Schroeder gasped in the freezing night and sprinted into the darkness. Branches and thorns lashed at his face, but the cold and adrenaline had long since robbed him of any sensation. He was running for his life.
He stole a glance over his shoulder. It was getting closer. Never tiring, never relenting. The shadow weaved effortlessly through the trees like thread in a tapestry, despite the weight of its full black armour. Schroeder gulped in more air and exhaled sharp bursts of fog, yet he noticed nothing escaped from beneath the blackguard’s helmet.
Schroeder’s heart vied to escape his chest. His lungs burned. He knew he couldn’t sustain this chase for much longer.
Arise and face this gloom. The words of legend echoed in his head. If he could not outrun his shadow, it would surely know the bite of his blade instead.
Schroeder pivoted swiftly on the snow, poised his right arm, and dealt a blow to the darkness. The shadow dodged it with wily finesse and struck back, disarming Schroeder and slicing his fingers off in a single blow.
Schroeder screamed and thrust himself backwards into the snow. His sword landed with a soft, muffled thud, his digits raining around it. He grunted in pain and tried to drag himself backwards. Away. Away from the shadow. His stumps painted a messy trail in the snow, and while the frozen ground soothed his wounds, something told him he wouldn’t have to worry about the pain much longer.
Terror walked slowly towards him as a wolf toward its wounded prey. Schroeder had nothing left to repel this beast.
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
The darkness between the trees birthed a thousand more faceless shadows, moving ever closer.
“Come on, you heathen scourge,” Schroeder shouted in a pained yet defiant taunt. He had lost, but he would stare death in the face nonetheless. “Finish it!”
The shadow raised its crude iron sword to the sky when, suddenly, a sea of brilliant flame pierced the darkness. A horn sounded to Schroeder’s left, and the shadow lowered its blade again. It peered towards the light, then back at Schroeder. It stared at him, then, with a hiss of frustration, melted away into the dark woods with the rest of its kin.
Schroeder succumbed to exhaustion and fell into the night.
Schroeder awoke days later, near the end of a bumpy journey south. He gathered his bearings and realised he was in the back of a horse-drawn cart, his finger stumps crudely wrapped. He was exhausted, injured, and freezing cold, yet very much alive. He looked behind the cart and saw hundreds of Ostarian refugees making this journey with him.
Schroeder painfully pulled himself up and beheld the gates of Turul Város. The War Scholar stood atop the north-facing battlements, flanked by the Warden and the city’s finest soldiers. He spotted Schroeder. Through waves of northerners who bore the weight of tragedy and horror witnessed first-hand, the two men exchanged a solemn nod.
The evidence would suffice.