25

May

by thefourpartland

The sound of a bell startled Yaden awake from where he had been dozing, nose down in a particularly dry and academic tract on the families of the High Arcanist, and what had caused each one to rise to that position.

Across from him, Canere was still awake, although with bags under his eyes. And sitting to either side of him was two stacks, one much taller than the other. As Yaden watched, the pamphlet in Canere’s hand was dropped onto the shorter of the two stacks.

“Canere, what time is it?”

The first answer he got was a yawn, followed by a stretch.

“Canere?”

“I think that was the dawn bell, although I’m not sure. I lost track a while ago. It’s the downside of being tucked into these archives.”

“The dawn bell? I said I was going to be finished at the midnight bell! Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I was too busy studying. You’ve known me how long and you thought I’d remember what time of day it was when I found something interesting?”

Yaden sighed. That comment was, sadly, entirely true. Canere had never been able to devote anything less than his full and undivided attention to something he found interesting. Hence why he was so suited for the life of an arcanist.

“Fine, fair point. But what do we do now?”

“Well, I have to go to classes soon.” The young mage paused. “Blast. No, I don’t. I have to teach the children’s classes. That’s much worse than I thought. You sure you don’t want to cover for me, Yaden? I’m sure you could cope…”

“I just spent a night helping you on your newest crazy idea and now you want to drag me into that? Not a chance. Me, I’m going in search of a good breakfast, and then a bed. It will at least keep up my reputation as the last roustabout of Yn Dref, provided no one knows why I was up all night long. If you want to rope someone into help you, I suggest Ira. She’s going to be fresh this morning.”

Canere snorted. “I prefer my legs unbroken, thank you. Her denials can be rather… vigorous sometimes.”

Laughing, Yaden waved goodbye to his friend as the two departed the archives.

***

Ira, for her part, was in fact engaged in something vigorous at the precise moment of Canere’s comment. And in much the same vein as he had meant it.

“No, you dolt. You don’t try and block like that, you step to the side. It’s much easier and doesn’t risk your weapon being broken. You really should have learned that by now, I’ve shown you enough times.”

The trouble of it was, the lad that Ira was instructing as part of guardsmen training was making the block work. He was the second son of one of the few remaining blacksmiths, and much like his kin, was the size of a small stone tower. And about as rugged. Which meant that if he wanted to block a strike and got his training blade in the way, the strike was going to be blocked, whether it should have been or not.

And no amount of shouting, cajoling, instructing, or other techniques had been able to get the trainee to adjust what he was doing. Yes, it worked, but it wasted energy and meant that the lad would eventually run up against someone with enough skill to take advantage of the hole.

That was the theory, at least, although in Ira’s experience, the only enemy the guards ever defended against was the wild and sometimes starving predators that roamed the peaks of the Ogleddol expanse, and against those creatures, brawn counted for far more than almost anything else.

There hadn’t been an actual invasion of Hania since the collapse of the skycities. Why should there be? If someone wanted the fabled magical artefacts of the Hanians, they could easily find a fallen skycity and plunder it, rather than invade the lands of the last working one. And no doubt that had been done, although the truly inhospitable terrain and hidden valleys that had proven so useful to the Hanians in the past were no doubt still serving to keep most treasure seekers away.

Frustrated with everything, but perhaps herself most of all, Ira waved off the few trainees, sending them to get some food and water. Trainees… There were eight of them, six boys and two girls, and that was the entirety of this year’s guardsmen class. And four of them would be useless in a fight. No courage, no willingness to take a hit, and no hint of skill with a blade.

Sitting as she was, she could only hear the approaching footsteps.

“Another rough day, Ira?”

A glance up showed her Vendol, Senior Guardsman and what passed for the leader of the ragtag Hanian fighting force.

“Even in the year I joined, some of these would have been turned away.”

“Aye, I know. But we make do with what the gods have chosen to give us, not what we wish we could have. I could wish for the serried ranks of the Dark Havoc to rise once more, but that elite corps is consigned to the pages of history. And so we take gutter orphans and make them soldiers.”

“How? I always thought I was good at training, until I met this lot. The blacksmith’s boy will be the best of them, but that’s his father’s gifts, not mine. Several of the rest will be functional, and the bottom few little more than animal feed. Three of them against a single of the winter wolves would probably see them all killed. And when the news of that filters back, it will come to rest on my head.”

