"A wall is not as strong as the stone from which it is built, but the mettle of the men that man it." ~ Unknown



The city of Frederika used to be a glorious settlement in the southwest of the Krissen Empire. To its north was Cloudsnap Mountains and to its south Sunset Mountains. It sat in the great valley between these two mountain ranges. It was a rare location with rich farmland and plentiful resources. The city was in Bodolger, one of the most economically prosperous and important provinces in the empire. It was approximately 5 kilometers across; its walls nine meters tall in places, just half a meter shy of the imperial capital's. Towers dotted the wall at hundred meter intervals -- it was considered one of the empire's most well-fortified cities. That reputation was shattered two years earlier.

Auguslo crossed Cloudsnap in the middle of winter and stormed the city. One of the empire's jewels fell in a single night. Everyone realized: walls are not as strong as the stones of which they are built, but the mettle of the men manning them.

There weren't any secret passages leading into the city, neither were there any insiders who had contact with the outside. The garrison was on constant alert and the walls incessantly patrolled regardless of weather. Each tower stood four floors above the walls, each fitted with three ballistae. In effect, each hundred meter segment of wall could be targeted by up to 24 ballistae at any given moment. The soldiers on the walls could be dealt with relatively easily, but the ballistae were another story.

A protracted siege. This was the only viable option Lorist, Potterfang, and Malek had. Even in this bone-white winter the walls were defended tightly. They could not assault the walls, only a fool would do that. But Lorist didn't want to spend the months, possible years here necessary to topple the city. Even just the few weeks it would take to pound the walls into collapse was too much. It was already the 25th of the 1st. The snow would have begun to melt by the time they had the siege engines in place. It was meaningly to pound the walls during this time. Even if they collapsed immediately, attacking over open, muddy fields was suicide. He had to take the city before the snow melts.

They would attack at dawn. That was the moment the guard all across the city changed and the rising sun blinded half of the city's wall. Even better would be a strong snowstorm or blizzard. It would almost entirely mitigate the biggest danger of this plan: the approach to the walls. Lorist was entirely confident that the battle would be won if he could get his men onto the walls before they were noticed.

Lorist had the almost entirely unique propensity to lead his men from the front, right where the fighting would be the thickest. This time would be no different. He brushed aside his entire council's counsel; he was determined to be the first Norton over the walls. He was the best man for the job of getting on the walls and slaughtering his way to the gate. If he let others do it, they might be discovered or killed. If this happened it would become a drawn-out battle they could not afford, neither in terms of time or casualties.

His council eventually gave up. Apart from Blademaster Shuss and Reidy, who could match Lorist for a few dozen exchanges, no one could even come close to being in his realm. It was a knight's shame to have their lord charge at the front of the formation, but they had no choice, they could not do this task for their liege.

Lorist, Shuss, Reidy, and Els would lead the charge. The first two would take the two towers next to the northern gate while Reidy and Els would hold the enemy off the gate itself while they waited for the rest of the force to charge through. Els would take charge once the main force arrived and push into the city while Josk held the walls. Reidy would take a detachment and charge along the walls to take the other three gates. Firmrock would then charge through them and join the fight in the city proper. Tigersoar's Loze would have the honor of being the first to set foot in the city -- he was beaming about it.

The first gate to be opened, opened into the military district, so Els and Tigersoar would be charging right into the district to wipe the defenders out. Once the fighting moved from the walls into the city proper, Malek would occupy the walls with one of Firmrock's divisions to make sure no one escaped.

Potterfang drew the short straw this time. He would stay outside the city and lead Firmrock's three other divisions from there. He could only enter the city once Malek occupied the walls. The inner district would only be assaulted once the rest of the city was secure. His hope was that its defenders would surrender before it had to be assaulted because, unlike the rest of the city, it would be on full alert long before the first Norton soldier even got close to the inner walls.

The snow was light and the skies dark on this, the 30th of the 1st. The cold winds howled over Frederika's walls and around the corners of the city's building and down its narrow streets and dark alleyways.

The army rested for the attack that would start at dawn. Jinolio woke Lorist at three. He had something to eat and donned his armor. Shuss, Reidy, and Els joined him soon afterwards, all clad in light-gray fur. Black veils covered their eyes and white masks their faces. White capes dangled behind their backs.

The skies were gray-black outside. The snow danced in a rowdy wind that howled down the mountainside into the valley and out onto the plains beyond. Every breath froze the lungs and men tough as tigers shivered like rattlesnakes in the cold.

Lorist stomped on the ground and took in a few deep breaths. Looking at the figures moving about in the camp, he asked, "You ready?"

His three companions nodded.

"Then let's go."

The four spectres slid through the white wasteland, heading for a pale-gray horizon broken up every so often by pale-gray protrusions that reached into the sky. They covered in half an hour what mortal men could only in a day and a half.

The only upside to a winter siege here was that the moat was frozen solid and covered by snow. Two months from now it would be an insurmountable obstacle to any besieger, but now it did not exist at all. It vanished beneath the snow and beneath the four spectres' skis and was behind them in a moment.

