Black Flood: A Tale of the Trolloc Wars [Complete]

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halfhand
Posts: 106
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

Re: Black Flood: A Tale of the Trolloc Wars

Post by halfhand » Mon Oct 05, 2020 8:09 pm

Chapter Nineteen: The Fog of Dreams

The shadows stalked Stef Reimos. Wherever he turned, he could see a blur of motion at the edge of his eyes. But, when he turned to look, he only saw murky mist. The shadows taunted him with shrieking voices with words almost recognizable but alien in meanings. Fingers of cold touched him, scratching at him with banshee cries. Stef felt trapped in a vortex of murky haze; every direction was the same, like an impenetrable prison wall. And the shadows followed.

Stef drew his sword and turned to face the shadow creature. It was a figure of swirling black smoke, and it did not run this time. A shadow sword appeared in its hand, and Stef thought he detected a sneer on the faceless visage.

Stef struck forth and was parried aside by the ethereal blade. The two combatants fought forward and back, swords colliding in silence. Back and forth. The shadow man knew all of Stef’s moves, blocking all of his advances. Stef had a difficult time following the movement of the assailant, whose edges blurred into the background.

And as they fought, the mist shrieked in Stef’s ears, tendrils of dread curling around his skin. Unseen eyes watched and waited, unseen hands grabbing at him. Stef recoiled from the grasping wisps of shadows, his sword swinging frantically. The shadow man kept advancing, the fog around him becoming solid, trapping Stef in an opaque prison. Stef felt like he was strangling, the fog choking his lungs. He clawed at the walls of his prison, his sword cutting harmlessly through the air.

He spun around in a desperate lunge, his sword cutting through his opponent armor and helmet effortlessly. The head of the shadow man fell, its body dissipating into the mist. Stef glanced down at the decapitated head, whose features began to appear, and shift like hot wax to a face so familiar. It was Tayren. The figure's eyes locked on his and grabbed his tunic with bloodied hands.

"Burn it, Stef." Tayren grunted, his hands warding off Stef’s blow.

Stef sat up, shaking his head clear of drowsiness. His head was stained with sweat, and his clothes stuck wetly to his skin. The last vestige of the nightmare slowly faded away, but it left a bitter taste behind.

"Bad dream?" Tayren seemed to sneer in the colorless light. He offered a hand and helped pull Stef up.

"Yeah. Yeah, you could say that." Stef stretched his cramped muscles. His legs and arms were sore, and his hands felt numb from lost circulation.

"I'm surprised you actually slept last night." Tayren grunted, picking up Stef’s crumpled cloak and tossing it to him, "Most of the camp was up. Night terrors, phantasms, what have you. I was up all night, and I was ready to kill you for being able to sleep half the time, ya bastard."

"Well, I was always a deep sleeper." Stef glanced at the black circles under Tayren's eyes, "But I didn't get much rest anyway. So what was your dream?"

Tayren eyed Stef, "Dreams be a man’s own business."

Stef shrugged it off and glanced around to see his squad doing final checks on their equipment, "So are we moving off?"

Tayren glanced at the sun high in the sky, "Yeah, orders just came around. The siege begins. You get three guesses at what we drew, and the first two guesses don't count."

"Light, damn the generals! Front lines?"

"Your favorite." Tayren scrubbed at his unkempt hair and gave a toothy but halfhearted grin.

Stef cursed but accepted his accursed fate, "Alright, get the squad going. The earlier we get in position, the earlier we can resume duty as honorable meat shield."

With that, the men of Stef’s squad finished decamping and moved towards the waiting lip of Thakan'dar. Messengers and mounted soldiers raced around, delivering last-minute notices, jostling Stef and earning his curses. One of those notices found his hand, which he tossed away after a brief glance.

"Alright, looks like Zephyr Hawk's taking the middle of three vans. We are that bloody spearhead, my friends. The first in the foray, the first out dead," Stef bellowed, "Any men with a problem with that, petition the new shiny commander of ours and see how that works out."

Stef found a spot in the middle van and found he was afforded a considerable view of the valley of Thakan'dar arrayed before. To his estimation, it was about three leagues long: three leagues of blind combat, the worst kind. Visibility and communications will be at a minimum, placing the Band at a horrible disadvantage. Another Getty's Tomb, with half the visibility and double the danger.

Horns began to signal, which Stef at first thought to be the starting signal. Before he signaled his men forward though, he noticed mounted horsemen approaching.

They were considerably armored, but were generally arrayed like the light cavalry. However, what was most surprising was that they were the generals, save for the Thunderlord. As they approached the front of the vans, they split up, each spreading among the front of the foot soldiers. Right before Stef, the gaunt figure of Drogan Trystan glanced down at his Legion along with the striking face of Lawe Cathon.

"We will be riding with you this day." Cathon spoke simply, "At the front lines. In the time of Arad when Jara'Copan came under siege, stood the Seven Gatekeepers of the Seven Gates of the Seven Hills. Now, in the time of Aemon, this is our gate, and we will lead you through."

There was a brief silence before the soldiers erupted in cheers. Even cynical Stef was taken aback. Maybe the generals ain’t half bad.

Cathon raised a hand to quiet the Band. When silence fell again, Cathon raised his sword and pointed at Shayol Ghul, "That is our destination. We cross through Thakan'dar. That path is Bekkar, our Field of Blood. Tonight we will burn the Black Bastion down."

With that, he spun his horse and trotted forth down towards the valley. Four generals followed, and their trot kicked into a gallop. The Band roared with a battle cry and trailed their leaders, a mass of red pouring down into Thakan'dar, melting into the veil of fog.

Stef shouted as he raced down the incline, his gladius raised. He stepped into the shroud of Thakan'dar and stumbled. The fog was a choking blanket whose touch was cold, as cold as death could be imagined. It was a suffocating shield that threatened the sanity of any who entered. It was the fog of his nightmare.

He froze for a second, before the sight of the red-cloaked back of General Trystan caught his eyes. The fog almost seemed to be retreating away from the vicinity of the general, giving almost an aura of clarity around Trystan and his horse. With the general as Stef’s only land-mark, he had no choice but to trail the blurred colors of the general. The other soldiers followed accordingly, spurred on by their commanders' lead.

Through the haze they slogged silently, discipline keeping fear at bay. Just as Stef was beginning to wonder about the lack of resistance, the muffled haunting drumbeats of the Trollocs began to permeate sporadically through Thakan'dar.

The muted sound of clashing steel was Stef’s first warning. He almost crashed into a Trolloc in the fog, but recovered first and gutted the shadowspawn with a fast draw. The battle of Bekkar was on.

In the low visibility, squads stuck together hacking away at periodic resistance, and followed behind the generals leading the way. To Stef, it seemed all so surreal. The Black Miasma did much in strangling any sound and one could only see the bare snatches of movement in the thick fog, giving it a substance of fantasy. It was like his nightmare, except this threatened his very life, and the denizens of this place was corporeal flesh and rending steel.

Zephyr Hawk Legion blew through the first wave of Shadowspawn like an avenging tempest. General Trystan never faltered in his drive and the Legion kept pace with him. This spearhead led the way for the other legions, which tore through any survivors, cold blades flashing through hot blood.

Stef grew almost complacent, his attacks became mechanical. Slice, thrust. Slice, thrust. Slice, thrust. His eyes drew to its usual tunnel vision, and he allowed his body to take command.

A dark shape rose high through the fog in the distance. A big shape. It rose sinuously to a towering height and more serpentine figures swelled up beside it.

General Trystan slowed, his horse struggled and rearing uncontrollably, and the men crawling to a halt beside.

Stef approached cautiously, his swords raised at the ready. A brief eddy in the fog gave the Band of Red Hand a brief murky view of their new foe. They were massive worm-like creatures towering high up in the sky, breaking even through the roof of the fog. Stef thought he could see the gleam of beady eyes and a shimmering something that looked too much like teeth. Down its side were rows of spikes, attached with chains that spilled down the side to the hands of a multitude of straining Trollocs. The handlers yanked and pulled at the chains, striving to keep the huge beasts in control. A force of chain and one of the creatures struck down at the advancing Band with its massive coils. Soldiers dived away as the creature's hide slammed down. Those who could not get out of their way were crushed under the massive bulk. Brief curving motions showed arrows showering the bulk, but they disappeared into the skin, doing no visible damage. More of those creatures began to strike, pounding heavily at the Band.

"JUMARA!" Trystan shouted, "Cut it to pieces!"

"Not that simple, General." Stef grumbled to himself under his breath, then immediately leaped back as a massive coil slammed into the ground by him, shaking the earth. A strange whistling shrieked from somewhere in the fog, and Stef groaned to himself, wondering what other creature was about to be unleashed upon them.

A fast-moving dark shape curved through the air above Stef, and slammed into the ranks of the Jumara handlers.

"Good ol Thunder Lord." Stef muttered to himself. The path of the giant boulder had cleared a brief gap in the fog, showing the chaos in the Trolloc ranks. The boulder had buried around three squads of handlers, and severed many more chains. The Jumara had taken that opportunity to flex its body, and pulled away from its surviving slavers. It snapped the remnants of its chains, sending bodies flying through the air. Freed, it turned its attention to its tormentors, its coils slamming down upon the Trollocs amidst Band cheers.

"Follow my lead!" Stef shouted, "This is our window."

Stef and his squad raced forward, as the renegade Jumara howled and struck at the Trollocs who were attempting to loop chains around it. Stef ran at a crouch, hoping the fog would cover the relatively small movement of his squad. He approached the closest chained Jumara, his heart racing.

Stef’s squad burst upon the handlers, swords dealing out death with the occupied Trollocs. The guards were quickly dispatched, and the humans began to work on the handlers. Some of the muscled handlers let loose their chains to draw weapons, but that worked to Stef’s plan as well. The Jumara sensing its lax chains followed its struggling kin's lead, and pulled free.

Stef waved his men off, as the Jumara struggled free, its bulk dealing massive damage against the closest creatures. The chains still attached to its skin became deadly whips, which could easily crack bones and smash skulls.

A boulder slammed into another Jumara. The creature, fueled by pain and fury, shivered off its chains and captors, and raged against any mortals within range. The struggles of the Jumaras snapped the chains from their enslaved kin, and soon the Trolloc advance lines became a slaughterhouse of shadowspawn, as massive coils slammed back and forth, as nearly all the monsters were liberated. Unfortunately, this slaughterhouse was also centered over Stef’s squad.

Stef signaled frantically to his men as the Jumaras' insane thrashing pummeled the ground all around the sergeant and his squad. With the fog obscuring everything to shadows, a shadowy blur was the only warning for a giant coil slamming down. Such a blur flashed above Stef’s head, and he ducked for the ground. He felt the woosh of a large coil passing over his head, and felt the ground buckle underneath him as the bulk made contact with the earth, slamming his chin into the ground. He tasted blood in his mouth where he had bit his tongue, but he shook off the pain.
He broke silence, shouting, "BACK! BACK TO OUR LINES NOW!"

A roar boomed high over his head and black shadows descended on the sergeant. He scrambled to his feet and began to race in the general direction of the Band's line, then threw himself sideways as a black shadow appeared over him, and resolved into the flesh of a Jumara. It slammed into the earth, its fall pushing the fog away long enough for Stef to glimpse deep red gashes scoring its skin. The Trollocs were attempting to kill the out-of control Jumaras. The creature still had life in it, as it thrashed back and forth, its chains beating the ground like a drum.

Something hissed down at Stef, who instinctively raised his sword arm to shield his face. Pain racked through his left arm as something hard smashed into and coiled around his arm. Time seemed to slow down as Stef gazed at the black chain wrapped around his extended arm. Then the Jumara twitched away, the chain wrapped around his arm withdrew with powerful force.

Stef felt the sudden jerk as he was yanked forward by his trapped arm for a second. But only for a second. Then he felt terrible pain. Fires consumed his arm, eating away at his entire body, chewing through every nerve.

He screamed, but the fog swallowed his voice.

For an instant, he felt all the pain in the world, liberating him from his body. He felt the pain of all the orphans in Manetheren. The pain of all the widows. The pain of the dead and dying that littered the Band's journey from the Mountain Home to the Land's End. The total pain of his life and suffering. The total pain of the war.

He could suffer no longer. The fire ate all that it could consume.

He welcomed the darkness.

halfhand
Posts: 106
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

Re: Black Flood: A Tale of the Trolloc Wars

Post by halfhand » Wed Oct 07, 2020 9:52 am

Chapter Twenty: Honor, Valor, and Liberty


Diest Arcanum shielded his eyes with a hand, and called up towards the top of the siege trebuchet, "How's she holding up?"

"The hoists had been reinforced, General," Captain Nosi replied as he eased off the ladder that crept up the tall side of Honor, "I thought she was going to fold for a moment there."

In mid-arc, the giant trebuchet had snapped some of the rope supports nailed to the ground. The wooden structure had teetered on the edge of falling, threatening to crush everyone beneath and throwing off those who were perched upon it. It just managed to stabilize as the engineers managed to sever its load. The boulder had misfired, but thank the Creator and Caldazar, had plowed harmlessly away from Thunder legion. Nosi's corps had immediately sprang into action and seemed to have corrected the problem.

The other two Idylls were still firing away, boulders arching across Thakan'dar, just ahead of the Band's position. Arcanum could not see any aspects of the battles of Bekkar, due to the Black Miasma, and had to rely blindly on messengers to relay the positions of the men, one of whom was now arriving.

The messenger skirted the perimeter lines and halted upon seeing the general.

"What of those creatures, the Jumara?" Arcanum called.

"Your volley did much damage, as did the courage of many soldiers." The messenger took a deep drink from his canteen and wiped the sweat from his face, "They have turned against their owners, and we have broken their lines. The first van is about two leagues forward, the flanking vans right behind. The Marshall-General estimates we will recover for that delay. The first wave of the wounded will arrive here soon. Cathon asks that the Gates of Night be down by the time the first van wipes its feet on the doormat."

"You shall have your opening." Arcanum waved for a remount.

An attendant quickly arrived with a fresh horse for the messenger and led off the exhausted steed. The messenger gave a salute to Arcanum and galloped back down into Thakan'dar, immediately swallowed up by the fog.

"HIT THE GATES WITH ALL YOU HAVE!" Arcanum shouted. He was answered by Valor who sent her missiles curving towards the black fortress. Arcanum squinted at its progress, then pulled out his new watch-glass, recently refurbished by Nosi. He peered through and nodded agreeably.

The boulders smashed into the high arched gate, which Arcanum presumed to be the entrance. They crumbled upon collision with the foreboding iron, spraying the ground with a shower of rocks. An explosion of sound announced Liberty's shot which slammed into a black tower some distances above the gates. The black stone yielded to the barrage, and the tower crumpled down, leaving an angry wound. The hit seemed to have stirred up clouds of thick dust that seemed to hang in the air.

And still hang in the air. And rapidly was growing larger. A black cloud driving rapidly over the valley towards the hill where the Idylls approached, thick with fluttering black creatures.

"Ravens!" Arcanum realized, "Entire flocks of them!"

Arcanum was quite familiar with the sight of shadoweyes, for the aftermath of a battlefield was completely infested with the black scavengers. But, he had never seen as many as the ones approaching now. There had to be millions upon millions.

"Nosi! Are there any more reserve naph or even pitch?"

"Last drops burned away at Burning Rivers. How many birds are we talking about?" Nosi exclaimed.

"Enough to coat the sun with black vengeance." Arcanum knew the damage a flock of shadoweyes this large could do. Sharp beaks that could pluck out eyeballs and draw skin and flesh from the bones.

"Should we maintain our positions?" Nosi asked, studying the approaching cloud objectively.

"Get your men off the Idylls. They'll be helpless targets up there." Arcanum began bellowing, "ALL ARCHERS FORM FRONT. NOW!"

"We have some visored helmets in our armory, perhaps enough for this legion." Nosi noted.

"Get them," Arcanum replied. Archers raced forward from their perimeter positions, crouching at the front of the Idylls. The earth shook as the engineers on Liberty unhitched its load, dropping the boulders down below. Men began to scurry down the massive trebuchets as fast as they could.

Arcanum moved toward the archery lines. He was flanked by a squad of Arbalest-bearing guards, or Arbies, as the men had taken to calling it. But the Arbie bolts would not fare well against the small, agile shadoweyes, and would only prove cumbersome. Yet, with the ravens bunched so close, it would be nearly impossible to miss. As the general studied the lines, he knew that there were not enough archers to keep the flocks at bay. He doubted all the archers in the Grand-Legion could even dent that black cloud. He had only placed footmen and archers in one Banner of the Thunder Legion as an afterthought, just enough to protect his precious siege engines. The legion may pay for that oversight now.
Arcanum brought his steel visor down, leaving a slit of visibility. He hated having his vision hindered, but he would probably hate having his eyeball torn out even more. Spare helmets found their ways through the ranks, and the soldiers quickly donned them, as the thick cloud of shadoweyes descended.