Vendol clasped her shoulder, turning Ira to face him. “No one else’s death is on your head unless you run them through. I’ve done my best over the years with the guards, but that doesn’t mean no one has died. If someone’s standing livestock duty alone, and an ice bear charges him down, unless he’s got Fasnachu’s own luck, he’s dead. Doesn’t matter if it’s you, me, or anyone else. Not one of us can manage an ice bear solo. And you’re selling yourself and the students short. They’ll turn out to be better than you think in the long run, and you’ll be the one who put them there. So smile and bear up, because the gods know we need every living soul who can.”

That drew a slightly pained grin from Ira, but a grin it was. “Fair enough, Ven. And while you’re here and in a good mood, do you mind if I take the kids down below? There’s been reports of some wolves harassing the outlying livestock pen, and I’d like to check it out.”

“Just remember to issue them real armour. Having any crippled this early on would set back the whole class.”

Ira nodded. “I understand. Was planning on bringing my homemade bow as a just in case.”

Vendol sighed. “That monstrosity? Fine. But if you break your back carrying that thing through the brush, it’s all on you.”

“Always is, chief.” Sketching a rather jaunty salute, Ira trotted off towards her home.

22

May

by thefourpartland

Dinner had been a tepid affair, as it always was these days, with little to recommend it and no flavours to speak of. It was nutrition, pure and simple, and that was all that could be said in its favour. Indeed, it was a meal to dampen the spirits, as were all the meals taken on Yn Dref these days. It was in those dampened spirits that the three friends found themselves wandering the city streets, past grey mothers and greyer children.

Ira waved a hand at the Hanians that flocked around them. “Are you sure you don’t want to help these people, Yaden? There’s little reason not to.”

Yaden sighed. For once, the boisterous nature was gone. “Ira, I’ve nothing of what they truly need.” He flicked his hand into the air, and a light shower of sparks came from it, twinkling as they extinguished themselves in the night air. “You’ve witnessed something near to the extent of my powers right there. And what we stand on is the floating remains of a mountain top, ripped from the ground and upended by magics that we can barely comprehend. The gulf between my meagre talents and the arcanists of the golden era of Hania is so vast as to swallow all the valleys that feed us and then some. To save our people, we need gifted who can cross that gulf. Instead, the very best we have exhaust themselves daily just trying to keep what remains flying. And they’re failing. The old Market District is somewhere down below, now. As are the original barracks, some of the Temple Quarter, and who knows what else that fell before I was old enough to understand. The entire might of our existing arcanists is not enough to keep one skycity in the air, and yet in the history books, we learn of a time when there were dozens, if not a hundred or more, floating above the vast canyons of Ogleddol. So no, it’s not that I won’t, it’s that I can’t.”

Canere, ever the scholar, began to muse. “But why has our talent level fallen so far? We’ve the same bloodline as the arcanists who came before. Indeed, most of the upper families remaining can trace their heritage back to the greatest of the great, and are more intermingled than any twisted vine. So that’s the same. The world around us has changed, for sure. The old empire of Arhosa is no more, but Hanian society was long somewhat separate on our skycities in the first place. The Enayinbo magicians who helped forge Arhosa were our equals, not our betters.” He paused. “I’m going to the archives. The answer has to be in there somewhere.”

The other two groaned. They had seen what happened when Canere got caught in the throes of an idea, and it would mean him spending hours upon hours digging through whatever had caught his fancy. And then dragging the two of them into it.

“Tomorrow, Canere. Despite being the one who wasn’t a fool on the edge of the world today, I’m tired. Maybe that’s because I was doing actual work. So, before you have your mad moment, I’m leaving and going to bed. Yaden, I suggest you do the same.” Ira departed, shaking her head at the ideas that would sometimes sprout in that mage’s mind.

“Yaden, I kept you safe today. The least you can do is give me a little bit of a hand with the research.”

“Canere, I’m going to say yes, even though I’ll regret it within moments. I’ll help until the midnight bell, but then I’m off to the comforts of my bed, such as they are.”

With that, the two of them set off in the direction of the arcanist archives.

