‘Alright men, we will camp here tonight. Break formation and pitch the tents.’
Chiko’s legs creaked as he pulled his pack off and set it down on the ground. A weary groan next to him proved that William wasn’t faring any better.
They had been marching for ten days, and now the hastily assembled army was radiating an air of fear and anticipation as they approached their enemy.
Three weeks previous, a rumour had started spreading around their village of Cragstead that some ominous events had occurred near the town of Geistell. Animals disappeared and livestock became sick. Chiko’s mother had become nervous at the rumour, worried that it could be the work of demons.
A few days later Ristal received a message, and immediately raced out of the village, stricken with concern. A week later he returned with soldiers, and tragic news.
Geistell had been destroyed.
Ristal spoke of how some members of his order had been sent to investigate the rumours, but when they arrived, they found everything drained of life. Only a burly man cradling the bodies of his wife and child remained. When questioned, he claimed he had sent them ahead while he settled affairs.
Chiko’s heart lurched at the man’s loss, ignorant of the grief he must have been feeling. ‘The buildings were untouched,’ Ristal continued. ‘But all the plants, animals, and people were completely withered and dry to the touch. A circle of grey surrounded the town two miles in every direction, and it seemed as if nothing would grow there ever again.’
The people of Cragstead were horrified at the news and began to mutter amongst each other and demand what Ristal and the rest of the Inquisition planned to do about the attack.
This was when one of the soldiers stepped forward. ‘I am Captain Matthew Reesta. We have already discovered those responsible for this heinous attack on our country.’
The villagers’ mutterings ceased at once.
‘They refer to themselves as the Cult of the False Moon, fanatics that the Inquisition has been investigating for a few years. However, it is now clear that they are far more powerful than any of us expected. After Geistell’s fate was discovered, the inquisitors were able to track them down to an abandoned church by the mountains, about half a day’s march away from the town. We are now assembling an army to wipe this scourge from Grastell, and we need every able-bodied man to join us.’
Chiko and William had been two of the first people in the village to volunteer. His mother sent him off with a brave smile, telling him that his father and grandfather would both be proud and that she knew he would fight bravely and come home safe. But Chiko saw the fear in her eyes.
Mirrah was not as good at hiding her feelings and clung to William with tears running down her cheeks. When Chiko approached them, she wrapped an arm around him as well, resting her head on his as she wept. She had grown to match Chiko in height since they’d met.
Chiko placed a hand on the back of her head. He turned to face William, expecting to see anger and instead found dread, but also gratitude.
Chiko did not know why he had expected all his people’s troubles to disappear once they began to live in harmony with the Grastellians. Both groups had come together and heartily agreed to name their village Cragstead, for one. Chiko supposed after eight years of relief from bandit attacks and sudden wars, he had grown weary of his people’s old fears that had held over from the archipelago.
But it seemed that even Grastell wasn’t free of enemies and murderers. Though, this cult seemed far more dangerous than even Lord Hara’s armies when he had been alive. Chiko turned to William. He’d barely spoken a word since they had left Cragstead but smiled with a confidence he wished he actually possessed. ‘We will be fine. We know how to handle ourselves.’
And it was true; when they were fifteen, they had approached some warriors who had come to Grastell with Chiko’s family and requested they teach them how to fight. The warriors had initially refused but seemed all too eager to take Chiko and William on as students once they had obtained their parents’ permission. Before long, other village children joined them. Because Cragstead’s mages made tending to the crops so effortless, they had more free time than most children in Grastell would.
‘You’re right,’ William said, nodding to himself. ‘After how hard those old men drilled us for five years, what can a few cultists do to stop us?’
William seemed calmer after they had set up their tent and joined the line for food. He hoped that his higher spirits would continue, but as they cleaned their bowls and readied themselves for sleep, Captain Reesta ordered everyone to the centre of the camp.
‘Our scouts have returned. They report that the cult’s main camp is bustling with activity. This may mean they are about to make their next move. Get as much sleep as you can, for we’ll reach them by early tomorrow afternoon, and stop them before they can strike again.’
Chiko saw William pale at the captain’s announcement. This time he could not think of any comforting words.
When only a hill stood between the army and the cult, a hollow dread crept through Chiko’s body. Only his training kept him from succumbing to stress.
He was beginning to appreciate that he and William were lucky to have been trained so thoroughly. Other conscripts shrieked and cried that they did not want to die. Some had even fled in the night. Chiko could not blame them.
It seemed that Captain Reesta didn’t share Chiko’s sympathies. He took his fury out on the remaining soldiers, yelling at them to move faster or berating their formations throughout the march.