The ravens blocked out the sun, casting a black shadow over the soldiers. Arrows took flight and avian bodies tumbled downwards. Then the ravens dove, and everything dissolved into chaos. Arcanum drew his sword as the world around him descended into sharp beaks and fluttering wings. He sliced at his attackers, but they surrounded him, attaching to his arms and torsos with sharp talons. Beaks drew blood, snapping at any exposed skin. As Arcanum flailed blindly at his assailants, he ruefully reflected that perhaps the visor didn't hinder his vision, since they were truly nothing to see but blackness. Then he felt more than saw the hesitations of the ravens, which after their initial strike, began to avoid Arcanum, fluttering away and colliding with their brethrens. Arcanum clutched the Shell hanging from his neck, thrusting it out and the ravens shrieked away as if it was a blinding torch.

His steel breastplate and hard leather absorbed most of the meager shadoweyes' strikes, but he knew the lightly-armored archers would not be lucky. He could feel resistance to his sword sporadically as swung, hewing through wings and hollow-boned bodies. But, he could see nothing and hear nothing, as the air was saturated with the piercing calls of the shadoweyes.

Then a sudden rise in heat drew beads of sweat on Arcanum's face. A bright flash scoured the air, and the air was filled with burning feathers. Hot objects struck Arcanum from above, and he realized they were the still burning corpses of the ravens. When he felt no more attacks by sharp beaks, Arcanum raised his visor and gazed around amazedly.

The ground was littered with layers upon layers of charred avian corpses, emanating a sour-burnt stench that filled the generals' nostrils. The soldiers were also gazing at the ground in surprise, then glancing at their arms, blood streaming down from their wounds and slashes. Corpses of men also laid sporadically, so mutilated that Arcanum felt his gorge rising. A body nearby belonged to someone who had not received a helmet, and needless to say, much of his face was stripped of flesh, exposing the macabre grin of the skull.

The surviving ravens fluttered above, confused and dazed, still enough to blanket the sun. Then they found renewed courage, believing the worst was over, and the creatures shrieked back down. Intense ropes of fire flayed up and burning feathers drifted down.

The remaining unscorched ravens hung hesitantly in the sky, when suddenly they were set upon by an opposing swarm of deadly birds. Arcanum recognized peregrine falcons and red-tailed hawks, solo hunters that would never be found flocking, let alone so deep in the Blasted Lands. Against the deadly claws of the sky raptors, the shadoweyes might as well be fat, blind pigeons, dissolving instantly in the ruthless onslaught. The unlikely assortment of avian predators disappeared as quickly as they appeared, leaving the sky clear once more except for a haze of drifting feathers.

Confused at the spectacle but relieved nonetheless, Arcanum looked to the source of the flames, to see the swaying figure of Airena Sedai who had arrived on scene. Then she gasped and crumpled. Warder flowed forward, and caught the sagging Aes Sedai in his arms. Arcanum raced forward, burnt corpses crunching underneath his steps. Her face was pale, and her small frame spasmed slightly, but her eyes were open and seeing.

"The pain..." She murmured, "Backlash..."

Warder silently lifted her into his arms and raised his visored head to Arcanum, "She will be unable to fight today."

A helmeted soldier with the band of a healer studied her ashen face, "She is in shock. She will need rest."

"Take good care of her, Warder. She saved all our bloody lives today." Arcanum said. The Warder nodded slowly and removed something from Airena's slack fingers. It looked to the General to be a glass figurine of a pair of doves in flight. Then Warder carried her delicately towards her tent.

"We will set the healing stations here." The medic removed his dented helmet and tossed it to the ground. The wounded soldiers began to pour in, either limping with the aid of comrades or carried in on make-shift stretchers.

"Amazing, how such tiny creatures can do such great harm." Nosi remarked, staring down at his own helmet, which showed scratches and even dents from the assault. His left arm was completely bound by bandages, which already were stained by blood. A dark red wound graced near his nose from a lucky peck through the visor, barely an inch away from his left eye.

"Can your men return to duty?" Arcanum glanced down at his own arm. The Shell had seemingly protected him from grievous wounds. But much of his hard leather was pitted with holes, and he could feel stings of thousands of lacerations on his arms and legs. He could feel a dull pain in his left hand and had difficulty flexing his ring finger. A raven must have severed a tendon.

"They have already returned." Nosi replied, and his words were punctuated by the CRACK of Valor's counter-balance slamming down, sending its load forward.

"It is bloody lucky that the Aes Sedai stayed with us instead of joining the main force." Also lucky that they had some unlikely friends in the sky. Arcanum’s mind flashed to the glass figurine in the Aes Sedai’s hand. He shook his head and pulled out his watch-glass to follow the trajectory of Valor’s missile. The glass was broken.

After waiting for Arcanum to finish his curses, Nosi replied, "Yes, but it seems that even this close to the Dark Lord's domain, she cannot use the One Power without terrible pain. And with her out of commission, we will be unable to withstand another attack like that. "

"Then we'd better pray that's the last of them. Or else we will be forced to set an Idyll on fire."

CRACK!

"General!" A soldier called out, drawing Arcanum's attention.

A man, who would be the right age for Arcanum's son if he had had one, approached, carrying an unconscious form in his arms.

"We found this soldier near the southern perimeter. His horse was dead of exhaustion. And I suspect he's falling to the same fate. He's been calling for the Marshall General." The soldier explained, setting his burden gently on the ground.

"Bring water." Arcanum kneeled beside the prostate figure. The soldier nodded and ran off.

Arcanum brushed aside the long dark tresses that covered the face, and saw the mixture of dried blood and sweat carving rivers through the caked dirt. Blood also stained much of the soldier's black-red cloak, not a cloak of the Band of Red Hand. The uniform was frayed, but Arcanum immediately recognized it. The dark red cloak and armor, an accoutrement he had not seen in a very long time. He startled, and then studied the face.

CRACK!

The soldier returned with a filled canteen. Arcanum took the leather skin and slowly dribbled water into the slack and cracked mouth.

"Is it...?" Nosi leaned over, his eyes opening in recognition.

"Yes, our friend here is a she. Valdar Cuebiyari. A Heart Guard. Aemon's personal guardians." Arcanum agreed. The woman coughed, and her eyes fluttered open slowly.

"My squad…last of my squad." The woman did not see the soldiers leaning over her, her clear blue eyes staring at the sky, "Manetheren. Manetheren calls…"

She raised one arm, reaching for a leather-pack she wore on her belt. Her bare sun-scorched hand wavered, then fell. Her eyes saw nothing. Not even the sky.

Arcanum gently closed her eyes with two gentle fingers and poured the rest of the water on her face, washing clear the blood and sweat of her last journey for her King. It was a pretty face, but a worn face. He slowly opened the pouch and pulled out a single sheath of paper, crumpled and spotted with blood. He stood up, and the soldier who had brought her covered her body with the silver-edged cloak of the Heart Guard.

CRACK!

"Blood of Manetheren forever. May Caldazar carry you on its back to the Land of your fathers. Land of Arad. You have done your duty for the Waters of the Mountain Home. Return in peace. Aetern." Arcanum whispered.

CRACK!

Then a roaring cheer came from the soldiers by the Three Idyll. And Arcanum knew. The Gates of Night had fallen to the onslaught of Honor, Valor, and Liberty. The way was open for the Band of Red Hand. The destruction of the Fortress of Shayol Ghul was nigh.

Arcanum stood, silent and brooding. He studied the paper slowly. He read it twice. He glanced at the seal of the Red Eagle. The signature. The crest. Yes, it was genuine. He felt both numbness and pain flowing through his body, as if a hand had encircled his heart and squeezed.

"General, the hinges of the Gates have been knocked free, and the corrupted iron now hangs wide! What are your orders?" A voice called from the direction of the Trebuchets.

Arcanum closed his eyes and ignored the question. Finally, he turned to the young soldier who stood reverie over the Heart Guard, "Get all of our messengers. Call back the Generals. Tell them to return now."

"Sir?"

"You will tell them that Manetheren is under attack."
Last edited by halfhand on Sun Oct 18, 2020 2:19 pm, edited 1 time in total.

halfhand
Posts: 106
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

Re: Black Flood: A Tale of the Trolloc Wars

Post by halfhand » Wed Oct 07, 2020 11:41 am

Chapter Twenty-One: Judgment Siege

"FORWARD!" Cathon called, his sword flashing red against the throat of a surprised Trolloc. The beast pitched backward, trampled under Cathon's black steed. The soldiers had hit a line of solid resistance, but with enough hammering the Band would soon smash through. Nothing mattered, for the news was on every soldier’s mind: the Gates of Night had fallen.

The Black Miasma shrouded the battle, muffling the howls of rage and the screams of pain. It was ethereal, the lives of men and beasts dying in near silence, strangled by a silent fog. It was a cold battle, where the heat of blood and sweat were robbed of their heat immediately upon touching the air. It occurred to Cathon that it was not an entirely healthy experience for anyone to be in this mist.

But yet, the fog shied away from the general, occasional tendrils probing but withdrawing as if stunned. An aura of clear air surrounded him, and contrasting with the translucent mist, made him glow in brightness. Naturally, that drew both friendly soldiers rallying to his blade and shadow fiends drawn inexorably to the lodestone.

A ghastly face lunged out of the shadows, but Cathon smoothly shifted his blade back and scored a mortal blow between the Trolloc's plate armor. He withdrew his sword with the soft hissing of acidic blood boiling on the metal. He was glad he finally consented to Airene’s healing after she aggressively cornered him before the battle, as he otherwise would be struggling painfully to breathe by now.

Then the shadows ahead coalesced into another shadow, a shadow that stalked with the suppleness of a hooded viper. A creature Cathon had fought and killed many times, but one who he will never underestimate. One with the gaze of Fear.

The Myrddraal flowed forward, black sword already stained with the life of mortals. Another shadow detached from the mist besides the dark rider, a second one.

Trollocs and soldiers clashed beside, but in this struggle there were only three: the Marshall General and the two Myrddraal.
In silence they met, and in silence, swords flashed in a macabre dance. Cathon engaged with the training of a First Lord of Manetheren, considered by some to be as good as a blademaster, but with others sneered off as aristocratic caprice. Regardless, against two fades, he soon found himself barely surviving as his opponents struck with perfect synchronization.

Back and back, Cathon was pressed, warding off blows that were too quick to be seen by mundane eyes, but which could rend immediately through a soul's mortal coil. Hard hits rained down upon the forge-hardened Manetheren steel, spinning dully through the murk. No existing man could match a fade in strength since the death of the giant-race, nor match the cursed luck of their dark Master. At least not by himself. For Cathon remembered that he did not fight alone, for Caldazar flew with him.

Renewed strength flooded his veins, and his sword arched out, meeting hard resistance for a bare moment. Then his sword touched air once more, and the head of the Fade toppled to the ground.

Then the general's warhorse keened and crumbled. The other Fade had struck even as his kin died in silence, his poisoned sword slicing through sinew and jugular, bringing the horse to its end.

Cathon hit the ground hard, his sword skidding across the hard ground, kicking up winks of blue sparks and disappearing into the fog. Pain shot up his legs as the heavy weight of his horse landed hard upon him, pinning him fast.

The shadowspawn dismounted slowly and approached the trapped general. Cathon tried to call out, but his voice was stolen by the fall. He glanced up at the eyeless face peering down, and he felt the tremors of fear encroaching upon his mind.

"I will enjoy this." The fade twisted its mouth into a semblance of a sneer, his voice like rotting leather. But there was an echo of a duplicate voice, as if another presence was riding in its head. "You have been quite a nuisance, General Lawe Cathon, First Lord of Annoyance."

A black gauntlet dropped to the ground besides Cathon, and a pale hand wrapped tight around the man's throat, tightening in an impossible steel vice. Cathon grasped the fade's arm, but the muscles were taut as iron and as unyielding. Black dots began to infuse his vision as the grip slowly closed.

Caldazar! Cathon attempted to cry, I call upon your aid. Caldazar!

Cathon felt his strength leaving him and his visions fading into nothing. The crusade was lost. Lost to him.

A familiar shriek sounded somewhere in the mists of his mind. The call of an eagle that carried the heart of Manetheren in its breast.

For the last defense of Manetheren. Cathon grasped the dangling Shell of Caldazar and slammed it into the flesh of the Fade.

The result was immediate. The hand jerked from his throat and the Fade drew back, falling to the ground, his scream swallowed by Thakan'dar. A spiritual force smoked out from the back of Fade’s head, resolving briefly into an ethereal face with flickering flames for eyes and mouth, before it faded into fog. That would be Cathon’s first and only glimpse of the Adversary he had been pursuing. The injured Myrrdraal crawled away towards his horse, but he would never make it, for the wound was fatal.

Cathon coughed, drawing in deep breaths, but his visions were still darkened with spots. Fire burnt his lungs and raced up his throat. His head was still dazed from near-death, and he could not grasp conscious thought until brief moments later. He could only lie there in the cold mist, breathing heavily into the fog. The smell of burning oil emanated from his medallion, and the entire front was scored char-black. But ever slowly, the black steamed away in a noxious cloud, leaving the Timari with its original brilliance.

He braced his arms against the hard rock and tried to pull himself out, but the horse was too heavy and his strength was still weak. He could still feel his legs, which he took as a good sign, and gave thanks to Caldazar once more, but that was the end of his luck. He was trapped somewhere in the battlefield and he could not count upon the arrogance of a next passing shadowspawn.

"General! General Cathon is that you!" A muffled but distinctively human voice called through the fog.

"Over here!" Cathon shouted.

A man took shape in the fog, almost stumbling over the general. Seeing the general's predicament, he quickly braced his shoulder against the horse's corpse, strained, and heaved it up just enough for Cathon to pull himself from underneath.

"Are you alright, sir?" The soldier asked.

"Yes, thank you," Cathon dusted off his cloak and stumbled to his feet. There was a stabbing pain in his legs, but slowly dulled to a gentle ache. Not broken. "How goes the battle, man?"

"We've...we've broken through the last lines. But, sir..."

"All the vans?"

"Yes, sir. But I bear a message from General Arcanum. It is imperative that you return to camp. To headquarters." The man relayed.

"What is-"

"Cathon!" Murky figures appeared, coalescing into the figures of Diest Arcanum and the rest of the generals, with a detachment of dirt and blood-stained guards.

"Arcanum, what is this? Should you not be manning the Idylls?" Cathon questioned, his brows raised in alarm.

"I think it is best if I told you in person." Arcanum spoke softly. The entire command staff stood beside him, grim.

"What has happened?" Cathon grew alarmed.

Arcanum tossed a piece of paper, yellowed and stained, to Cathon. The Marshall-General's hand touched the broken seal of the royal signet, and then unfurled the paper with an unsteady hand.

To the Marshall-General of the Grand Legion of Manetheren,

Manetheren is in the path of a massive Trolloc Horde, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and led by many Dark Generals. We are in a dire circumstance and extreme peril. By order of the Hierarchy of Manetheren, the Grand Legion of Manetheren is called back to serve the Mountain Home in its defense.

Aemon al Caar al Thorin, High King of Manetheren, Warden of the Mountain Hall, Keeper of the Shells of Caldazar

Cathon looked up then began to slowly read the message again, a message that had just destroyed the hopes of the Covenant, a message that held his heart in a grip stronger than the Fade's.

"We must return." Arcanum growled softly.

"We have come too far to go back." Cathon kept his voice steady, "We have broken through their remaining lines. We can end it here now. Listen to me, Diest." The Adversary's ethereal face still burned in his memory. They were so close.

"It is Manetheren, Cathon! Not Mafal Dadaranell, MANETHEREN!" Arcanum's eyes hardened.

"Give me one day and one night. One day and one night. To end the war here, and march back home with something to show."

"One day more? One day more that the Horde camps upon our land. Killing our people. Burning our fields. Poisoning our homes. Do you think we would still have a home? We head back now, Lawe."

"Is this mutiny then?" Cathon said wearily.

"We have followed you faithfully into the mouth of Hell itself. But this is the end. By right of The Code, we can overrule your decisions or remove you from your position. You know this." Arcanum lowered his voice. The Code had never been called into action in the history of the Band of Red Hand.

"Is it so? Even you, Bastion?"

"We have a duty to hold for our country, a duty above all else." Vader replied.

"Is it unanimous then?" Cathon sighed, and found he had difficulty breathing. He realized how tired he truly was. His entire body ached and his soul was weary.

Slowly each general nodded: Diest Arcanum, Stren Vader, Drogan Trystan and finally Seth Notar. Only Jot Diadrem was missing. But it mattered not, for the affair was decided.

"Yield, Lawe Cathon. The men are recalled. We return to Manetheren." Arcanum pronounced softly.

"And I thus submit to the Circle of Judgment." Cathon met the hard gazes of the generals, but his words were not tinged with bitterness, though he certainly felt it. All this...all this for nothing. To take the easy road was to turn the bloody job to someone else, but Cathon could not back away from his responsibilities. It was not in his blood, for the only thing that could tear him away would be Death himself. He continued, "But I ask that I remain Marshall General, and I will lead the Band home."