***

It had taken some begging and other whining to have the librarians allow the two of them access, but after being persuaded it was a historical topic, they relented. The librarians, mages themselves, had seen too many young fools hoping to find the secret to the lost power of Hania somewhere in the stacks. Usually followed by said young fool attempting to cast one of the spells he had found and killing himself and possibly others.

And yet it was precisely to those shelves that Canere first went. Although he did send Yaden off to collect a host of histories from around the golden age until the present. As a fully trained arcanist, albeit one quite far down the pecking order due to youth, Canere did technically have access to the shelves in the back, although his instructors had rather pointedly not mentioned them to him. He’d had to discover their existence for himself, as well as what they contained. But his studies in the dusty corners of the archives had given him some of the insights that allowed him to become the arcanist he was today. Which, on the whole, was not saying a great deal.

Yaden returned to find his friend nose deep in a scroll, peering at oddly scribed words. “I’ve got the mess of documents that you wanted. Now what?”

Canere poked his nose over the scroll. “Start reading.”

“I need to know what I’m reading for…”

“Something that’s not the same as it is today.”

“Canere, that’s everything. Aside from the fact we still, barely, live on a skycity.”

The young mage paused, marshalling his thoughts. “Okay, here. Look for things that aren’t done the same way as today. Especially magical things. Something’s changed between their day and ours, and I want to find it. Our connection to magical energy isn’t as strong as it once was, and it’s not the bloodlines that’s causing it. So somewhere in those documents should be at least a hint of what’s causing it. Habits, behaviour, something’s changed that brought about Hania’s downfall. And it has to be wide enough to affect a whole civilization.”

“And if there isn’t?”

“It’s either in your documents or mine, so start reading. Hemming and hawing isn’t going to get through them any faster.”

Shaking his head at his friend’s surety, Yaden began to pour through the stack of old books in front of him.

21

May

by thefourpartland

The Last City is the next in the series of short stories and novellas that take place in the land of Arhosa, a long standing setting of mine.

The city of Yn Dref floats among the clouds of the Ogleddol Mountains, the great expanse that spans the north-eastern region of Arhosa, inhospitable to almost all life. Peaks permanently covered in snow and ice rise from the mists that wreath their noble shoulders, and even the birds do not frequent these icy slopes, preferring warmer and softer climes.

But there is life here. Small creatures dash across the snowy covering, sleeping away the winter and reviving in the summer to eat of what little food they can find. And then there are the secret valleys, nestled between the forbidding peaks, full of cold and hard earth, barely fertile. These valleys are the lifeblood of the Hanian people, for, scattered and weak, they farm amongst the rocky mountains, providing the grains that feed their floating cities.

There is little of life here, up atop the crown of the world, and it is life that gets smaller every year, for the people of Hania breed slowly, and die at a faster pace. Once great mages who travelled the lands in their flying cities, they are now reduced to little more than maintainers of the past, holding on to the remains of what once was theirs. Their libraries are full of old texts on manipulation and modification, on making a stone as light as the air or a feather weigh the same as a boulder. Yet almost none of the mages living can manage those spells, and the shrinking brotherhood watches as their flying home crumbles into the mountains below.

***

“You might want to consider stepping away from the ledge, given how much of the city has fallen in recent years.” Canere stared over at Yaden, his lifelong friend. And a bit of a fool, in Canere’s eyes.

“But if I do that, I can’t see what’s below me. And it’s such a view.”

Indeed, it was, for although Yn Dref was failing, its perch high above the ground gave it a view of the world that naught but the birds had ever possessed. Well, the birds and once the entire Hanian civilization. Now most of the people who claimed that heritage worked down in the valleys below, harvesting grain and managing what livestock there was. In decades past, those hands would have wrought spells, summoned food with a flick of the wrist, but now they were the lowest of peasants, unable to do anything but grub in the dirt.

“Yaden, I don’t want to have to explain to your parents why you’re nothing more than a red coating on some rocks. Even if it is a lovely shade of red.”

“Fine, fine.” Yaden slipped back from where he had lain, peering over the edge. “But I still think you’re being overly cautious.”

“To you, being cautious is being overly concerned.”