Chiko was amazed Reesta could still speak once he ordered the army to stop marching a few miles from the cult’s camp. They had stayed there for an hour while the captain waited for the scouts he had sent ahead in the night to return. When they did, he promptly got his men to attention.
‘Surprisingly, the scouts have reported that the camp is in utter disarray. We don’t know what has happened, but if we strike now, we can take them out and avenge the people of Geistell.’
As they marched up the hill, Chiko was separated from William. But he didn’t dare try and break formation to find him. William was a good swordsman and had used his height and strength to best Chiko in their practice fights multiple times.
When Chiko finally reached the top of the hill, his stomach had become a vicious thread of twisted knots. But as he stared down at the camp, they all seemed to unwind in an instant.
The camp below was in tatters, with tents poorly set up and only a few figures moving about. Chiko wondered if someone else had attacked the camp before they arrived. Then a cry broke out and he saw one of the figures below pointing towards them. Robed men began to bundle out of the tents at the sound of the yelling, and dozens of men raced out behind them. A wave of panic engulfed the camp as they saw the army above.
‘How are they so disorganised?’ he whispered. Surely, this could not be the same cult responsible for the massacre at Geistell.
‘Charge!’ Reesta roared.
Powered by adrenaline and a new surge of morale at the sight of their opponents’ panic, Chiko raced down the hill alongside his fellow soldiers.
Most of the cultists turned tail and ran, but a few brave ones held their ground. A big man in a filthy robe raced towards Chiko with an axe. He raised his arm and Chiko ran him through the chest.
He had barely pulled his sword from the dead man before another came at him with a rapier. The cultist thrust once, twice. Chiko parried, moving like he was barely able to keep up, feigning sluggishness. When the cultist thrust a third time, Chiko evaded and cut the man’s sword hand off with one swing.
The man fell to his knees screaming, clutching the stump with his other hand. Chiko searched frantically for other opponents, but there were none. All the cultists were either dead, injured, or retreating.
Despite himself, Chiko laughed. They had spent so much time fearing this cult and their power, only to wipe them out in minutes.
His good humour was cut short as he looked upon the injured cultist at his feet, kneeling in a growing pool of blood. As the adrenaline of battle faded, a wave of nausea enveloped Chiko. This was his doing.
He wanted to vomit.
As Reesta and the other men chased down the retreating cultists and restrained the injured, Chiko found Inquisitor Ristal back at the hill, kneeling over a body. Its head was cocked at an unnatural angle.
Curious, Chiko approached him. He hadn’t seen Ristal since they had left Cragstead. He froze a few steps away as he recognised the body.
Ristal turned to face Chiko, guilt warped his features.
‘How?’ Chiko asked. It was all he could think to say.
‘One of the men panicked when Captain Reesta sounded the charge and ran. William tried to stop him, and he pushed him down the hill. The fall broke his neck.’
Chiko knelt next to his friend, and the tears began to form. As he studied William’s blank stare, all he could think was, how do I tell Mirrah?
The army dispersed and returned to their homes. According to reports from captured cultists and inquisitors, a lone warrior had sneaked past the cult’s main army, infiltrated the church they were using as a command base, and singlehandedly slaughtered the priests and cult leaders responsible for the massacre at Geistell.
Ristal was shocked when he learned the warrior’s description matched the burly man mourning his family in Geistell. By the time Cragstead was only a day’s walk away, the mysterious man had been identified as a former soldier from the capital, a man named Scjouraan.
But while the other soldiers toasted their victory, and Scjouraan’s prowess, Chiko was in no mood for celebrating. William’s death lay heavy on his heart, but he also felt uneasy about the cult’s actions.
He could not understand why they had attacked Geistell the way they had if they had so many members. When he asked Ristal about this, the inquisitor had given him a grim look of approval.
‘The dark magic used in the Geistell massacre was clearly ritualistic.’ Ristal said. ‘But with their leaders dead, we have no way of knowing what the ritual was for.’
Chiko shuddered at Ristal’s words. What if the cult’s actions led to something worse?
Author: Flynn is a 4th year Creative Writing student with a penchant for fantasy, mystery, horror, and the supernatural. Growing up, Flynn loved reading stories with worlds that he could get lost in for hours, and he hopes that one day he will write stories that others can also get lost in.
Artist: Harrison Coates is an emerging writer studying at QUT. His work investigates the varied and complex lives of those around him, and their place in an increasingly strange world. Living in Brisbane as a 3rd year fine arts student, he finds inspiration for the absurd situations explored by his fiction easily.
Editors: Rory Hawkins and Suzy Darlington