There was a pause.

"So be it." Arcanum turned and melted away into the fog. Each general nodded their consent.

They departed into the Black Miasma, but Lawe Cathon placed a hand on the shoulders of Vader.

"I did what I thought was right, Lawe." The leader of the First Legion turned around, his eyes troubled, "It is our obligation."

"I understand, but why was Diadrem not here to add the finishing nail?"

Vader looked at Cathon for a moment, then said "Diadrem was killed in the first wave. Accidentally shot in the back by an archer through the fog. One of ours. Luck did not favor him this day. The course of the war, is it not? But come, general, we must withdraw, lest a similar fate befall us."

Cathon was not shaken by the demise of Diadrem. The long years of war had left him desensitized to death, the old acquaintance that rides the horse of Luck. Jot Diadrem was a good man, the youngest of them all, and perhaps the most proud. He refused the Shell of Caldazar, but he died by his principle and honor. Death with honor, and thus discharged with all obligations. What other fate could a faithful son ask for? Indeed, duty is heavier than a mountain, and death lighter than a feather. I look forward to that day when my burden can be lifted. But until then, I must bear its weight.

Marshall-General Lawe Cathon walked away from Shayol Ghul and the Adversary and never looked back.

halfhand
Posts: 106
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

Re: Black Flood: A Tale of the Trolloc Wars

Post by halfhand » Wed Oct 07, 2020 12:22 pm

Chapter Twenty-Two: The Butcher's Bill

Stef Reimos groaned, feeling a dull pain echo deep within his head. He blinked against the sharp lines stabbing into his eyes, but could not find a clear vision. He tried to sit up, but found that his left arm did not seem to want to respond. Nausea racked his stomach and his vision dissolved into dark splotches.

"What's bloody wrong with me?" Stef muttered and brought up his left arm and squinted with a bleary eye. It was a bandaged stump, stopping just before the elbow, bound in a thick gauze, stained dark with dried blood.

Then the memories rushed in.

The earth shuddering as the Jumara thrashed in a crazed throe. A flash of light in the fog. The chain wrapped around his upraised arm. The crack of bones breaking. And as the Jumara struggled, it snapped away its chain with deadly force. Then pain. And only pain.

Stef cursed softly, mesmerized by the sight of his arm—or what was left of it. He could almost feel his fingers still...if he wanted to, he could move them, but they escaped his grasp. A lot of things escaped his grasp now. Then he could no longer maintain focus, as the world began to spin around him.

"That's a pretty wound. The name's Danel Sevor, 126th Longbow under Flargen." A soldier lying next to him said. Stef cracked a weary eye to view the soldier who had a blood-stained bandage wrapped around the top of his head.

"Stef Reimos, 50th Light Infantry." The sergeant murmured, still in mute shock.

"You alright? You lost a lot of blood there. The medic didn't think you were going to make it. But the guy that dragged you here was pretty insistent."

Stef turned his head to study the mess of the field hospital. There were no cot or blanket for the injured to lie on--just the soldiers' own cloaks spread over the dirt. The occasional field medics dashed around, and the smell of death and disinfectant was strong, almost overpowering. If it wasn't for the abnormally dry weather in the Blasted Lands, more than half would succumb to lethal infections. Stef then felt the devastating effects of months of hard march, sleep deprivation, undernourishment, and the heavy blood loss.

"I don't...Danel, how goes the battle?" Stef managed to say before lying back down, his head swimming.

"Wish I knew myself. Got taken out during the final wave. But they were some battles we had. I hear you were the ones who got us through those giant worms? I don't know what we would've done if you guys hadn't freed those Jumaras like you did. Probably die horribly.

"It was all confusion after we cracked through. But then, that was the last of the organized resistance, so it was just a matter of hacking through the faces that appeared in the fog. Those beasts were as lost and confused as we were in that soup. But when we came in sight of the wall, a Dreadlord leading a fist intercepted us. They caught us by surprise and nearly ended our march right then and there. But a knot of cavalry reinforcement stumbled on us then too and we quickly turned the tide.

"Then, I swear my heart almost stopped when I saw the Dreadlord raising an arm towards us, and most of us flinched back. I would never forget that image, for I knew that was the last sight I'd probably see. But, it was the oddest sight I've ever been a part to. The fire that left his fingers burned back and consumed his arm and pretty soon his entire body, like he lost control. We left his charred and twitching corpse smoking on the ground, and reached the broken gates.

"Then the next thing I knew, a sharp pain stabbed down on my head, and I woke up here..." Danel droned on.

Stef soon closed his eyes, drowning out the voices, the screams, and the din. Then he felt a hand on his shoulder, and he opened his eyes to glance into his father's eyes.

"Stef, I heard you were here." Jorj Reimos kneeled beside his son. This was the first he had visited his son since T’Eldrene Company had first arrived.

"Da… Jorj... why aren't you fighting...are you injured?"

"The battle's over." Jorj replied softly.

"Then...?" Stef struggled to remember what it meant.

"We have been recalled. Homeward bound."

"We were at the Gates. Why?" The last words trailed off in bitterness.

"As we have struck at the heart of the Shadow, have they struck at the heart of ours. I have heard that the generals acknowledge Manetheren's siege."

"Is this what we are left with? To leave with nothing? I gave my arm for...for nothing?"

"Stef, know that I am as proud of your courage as I am saddened by your sacrifice. But this is a case where my allegiance lies with the Generals. To continue here means perhaps the destruction of the Shadow threat, but it will also mean the destruction of the Mountain Home. The path leads unto mutual annihilation. That is not a path that we take. Call it patriotism, call it nationalism, or call it jingoism. It is the foundation of our beliefs. Certainly, in the annals of history, this might possibly be marked down as the greatest folly of Mankind, if it is not forgotten completely in the dust of time.

"I know that I will never convince you. But without trying, we lose the one thing we have fought for and will continue to fight for. Winning a war does not mean to have killed the enemy. Winning a war means to win the objective. Our objective is the preservation of our home. If we have destroyed the enemy and lost our goal, then we have still lost."

Stef listened to this silently; a dull feeling ached in his chest. He could not tell whether it was resentment, sadness, or acceptance. But it was a cold sensation, and it left him exhausted.

Jorj Reimos sighed, his eyes glistening. Then he removed a ring from the thong around his neck and placed it in Stef's hands.

"Here is the ring back, the ring of your mother. It has given me closure, but I think that you will need it more. To remember what you are fighting for." Jorj stood up and saluted, "For the Band of the Red Hand."

Stef felt the cool silver ring in his hands and finally closed it tightly in a fist. He heard his father leaving, heard the light snoring of the nearby Danel Sevor, 126th Longbow under Flargen. He heard the soft patter of wearied feet and the wind whistling over the rocks.

He slept like a man wearied of life.

halfhand
Posts: 106
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

Re: Black Flood: A Tale of the Trolloc Wars

Post by halfhand » Wed Oct 07, 2020 12:29 pm

Chapter Twenty-Three: Walking Oblivion

"Burn it down. All of it." Arcanum barked to the engineer, "I'd rather die before I let the Trollocs claim them as their own."

"Aye sir." The engineer saluted and raised a hand up in signal.

Arcanum gazed up at the Three Idylls, now stripped and barren but of their old skeleton. The weapon that broke the Gates of Night and shattered the walls of Shayol Ghul. Arcanum watched grimly as the soldiers tossed their oil-soaked torches onto the wooden frame, bathing the giants in flickering flames. They chewed up through their heights, until the three trebuchets were consumed in a towering inferno.

Arcanum smelled the heavy wood smoke mixing with the smoke of the burning corpses that lined the fields and gave a sad shake of his bushy head. Valor broke first, tumbling down into hot ruins. Liberty soon followed, leaving Honor standing alone, before it too followed its sisters into the ashes of death.

"General, sir. Thunder Legion has finished preparing for departure." Captain Blake saluted, his eyes following the descent of the last joist of Honor.

"Then we will leave this cursed place and dear hope that we are not too late."

"It is my duty to inform you that there has been some trouble with looting among the ranks."

"Looting?" Arcanum scratched his beard, "Trollocs have nothing worth to loot. Unless you speak of looting our own slain."

"No, sir. There have been glittering items reported on the bodies of the Shadowspawns. Fights have even begun to break out." Blake spat on the ground.

Arcanum felt shivers creep up his spine. There was something he should remember...something he should know. It was important; fragments of thought echoed in his mind, but he could not pull comprehension together. He was interrupted from his reverie by an aide saluting on arrival.

"Sir, perimeter is reporting that...I do not know how to put this, that the valley’s fog is moving." The soldier cleared his throat nervously and tugged at his ear.

"Moving?" Arcanum felt his skin prickling and itching, as if ants were crawling across his scalp.

"It's expanding, sir. At Zephyr Hawk-that is the closest camp to Thakan'dar-the fog has already reached knee high. And still rising."

"Something's happening. Something dire and unprepared for," Arcanum turned slowly to gaze up at the tall visage of Shayol Ghul. The spire must have jogged his thought, because he finally found the words he was looking for, "the Horatica Horrors." The fairy story had chilled Arcanum to the bone as a child, and it still chilled him as an adult when he found out the Horrors had in fact happened. When it was finally ended, twelve villages of infected men, women, and children had to be razed to the ground, along with two companies of soldiers that had brought it to them.
Knowing he had to make a decision—the right decision-and make it fast, Arcanum turned back to Blake, "All soldiers seen looting from the corpses of Trollocs must and will be hung, and their bodies burnt until nothing of the flesh remains. Any looted items will be burned in the hottest fire and buried deep, take care to never make physical touch. If Cathon has problems with this order, he can take it up with me. The latter business I will take up with the Marshal General myself. Have you seen Cathon?"

"I am right here, Diest," Cathon announced himself, glancing casually at the burnt skeleton of Honor. Trailing behind him was the dark-haired Airene, who seemed to have recovered from her earlier ordeal, and the specter of a Warder.

"We must leave now. Most of the preparations for departure have been finished. Anything that is not ready will be left behind." Arcanum pronounced. There seemed to be an awkwardness between the two generals since the fateful meeting in Thakan'dar, but neither man seemed willing to acknowledge it.

"It is nearly night and the journey will be hazardous."

"You must be aware that Thakan'dar is moving to consume the camps, and I suspect this entire siege was a bullied lamb to lead us to our doom. And to allow Ba’alzamon to strike at our heart."

"I agree that we must leave now. The essence of our momentum has been lost and He recovers and prepares its strike back. We must leave, indeed. Or not leave at all."

"And do you agree that your plan was in folly?"

Cathon met Arcanum's gaze with steady eyes, "By now, the walls of Shayol Ghul would have been tumbled into its tomb, and its denizens laid to their unholy demise. But I will not banter with you of what could have been. We will leave. I have already given the general command. And I will finish by saying that I agree with your decisions regarding looters. Nothing must be taken from the soil of Thakan'dar, nothing that glitters, nothing gold, unless we want a repeat of Horatica."

"Then let us cease this argument. I cannot wait to leave."

"One more thing." Cathon raised his voice over the noise of soldiers moving into march formations, "Airene tells me of a means to hurry our journey home."

Airene returned Arcanum's skeptical glance with an unflinching gaze, "Yes, I know of a shortcut-if one can say such of it. I make no promises but this cannot hurt, as it seems that with the months—if not years-required for a hard march to reach Manetheren, whatever will happen will have happened anyways."

"And what is this shortcut?" Arcanum grumbled impatiently, his eyes studying his Legion's final movements.

"The Ways." Airene pronounced her answer solemnly as if it was of large merit.

"Would you like to explain, Aes Sedai, or perhaps you would like to continue throwing out nonsense words. If the latter, I have my legion to attend to." Arcanum turned to leave, but was stopped by Airene who stayed his shoulder with a surprisingly powerful grip.

Her green irises pierced deep into Arcanum's eyes, "During the Breaking when the Male Channelers were crazed by the taint of the Dark One's counterstrike, a few of these men took shelter in Ogier Steddings, whose properties allowed them to live relatively taint-free. And in payment, they took the mythical Talisman of Growing and created Waygates at the perimeter of many Steddings. The Ways connected each of these Gates, forming a world above, below, within, and without this World we live in. Time is different in the Ways, bent and distorted, and so is distance. The Ogiers have used these passages since the Breaking to travel between steddings, to make a journey of a day from what once was a trek of a month."

"With all due respect, Aes Sedai, I get enough of my fairy tales from Lawe here. Might as well stop by the Eye of the World."

"I have traveled in the Ways, General. It very much exists, a treasured heirloom kept by the Ogier, but the privilege given out to a select few. Aes Sedai are always welcome and respected, and I can navigate the Ways quite readily."

"Assuming for the moment that you are correct, Aes Sedai, which I will acquiesce to you. If a Waygate exists at every Stedding, then we have an exit close to Victa Manetheren, but we are in the middle of the Blasted Lands. How far must we travel to reach a supposed entrance?"

"If my memory serves me correctly, then Sherandu-one of the rare bastions left in the Blight-is forty leagues due south of us, and the Ogier Council will no doubt allow the Band passage through their Waygate if they are appraised of the quandary you and Manetheren are in."

"I hope you are correct, Aes Sedai." Arcanum grudgingly accepted the wisdom in Airene's words. If it works, then they might reach Manetheren in time. If it didn't, many will suffer.

"We set hard march to Sherandu, Diest," Cathon finally spoke, and motioning to two soldiers leading horses, "Mount quickly and ride with me. I fear we might be too late in our trek."

Arcanum noticed then the fog carpeting the ground, creeping and billowing from its source. He nodded grimly and leaped up the side of the offered gelding. He quickly followed behind Cathon, riding towards the head of the soldiers.

The Band of Red Hand reacted quickly, as each soldier was spurred into action, perhaps impelled by some personal demons or the encroaching fog. Airene rode before the generals, her eyes staring oddly out into the distance. Warder jogged his steed heavily by her side, scanning the horizons of the wasteland.

Yet as they journeyed farther from the spire of Shayol Ghul, they could not leave the fog behind. To the contrary, the fog increased in height and thickness, its progress almost imperceptible, but its result readily apparent. Soon, the fog rose as high over their heads as it had in Thakan'dar, and visibility was reduced to almost nothing.

The men had walked in brooding silence, but now mutters and whispers cascaded through the ranks like a worm chewing through the Band's collective mettle. There was a tangible hesitation and fear creeping into the blinded troops, as if soaked into the skin from the cold dead wall that surrounded them.

Arcanum rubbed his Shell of Caldazar uneasily, glad to some extent of its partial protection against the fog. Like a wild but intelligent animal, the fog avoided all wearers of the Shell, creating a small aura of clarity. Not afforded with such protection, Airene had to deal with the fog in her own way, first with a shimmering ball of light that floated gently before her to illuminate her path. But soon even that became useless as the fog appeared to thicken and darken. Cathon had offered her the Shell of the late Jot Diadrem, which she refused at first, but eventually relented in the face of the fog's darkness, receiving it as if it was a slimy and repulsing toad from the look on her face.

And the Band tramped on in growing restlessness, through an endless haze to an unknown destination. Then the noises begin.

Arcanum dismissed them at first, as the shifting and creaking of saddles, or the distorted muffles of palaver, or even the howl of wind over the many cracks in the ground. But it grew incessant and louder, grating on his nerves like an itch that cannot be scratched.

"It sounds like singing." Arcanum remarked, to quiet his own nerves. The generals were riding almost touching horses, in order to be able to see each other.

"Whispering." Vader added, patting the tense neck of his horse.

"Should we send scouts out?"

"No." Cathon immediately answered, "I have no doubts that any man who leaves the press of his fellow soldiers will never be found again. If something is out there, there is nothing we can do but wait. Patiently or otherwise."

"We are within a half day's march within Sherandu." Airene reined her horse closer, "Once we reach the safety of the stedding, we should be safe from anything that hails from the Blasted Lands. Though I do confess that this fog is greatly disorienting me."

"Then I pray that you lead us out with all the powers at your disposal. Or I fear that we may be trapped inside this fog forever." Cathon glanced at the fog, as if studying something afar.

That same fear was paramount on every mind of every soldier. That the Band was traveling in circles or frozen in a massive spell to wander through the white nothingness for eternity. Or once they have left, they will discover the world has changed, that all have been lost. These apprehensions gnawed away as the men marched. The days and nights were drowned away in the same murky sea of white, punctuated only by meals until the food stores ran out on the second day. There was no time to sleep or rest, just a sheer desperation propelling them forward.

Arcanum felt that wild desperation stirring inside him as well. He could not tell how long they had been on the march to the mythical Waygate, but it felt to him that he had almost forgotten life beyond the fog. He heard the voices in the fog, and had even begun to see faces not a couple days ago. And the damned fog stayed. It made no sense. But it stayed. Arcanum could take pain, but not this...this numbness. Arcanum would not be surprised if this was what death was like. Have they died? There were always tales of the haunted battlefields where the ghosts of the slain walk and relive their battles from dusk to dawn, not realizing that they had passed away. Have their own mortal flames been snuffed, and now they are forced to shuffle the plains of afterlife as wraiths and ghosts?