Yaden shrugged. “Well, what else is there to live for? The glory of our people? We all know that’s long gone. A beautiful wife? Most of the people around here look more weathered than the stone. Good cheer? We eat gruel and stew, and pray to Challineb we have a harvest each year. So I take what pleasure where I can.”

“You could spend your talents bettering the situation, working on restoring Hanian and Yn Dref.”

Yaden snorted. “That’s why you became a mage, and I didn’t. I don’t have the scales over my eyes.”

Canere pointed at the implements that hung from Yaden’s belt. “You might not claim to be a mage, but you still have some talents in that direction. Talents that could help this city and its people.”

“Talents that I am perfectly happy using for my own amusements, I’ll have you know.”

“Oh? Is that why you use them trying to entice Ira?”

For once, Yaden had the good grace to blush. “I do nothing of the sort, I merely acquire presents for her when the moment seems right.”

“Presents for whom?” Ira laughed as she ducked around a fallen pillar, her reddish blonde hair drifting in the breeze.

“According to Yaden, anyone but you. You’re just too hideous to give anything but a mask.” Canere was already ducking the punch coming his way as he said it.

Although he ducked the wrong way, since he was expecting it from Yaden, and instead got smacked by Ira.

“Ow! That hurt!”

“Best be careful what sharpness comes out of your mouth then.”

Canere rolled his eyes at Ira, causing her and Yaden to burst into fits of laughter.

“On a better note, I’ve been sent to summon you lot to dinner. Not that the magister will be entirely happy, if he finds out you were up to your old tricks of hanging off the lip again.”

“I counselled against it, as I always do.”

“Canere, you’ve been counselling against it since Yaden was five, ad you’ve never stopped him once. At this point, that just makes you as complicit as him.”

Yaden smirked. “You see, Canere? You should be doing the things I do, rather than just standing around and watching. At least you’d have earned getting in trouble then.”

Ira glared at Yaden, who grinned and sauntered off in the direction of dinner. Staring over the edge of the world did give him a frightful appetite, after all.

28

Apr

by thefourpartland

But the blow failed to materialize, and he glanced up again through the heaves to see his foe standing there with a dazed, stupefied expression on its face, swaying slightly in the nighttime breeze. And then down to the courtyard below, where Dregnon was staring at him with a concentrated effort upon his face. What followed was a sudden cessation of the nausea, followed by Dregnon doubling over and collapsing to the ground, wretching all the while.

Somewhat uncertain of what had just passed between them, Yenque was entirely willing to leave such introspection to a later date, and in the very process of rising swung his electrically charged flail in a sweeping uppercut, the spiked ball crashing into the chin of his dazed opponent, shattering it in a shower of sparks, and no doubt snapping the neck that held such a foul mind in place.

The spray of sparks did as it often did, leaping to another foe, setting the poor creature on fire, the javelin that was held cocked in its hand falling away unused as the electricity leapt through its system, frying what little senses remained to one as depraved as it was.

The noise of the strike caused one of the helfarchs to spin about, glancing backwards to see what had caused it. Between it and Yenque stood only one or two more foul creatures, the rest otherwise occupied or dead. Seeing that the attack had in all likelihood failed, and that the commander was most certainly deceased, it barked a short order to the other helfarch, and leapt over the battlements, landing with a solid thud on all four bony limbs but otherwise unharmed.

Within moments there was a general exodus for the ladders, the attackers fleeing as best they could manage, the second helfarch outdistancing them all with its leap.

***

Ngaphasi watched as the helfarchs leapt off the battlements, their large forms visible even at such distance. His forces had crept to within spear range of the southern gate once the fearsome warrior had sprinted away, taking some half of the forces with him. But enough had remained as to put doubt into Ngaphasi’s mind, and so he had waited, waited for a clear sign the battle was turning in the raiders’ favour.

Given that the next signal he had spotted was the flight of some of his forces strongest troops, he knew to what end the battle had gone.

Turning to his goblin troops, he gave the orders they had all been waiting for. “Mark yourselves like you’ve been in battle. We’re going home.”

And with that, the only unit that could have forced the capitulation of Cynlyaa and its determined Warleader turned tail and fled.