The horizon had vanished now, replaced by a solid mass of gray stone that stretched into the heavens. Lorist listened for any movement, but could hear only his own breathing and heartbeat, and the lonely howl of the wind. The four removed their skis. Each took two short black daggers from their backpacks and prepared to scale the wall.

A thin layer of ice covered the walls. However, the daggers infused with Dark Stage force dug into the walls like they were leather. A slight push was all it took to dig the blade into the stone.

When they were about to reach the top, footsteps sunk into snow above. The patrol. Luckily no one was willing to expose his face to the cold in order to check the walls below, so the four remained undetected. They didn't even talk.

They had just passed where the four were climbing when Lorist vaulted over the top and landed right behind them. He matched their march and followed onwards. The rearmost guard noticed the extra set of footsteps and turned to look, only to feel a coldness puncture his chest halfway through. His body turned limped, and he collapsed soundless.

Lorist followed the patrol all the way to the tower, unnoticed. As the leader of the thirty strong patrol reached the door, Lorist dashed forward, felling a man with each step he took, to come up behind the man and his torch-bearer as he opened the door.

The floor was split in two. The one in which Lorist was now, was a passage that continued on to the other side while the other spiraled into a staircase. It should have been guarded by two men, but the gold had bested them and there were off somewhere warm, napping. The pair thought nothing of the sentries' absence. They charged at the nearest brazier to warm themselves.

"You guys should warm up, too. We'll continue short--"

The last word stuck in the man's throat. He saw none of his men behind him, only a tall, black shadow like death itself in the doorway.

"You..."

Swords flashed brightly as the captain and his compatriot rushed at the shadow. It stepped forward and hoisted the two bodies into the air before gently lowering them into a corner, careful not to disturbed the others nearby.

Reidy and Els showed up at the doorway as it did that.

"Where's Shuss?" asked Lorist.

Reidy pointed to the tower on the opposite end of the gate.

Lorist nodded.

"Let's continue with the plan."

Both nodded. Reidy picked up the torch and followed Els out of the tower, twirling it twice. The gray abyss beyond the wall squirmed like a pit of worms. One shadow after another stepped out of the void and hug the wall. Els dropped a rope down the wall and the shadows began to ascend the wall one by one. The first shadow to reach the top of the wall was Josk, followed by two guards carrying two more ropes. Soon, three ropes hung down the walls and the number of shadows escaping the abyss grew.

Lorist descended the stairs and exited the tower onto the walls, blood running down the stairs behind him. The twelve soldiers on the three upper floors had been snoring like dogs, the arrow slits boarded up. It would not be surprising if even lightning could not wake them. No lookouts mounted the roof either. The walls themselves were completely deserted, their supposed occupants clustered around the islands of warmth that dotted the edge of the world. The fifty Lorist had come across thus far, all went to Singwa's welcome embrace quietly and peacefully.

Reidy prepared to move onto the next tower and start his trek along the walls, Els was descending the tower to clear the gate.

"Hold on. Let me take the gate. Els, go with Reidy. Pretend to be a patrol so you can get in without issue."

Reidy's eyes flashed, and he quickly gathered 40 guards and lined them into two rows. Torch in hand, he marched with Els to the next tower. Around thirty men remained with Lorist, whom he had take up positions in the tower. More continued to pour out of the darkness. None made a sound as they climbed into the wall. SIlently, the continued into the tower.

A shadow emerged from the tower at the other end of the barbican, twirling a torch twice. Lorist let out a relieved sigh.

"Thirty of you, cross the barbican and take up position in the other tower. Also, ask Blademaster Shuss whether he'll attack the next tower. If he will, we'll send someone over to back him up," instructed Lorist.

The 30 guards dashed across soundlessly.

The guards were getting onto the walls too slowly.

"Joe, stand guard here. I'll take the gate now. Send the men down on my signal."

Though his personal guards were far more capable than Tigersoar or Firmrock's men, Lorist worried that bringing them down the walls would alert the enemy. He planned to take the gate himself.

He descended the spiral staircase within the tower. It emerged right behind the gate. He poked his head out carefully, but realized there were no guards, only a large bonfire. It was already dead, only a thin trail of smoke disappeared into the gray sky from the ashes.

"Hey, you, what are you doing, looking around as you get down from the walls?" rebuked a voice from the gatehouse.

"Ah, nothing much," Lorist said as he headed for the gate, "The captain told me to get him something to eat."

"Oh, go check if there's anything by the bonfire. Maybe some sweet potatoes haven't been eaten yet," said the voice, "Oh, and bring me some as well!"

Lorist made his way to the bonfire next to the gatehouse and peeked inside. Inside were 20 slumbering sentries. The one closest the door must be the one who'd just seen him. He leaned against the wall lazily, clutching a blanket to him shiveringly. A pretty decent idea. The garrison could sleep in the gatehouse warmed by the fire outside it while still technically manning their posts. It was killing two birds with one stone.

He slowly unsheathed his sword. The moment the tip left the scabbard, a horn sounded from the walls. The horn only blew for a moment before it was abruptly silenced.

The soldier leaning against the wall started.

"The alarm! Get up you idiots!" roared he.