The blade laid over his pommel felt real, but even the sheen of its folded Manetheren steel was dull in this land, as if the flicker of life was sucked away. Arcanum felt the reassuring hilt of his sword as he gazed out into the nether world of the fog. There was not a single sheathed sword in the Band. A weapon in hand gave the men some power, especially in circumstances where they were completely powerless. For the weary men, the sword was their insurance. For men have disappeared. Some fleeing into the fog, their minds finally cracking, while others simply vanished in midstride and mid-conversation. And then there were the drum beats in the distance. Some could hear it, others could not. Arcanum cocked his head to listen but only heard the soft whispers that had plagued them from Thakan'dar.

Then the fog was gone.

Arcanum flinched from the harsh light of the sun and spun his horse around. They stood upon a field of blackened and rotting land. He felt a faint tingle on his skin, but he may have imagined it. But there was no fog here, only ruin and decay. Behind them was a wall of wispy smog and men stumbling into the light, blinking up at the sky. Some shouted and clasped each other in subdued glee. Others simply collapsed bonelessly on the ground.

"This is not right." Airene leaped off her mare and kneeled on the ground, "This should be Sherandu. And...it is Sherandu. But there's nothing here but death and decay."

"The Dark One is patient and his touch far-reaching. No fortress will hold out against him for long." Arcanum dismounted and touched the swampy ground with a cautious gauntlet, "Nothing left here. Let us find the Waygate and go."

"Yes, I suppose. It is...it is just such a shock. I was only here perhaps ten years past, and I can still remember the sphere of beauty inside the ravages of the Blasted Land. Perhaps it was just a silly sop-girl's wish to finally escape the ravages of war, if only for a few hours." Airene shook her head slightly, "But, I prattle on meaninglessly, when we should be departing. I can still recognize the land, and we are not far from the Waygate. But we must leave the limited protection of the Stedding and that means entering the fog once more."

"The fog is retreating." General Trystan suddenly interjected, pointing at where they had entered the Stedding.

Indeed, before their eyes, the fog that had plagued them for leagues pulled away, shrinking into the distance. But then, the fog was the least of their worries.

Down the vast barren land stood ranks upon ranks of Trollocs and Shadow Spawn, stretching far across the landscape, waiting just outside the unseen boundary. Their numbers were thick and their blackened blades were like branches in an ominous forest.

"Arms! To arms!" The recently celebrating men drew their swords once more, blinking their weakened eyes, and rocking on their unsteady feet, as if drunk by their imprisonment in the fog.

"Can they enter the Stedding?" Arcanum yelled over the din, yanking hard on his reigns to keep his gelding under control.

"Once, I would've said no. But something happened here." Airene neatly mounted her horse, "It looks like they are just standing beyond the barrier, but who knows if it will hold them indefinitely."

"They outnumber us by at least two times." Cathon called out. "We cannot move out to engage them, and they do not seem to be able to come in. A stalemate of some sort. At this moment. However, I do not wish to be a sitting duck in here. We must leave, even if we must bear the risk of leaving the Stedding."

"My thoughts exactly." Airene pulled off her borrowed medallion and tossed it to Cathon. Then she spun her horse and set off, yelling "FOLLOW ME! Those men who wish to live to see their land again, follow me!"

"You heard her!" Cathon echoed, and nearby soldiers quickly obeyed, until there was a liquid stream of men flowing after her. "Form and hold a perimeter around the Waygate!"

Arcanum spun his horse to reach his Legion, but also maintained a sharp eye on the surrounding host. The Trollocs howled and pounded their weapons together, but did not seem to step forth into the Stedding. A few thrown swords were exchanged between the two deadlocked opponents, and at least one Trolloc toppled, clutching a hilt in his throat. Then, the Band archers moved in, stitching the Horde's ranks with feathered pain. But the Trollocs responded quickly, raising heavy iron shields before them to create a wall against the now impotent arrows. This high level of tactics was something that Arcanum had never seen in the Trolloc Horde, and he felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. Then something caught his eyes. Squads of brutish Trollocs were slowly making their way towards the Stedding, towing giant cauldron-like engines, with steam and smoke billowing out of the opening at the top. Arcanum counted nearly dozens of them from their tell-tale steam trails. Whatever they were, they were trouble.

When Arcanum finally reached the flanking units of his Legion, the sky wept fire. The earth shook as balls of flame struck heavily down. Men and horses were sent flying, and the earth rippled with the impacts. Arcanum was thrown off his horse by the shockwave, landing forcefully on his back. Arcanum fumbled back to his feet amidst the sudden increased movement of the panicked soldiers.

From his vantage point, Arcanum was stunned by the harbingers of their doom. Those numerous cauldron-engines were spewing out fireballs, spiraling and arching through the air, almost without rest. They pounded down among the ranks without mercy, filling the air with soot and sulfurous fumes. Where they landed, they splashed down liquid fire that could not be extinguished.

Thunder Legion attempted to answer back and cover for the Band's escape, but Arcanum's catapults were wholly unprepared and without any arsenals. Desperate men piled on all manners of scavenged items, from swords and shields to broken down pieces of wagons. One such loaded catapult fired, sending thousands of horseshoes hurling through the air. By sheer luck, they struck one of the cauldrons, and somehow managed to block the wide rim. Cracks began to spider web through its exterior, and frothy liquid sprayed out. Then the engine exploded into fragments, slicing through the Trolloc ranks like thousands of knives. But that was the only luck Thunder Legion could boast that day, as the rest of the cauldrons continued to bark their destruction unabated into the Stedding.

As Arcanum dove into the ground from a close hit by one of those machines, he was stunned at how the Trollocs could create such inferno engines. True, they had stolen many secrets, such as Manetheren steel, but these machines were outside anything of human ingenuity.

"Move out the cats!" Arcanum bellowed, clambering to his feet and seeing most of the Band were streaming towards the Stedding-border some distance away, "Our job here is done!"

His Legion responded quickly, retreating back towards the rest of the Band. Fireballs and debris scattered all around them, and screams and moans bloomed and were silenced.

"DIEST!" Arcanum looked to see a mounted Vader and a cadre of cavalry riding toward him, "Move your men quickly! We cannot hold the perimeter around the gate much longer! There will be a thousand paces between the boundary of the Stedding and the Waygate. You must shoot through the gauntlet! Arcanum, you must—"

Arcanum flinched and was crushed to the ground by the roar that swallowed Vader's voice. He felt searing heat crisp his eyebrows and chew at his face and upraised arms. He scrambled to his feet for what must have been the tenth time that day and gasped. A fireball had descended upon where Vader and his escorts had been, and had scattered and broken them like toy soldiers. The ground flickered with liquid flames, and the corpses began to disintegrate, leaving nothing to salvage.

Cursing, Arcanum stumbled towards the exit with the last batch of his surviving men and their catapults. They pushed out through the border of the Stedding and into the gap of battle. With no boundary here, Trollocs had poured in to battle the Band as they fought their way toward the Waygate. It was sheer chaos on all sides and Arcanum was almost disoriented by the fog of war. But as one unit, he and his Legion hacked their way through the roiling masses, and suddenly saw the burning white light that could only be the Gateway, surrounded by a shimmering dome. Then he cursed. The Waygate was not big enough to allow his catapults through.

"Cut off the catapults! Abandon them!" Arcanum shouted. The teams obeyed readily, dropping their lines to leave the precious engines mired in the mud. Arcanum hacked and hewed past until he reached a barricade that the defenders had erected out of abandoned wagons and carts. He began to slide through a small break in the barricade when a Trolloc face loomed before his own. Then the spawn gurgled and toppled over, revealing the blurred form of Warder, casting death all around the Waygate. Arcanum quickly backed into the tingly translucent sphere. Airene stood at the fore of the Gate, arms raised to hold up her small barrier as the last soldiers pushed in and funneled into the shimmering white portal.

"Vader, is he...?" Airene asked at his arrival, though her eyes were closed in concentration.

"Another casualty of war. Damn that stubborn bastard. Are we the last?"

"Go in." Arcanum obeyed, pushing into the bright pulsing entrance and felt himself stretching and bending as if in two places at once. Then he was through, stumbling into the back of the soldier who had entered before.

The first thing he noticed was the blue of the sky and the vibrant grass.

Airene entered and the Waygate slammed shut.

halfhand
Posts: 106
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

Re: Black Flood: A Tale of the Trolloc Wars

Post by halfhand » Wed Oct 07, 2020 1:05 pm

Chapter Twenty-Four: Eternal Sunshine

They spent only one week in the Ways, a week that was the first respite that the Band of Red Hand had for a long time. With Airene guiding them, riding far in front to decipher the Ogier scripts on each guidestone, the journey was quick. Cathon often took to riding with Airene, more to distance himself from the marching men than any personal preference for her company. He was troubled by much on his mind, with his attention no longer occupied by battle.

Yet even so, it was difficult to focus on oneself when the terrain screamed to be noticed. There was a clamoring exuberance that made it difficult for him to concentrate. It was a pulsing energy—the almost indescribable but unforgettable energy of Spring. It was not only the essence of youth and rebirth, but something that is embedded in the very psyche of mankind. For spring, there is a smell, a memory, a sensation utterly inexpressible. It is the lushness, the exuberance, the essence of LIFE itself.

But it was also a paradox, for how could there be life in the midst of death, spring in the midst of winter? It seemed an impossibility. But then, what is all this greenness before his eyes. What can it be but the incarnate of eternal spring? Even now, Cathon, though having traveled this Wonderland for weeks, was still surprised by the sensation of spring all around him. He was a man who had spent fifteen years in the shadow of death and winter, and life seemed almost unrecognizable. But, that was not entirely true, for Cathon recognized spring like seeing a lost brother after a lifetime, and spring recognized him.

As he stared upon the vibrant blue sky and felt the cool wind swishing through his graying hair, he felt almost like a boy again. This was the wonders of the Earth that he had forgotten in his quest to slay and kill. But then he reminded himself that it was only a bottled essence of Spring. For in that blue sky, the sun always shone, and he knew that in this land of the Ways, there was no winter. An artificial spring. This was all a sham, like a plastered and frozen smile that does not touch the eyes. This was not the world, nor real life. This was a child's fantasy, and he was no longer a child.

But artificial or not, the men of the Band seemed to enjoy it. When they had first arrived in the Ways, they had been like blind men stumbling into the light and realizing that they could finally see. There was life after all! They greedily took in the sight, the soft grass, the odd gray-dust road with a striking white line running through the center. But the centerpieces of their attention were the fruit trees planted at the side of the roads, laden with treasures. Figs, apples, pears, apricots, and countless unnamed delicacies.

There was almost a mad stampede as the starved men scrabbled for the first real food they have seen in weeks. At the end of the first hour, the ground was pebbled with fruit mush and pulp, and most of the trees were barren of their loads, as if a swarm of locusts had descended.
But the trees aside, they were left mostly to their own devices in this green but lonely land. The men were rejuvenated and some even sang battle hymns, which once would have been suicide in the bitter cold North. Yet, Cathon knew they were still tired. And no matter how much they ate, they were still weak of energy. There was not a single man who did not have sunken cheeks or bagged eyes. Even so, Cathon could often hear the faint notes of "Midean's Ford" drifting from the Legions far behind, but the melody failed to stir his heart. While it was certainly true that the soldiers would not be winning any awards for their voices, it was not the lack of tone that irritated Cauthon.

"Midean's ford," He grumbled, "A hackneyed doggerel that makes men think with their hearts and not their brains."

"Yes, hard to believe that there are still those who believe in hope," Airene replied with an ironic tone, "But we have more important things. For one, we are not alone."

Cathon jerked his head up, and saw the group of massive shapes moving towards them. He bared two inches of steel before Airene held his hand. Then he raised his brows in recognition.

One of the large creatures raised a giant hand, and a deep voice rumbled. "Lo, Warsman, what brings you into the Ways!"

"Let me speak to him, Lawe." Airene murmured to Cathon, "I do not think he will be terribly happy having thousands of men trampling through their grass and trees. Let me handle it."

Cathon nodded his acquiescence and Airene rode up to meet the congregation.

The troupe of Ogiers stopped before them, and by standing alone loomed over the two mounted humans. At a distance, a man might confuse the sight of Ogiers with Trollocs with embarrassing results. But, size was the only characteristic they held in common. While Trollocs thirsted for war and death, Ogiers were the tenders of peace and life, as well seen in the paradise of the Ways. They were amiable, careful, and intelligent creatures, and now their large dish-sized eyes were focused on the two newest creatures of the Ways.

Then the Ogier who had spoken whom Cathon presumed to be the leader saw Airene and a broad smile stretched across his face, "Ah, Mistress Aes Sedai. You are always welcome here. And I see that your friend is a warsman of Manetheren. I am Halan son of Nadin son of Hasan, Elder of Stedding Shangtai. There is a meeting called, and that is our destination. If we were heading the same way, we would be quite happy to invite you into our company. But pardon my curiosity, what brings you two here? Is there something amiss in Manetheren?"

"Elder Halan, greetings from the White Tower. I am Airene Andalusa, Aes Sedai of the Yellow Ajah, and this warsman with me is Marshal-General Cathon of the Band of Red Hand."

"Truly? We have heard of some of your exploits." The Ogier rumbled. Cathon was dubious of Halan's familiarity with the Band. Ogiers were relatively safe behind their Steddings against the ravages of the Trolloc Wars, and probably to them, seemed irrelevant to their lives.

Airene quickly continued, "Elder Halan, we have entered the Ways because of dire need. We have received word that Manetheren and the Grove is under heavy assault from the Leafburner's Horde. And the Ways were the only possible route in which the General and his Grand-Legion may reach there in time."

"Manetheren under attack?" Halan looked troubled, and there were whispers exchanged between the Ogiers, like the rumblings of a deep birdsong, tickling Cathon's ears. "This is not good. Not good at all, I am afraid. But I see that your need is indeed great, and I wish you speedy return to Manetheren." Halan was silent for a moment. "I will tell you this, but I cannot promise anything. At the meeting, I will try to convince my people to send aid. But, as you must know, we are not a hasty people, and decisions are not easily made." He sighed, a bumblebee rumble. "It is a beautiful city and a beautiful grove, and I cannot bear to see them lost to the Leafblighter. We will try. We will try."

"My eternal gratitudes." Cathon finally spoke, "But we must be moving. I can hear my legions closing up behind us."

"Yes, yes. But of course." Halan nodded, "I pray you make it on time. No, I know you will make it on time."

"Elder Halan." Airene added as the Ogier troupe was departing and placed something in the Ogier's giant hand, "I have more bad news. Sherandu is no more. The veil of shadows has set on it."

"Yes, we have heard already. A terrible, terrible loss. I fear for us all." Halan murmured sadly into the wind. He glanced at the two Avendesora-shaped Way keys that Airene had given him, "I hate to see a Waygate destroyed, but I understand that it must be done."

Then the two groups parted ways, each staring bleakly at the future.

Cathon realized then that everyone had lost something in the war. There were none who escaped the ravages, not even those whose homes are bar to the Shadow. For the Ogiers, safety had been snatched away from them, and perhaps now they realized that they must strike back. For Cathon, it was his men that were lost—his people, his blood. There was the recent loss of Vader, the man who had become the Bastion and the solid leader and commander of the oldest Manetheren legion. He was older than Cathon, though Vader liked to keep his age a secret. And he was the father and the mentor, and certainly well-respected, if not exactly well-liked, by the men. And in the end, it took the fires of heaven to subdue the Bastion. Not even a Shell of Caldazar could keep him from his fate, to die in the flames of glory.

And then there was Jot Diadrem, who would be called an idealist in another time and place. The General who was at one with his men, who refused the Shell of Caldazar, saying "And I will not go into battle knowing that I am at less risk than they are. I ask the same of them that I ask of myself. I cannot." And who is to say that he was wrong? Perhaps the Timari provided no more protection than confidence, and Diadrem was already infused with it.

Cathon almost felt envious of Vader and Diadrem and Hill and the countless nameless thousands that had fallen. They had served and died for their country, with no responsibility or duty to drag them through the world of life. But, what does the future hold for him? Perhaps court-marshaled or, more likely, death with the Band slipping from his grasp. Caldazar certainly didn't save Vader, and it is quite conceivable that it isn't certainly going to help him. Such thoughts plagued him from his arrival in the Ways, and his moods became darker and fouler. He didn't understand why. It was a mental trap that green commanders fell for, after their first battle. But burn it if the black temper clung to him like an itch that he just can't scratch, a bloody burning itch.