 

The End

25

Apr

by thefourpartland

Whatever the reason, the creature was quite skilled at combat, regardless of the distractions constantly assaulting it. It was able to catch the chain of the electrical flail, preventing the head from causing anything more than a deep bruise, and duck under the other strike, while at the same time retaliating with a deep claw gouge across the stomach, a blow that no doubt would have been fatal to almost all of the human soldiers. But Yenque twisted, letting the thickest part of his armour take the blow, and it scratched off, sparks flying from the claws as they struck the armour.

A jerk on the flail freed it, no doubt in part because of the creature’s surprise at its fight ending strike doing nothing of the sort. This time, when Yenque came in with both flails, he was more circumspect in how he did so, and the creature took a bash across one arm, but only glancingly so.

With the helfarchs fighting shoulder to shoulder at the other end of the embattled area, his men were having a great deal of difficulty in creating any form of headway. If it wasn’t for the tight confines of the area, he’d have had no doubt that the helfarchs would have pushed his men back, despite their training. Those bloody abominations were bred warriors, skilled at combat in ways that it took humans decades of training to master, and they were showing it. As Yenque fought, he saw one of his men disembowelled, the intestines then cut through by a sweep from the second blade and flicked forward to create a spot of uncertain footing right in front of the helfarchs.

If I don’t break through and smash them from behind, we’re dead and gone. And the fact that Iaprem hasn’t charged over here with that claymore of his means he’s doing his damndest just to keep the north gate closed. So, all on me. Joy.

Sending both flails arcing in on overhand tracks, Yenque watched as the creature did exactly the right thing to defend against that, namely, step into the blows and come across with a strike at Yenque’s face. What the creature hadn’t anticipated was the arrival of Yenque’s booted foot in its midriff, knocking the wind from its lungs. At that moment, it was dead. The following strike that sent it tumbling over the crenellations to fall outside the wall was entirely preordained.

As another of his men was sent tumbling by the helfarchs, Yenque bashed aside the next creature to stand in his way. This one had better luck than the previous, and with a raking blow had left bloody grooves where a gap in the armour did not protect him. The next did even better, the thunder club that it wielded so large and heavy as to be almost unstoppable when swung first. Certainly, with flails, which were a poor defensive weapon at the best of times, Yenque could do nothing aside from attempt to dodge as the massive head swept in from his right.

The dodge was partially successful, in as much as he was hit by the upper part of the shaft rather than the head square, but such was the force of the blow that he was driven fully across the walkway and slammed into the crenellations, leaving bruises and likely worse up and down both sides of his ribcage. It also stopped all the momentum that had gone into the flails, and they hung limply, the one still furiously blinking and howling from its enchantment.

In the end, it was likely that enchantment that saved Yenque’s life, for the following blow was a slightly misaimed overhead from the thunder club, this smashing into the ground and splitting the stone of the walkway as Yenque dived out from under the heavy strike. Thankfully, the thunder club was, if anything, an even worse defensive weapon than the pair of flails, and so now that it was safely out of the picture and lodged into the stonework of the battlements, it was possible for a hefty kick followed by a circling mace head to dispose of the foe wielding it, sending the rather startled orc over the battlements and to the courtyard below.

Whether the foe had died was rather immaterial, for at that moment Yenque found himself facing down the imperious leader of the raiders, the tall muscular creature bending slightly at the waist and spreading his claws in response to the opportunity presented. Accepting the challenge, Yenque swept the flails into motion, their heads spinning back and forth in front of him, their whirling heads too dangerous for his foe to challenge directly.

At which point, his foe grinned, stood tall, and flicked something concealed in a claw at Yenque. Whatever the small object was, it took Yenque directly in the chest and exploded in a spray of red mist, coating him in a foul, nauseating, substance that had him all but on his knees in moments.

When next he was able to see, he looked up to find the creature standing above him, a gloating smile on its face, claws raised to end the engagement almost before it had started.

I have failed. Both myself and my people. I guess I really well end up as a goblin turd. What a noble end that is going to be.

24

Apr

by thefourpartland

Yenque had had, up until this moment at least, a rather dull battle. Given command of the southern gate, he had found the enemy singularly reluctant to attack his position, and so had been forced to watch the frantic signalling from the tower on high, conveying some status of the attack on the northern gate. There was almost nothing he could truly determine from such dim and distant signals, other than that there was attack underway, but one thing for certain was that he had not been called in as reinforcements. Which meant the battle for the northern gate couldn’t be going too badly. Most likely thanks to Iaprem and his great claymore.

