Ludlov drove his steed to gallop at a fierce pace towards Sevenpeaks. After a few hours of riding between jagged rocks and tall bushes, the landscape finally opened up before him: a gradual descent down irregular terrain into the wide open valley where the river Ivennen cut its way through the land towards the far Southern Sea. The river came down from the mighty snow-capped peaks of the Horn Mountains, which loomed far to the north, dimly visible to Ludlov’s left, beyond the mist and the vast, outstretched plains of North-Ivennendale. The valley in front of Ludlov consisted mostly of peaceful fields where sheep and cows grazed. It was dotted with small, quaint-looking farms. An innocent place. Further on, nestled on the far bank of the meandering Ivennen, lay the great city of Sevenpeaks, reaching up out of its surroundings like the massive crown of a dark king about to crawl out of the depths of the earth. There was an orangey glow emanating from it.
Ludlov was used to seeing light of this colour above Sevenpeaks. Usually it came from the Sacred Stones kept in the seven tall peaks that gave the city its name and its jagged, crown-like appearance, but as he hastily made his way over the bucolic farmlands of Ivennendale and the sky already grew darker again, he noticed that there was more to the gleaming light that came from Sevenpeaks. It was stronger and brighter than it should be, and above all, it flickered, quite unlike the constant glare of the Sacred Stones.
And then the terrible realisation came to him: this was another kind of light all too familiar to any witch hunter: the dancing light of fire.
Ludlov cursed loudly and felt a surge of anger striking like a thunderbolt in his heart. He immediately spurred on his horse and raced across the landscape.
Once he had crossed the great Ulric Bridge that led over the Ivennen and came close to the city, the silence gave way to the desperate cries of a large crowd, accompanied by the smell of burning wood.
A mere five miles from the clumsy mass of huts outside the city walls known as the Outskirts, Ludlov was met with the soot-blackened, beaten-down faces of refugees who wordlessly looked up at him as he passed, the only person in the ever-increasing stream of humanity making his way towards the city.
The closer he came to the city walls, the less the fleeing people took notice of him, the more the scent of burning assaulted him and the fiercer the fiery light in the sky became, even as the sun began to set once more and the darkness of night closed in. The witch hunter felt fear for Adomir’s life gnawing at his heart but refused to allow any conscious thoughts about it.
The Black Sickle had truly struck. It wasn’t clear how widespread the fire raging in the city was, but evidently it was major.
Ludlov halted his horse for the first time in hours when he at last came to the enormous West Gate: a monumental construction, large enough to fit the church tower of a small town beneath its arch. The gate was seldom used, but its glorious wooden doors stood wide open now. This didn’t make it any easier to enter the city, however, since the mob of people trying to wriggle their way through it had become stifling and unruly, bordering on frenzy. There was screaming and crying, pushing and shoving everywhere.
Some tradesmen and families made desperate attempts to pull along wooden carts through the chaos containing their last possessions, which made it even more difficult for anyone to pass through the gate.
The horse the witch hunter was seated on became restless. Reassuring the steed by patting his neck and gently scratching behind his ears did not help. When a man dressed in rags jumped onto one of the wooden carts, causing it to collapse in a clutter of broken wood, tripping over nearby refugees, the chaos mounted to a peak. The owner of the cart started shouting accusations at the culprit while everyone else took out their anger and frustration on him for trying to move such an impractical object through the gate in the first place. When one nearby brute started swinging his fists at the man, Ludlov knew the time had come to produce his pistol. He fired a single shot into the air. The horse panicked and almost threw the witch hunter off his back but he held on fast and cried out:
“Enough! Let me pass! The witch hunter Order commands you!”
Everyone made way for Ludlov as best they could, knowing full well he could ride straight through them if he wanted to and no one would ever sanction him for it. Once more, he sent his poor, tired, frightened horse bolting into the city. When he was at last within the walls and the mighty Cathedral became vaguely visible behind layers upon layers of tall, thin buildings, he was approached by a guardsman.
“Master Ludlov! A fine evening you have chosen to return from the Western Wilds!” he exclaimed.
Ludlov dismounted and handed the reins of his horse to the guardsman.
“This is no coincidence, Leon. I need to go to the Government District. Now.”
“I’m afraid it’s no longer accessible, master.
Leon halted his protest when he saw that Ludlov had already started running in the direction of the flames.