The worst part was he couldn't keep the bitterness to himself, and he lashed out. Nathen Austern used to bring him reports on the Legion, until Cathon bit his head off for bothering him. The other Generals avoided him like the blood plagues, and even the men themselves became quiet whenever Cathon passed them. Airene was the only one who seemed to stand him, though Cathon often caught her studying him with her bloody Aes Sedai looks. Yet for some reason, he did not seem to mind her presence, no matter how much she seems to get under his skin.

"What are you thinking about? What have you been thinking about all this time while you snarl to yourself and stare sullenly like a punished child." Airene's voice broke his reverie.

"Me? The scattered thoughts of a failed man." Cathon muttered, "How I have sat at the edge of victory, only to stand in the abyss of ruins. How I am utterly alone in this paradise."

"How can you call yourself alone when your men love you? When they would dearly lay their life down for you."

"Exactly. You say that they would die for me. But then it is unrequited friendship, for who would send their friends out to their deaths? No, there is no room in my life for love or friends. When I had met my compatriot of the North, Nonoc Bashere, he had told me, 'You can lead your men, or you can weep for the dead, but you cannot do both.' And I chose the first. And I can weep for no man. And none will weep for me. But why am I telling you this?" Cathon shut his mouth.

"It is a harsh way of living." Airene watched Cathon with her penetrating eyes. That wretched woman was always trying to crack his shell, trying to probe into his core, and dredging up his emotions. Well, she is free to them!

"Well, we live in a harsh world," Cathon growled, "Have you not seen this with your eyes? There is no safety, no room for hope or useless emotions. No crusades or causes. We live by the sword and we die by the sword. There is NOTHING but the sword; it is the end-all."

"I refuse to believe that. You refused to believe that! 'There is always hope.' You were the one who told me that. That is what makes us human."

"Well, there is no hope for me. And I was wrong. The Cathon you knew is dead." Cathon did not feel like talking anymore. He didn't ride up here to talk. He wanted some bloody room to clear out his attic, but the fool woman wouldn't keep silent. He nudged his horse to a faster trot, but Airene stubbornly kept up.

"Lawe, look at me! Lawe! You cannot give up now, not when you are needed. Not when your men need you. Not when humanity needs you. Damn it, even I need you."

"Where's Warder?" Maybe he could change the subject.

She ignored the question, "Lawe, you are acting like a...like a...fool of a man! The Light burn it! Bury the past and see the present!"

"Bury the past like all those unmarked graves in the North. The thousands of men who died in a fool's crusade?" Cathon roared, "I am like a man who stood before the destruction of a city, thinking it was the enemy's, until he realized it was his own! THE LIGHT TAKE IT! I GIVE UP! They have me on my knees, the Creator, Fate, and bloody Caldazar!"

"Then you really are dead." Airene spoke in her infuriatingly calm voice. "Perhaps I was wrong about you."

"WHY DO YOU CARE? You know nothing of me, Airene!" Cathon seized the reins of her horse, stopping both horses in mid-trot. He grabbed her arm and pulled her close so they were staring face to face. He whispered hoarsely, "Nothing. I am a General like my father before me. I thought I could be different, that I could break free of this damned vicious cycle. My father died a bitter, bitter man, fighting a war he grew to loath more than death itself. He was a fool too, who believed that there is an end in sight, but he was broken by his own bloody dignity. You know nothing about me. Forget me for I am lost." Cathon repeated himself, glancing away from her, as if drowning in memories.

"I know nothing?" Airene grasped him by the crest of his cloak and pulled him closer until their noses almost touched. Her eyes loomed large and clear. There was a quiver in her normally serene voice, "You want to know what I know? I know about your family, your father, your mentor, and your past. But, most importantly, I know you. More than you know yourself. I know that you are a man with an unfinished destiny, a man that does not have his flame easily extinguished. I remember a brash but fiery man who dared to take on the Dark One himself. I know that you rile against your fortunes. I know that you are mired in your own doubts and guilt. But, I also know that it is not over for you. Though Shayol Ghul still stands, you--YOU--will help bring it to its knees. It may not be in this Turning of the Wheel, but trust me--TRUST ME-- when I say that you will be there at its end.

And for a moment, her voice softened, that for one moment she was vulnerable, as she whispered, "I know all this. And I know that I love you, you damned fool of a man."

Her eyes were wet, but she stared at him defiantly through her tears. Cathon felt like he was pierced by a lance of fire, his mind reeling in shock. At her words, at their meanings.

He acted without thinking, drew her in and kissed her hard, and she returned it willfully.

Then she pulled away, her eyes wide, "And I know that I shouldn't have done that." Her eyes flashed through her tears, but they softened for just a moment, almost pleading. "We cannot speak of this. Not now. I am sorry I did that."

"Airene…." Cathon managed to find his voice.

Airene shook her head fiercely, and clenched his hands tightly in her own, then released them, and rode away at a canter. Though her eyes were red and her cheek was streaked with tears, she sat as if nothing had happened, looking like a regal queen above the world.

Cathon sat there by himself, emotions rolling through his mind. No longer did he feel the black void eating him from inside. No, it was replaced by…by…what exactly? What was he doing? She's an Aes Sedai! Better to kiss a viper! Come to your senses! An Aes Sedai! And I do love her back. Burn him for a fool!

halfhand
Posts: 106
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

Re: Black Flood: A Tale of the Trolloc Wars

Post by halfhand » Thu Oct 08, 2020 11:49 am

Chapter Twenty-Five: Homecoming

To Stef Reimos, the journey from Shayol Ghul was a blur in his memory. Immersed in the fog of delusions and fever, it was like a dizzy dream where nothing was in focus. Like the rest of the invalids and those too weak to walk, he was at first carried in the wagons, until the vehicles were abandoned at the Waygate in the Blight, or whatever they called that blinding portal which he had stumbled through on the shoulder of another.

Without the wagons, the Band had to share the dwindling supply of horses among the wounded and dying. The crippled and near-death had first call, while others like Stef had to stumble part of the way, his head swimming and his muscles cramping up. In his daze, the Ways was like a soft breeze felt through a thick layer of wool. There was something there, but there was a wall of haze between them.

He remembered eating fruits, divine to the taste, but his stomach clenched up in protest at the sudden unusual diet. As a result, he had spent the majority of the non-marching hours perched on the edge of the walkways, retching into the blue void. Then tottering back as vertigo almost sent him toppling into the eerie nothingness. Stef had a feeling that if he fell over, he would be spinning through the serene abyss for the rest of eternity.

But he survived and grew stronger as he held down more food, his stomach growing accustomed to the new diet. But, others didn't. There were many who were too far gone in their wounds. It was the policy of the Band that no one living is left behind, not if they can take a breath. And as a result, any perched on the brink of death was carried towards home. And despite the best wishes and will, most of them died, and were buried under the fruit trees, holding vigil over the future travelers who would pass through this strange land and whispering their last requests into the wind.

So it was in his cloudy but stable condition that Stef approached the final Waygate, the portal that would take them all home. Home, at last.
There was a rustling uneasiness among the men. Many of them had not been home in decades. Behind that door could be their long-last friends, families, and loves. But behind it could also be the ruins of Manetheren and the very vision of despair itself.

But there was no hesitation. The men poured through, and Stef was drawn with the flow, the white glow surrounding him and stretching him through the passage of time and space. A deafening ringing sounded in the ear and blackness suddenly exploded into the white.

Then he stumbled into the night to the sound of cries and clash of swords. Stars danced in his eyes, blinding him, but the sound of battle was unmistakable. Stef fumbled for his sword, and tried to draw a sword that was not there, with a hand that was not there. He was forced forward by the press of men behind him, and he tried to take a step—a step that did not touch the ground where he expected it to be. He stumbled, and rolled down some distance on the rocky incline upon which the Waygate sat, scraping his face and arms. A hand reached down, grabbed his collar and yanked him up to his feet. He finally shrugged his sword from its new position on his left side with his good hand, holding it awkwardly before him. He had never held a sword in his right hand before, but he had better learn. And quickly.

A sudden motion in front of him prompted him to raise his sword defensively. The blow that came nearly took his sword off, along with his head. The face of the Trolloc came into focus for a second, before nausea claimed his vision. He fought a desperate retreat, backing up as fast as he physically could, only reflex and training keeping him alive.

Then two red blurs rushed past him and the pressure was suddenly off. A gurgle and the Trolloc crumpled to the ground. Red cloaks were all around, and suddenly it was all over, almost before it even began.

Stef leaned on his sword unsteadily, his hair sticking damply to his head with sweat. He glanced at the corpses of the Shadowspawn lying on the ground, and the various rotting blankets on the ground. A giant cauldron was hanging beside him, on a makeshift frame, before a tight-lipped soldier tipped out the contents to drain its evil content into the rocky soil. A Trolloc camp. Perhaps a fist or two. They had poured out of the Waygate into the surprised and unprepared Trolloc, and slaughtered them, quick and efficient.

"Sergeant? You alright?" He felt a hand on his clammy shoulder. "It's me, Cordin. That was a nasty fall. You might want to get those cuts looked at." The voice came as if from a far distance.

"I just need. Rest. Can you. Get my water skin?" Stef fumbled with the clip on his belt.

"Yeah sure." Cordin unclipped the skin and quickly snapped the top off. Stef held out his unsteady hand as the young soldier poured the flat water into it. Stef splashed his face with the flat water, feeling the sting of the cuts on his face. He glanced down at his wet, red hand and let his arm drop limp.

"I…" But before he could finish his sentence, exhaustion suddenly drilled into every single muscle of his body. Stef would have toppled to the rock ground right then, if Cordin had not caught him. Stef sensed rather than felt Cordin drape his limp arm across his shoulders and carry him some distance, and laid him on a hard surface that creaked under his weight.

"You there, sarge?" Cordin studied his face, "We scavenged up some of the Trolloc wagons. You'll have to share this with some others though."

"Yeah. No problem. Just tired." Stef closed his eyes, and was enveloped in a feverish dream that must have carried him through several days. He seemed to have relapsed into his earlier state. He was awakened only for occasional meals, spending most of the journey towards the city of Manetheren in a clammy stupor.

He remembered only pieces of that last few leagues, like still images that flashed into his mind. He remembered the dawning sun shining across his face, waking him from a restless sleep. He remembered seeing a massive iron gate, forged with both beauty and utility, slowly opening with a deep groan that resonated through the air. There was a cheer that started like a murmuring brook that increased in intensity until the roar shook the earth, and birds took to the sky in fright. A small smile crept onto his face. They were home. They were finally home. As he felt sleep take him again, he clenched his hands possessively around the silver ring that now again hung from his neck.

When he woke, the headache was gone and he could glance at the room he was in without the walls and ceiling moving around him. He was on a pallet, of which many were lined in a row, filled with many others. He sat up and removed his blanket, and saw that someone had stripped him of his clothes, and replaced it with clean cotton trousers and undershirt. Then he saw the ring was still safely fastened to the thong around his neck, and gave a sigh of relief. His cloak hung on a hook above his pallet, looking almost new, washed and pressed.

"I must've been out for days." Stef’s stomach gurgled in agreement, and for the first time, he felt hunger instead of nausea. He swung his legs to the side of the pallet to stand up, quickly dressing in the folded shirt set out for him and carefully setting the red cloak on his shoulder. There was finality in the closing of the clasps, echoing slightly in the cavernous room that housed the wounded. He didn't know how long he had been out, but he had to find the Band. And maybe grab a bite to eat. His stomach grumbled. Well, a couple bites.

"Returnin' to war again so soon?" Stef froze and turned to see in the neighboring pallet an old man, covered to his wispy chin by his blanket. He looked ancient, his face a maze of wrinkles and lines, his hair all white and radiating from his head like a crown. But, what drew Stef’s breath away were the eyes. They were the eyes of a blind man; the pupils were the lightest blue before white. But they almost appeared to focus on Stef’s face, their milk haze delving into his soul. "Too busy to talk to an old man?"

Stef had to tear his eyes away from those blind orbs. His eyes lit on the hook above the man's bed and saw the faded red cloak with black etchings of a veteran. "I am sorry to have bothered your rest, Learned One."

"Nonsense, nonsense!" The man grinned wide, showing his two remaining, yellow teeth, "When you're as old as me, you can't be bothered by much, though give me my daily mush and a pot to piss in and I'm right as rain. Though I ain't regular as rain, but I hardly need to be filling your young head with such when you need to be using it for what you be using it for."

The sergeant's head swam with the flood of words pouring out of the old man. I guess he doesn't get visitors often, Stef realized. He talked like a nomad who had finally met a fellow man. Or perhaps all old people talk like this. He didn't know, there were few who survived the war to live to a ripe age.

"Learned One, do you know where we are?" Stef also wondered what the old man was doing in the midst of the new wounded, but he wasn't quite ready to break etiquette.

"You are in the Royal Palace. The zenith of civilization." The man kept grinning his toothless mile, "In the Healers Quarters to be precise. And to why, I expect probably because of that pretty scar you have on your arm there." To this Stef froze and stared into those milky eyes. "No need to act like a bullied sheep. I may be blind, aye, but there are more ways to look at this world then through the eyes. Perhaps…" Those eyes seem to suddenly focus on Stef with clarity, and the grin was gone. "Perhaps what you see with your eyes is not really there, but in reality, there is something there that cannot be seen. You see blue, but he sees green, and you both call it yellow. You see? Sight is an imperfect instrument, and perhaps it is good that I am free from its encumbrance. One truly cannot notice something until it is gone." A boney and pale hand slithered out from under the blanket and gently touched the stump of Stef’s arm. The sergeant flinched and jerked away.

"A gift of war." The old man whispered, "We have both left a piece behind and paid a price. Tell me, who is the Marshall-General now?"

"First Lord Cathon." Stef croaked out.

"Cauthon?" He gave the name a country twang.

"Cathon. Lawe Cathon."

"Cathon…Cathon. Does not ring a bell, but then my memory ain't what it used to be. I served with Lord Prodis, you know. Or perhaps you don't know. An arrogant man, but I guess all Lords and Ladies and Barons and Dukes are, though one wouldn't expect it, having them lug their heavy names and titles and entourages around. I suspect that things are quite different from when I served, young sergeant. That is the truth. You know this is the first time that the Band of Red Hand has returned to Manetheren in forty years. It is lonely in the North, is it not? But perhaps..." The old man coughed into his blanket. "Excuse me. Perhaps we will know true loneliness."

He was silent for a moment, "You know where I lost my eyes, son? In Aridhol, no no, not in that cursed city—that was before my time-but fighting for that blasted country. It was a dreadlord who sewed fire into my regiment. A very...special Dreadlord he was. Special in that I once knew and served him before he turned. Ah, you know who I’m talking bout. But, I digress. I did not know how I survived. I still don't. I just know that the fire that engulfed us was the last thing and the only thing that I will see. And I can still see the flames flickering before my eyes as we talk. Flicker flicker flicker.

"And I was discharged and sent home. Discharged. What a funny name for that word. You don't really hear that word much anymore. It is an extinct animal, sometimes remembered in the back of some old man's head. Aye it is, I bet you have never heard of it. No, there is no longer a discharge. It is death now. A close friend he is, this fell sergeant Death, who is strict in his arrest. And that sergeant is a fairer end. Look at me, who was given that animal of discharge, who came home to lie in a bed. That is it, until I die. And I can see death now. You see, sergeants like to stick together. Stick together. And I see Death following you. And you follow Death." His grin stretched the skin tight on his face like a fleshless and somewhat wrinkled skull.

"Death?" Stef muttered. The old man seems to be in quite a stage of advanced senility, but there was some hypnotic power in those eyes that seem to freeze Stef to the spot. There was insanity in that pale blue, but there was also knowledge. In those blind eyes was the sadness that bound two soldiers of two different generations of the same war. "If death be what follows me, then be it. For I am a soldier. It is my calling and I accept it."

"We are soldiers." The nameless old man echoed, but his voice grew soft and his eyes closed, his voice fell to a dull wheeze, as if it was torture for him to breathe, "And from one soldier to another, one generation to another, I will give you a message. Listen and listen carefully to the blind man who can see. You live in a reality where nothing is what meets the eye. Everything you know is wrong. Everyone you see is false. Betrayal will come from the most trusted. The dead will rise and the living will eat dirt. Death will come to those who are victorious." The last word was an almost inaudible sigh that Stef had to lean close to hear. Then those eyes closed forever, for they were the last of a generation.

"So is Ol' Sanus ready for his dinner? Or still gabbling his old yarns to you?" A nurse appeared by Stef. But when she took one look at the old man's lifeless visage, she quickly seized the pale arm that had gone limp. Then feeling no pulse, she shook her head and slowly folded it over his chest. Then she gravely folded the blanket over the blind man's head.

"Did you know… Ol' Sanus well?" Stef uttered.

"Aye, he has been in my care for some time now. It's really a pity. We knew his time was approaching. He knew his time was coming. He was such a cheerful man and born to talk, of course. He had been a servant in the Palace since, well, long before I was born. But, he was such a lonely man. War was all he knew, and when he came back. Well, he hadn't married and then he was too old . No wife, no children." The nurse shook her head again. "Well, how may I help you, sir? It looks like you're all packed there, ready to leave. You certainly look better than when they brought you in here."