Indeed, his battle was so dull that he had affected a pose of complete disinterest, and taken to napping leaning up against one of the crenellations. Because if he wasn’t going to be involved in the fighting, he certainly wasn’t going to miss a good night’s sleep in the bargain as well. Which meant he was snoring quite loudly when one of his soldiers gave him a shake hard enough to send him tumbling to the ground, his armour clattering upon the stone.

“What is it?!” Yenque leapt to his feet, looking at the messenger.

“That.” A pointing finger picked out the helfarchs slamming into the back of soldiers already hard pressed by an assault over the walls.

“Half of you stay here. The other half, WITH ME!” Grabbing his flails from where they were hooked into his belt, Yenque sprinted along the battlements, calling up what magics remained to his weapons.

By no means as impressive as those within the great blade of the Warleader, his own flails were still highly useful weapons upon the field of battle. One, when he got a good clean blow in, would spit a field of sparks across those nearby. Sometimes including himself, if he wasn’t careful. The other blinked and flashed in a pattern entirely random and incredibly frequent. Mixed with the occasional noises the weapon would make, which were of deafening volume, it was an amazing distraction on the field of battle to those who had never experienced it before.

Sadly, it was something that applied to his own soldiers just as much as any other, and he was charging in to the rescue of men who could barely be called soldiers. Certainly, he wouldn’t do so. But they fought and died for their country and their friends, and at the moment that was all that mattered.

When Yenque and the charge from the southern gate finally arrived on the scene, more than half of the recruits who had held his portion of the wall were down, and in their place stood a motley assortment of vicious humanoid raiders. The leader of the mob appeared to be an overly muscled and slightly elongated creature, possessed of claws on both hands. It gave off an aura of inherent command, gesturing hither and yon at the orcs and others of its race that surrounded it. Even the helfarchs seemed to obey, now that they had broken through to the assault coming over the walls.

With a section of the walls in possession of the raiders, there could be seen others of their kind climbing over the battlements and into the fight, although the rate was not that great. Clearly, the commander of the raiders had not yet realized the success of his attack, or if he had, was having trouble marshalling his troops and sending them to the right location.

Taking no more than a moment for a breather, Yenque charged along the narrow stone battlements. Wide enough for two normal soldiers, with his flails Yenque took up a space much greater than the average man-at-arms, and so had directed those following him to charge down the stairs and attempt to come at the besiegers from the other end of the conquered territory, albeit with a few giving him support.

While those whom he had ordered set off, Yenque activated the beacon in his flail, letting the light and sound play across his foes. So bright and rapid was the light that the world seemed to resolve itself into a series of frozen images, each one at some remove from the last. In reality, that was merely a trick of the mind, and Yenque was able to send his maces spiralling inwards, one coming across high, the other low, and smiling to himself as the brightly flashing one distracted his first opponent, a scrawny, spear-wielding orc with a snaggletooth, from the second, which burst into glowing electrical life when it crunch into the hip of his foe.

The spray of sparks set the creature immediately behind the orc on fire, the hide armour it wore catching alight. Rather than slow his assault, Yenque brought the weapons around again, stepping over the crumbled corpse of his foe and launching into another blistering assault, the first strike of which sent the flaming orc stumbling to the side, his foot coming down on nothing but air and tumbling off the walkway to the ground beneath, where he was quickly stabbed to death by a spear thrust from one of the Cynlyaa soldiers.

The next opponent to come within range of his flails was one of the taller, muscular creatures, the type of which he did not recognize. And yet, since one of them was directing matters, they were clearly amongst the leaders of this band of rabble. Curious. Perhaps they feel the need to fight only when absolutely forced to do so.

23

Apr

by thefourpartland

Glancing backwards, he saw that the line of his soldiers had stretched out to the right, the man on that edge of battle attempting to hedge his unprotected side away from the foes who assailed him, with those placed near him unconsciously following. It was a natural outcome of fighting, and one which the sergeants and junior officers should have corrected. But his was the supreme responsibility, and so he paused in his individual combat to yell at the men, for in places their line was growing thin, either where wounds had taken place, or where soldiers had found the needs of their own survival to overtake their reluctance to appear cowardly in the sight of their friends.

