The sun hung in the bloodred sky like a misshapen lump of copper, its edges blackened, its face radiating waves of excruciating heat over a landscape ravaged by war. Thousands of mailed corpses littered the streets of Ascalon—bodies frozen in the act of dying; hacked asunder, blades of steel and iron yet clutched in their fists. Tattered pennons once carried with pride by Ascalon’s defenders now rustled like ghosts on the hot wind.
As a ghost, too, did the figure of a dark-haired child drift through the great mass of the slain, swinging a wooden sword in boyish abandon. With it, he lashed out at imaginary enemies, the flash of his pale limbs incongruous in this gore-blasted wasteland. He chased the wind, chased zephyrs of dust through deserted plazas and down winding streets; past fire-gutted buildings looted by victorious Nazarenes. The wind led the boy to the city’s heart, to where a ruined mosque squatted in the middle of a broad square.
Here the boy stopped, tapped the ground with the tip of his sword. His brows drew together as he eyed the structure. Curious, he mounted the shallow steps and peered through the open doorway. Inside, shadows swirled like smoke from a funeral pyre; shafts of copper light lanced through ruptures in the domed ceiling. The boy caught sight of a figure pacing the periphery of the chamber, a lean wraith clad in a surcoat of grimy white cloth who warily avoided the murky daylight.
The boy’s youth made him fearless. He crossed the threshold, his voice profaning the silence. “What was this place?”
Instantly the silhouette stopped and spun toward the door, falling into a predatory crouch. It snuffled the air like a hound on the trail of a hare.
“Are you deaf?” the boy said. “What was this place?”
“A tomb,” the figure replied, its voice hard and guttural, full of rage. It crept forward, still in a crouch. “And a prison.”
The boy glanced around, disbelieving. “A prison? For what? There’s no door.”
“For a fell and terrible beast.” Closer it came. “One that has not tasted flesh nor drunk blood since before you were ripped squalling from your mother’s womb, little one.” Closer, sidestepping a column of light. Menacing eyes glittered and sinew creaked. Still, the boy displayed no trepidation; he stood motionless, unwilling to credit the stranger’s words.
“What kind of beast?”
Now, with only six paces separating them, the figure straightened. This close, the boy saw a design in blood caking the chest of the figure’s surcoat: a cross, red on white. The stench of death clung to it; the boy blinked, his nose wrinkling. The smell reminded him that perhaps he should be cautious.
“The worst kind,” it hissed. “One that hungers!” The Templar threw its head back, howling its rage as it sprang on the startled child. Too late, the boy raised his wooden sword as searing cold talons dug into his throat …
Copyright © 2010 by Scott Oden