"Aye, I have been bedridden since...I don't remember when." Stef smiled at the nurse, who was certainly pleasant to look at, with large pretty eyes and an almost impish nose. She wore clean cotton scrubs over a light brown dress, and her auburn hair was wrapped and pinned with a white ribbon. "And I am rather hungry, but I really would like to see how my men are holding up."

"Oh, most of the Band is housed in the Central Barracks just outside the Palace. But, I hear that in the morning, they are setting out for the Tarandrelle. So, are you an officer then?"

"No, milady-"

"Zira will do."

"Stef Reimos." He shook her offered hands. "I'm just a sergeant." Just a sergeant. Like Ol' Sanus

"Well, Sergeant Stef Reimos. I can't stop you from leaving. Just take it easy then. Perhaps we'll meet again sometimes." She winked at him.

"Perhaps, Zira. I would like that." In fact, it was Stef’s strongest desire. He had not been with a woman in ages, but duty was stronger than any desire he had. "I would like that a lot."

He thanked her for her care, though he didn't remember, and shrugged on his pack. He had a duty. As Stef left the Quarters, he was troubled by the voice of Sanus. He muttered the old soldier's dying words again, "What I know is wrong. What I see is false. Betrayal will come from the most trusted." What did it mean? Who will be betrayed and who will do the betraying? "The dead will rise and the living will eat dirt." Was it just the ravings of a dying man? But is it not said that the dying can see the future, for they are in that thin veil between two worlds. "Death will come to the victorious."

Even in the warmth of the Manetheren Palace, Stef shivered.

halfhand
Posts: 106
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

Re: Black Flood: A Tale of the Trolloc Wars

Post by halfhand » Thu Oct 08, 2020 12:12 pm

Chapter Twenty-Six: The Approaching Storm

"Is this all we have?" Arcanum stared at the rows of glistening and polished catapults lined up in front of the Eastern Courtyard.

"One-hundred and forty-four of our remaining stock." Engineering Corp Chief Asa Tirium pulled out a notebook and nudged his spectacles with an oil-stained finger. "Olgier Grove timber, at least what is left. You know that they burned it down?"

"We came through that way, but we didn't see anything at night. Although the smell in the air was terrible." Arcanum touched the smooth carapace of the closest catapult. "You made some changes."

"Ten years is a very long time." Tirium tapped the curved arm of the catapult, "Steel exoskeleton, reinforced struts, and an overhauled winch system. My pride and joy, the best that Manetheren can offer." He eyed Arcanum through his specs like an owl, "And you'll need it. And it might not be enough. These are straight from the shop, built on rush order, and entirely untested in battle."

"My men will pick these up tonight, Asa, and I think-" Before Arcanum could finish, the ground shook underneath their feet, and pieces of the Palace wall showered the ground from above.

"Bloody probe attacks are getting more and more frequent." Tirium dusted off his shirt and picked up his notebook. "They've been testing our defenses for months. The Aes Sedai are shielding us pretty well, though I've been hearing rumors that they're leaving to-morrow. Nasty pieces of news, if true."

"How many Dreadlords?"

"Six plus the Traitor." Tirium adjusted his spectacles, "With the exceptions of these hit-and-runs, they mostly stick to the opposite side of the Tarendelle."

"Seven. Aren't we lucky?" Arcanum breathed out. One was bad enough. The most he had ever fought before were three at Tourak's Peak, and the Band barely limped out, an experience Arcanum never wanted to repeat. But seven? Arcanum could not imagine the aftermath of the devastation.

"So this is why we cannot fight them here." Arcanum realized. "We cannot defend Manetheren while perched on its walls. With seven Dreadlords in view of the city, they would tear us to pieces. We must not let the Horde get within sight."

"You are right. We have learned a painful lesson. They did that at Shanaine--tearing down the city, defenders and all. We had two Aes Sedai but it wasn't enough. The survivors thought the world was ending, and who is to say that they were wrong? The ground split, and the walls toppled as if they were children's block toys. That cannot happen here with the thousands upon thousands of women and children huddling below what is essentially paper-thin roofs." He made a grimace. "I was there, you know. Me and the entire fleet of veteran and hardened cats. Three-hundred crews of our best and brightest, ready to throw back the entire tide. And before even one shot was fired, the ground was rent, and the entire Manetheren fleet was swallowed by the Earth." He paused, lost in thought. "I was buried in that rubble for three days. I could barely hear the din of battle around me--above me--as the Horde savaged through the broken city, laying waste to the survivors. Then, even that faded away, and I was trapped in silence, wondering when I would die or, better yet, if I was dead. On the third day, I heard voices above me, faint but human, and I called out with my remaining strength. Then the debris above me shifted and rustled and sunlight stabbed into my eyes, and I felt fresh air fill my dust-choked lungs once more. I was dug up by the Grand-Legion of the Tarendrelle, scouring the wreckage for survivors. It was three long days that I never wish to relive. The Horde has passed on, of course. We were-we were like an insect that thought itself safe in its armor, until a giant cracked open the shell and plucked out the flesh, leaving a hollow carcass drying in the sun. We were just something that was in the way."

The engineer chief then upended a wineskin in his mouth, and offered it to Arcanum. The general drank from it and tossed it back. The engineer caught it and gazed up at the sky, and tried to lighten the tone, "Almoren Red. I bet you boys never got anything like that up in the North."

"No we didn't." Arcanum agreed, and sat down on the chassis of the catapult.

"Well, that was when we realized that we were sadly out of our league. We could chisel slowly away at them with hit-and-run, but would not make any noticeable difference before the Horde reached Victa Manetheren. That was the precise moment. That was when Aemon sent a cadre of the strongest of his own Heart Guard on the swiftest blood stallions. It was a gamble, but if we were going to stare our own doom in the eyes, then we need every man we can find, especially the illustrious Band of the Red Hand."

Raindrops begin to fall from the sky, drumming softy against the paved ground. There was distant thunder that echoed faintly. People rushed by the Eastern Gates, trying to find shelter before the heavy storm began. A group of large, huddled shapes shuffled across the gates, towering over the rest.

Tirium followed Arcanum's eyes, "There are many different survivors. That's the batch of Ogiers left in Manetheren. After the Grove burned. Now they just meander purposeless through the city. And who can blame them? You know how much they loved the Grove. It is as much of their home and heritage as their Stedding. They say home is where the heart is, and they look like those who have lost heart completely. "

Arcanum watched as the Ogiers shambled slowly into the Palace. One of them raised a head, and looked forlornly at the two men, then turned and entered the palacial arches. "How did you survive until we arrived?"

"The question of the year." Tirium jerked the canvas tarp over the top of the catapult, covering it from the rain. "Be the commander. You have two Grand-Legions against a body of Shadowspawn ten times their size, with seven dreadlords-and perhaps more. And darker whispers of a Master. The only city in their path to Manetheren has just been leveled, along with the entire fleet of veteran siege engines and two expert Aes Sedai. One week's straight march and they will be at the walls of Manetheren."

"The Marena Line." Arcanum realized suddenly.

"Yes, she was barely a trench when you left, but now...Now, it's fifty leagues of fortified battle works and solid, earthen stockades, and pitted with razor traps, placed on the likeliest route of invasion. One company of men could hold off an entire legion for eternity, and not even this Horde could smash through in less than a season's time. And protected against anything the Dreadlords can conjure. I helped design it and I helped build it. After ten years of construction, she was now ready to halt the Black Flood."

"And what happened? Did she?"

Tirium grimaced, "They are smarter and wilier then we give them credit. They never even attempted the Marena Line. The Horde circled around, passing across the Line to the east, and arching around to strike at Manetheren from the southeast, where Marena did not cross. We did not expect them to do anything but strike us directly from the north, and this came as a surprise. But, even so, they lost time and Trollocs as they circled around, harried by our Legions on their flanks. We scrambled to react, to somehow throw something in their path. Then, we saw Jara'Copan, right in the corridor. We needed to stall them there. We were willing to sacrifice an entire Grand-Legion if we had to.

"We evacuated Jara'Copan and bunkered two Legions of volunteers inside, as we worked feverishly to shore up our Southern defense. I was in charge of the city's forces, a rag-tag bunch of decade old stone-throwers and melted down copper pots. We were desperate alright, and knew we probably weren't going to survive after what happened at Shanaine."

The rain increased in tempo, beating down its steady cadence. Both men were now entirely soaked, the water cascading down their cloaks in rivulets. A bright flash of lightning illuminated the courtyard, followed by the thunderclap that drowned out Tirium's voice.

"...a final gambit. Assuming that the Seven don't tear down the walls again. And we were lucky; it was not a second Shanaine. Perhaps they were saving their energy for the capital, or were still recovering from the first city. While the Horde hammered against Jara'Copan, the earth did not swallow us whole. And they could not simply leave the city standing, not with a hostile fortress at their flanks to chew up their numbers.

Jara'Copan became our bait. Every night, the defenders began to sneak out the mud gates in squads. For almost a month as a skeleton crew and I remained in the greatest bluff that we had ever created. And it worked. Caldazar was surely flying above us. When the Inner gates were finally broken, and the Trollocs swarmed in, there were but two scores of soldiers manning the keep's defense, scurrying out through the tunnels at the last minute."

Tirum chuckled dryly. "I could remember running the last gauntlet after lighting the match to the final surprise. Jara'Copan was now filled with Trollocs and empty of men. And every stone in that city was soaked with naph and brew. There was no stopping that inferno once the fuse was lit. It was a tomb for the Horde that day. Jara'Copan made everything possible, this brand new fleet and the survival of Victa Manetheren until your arrival. Everything is in its place for tomorrow, bound in the Creator's will."

"Almost too perfect." Arcanum breathed into the rain. "I do not think this storm will let tonight. Or tomorrow. It feels...unnatural." A flash of lightning arched down, almost simultaneously with its thunder, striking onto a spire of the palace. Darkness quickly took back the night, but Arcanum's gaze was still locked onto the glimmering spire where the lightning bolt had coursed through, and an idea formed.

Tirium took another swag from his wineskin, "I think you're right about the storm, General. I can feel it deep inside my bones."

"My friend, I fear that this is just the face of a stronger storm. And we must use all our ingenuity and resources these coming days if we do not want to be swept away."

halfhand
Posts: 106
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

Re: Black Flood: A Tale of the Trolloc Wars

Post by halfhand » Thu Oct 08, 2020 1:22 pm

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Wolfking of Manetheren

The storm of ages raged against the Palace walls, lightning crackling in the high-set windows, painting stark shadows across the Hall. Thunder roared in the air, and the palace seemed to shudder as it felt the weight of great forces converging.

The sound of Cathon's heavy boots on the polished floor echoed and resounded through the hall, punctuated by the heavy drumbeats of the rain and the staccato thunder. He was flanked by Nathen, Airene Sedai and Warder as they marched through the massive hallway, the tapestries fluttering and the palace shivering. Even within the great halls, Warder remained armored with his face hidden perpetually behind his helmet. In contrast, the Aes Sedai wore a court-appropriate silk yellow dress, embroidered with hummingbirds around the neckline.

One man stood before them, a tall gangly man leaning on a staff and wrapped in a dark amethyst cloak. He waited until the four had stopped before them, and the echoes of their footsteps diminished. Lightning lit the halls, highlighting the old, wily visage of the Royal Vizier, Ilak Didam, advisor to the High King.

"I must apologize for the lack of lighting." The vizier shifted on his gnarled staff which creaked slightly on his weight. "Even the oil for the lanterns has been reserved for the army. Well, my Lord, you are expected. Come. If you will follow this old man."

Didam straightened and walked farther down the hallway, to Cathon's eyes appearing to be more fluid --and dangerous-- than one would expect from an old man. The end of the hallway was marked by the solid shadow of a doorway, looming higher as they neared.

They were two wolfheads carved in that solid oak throne door, their citrine eyes gazing like fiery orbs onto all who walk into the presence of the King. But standing before the door were wolves of a greater and more dangerous breed. The legendary Heart Guards of Manetheren. Wearing their unique black-red cloaks with silver-trims, each was a woman with blazing predator eyes and a long sword-tipped spear over each silver-mailed arm. They were selected and trained and hardened for the one purpose of protecting the King. Cathon had crossed blades with a Heart Guard but twice--only once in the practice ring--and it was most definitely an event which he did want to relive.

As Cathon and Dadim approached, the two Heart Guards at the door did not even blink. But when the Royal Vizier had walked between them, they immediately crossed their ashenderai behind the Vizier, snapping the gleaming steel blades to block Cathon's way. Cathon may be a First Lord, but in all matters of the King, a Heart Guard can deny even anyone passage. They were Aemon's hand and voice, with all its trappings and power.

Dadim knocked light upon the door, and with a brief delay it began to open, swinging inwards as pulled by the two Heart Guards stationed inside. The Vizier cleared his throat and bowed smoothly into the room, "My liege the King, I present Lawe Cathon, First Lord of Manetheren and Marshall-General of the Grand Legion of Manetheren and the Band of Red Hand, who requests permission for an audience."

"Granted." A voice boomed down the throne room halls.

The Heart Guards uncrossed their Ashandarei, tapping the ends to the floor in recognition. Dadim nodded to Cathon, and bowed to the side.
Warder whispered to Airene and took station across the corridor from the Heart Guard. He matched stares with the two Guards, and Cathon would find it difficult to wager who would win in a fight, but he certainly wouldn't be anyway near if that happened. With this exchange over, Cathon strolled into the room, Airene and Nathen trailing closely behind him.

Upon entering, Cathon almost smiled at the feeling of familiarity and nostalgia. The throne room was a massive piece of art, carved from the heart of the mountain. Stained glass mounted at each side filtered in the colored lights to dance on the marble floor, although tonight, the colors were gray and subdued and the glass was beaded with raindrops. The vaulted ceiling drew each whisper like a shout, echoing it for the whole world to hear. Their steps resounded heavily as they crossed through, and the door closed behind them with a shuddering slam.

Standing before the Throne were four men and six women. The foremost was the tall, striking figure of Aemon al Caar al Thorin, Wolf King of Manetheren, Holder of the Red Chalice, and Stone Warden of the Mountain Home. A sheathed greatsword was belted to his waist, and a red cloak flowed from his broad shoulders. The red cloak of the Band of Red Hand.

"It has been a long time!" Aemon called, his voice thundered in their ears. It was very much like that of General Diest Arcanum's, except flavored by culture and aged like fine wine. And why not, for Aemon was Arcanum's second blood-cousin. The King strolled forth, extending his massive hand.

Cathon grasped the hard hand in his own and bent his knee, "As you call, we heed."

"A very long time indeed." Queen Eldrene glided over, drawing Cathon's breath away. She was like he remembered her, her sun-danced tresses flowing lightly to her silk-draped shoulders. The last time he saw her, she was just a blossoming beauty, with marigolds braided in her hair, and dancing carefree in the verdant fields that must now be blackened with death. But that time was long past. He could see the wisdom and experience in her eyes, and the sadness and worry that comes with it, like a mirror to his own.

"My queen." He bowed and kissed her offered hand. As he straightened, she extended the arm to touch the medallion on his chest with familiarity, a slim finger circling the design of the black-white circle cradled in the fox's eyes. Her crisp, blue eyes met his own for a long moment, and then both drew away.

"So you wear it." Aemon remarked, his eyes having also seen the Timari. "The last defense of Manetheren."

"So it is." Cauthon agreed. "And I return what was loaned to the Band."

He extended the red-gold box that was the cradle of Caldazar's shells, placing it firmly into the hands of its rightful owner. Then he lowered his head to remove his medallion but was stopped by Aemon's hand.

"So it be." Aemon opened the box with a light touch. The Cradle needed no blood from the King to attest his rightness. He gazed down at the remaining Shell then snapped the box shut once more.

Cathon continued, "My King, this is my Adjutant, Nathen Austern, and my Advisor, Airene Sedai."

"Yes, you recognize that this is to be a council of war." Aemon nodded at the two with Cathon, then the King turned to those who stood behind him. "These two gentlemen I am sure you recognize. First Lord Cysil and Second Lord Donahin, Generals of the Grand-Legions of Jara'Copan-no-more and the Tarendrelle -- your compatriots. And my advisors, Kariline Sedai, Relari Sedai, Iaveline Sedai, Masotomi Sedi, and Surelli Sedai."
Lord Cysil was a gaunt man, pale complexioned with a severe scar that etched down the side of his face. Donahin was almost the opposite, a dark man with a bricklike jaw and short of stature.

The five Aes Sedai simply watched with their ageless faces. From a quick study of their shawls, Cathon counted two reds, two greens, and one yellow. They studied Cathon with a practiced eye, and then appeared to dismiss him, turning their attention to Airene.

“Surelli.” Airene gave a small incline of her head to the leader of the Tower delegation - a Red -- and did not approach them.