What scant amount of reserves had been able to him were already in the line of battle, doing their utmost to keep the ring about the gate’s mouth closed. It was a ring that was all but broken, however, the numbers on the small keep overtop of the gate having mostly been overwhelmed, now fighting back to back against assailants from both the walls outside and the steps in. Granted, the attackers were being forced in the same perilous manner, their backs exposed to assault from further along the wall, but at the moment the greater physical abilities and natural ferocity of the humanoid raiders was doing the greater damage.

But it was to the next of the helfarchs that Iaprem’s attention was drawn, for the creature spared no time in slamming into the back of him as he was shouting the last of his orders. Immediately after the bulk of the creature struck him, he felt the thin trickle of blood, as one of its bladed hands sliced into a vulnerable gap in the armour, leaving his off arm much weakened and bleeding. There was also the foul stench of its breath as its teeth closed upon that same arm, but his armour being of a much higher quality than his poor subordinate saved him, and they found little purchase on the metal skin.

Swinging wildly, the sword overly heavy in but one hand, Iaprem spun about, blade flashing, but it was an attack well anticipated by the helfarch, and the large creature leapt backwards, settling easy onto its four limbs as it looked down upon its now wounded prey. Iaprem circled to his left for a moment, regaining feeling in his left arm and placing it once more upon the grip of his sword, the tip held out towards the helfarch in a challenge. The beast snorted, doing nothing more than looking with stern derision upon its smaller, weaker, foe.

Which drew quite a smile from Iaprem. A smile followed a mere second later by a great burst of flame, leaping from the tip of his sword in a solid line towards his surprised enemy, all too unable to manoeuvre its great bulk out of the way. The liquid fire splattered against the helfarch, engulfing the creature in a blaze which rivalled that from the massive bonfire at the back of the courtyard.

What followed was the screams of the helfarch, piercing, loud, and altogether unsettling, leading even Iaprem to step back in sudden horror as the flesh of the creature began to melt under the magical assault, slow drips sizzling and falling to the ground, there to smoke and fill the air with a putrid stench.

Shuddering despite having seen that effect of his sword in times past, Iaprem turned aside, looking to find the next of the helfarchs, but the last pairing had placed themselves in spots barely reachable, both visibly chewing upon limbs dangling from their mouths, one having been sliced clean, another torn free by the action of the jaws. Neither was unmarked, but the Cynlyaa soldiers around them were already the merest moments from flight, and did so as Iaprem watched, leaving a gaping hole in the left edge of the line.

Rather than seek to turn the line, as Iaprem expected them to do, they both cantered away, heading for a spot on the walls equidistant from both of the gates. And when his eyes were able to see past the blaze of heat and smoke from the twin bonfires in the courtyard, Iaprem could see the soldiers on the battlements there already struggling with their attackers, the helfarchs from inside the wall, and some humanoids from without.

The fresh recruits were doing far better than expected, in as much as they as yet held their posts and fought with intelligence, but with the northern gate as pressed as it was, there was little he could do aside from hold the entrance, and pray Yenque was able to assist.

22

Apr

by thefourpartland

The soldiers of Cynddeir gave even better than they got, however, and despite the rust and the age of the weapons they wielded, there was no give when blade found opening and piercing flesh. Indeed, after the first heady moments of the clash, the front line of the battle could be seen more as butchery than as combat, as undisciplined barbarians left openings that skilled fighters could take advantage of, thinking only of the person in front of them and never watching to their flanks or the flanks of their allies. In such a way, ferocity bled itself out upon the wall of steadfast courage.

All that changed when the helfarchs entered the fray. There were four of them, the latter pair having been hidden behind the former when first Iaprem had spotted them, and they entered battle with a howling charge, thundering through the gate four abreast and slamming into the line. Three bowled over their targets immediately, the fourth being unable to do so, its arm hanging limp and bloody from the javelin that had pierced it through. The wound made the creature all the more vicious, however, and it bit down on the armour of the nearest soldier, sawing back and forth with its teeth as it sought to drive them through the old padded cloth and leather. Within moments, the teeth found their purchase, and the deadly bite could be seen to go to work, blood pumping from the wound and into the helfarch’s mouth, its tongue visible as it lapped at the viscous fluid.

