remain hidden beneath their helmets and the twisted faces that serve as faceplates. Each one is the face of one of the victims of the empire and it’s War-King. They had been the face of a person whose life had been ended by the wearers own hand in service of their great ruler. And whoever gets the killing blow on Ishma will be able to have the honour of her face in death for all their future enemies to see.

The face of the victim is used as the basis for a mould which is taken and then forged into the faceplate of the soldiers’ helmet. These faceplates haunt those that the soldiers face in battle and that terror helps to fuel each and every one of them to achieve victory, which is why they will all want the honour of wearing a mould of her face over their own.

At last Ishma finds her goal, the end of the whip which is tightly wrapped around her ankle. She pulls on it desperately, but it won’t budge. Ishma can’t believe her luck as she tries to pull against the force dragging her backward. But she can’t break the hold as she continues to fiddle with the whip.

Suddenly she feels it unwind from around her ankle. She isn’t sure how but she wastes no time asking questions as she squeezes back through the narrowing gap. Her body is in pain from being in such a cramped space, but as she reaches out her fingers wrap around the edge of the wall. She feels a sense of relief wash over her as she feels the whip slash at her exposed lower left leg. Ishma howls in pain as her skin is sliced open with each and every hit. It seems like the figures have given up trying to restrain her and are instead hoping to simply cause enough damage to the only leg they can get access to so she can’t continue. But Ishma refuses to let a few slices to her otherwise immaculate soft skin stop her, as she screams while trying to force her body through the gap.

It’s too narrow, the voice in her head reasons, but she refuses to pay its words any mind as she redoubles her efforts. Screaming as she tries with all her might to force herself through the too small of a gap which she can feel crushing her ribs painfully. She has no idea that the whip is still slashing at her leg and then suddenly she slips through. Ishma stumbles forward, almost landing face first in the middle of the street that she is now on. But somehow she avoids such a fate and simply staggers back to her feet. She turns back to the crack that she has managed to squeeze herself through and can barely believe her luck as she laughs in disbelief at her achievement.

However, she knows that she isn’t safe here and that she has no get home as the angry voices of the figures echo through the crack between the walls. Ishma dares to look down at her ankle which is bloody and now that she has seen it, painful. She hadn’t noticed any pain until she’d looked. She has no idea if there is a correlation there, but she has to admit that it sure seems that way as she yanks at a section of her fur dress trying to tear a strip off. After nearly a dozen attempts she is rewarded with a single long thin strip which she wraps, as best she can, around the lower section of her leg before tying a knot in it to hold it in place. It isn’t pretty and it won’t last, but it’ll have to do for now she thinks as she looks around to assess her surroundings.

This street, like all the others she has set foot on, is empty. Nut Ishma knows which way home is and quickly leaves before the figures chasing her have time to circle round to the position and capture her.

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