“The Nightingale. Why am I not surprised.” Surelli gave a smile that did not touch her eyes. Cathon could read Surelli’s icy glare from his experience with Airene. In the Red Sister’s flashing eyes, he could see a mixture of surprise and contempt, but he thought he could sense a hint of fear as well. A current of cold animosity bridged between the two Sisters across the room.

Lord Cysil of the Grand-Legion of Jara’Copan-No-More coughed loudly and broke through the palpable tension. "It is good to have you and the Band back." Cysil said, "We've been harrying the invaders since they crossed the borders, cutting their numbers down. But now, their eyes are set on this city, and there is nothing left for us but a full confrontation."

"Today will perhaps be our last day of relative peace. The Horde are burning and pillaging the nearby villages, but have not put any organized attempts on the city, outside of the probe attacks. But, the Dreadlords are starting to mass them along the eastern Tarendrelle bank."

"How many?" Cathon immediately asked.

"Seven. We've sighted the banners of Ogrin Kai, the Fist of Chobok, Ingo Blade, the Black Fangu, the Riven Eye, Mordisiac Horadine." Donahin paused for a moment, "And, the seventh, the Traitor's army. Vanigan's...army."

"And that is not the worst part." Cysil added.

Donahin hesitated, "They have raised the standard of Ba'alzamon."

Cathon froze at this, his blood chilling in his veins. "Ba'alzamon?" His mind briefly flashed to the face of flames at Thakan'dar.

"Say true. And we estimate almost a million Trolloc."

Cathon whistled with his clenched teeth, "We have a chance I think. With six Aes Sedai, I believe…" Then he stopped as he suddenly realized there was a strained silence.

"We will not be staying." The Red Sister Surelli proclaimed. "We are leaving tonight."

"But we are surrounded by Shadowspawn-"

"We have our ways out." The Aes Sedai interrupted.

"Lord Cathon," Aemon said soothingly, "The Aes Sedai have promised us reinforcements. They need to coordinate the armies of the Compact of Nations."

"Is this true?" Cathon watched their eyes, but not a single brow flickered.

"Will two hundred thousand additional men save you, General?" Surelli remarked offhandedly.

"Do you usually answer a question with a question?"

Her eyes flared, "You have all you need to know. I do not have time to be interrogated by the likes of you. We have our orders. We leave, Sisters." Then her eyes moved to Airene, "And you too, Sister, if you know what is good for you."

The five Aes Sedai glided past. Surelli paused before Cathon as she passed and tapped him in the chest as if her fingernail was a dagger. “So this is who the Nightingale has her talons into now.” Then without sparing another glance, the Aes Sedai continued past. The Yellow trailing her lingered briefly to whisper something to Airene before running after her sisters.

As the Heart Guards opened the door, Surelli turned around, "You must hold for three days. Until the dawn break of the third day." Then they were gone, the door slamming behind them.

"You shouldn't antagonize them, Lawe." Queen Eldrene scolded him, but there was a hint of amusement in her eyes.

"We are left without a shield against the greatest force that has ever been brought to bear against our soil." Cathon turned to Airene, "Can we trust them?"

"Can we trust them?" Her mouth was a straight line. "Do not forget that I'm an Aes Sedai, General. As is your Queen."

"Yes, and that is why I ask. Can we trust them? Is this reinforcing force real?"

"I refuse to answer that, General." She narrowed her eyes, "But if you care, I am staying with you. I mean, Manetheren. You as in Manetheren, not you you…Never mind." She stared back at Cathon, daring him to say anything.

Cathon looked questioningly up at Eldrene, whose eyes briefly flickered between the general and the Aes Sedai curiously.

"The Amyrlin Seat and I haven't been on the best of terms but we have no reason to believe otherwise, Lawe. The word of an Aes Sedai is truth." The Queen answered mildly.

"Three days." Cathon chewed on that idea. "We can hold for three days. We will meet them on the Tarendrelle with our forces. Pull everything off the Northern front. We must march by tomorrow if we must hope to keep the Horde out of sight of Manetheren."

"And the Dreadlords? And the...other?"

"As the Wheel wills." Cathon sighed.

"The night will be long, and the coming days longer. This will be the longest day of our lives, gentlemen. Take a seat and let us talk of men and generals." Aemon motioned to the Petitioners' table.

Each of the men took a chair, and began to pour over the order of battle for the coming days. The oil chandelier flickered and burned above, and the storm beat on the stained windows. A servant had come in--Cathon didn't know when--and left a tray of mulled wines, which Cathon drank more than his share.

Some time deep into the night, Cathon leaned back, his head swimming with figures and numbers. Aemon was arguing with Donahin on the best placement of the reserves while Cysil was rummaging through the latest scout reports on troop movements.

"Time is a river that heed no man." Eldrene took a seat beside him and turned her crystal eyes to his. She had been deep in conversation with Airene.

"...for Time is a woman." Cathon finished, a smile gracing his lips, memories rushing into his head.

"You remembered." She replied with a brief smile.

"You've changed, Ellisande."

"I've changed?" She plucked at his beard with her nimble fingers, "I like what you've done here. When last I saw you..." She trailed off.

"We did not leave on the best of terms, I'm afraid."

"That's quite an understatement. But let us leave the matters of the past lie. We are adults now." She glanced at the giant map spread over the table. "I have missed you. More than you might know." She touched his cheek lightly. "I gave you that scar, didn't I?"

Cathon chuckled and rubbed at the small smooth mark, "Perhaps."

"Well, I forgive you. Do I have your pardon as well?"

"You had but to ask. To think we were so foolish once. And now a nation rests at our feet." Cathon grew serious. Nostalgia drained away in the face of reality.

"General Cathon," Aemon called out, startling Cathon. "What is your opinion on the most recent Shadowspawn troop movement."

"Let me not take you from your work. I must take a break from this stuffy room." Eldrene spoke softly and stood up. She whispered some words to the King and quickly departed.

Cathon watched the Queen leave then took the creased papers from Aemon's proffered hand. "Looks like a direct three prong attack. No guile and secrecy on their part. They want a full engagement and we cannot help but be bullied into it if we are to hold them." But even as he spoke, his thoughts were somewhere else, somewhere fifteen years past.

"Yes, yes. I see..." The King murmured, but it seemed Aemon's attention had wandered off as well. He had removed the last Medallion from the cradle and was now rolling the medallion in his fingers, rubbing the smooth surface. When Cathon had finished, Aemon softly tapped its silvery edge on the table and turned his head slightly as if to listen. There was a slight awkward silence.

"Sir?" Cysil asked, coughing.

Aemon stirred slightly, "You know, this is not the first time that there was a Last Defense. These medallions are not unused. If you touch them, you can almost feel the essence of the previous holders." He traced the symbol of the fox's eyes. "I am sure you have heard of how Sorella forged it from the mountain of fire. And that is a likely truth as any." Aemon rapped the Timari on the table. Tap tap tap! In his eyes were a look that spoke of forbidden knowledge. Cathon did not understand what Aemon was leading to and was not certain that he wanted to. Tap tap tap. A smile touched the King's lips. "But perhaps it is older than we think. Perhaps it is not as human as we think."

Lord Donahin's jaws were slightly agape, and Cathon felt his own skin crawling. He felt as if his Shell was winking.

"And to listen to me talk, one would think me less than sane." Aemon sighed, "I speak but the words do not hold water. I apologize, but it is almost as if it is drawing something from me, like a pleading and haunting voice that cannot be silenced. That must be obeyed. Never the mind, it is not important. No, words are meaningless. I will speak with action."

With that, he bowed his head and slipped the medallion's chain over his head. Realization dawned on the generals.

Aemon folded his fingers over the Shell. "I have spent the last fifteen years sitting in this dusty hall, Sanction's honed edge lying wasted in its scabbard. I will ride tomorrow with my men." He waved off the protestations of the generals. "The Band of Red Hand is after all my army and I rode with them in Aridhol and Coremanda. I do not want to live history as the King who sat while the city burned. Let my people see me and know that their King is with them. Let my enemies see me and stir themselves into a frenzy. If I die, so be it. I am a King, but I am also a soldier, and that is our creed. I will hear no arguments."

"As you command, my King." Cathon acquiesced warily.

"Welcome to the flame." Tirium downed his wine.

"Merciful Caldazar." Donahin finished.

"I think this meeting is nigh over. We have some hours before we ride. Try to get some rest if you can." Aemon ran a hand through his hair.
Cathon stood and shook the hands of the generals and the King and stretched his cramped muscles. Austern collected the papers for Cathon and trailed after him. Airene was gazing at the storm beating against the stained windows, a finger twisting a lock of hair absentmindedly and an odd look on her face, as if in puzzlement.

He shrugged and exited the doors held open by the Heart Guards. Passing him was the Queen once more, and there was a brief exchange of glances, and then she was in, and he was out.

As he and Austern walked down the poorly-lit halls, Airene and Warder caught up smoothly.

"So it seems you are closely acquainted with Aemon." Airene asked.

"He is my King, no more and no less."

"And the Queen?" Her tone was nonchalant, but the way she said it caused Cathon to miss a step.

His adjutant took that hesitation to join in, a bemused grin on his face, "The Lord General was quite the romantic when he was young. His competition with the King for Elisende's heart is almost legendary, why you can-"

"That's enough, Nathen." Cathon interrupted, trying to hide his grimace. "I'm sure the Lady does not need to know my history or my long past youthful misadventures."

"Why, sir, you must have had a very long youth then." Nathen added.

"Are you feeling well, Airene?" Cathon asked the Aes Sedai, seeing her troubled expression. Most of his own personal demons had been locked away once he had set foot on Manetheren soil, where he had felt more like his old self, though sometimes in the late of night, he would wake, covered in sweat and reservations, cursing himself and all of creation.

"I'm fine. Just a headache. This storm makes me feel agitated for some reason. Something in the air. Like the calm before the storm. Except the storm is already here. But yet it's not. It's rather confusing." She frowned.

Cathon nodded unconsciously. He too felt the tension in the air, like an itch on the back of his neck that he just couldn't scratch. He's had hunches before, many times in his careers, so numerous that he had lost count. But now, he could swear something was about to happen. And he was probably right. They would be riding out to the final judgment very soon.

It didn't help that the storm was no doubt supernatural in origin. They were alone in the dark halls whose walls were embedded with dead and darkened torches. A man was walking towards them. The storm was still raging outside, lashing away at the men bunkered restlessly in their barracks. Their boots resonated, bouncing between the walls, but it was a lonely sound. A man was walking towards them. Somewhere a brood lark cried from its shelter, and the wind hissed its threats against the palace walls. A man was walking towards them. A small creature-perhaps a rat-scratched and scampered in the walls.

"It was a dark and stormy night." Cathon muttered under his breath.

"Excuse me?" Nathen's voice echoed oddly.

Cathon just shook his head, with a rueful grin.

His hand was a blur, almost disappearing in the dark light.

There was a crack of the sword pulling from the scabbard and the hiss of the blade arching up. Though it took barely a second, it was almost too late.

The assassin opened his mouth but no sound came out. Cathon's sword was thrust cleanly through his chest, barely a foot away.

Cathon stared into the man's eyes. There was nothing behind the eyes. This was not to say the man was dead. No, for behind those black orbs was sheer oblivion of the soulless. It was an emptiness that tugged at Cathon's soul, pulling him towards insanity.

The man moved closer, walking down the sword in his chest towards the wielder, as if he had not just been dealt a fatal wound. He raised his dagger, its curved edge catching Cathon's trapped eyes. Its name was Death.

Then the dagger fell along with the arm. The man slumped, held up only by the Cathon's blade. The general dipped the blade and the soulless’ corporeal vessel slipped off, and crumpled to the ground.

There was the shimmer of steel as both Warder and Nathen drew their blades and Airene's sharp gasp. Perhaps a little too late, Cathon mused. By now he would've already been laid low by the phantom blade. Saved by reflex and something else? Intuition? Luck? A voice in the back of his head that wouldn't be stilled?

Warder had spun back to face the way they had, his keen eyes scanning for others like the slain. Once one was looking specifically for them, phantom blades are not terribly hard to see. But it was not the physical act that made these phantoms so hard to see. It was the fact that the soulless represented a madness-inspiring void that mortal eyes automatically avoid for desperate self preservation.

Cathon snapped his blade in a circular motion, returning the circulation to his hands, "What would one phantom want with us?"

"They shouldn't be able to enter the Palace. Karaline said that they had wards around the palace grounds." Airene carefully drew the slender blade from the pallid hand and swept down the hallway with an alert eye. "They don't usually come alone. If one could get in here-"

"The King." Cathon broke into a run. He did not need Airene to finish her sentence. He could hear them jogging behind until he skidded to a stop at the junction before the Throne room. Nathen stumbled into him from behind, but he didn't pay any attention.

"Airene, stay behind me." Cathon ordered, his sword poised at the ready. He stared at the carnage before him. Six Phantom Blades sprawled dead on the crimson carpet, but so were the two Heart Guards, their ashenderai blooded and still grasped in their dead hands.

There were two survivors. The first spun and raised his swords as the four arrived upon the scene, but quickly lowered his blade. The second was looking slightly worse for wear, leaning hard against the door, but his sword still gripped firmly in hand.

"Donahin! Cysil!" Cathon jumped over the corpses, sprinting towards the two generals.

"Light, are we glad to see you. Thought you were more of them." Cysil's eyes flickered past their shoulders. "We got attacked when we exited. Donahin was the first out and he took a nasty scratch. The Heart Guards were already dead, but they already took down most of the phantoms. They've barred the door from inside. I don't know who. There's sound of fighting. We tried to break down the door, but Donahin can barely lift his sword."

Donahin lifted his head and shook it. His eyes were sallow and his hair was damp with sweat. "I'm fine. We need to get to the King."

"Guard my back." Airene brushed past Cathon and placed her right hand on Donahin's chest. To Cathon, it seemed to be a light touch, but Donahin recoiled, sliding up on the door as if stung. She pulled her hand away with the ripping of his cloth, to expose his skin. There was barely a two-inch slash on the upper chest, but it was black and inflamed. Raised black veins extended from the puncture site, branching off in rivulets of ink.

"This has not reached his heart. Lie down, general." The Aes Sedai opened her left hand to reveal a wooden dog cradled in the palm. "Go to your King. I will try to heal him. If it is still possible." She placed her palm over the wound, hovering but not touching. Warder stood at the ready behind her, stone eyes scanning for more assassins. Then both the statuette and her hand began to glow a pure whiteness that seemed to suck the light from the hallway. Donahin shivered, all the muscles in his body clenched. His fingers stretched in a rigid pose, and his sword fell from his grasp, tumbling to the marble floor with a clatter that snapped Cathon from his trance.

The Wolfhead Door slid open.

The standing generals immediately cast their weapons up, to discover two blades at their own necks. There was a tense pause as the generals stared into the eyes of the Heart Guards, swords and ashenderai crossed in a frozen still.

"Enough. Stay your weapons." Aemon's voice boomed. "Let them through."

There was a shift of leather as the Heart Guards lowered their spears, but appeared ready to raise them at the slightest alarm.

Cathon snapped his blade, transferring his sword to a hilt-up grasp, but kept it unsheathed. The Heart Guards stood aside, allowing the generals their first view of the room.

The once-lit room was buried in darkness, the chandelier swinging darkened and the fireplace a murky pit. Wind immediately assailed the two men, the chill biting deep through their cloaks. Cathon looked up towards the source, the rows of stained glass windows were shattered, allowing the rain to flood down the walls in cascades. The floor was already wet with puddles and littered with the shards of once-beautiful glass images.
Aemon stood in the middle, the greatsword Sanction gleaming wetly in his grasp. Beside him, Queen Eldrene held a ball of glowing light that shed scattered beams across the room, throwing deep shadows over the dark figures lying motionless around them, as in a circle of death. Ilak Dadim was kneeling over one of the corpses, gingerly searching the assassins' forms. There were as many as ten of them--maybe more--a serious business.

"Are you hurt in any way, my King?" Cysil called forth.

"We are quite fine." Aemon straightened his cloak. "They came in through the windows. And that was their problem. Their masters created them for stealth, and it is quite difficult to conceal their entrance in this manner. Whoever sent them was obviously in a hurry or...Where's Lord Donahin?"

"He suffered a glancing wound from an ambush outside in the Hall." Cysil answered, "Cathon's Advisor is attending to him right now. We lost both Guards, my Lords."

Aemon nodded grimly, "I suspected as much. This is a daring move to destroy the chain of command, and we must expect more. Though I find it odd that they knew exactly when to strike, unless they had spies, which in this age of Darkfriends, is no surprise. It is also entirely possible that this wasn't the only action taken." Then he paused. "Did you hear that?"

Through the veil of rain pierced a distant and muffled horn, repeated and scattered, but its existence was undeniable.

"The City Gates have been breached." Cathon spoke what everyone had just realized.

"Impossible!" Cysil uttered, "Last scout report records no activity past the Manetherendrelle. They could not have struck without warning."
But there was the distant alarm again.

"They have made the first move." Aemon sighed. A dozen Heart Guards swept into the Throne Room, their Ashenderai bared, called by the alarm to protect their King.

"So it begins." Cathon felt a rising coldness deep within him. "Time to roll the dice."

halfhand
Posts: 106
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

Re: Black Flood: A Tale of the Trolloc Wars

Post by halfhand » Sat Oct 10, 2020 10:16 am

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Most Trusted

The blade glimmered dully in the candle light, its once virgin sheen now etched and covered with years of use and age. Stef slowly turned his wrist, keeping a stiff grip on the well-worn leather-wrapped hilt. He rotated the plane of the sword and nodded satisfactorily at the new-learned control in his right arm.

"How does it feel?" Tayren asked, glancing up from the card game with the other gate guards.

"It's the oddest thing. Feels like I'm missing my left hand… oh wait, I am. " Stef grumbled, keeping his eyes on the blade. "I've strengthened my right arm, but in a battle, I do not know how it will fare. I need more time in the practice yards."

"Well, now you can hold a sword the proper way, you southie. I'm sure you also liked having that little nurse of yours ogling you too."

"Zira. Her name is Zira." Stef turned an eye toward Tayren. "And it’s purely professional. She's not what you make it out to be."

But Stef knew that wasn't quite true, although it had been somewhat innocent at first.

His first time in the yards, Stef was stripped to his waist as he tried to relearn all the skills he had stored in his left hand. And he was failing. He was born a left-handed man and would continue to be one, regardless of the existence of the limb in question. The sword did not even feel the same way; its weight and touch was alien and out of place. He held and swung the blade awkwardly, stumbling through novice exercises that he would once have scoffed at. After an hour with seemingly no progress, Stef threw his gladius to the ground with disgust.

"You shouldn't give up so soon." Stef raised his head to the speaker. Zira was sitting on one of the benches lining the yard, watching him with those big eyes of hers. She wasn't wearing her nurse's smock and her long hair now framed her face. She reached beside her and tossed him his shirt.

"What brings you here, Zira?" He reached out to catch the shirt, but it fell through the missing hand, drifting to the dirt. He sighed, plucked up the shirt with his right hand, and wiped the sweat from his face, tossing it onto his shoulder. "No patients?"

"For some odd reason, soldiers don't like being confined to the bed. As soon as they have regained a semblance of thought, they're out the door, even if they have to drag themselves."

"You don't say." Stef retrieved his sword.

"Come on up and let me take a look at you. Anyway, you shouldn't give up so soon." Zira repeated. "You just need to build up the strength in your right arm and coordination comes with practice. Healing isn't fast. If it was, we would not have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes."

Stef took a seat beside her, "And this comes from personal experience?"

"I am a nurse after all." She raised his left arm, studying the point of amputation. It was largely healed, covered by a smooth skin. "I have known many amputees. Too many, if you ask me. Many of them would have preferred to have been killed rather than live ‘less than whole’ or ‘lacking Means’ as they call it. But, then there are those who grow stronger. You look like one of the latter, Sergeant Stef Stef. You look like a survivor."

"Let's hope so." Stef replied. "Do you always give such attention to every one of your patients?"

"Perhaps I'm just bored. You remind me of someone I had once known. I hope I'll be seeing you around, sergeant." She kissed him on the cheeks, straightened her skirts, and hurried away.

Everyday after, she came to watch him practice his blades. His sword-handling began to improve, as did his mood and demeanor. He showed her how to hold the sword properly, more as an excuse to be next to her. She even showed him a few tricks with dagger throwing; it turned out she was quite a knifesharp. But beyond that, sometimes Zira even managed to persuade him into a walk into the Palace Gardens. And well, after years of looking at mud and more mud, the trip to the gardens wasn't exactly torture. But Stef wasn't going to endanger his image by admitting it. At least in public.

"So I hear the Band is setting out for the Manetherendrelle." Zira remarked on one of the walks, clutching tightly to his arm. They were sheltering under the boughs of a large greendrew tree, caught by surprise by the breaking of the rain clouds.

"Aye." Stef stared glumly at the streams of water already forming by the pebble path. "Just our luck to be walking into this. This'll be like Jaramide all over again, in the spring when all the snow melts and becomes shi…brown…um…colored mud."

"We will win, right?" Zira pulled him closer, "You will come back to me in one piece."

"We cannot lose. There is a rightness in what we do."

"Just because you're right does not mean you'll live. The most judicious man of the world is no more protected from mortality than the vilest. Go away with me, Stef. Run away from all of this. There are still places untouched in this world." She pleaded.

"That I cannot do."

She pressed her lips fiercely to his, and they were lost in their embrace. And for a moment were lost in that place untouched by war. And for a moment-

"Hey, Sarge." Tayren grinned, "Thinking of the Miss? Mayhaps she pay us a little visit tonight? Cause if she's into you, then she's gonna love me. After all, I have twice as many hands."

"She'd gut you like a fish. Her skill with the dagger is no joke. Mind your business." Stef grunted, laying his sword on the table, and began to clean it with grease. "None of your light forsaken business."

A bird suddenly fluttered in through the tower's only window slit, dripping and spraying droplets everywhere. Tayren snatched it out of the air, smoothly keeping his cards hidden in hand, and turned the pigeon upside down.

"Looks like some messages from the scouts." He pulled the bone container out and tossed the bird away, which scrambled onto the mantle of the fireplace, its head cocked as if looking for seeds.

"What, we lookin’ at some company tonight?" One of the card players muttered, his eyes glancing at his remaining tokens forlornly.

"Nah, it says here that all's well. Figure they'd send something completely useless like that." Tayren crumpled up the paper and tossed it smoothly into the fire. "Come on, let's take a looksee at your cards. Well, look at that. I got the Dark One's own luck tonight."

There was a general grumble as Tayren raked in the pile of tokens. With a practiced hand, he sorted out the useless promissory notes from the cold hard coins, occasionally biting down on a dubious disc.

"Alright, folks, just to make sure there's no hard feelings, a free round for everyone." Tayren reached down and plopped a full wineskin on the table, "Got it straight from the Markey. Cut off my own hand –no offense, sarge- trying to get someone dumb enough to accept those paper fodder they pay us."

Stef chuckled softly. Tayren could swim through a mile of sewage and come out smelling like a flower. Already, the mood in the room was lightening as full mugs began to replace empty pockets. Perhaps, they might not notice the cards Tayren was slipping from his sleeve into his pouch.

Only one of the guards refused a drink. A private named Sanak or some sort, his face looked perpetually like he was chewing on a lemon. He had the same pinched look on his face as he barked, "No drinks on guard duty."

"Aw, come on, son." Tayren cajoled, pushed a mug towards him. "Just one."

"No, be glad I do not report you." Sanak tipped the mug on to the floor, then turned his eyes to Stef, the only sergeant in the room, "And you should know better, sarge."

"I certainly should, shouldn't I?" Stef remarked mildly, catching the mug that Tayren slid across the table. He drank it down in two gulps. It left his mouth feeling numb and a trail of fire down his gullet. Tasted a little vinegary, but considering the circumstances, he wasn't complaining. He'd been dry for so long that just one drink left him a little dazed and slightly disoriented.

"Blood and ashes, that has a kick." Stef murmured to himself, and shook off a second offer. "I think you got cheated, Tayren, because someone sold you cat piss."

The numbness in his mouth did not fade away slowly as he was expecting, instead spreading like a web of coldness that permeated every inch of his being. Alarm bells began ringing in his head. He lunged for his blade, lying close on the table, but his arms didn't seem to want to respond. He clipped the table, and hit his chin on the surface, but he didn't feel the collision.

A mug shattered to the ground, and a guard slipped from his chair, pawing futilely at his belt sheath. Sanak, the only person who did not drink, stood up, his eyes widening and drawing his gladius.

Tayren was faster. Before Sanak could move a step, Tayren's sword was buried in his chest, and the Private toppled like a sack of bricks.
"No respect these days." Tayren's voice was far darker than Stef has ever remembered him being. He walked quickly to the door and lowered the iron bar, sealing the tower from the world.

Stef tried once more to grapple at his sword with an unresponding hand, but only succeeded in pushing it off the table. No! This couldn't be happening! With all his will, he forced himself to fall after the sword.

Then Tayren was standing over him, casually kicking the gladius away from his reach. "Sorry, friend. Can't let you have that." The face glowed sinisterly in the candlelight, and a dull gleam was in the eyes of the sergeant's most trusted friend.

The traitor seemed to have read the look in Stef’s eyes. For a moment, there was a crack in the surface of the ugly mask, and there was a pleading tortured man trapped in a prison.

"I cannot stop it. They’re in my head. In Jaramide—I didn't escape—They caught me. I am so sorry." Tayren stood up, and Stef followed his movement to the massive winch and chain that controlled the Inner Gate. That was insanity! It takes both towers around theInner Gate to raise it. And two more controlling the Outer Gate. What makes him think--

There was the muffled rattling of chains being loosened, but Tayren had not yet touched the winch, simply waiting. But hearing the same noise, Tayren closed his eyes and began to cycle through the winch.

Stef closed his eyes in despair. They were everywhere, even in the home of Manetheren. If he could have made a Darkfriend his friend, and his confidante in his own foolishness and blindness, where else could they have nestled, simply waiting for the time to strike. But how was it possible? He shivered in his drug-induced state. He could already hear the creak of the Drawbridge of the Outer Gate falling across the moat. Four towers, with armed guards each, and they got them all.

Then came the sound Stef dreaded the most. The clop of heavy footsteps crossing below the tower that did not belong to any human source. The pigeon that Tayren caught, Stef realized, was the warning that they were supposed to receive. Now, it was too late, the message intercepted by treasonous guile. And the Horde was marching into their homes in the dead of night.

The sergeant part of Stef screamed at him, pounding into his head. This was not going to happen on his watch. If he could either overpower Tayren or raise a warning, there was a chance to still stop it! Stef shuddered, his consciousness floating in the sea of whiteness. He sent the tendrils of willpower outwards, forcing contacts into his paralyzed muscles, urging them to work.

There was a distant cry of alarm, and the sound of scuffle just within the gates. A horn tone cracked through the storm, quickly taken up by more. There was still hope. If they could close the gates in time.

He strained against the numbing pain, moving his left hand inches by inches towards the field knife on his belt. He closed his hand on it, gritting his teeth as he tried to maintain a semblance of grasp. If it slipped out, he had no doubt that he would not be able to reach it again. There was no strength in his arm to throw it, let alone wield it with any potency. But he was going to go down fighting, the only way he knew how.

The roar of battle outside now drowned out the roar of the storm. Stef felt the draw of the clash of steel and iron, and wished he could be there, instead of lying helpless and impotent.

Then the tower door shivered with a heavy blow. The bar and lock were both solid iron, but the door frame itself was only reinforced wood, and buckled inward, cracks spider webbing through the casing. There could be two forces outside, either the Shadowspawn coming to secure the gate, or Band defenders. As the frame buckled and bent, Tayren continued to stand by the winch, glazed eyes staring into space and head cocked to the side, as if he was listening to something distant.

Then just as the doorway was to be breached, Tayren flowed into action. Picking up Stef’s gladius --his own was still buried in Sanak-- he darted towards the side of the door, no doubt to wait in ambush.

This was Stef’s chance, and he clumsily swung his knife as the traitor passed. It was a terrible strike, both excruciatingly slow and lacking power, but something seemed to guide his hand, grazing one of the Tayren's thighs before the dagger fell from his dull hands. It left only a shallow wound, but caused the man to flinch and stumble. At that moment, the frame finally splintered and the iron door tipped over. Tayren jerked aside, taking a glancing blow to his shoulder. But his element of surprise was lost.

The first soldier blocked his lunge, forcing Tayren backwards to allow the rest of the men to enter. Tayren gave a lurch as in surprise, his head twisting halfway as if to look at Stef. And the sergeant knew why. He was fighting none other than his father, Jorj Reimos. The mixture of smoke and dust and the uncanny resemblance must have indeed shaken Tayren. But he recovered after the first stroke and fought like a man possessed, with wild and furious swings, intending to force them back, to stall them.

But Jorj was a wily and practical man. He caught one of the swings in his sword's guard, twisting and trapping the blades together. He pulled up, and two soldiers swung around and skewered Tayren through the torso. A kick to the abdomen and the turncoat stumbled back and crumpled to the floor.

The soldiers wasted no time on the various bodies on the floor. His father glanced down to see him at a quick scan of the room, his eyes flickering on Stef’s prone form for just a second, before returning to an appraisal of the room. Sprawled in his repose, Stef had all the semblance of death.

"Get the winch! Two guards on door. Let's hope we got through the other tower." Jorj called, jumping over bodies as he rushed towards the gate-controller. Two soldiers quickly flanked the door, while the three others rushed to help Jorj with the winch.

There were more footsteps below them, and one of the guards called out, "Company. Hurry! Oh a fa-" The man twisted and fell, clutching frantically at what remained of his shattered throat. The second guard slashed out without a thought, and was thrown hard across the room, his head cracking against the stone wall with a wet thump.

Darkness covered the doorway, resolving into the image of a Halfman and its Trollocs. The Myrddraal surged across the room with deadly liquid grace, but the soldiers within did not hesitate a second. A chair was already airborne, but the Fade smashed it aside in a shower of splinters. The two soldiers engaged, their swords swiping in time, but the Fade batted the blows away casually. Then it drew a second ebony blade in its left arm. It struck like a whirlwind with the dual blackswords, slicing through steel and flesh, leaving shreds of red fabric floating in the air, and a fine spray of crimson beaded onto Stef’s face. It stormed down upon Jorj Reimos, a giant prepared to crush an ant below its tread. It pushed aside the table from its path, and turned its eyeless visage towards its target.

The last man standing stood calmly, a look of utter acceptance in his face. He did not raise his blade to ward off the raised blades. His gaze was steady and his arm was steadier.

His sword arched out. The Fade struck.

As Jorj was cut down, he slashed through the chains of the Gate winch. As his knees collapsed, the chains flashed up through the walls into the Wheel hub, disappearing. When his head rolled to a stop before his prostate son, there was a massive lurch and a shiver of the floor as the Inner Gate slammed down with an explosion that rattled the walls. Mortar rained from the ceiling and half-empty mugs shattered to the floor. Staring into the lifeless serene eyes of his father, Stef struggled hard to not vomit, for in his state, he would be apt to choke on it like a drunk.

The Fade hissed its dismay at the receding chain. It jerked to the sound of further footsteps on the stairway, spitting out incomprehensible venom commands to the Trollocs in the room. It grasped the massive iron pulley where the chain had once hung and ripped the entire contraption from the walls, leaving a massive jagged hole. It tossed the pulley aside and slipped out into the storm, leaving its cadre of Trollocs behind.

The human reinforcement poured into the room, swamping the leaderless Spawns. The battle was fierce but short, and when the last Trolloc fell, the sound of battle below began to fade and recede. The Outer Gate rattled closed as its two Towers were cleared. The stem of Spawns had been cut and the battle was over.

But the level of activity in the room remained unabated. The wounded needed to be transported and healed, the dead needed to be covered and buried, and the missing found and counted. And there was the matter of how they were betrayed.

A soldier stood above Stef, glancing down as if in debate. The sergeant forced his mouth to open, croaking, "Alive. I'm alive."

"Nurse!" The soldier called out, and suddenly a very familiar face was leaning over him.

"Stef!" Zira cried, kneeling over him. "What? What's wrong?"

"Poison," Stef felt her hands clutching his tightly. He felt like laughing and crying at the same time. "I think. Temporarily." He could already feel the effects waning. Or perhaps it was only his mind playing tricks on him. The white numbness was now the gentle and soothing sensation of agonizing pain. But why would Tayren use such a mild poison? Could it be possible that even as a Darkfriend, he did not want to harm the friend he was betraying? Stef remembered the trapped look in Tayren's eyes. Perhaps there was a part of him left. Part of him that wanted a way out.
As Zira helped him sit up, Stef stared at the carnage unleashed, and could only imagine the aftermath of the battle at the Gates. Then he felt strong hands on his shoulders and he was propped up against the wall.

"My lady, if you will excuse us." A rumbling voice like a growling sandcat said, and a gnarled face was peering into Stef’s eyes. "If he's a survivor, we have some questions we need to ask."

"He's sick. Poisoned. What possible questions do you need to ask at this time of night?" Zira tried to move towards him, but was stopped gently by two guards.

"He is the only living witness of what happened tonight. We were betrayed and we will find the source before it is too late." The man stood up, and a black mantle and band revealed that he was a royal inspector.

"You can't possibly believe—"

"I will release him into your care, Madame, after I am done. My apologies in advance." The man turned on his heels, and Stef was lifted lightly by two dark-mantled men. In his trance, he felt as if he was floating.

"Wait!" Zira's last cry slowly faded as they descended the tower stairs with him in tow.

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