Unable to stand the sight, Iaprem leapt at the foul beast, only to find his attack blocked by the bony blades of another of the creatures. This one smiled down upon him with all the menace its bulk and hideous visage could provide, slavering jaws gnashing at his head in a lightning fast strike. Only a sudden shift to the side saved Iaprem’s face from an intimate encounter of a kind he most certainly did not want, and even then he could feel the hot breath upon his cheek.

Lashing his blade upwards, he sought to have the flaming claymore cut through the extended next of his foe, but the helfarch was more than ready for the attack, and kicked the Warleader in the thigh as his strike began. It was a thudding, bludgeoning blow, made somewhat awkwardly, but with enough strength behind it to send Iaprem stumbling backwards, all the strength fleeing from his strike.

His weapon waved in one hand for a moment, doing little more than vaguely attempting to keep the helfarch away, before he was able to set his feet beneath him once more. This time, the helfarch came on with arms spread wide, the blades extending from its hands held low and to the side. On a normal creature, this would be all but inviting a thrust down the middle, but against one with such a vicious bite and sturdy kicks, it merely meant the creature was expanding the options available to it.

Rather than take the invitation so offered, Iaprem waited, letting the helfarch make the first move. Normally, with a weapon as large and as cumbersome as a claymore, that would be a foolish thing to do, but he was no mere soldier in his first year under arms. He was the Warleader of Cynlyaa, and that title had to do with a great deal more than just administrative duties.

A lunge from the left hand of the helfarch was batted away, while a thrust from the right was countered by stepping inside the arc of the blade. This left him perilously close to the distended lower jaw, which took its moment to lance outwards. Only to be meet in a thunderous collision by the heavy steel ball that formed the counterweight upon the hilt of his weapon. The resounding blow sent a crack rippling out over the battlefield, and even those who were engaged in desperate struggles turned their heads to see what could have caused such a fearsome noise.

For the helfarch itself, it reared back, its jaw shattered, its front legs and arms all flailing into the space that Iaprem occupied. But these attacks were the disorganized actions of a stunned and wounded beast, and he was able to slip beyond their reach with ease, his claymore up and in the ready position so that as the beast landed back on the ground, weight now firmly on its front legs, he was able to sweep his weapon across in a great swing, the magically sharpened edge slicing through first one of the limbs and then the other, leaving flame-blackened flesh around the edges. The smoking ruins of the limbs fell to the ground, as did the sickened and stunned face of the helfarch, now flopping about on its side, unable to understand what had happened to it.

What followed was merely an execution, for although the helfarch would no doubt eventually die of the blood pumping from the severed stumps where its limbs had once rested, it was still possessed of those fearsome jaws and edge bone blades, and thus a danger to any man who came near to it. Thus, when Iaprem severed the head of the mortally wounded creature, he felt no remorse about having to do so. Battlefield necessity trumped all else.

21

Apr

by thefourpartland

It was now midnight in the courtyard of the old palace at Cynlyaa, and all was still, silent, and, mostly, dark. Torches lay scattered here and there along the battlements, and occasionally one would rain down before the gate, illuminating the ruined roadway there, but otherwise little in the way of movement from either of the factions involved could be seen.

That all changed as the moon swept out from behind the clouds that had obscured it, bathing the scene below in a dim and dusky light, barely enough for those of a human persuasion to navigate by. Certainly not enough for them to fight, or to see projectiles fly out of the night. But fly they did, in the barest number, but enough of an indication that the raiders assault was underway. And a sign to Iaprem that, no matter how ferocious the beasts that made up their shock troops, the forces of the raiders were little more than undisciplined rabble. Most certainly not soldiers.

He stood, waiting, as did the elite soldiers he had been able to cobble together from the various units, in the courtyard behind the gate, assuming that the main thrust would break the rotted would in short order. Of course, such a positioning meant that he was unable to see the first phases of the battle, and so it was only the shouts of the men on the battlements, and the whoosh of their slings and javelins, that told him the raiders had approached the gates themselves.

Soon there came the sounds of strain and then thumps, some wet and some not, the audible signals of stones being levered over the crenellations and onto those creatures below. But even as the first wave of impacts drifted away into the night, there came the heavy thud of something striking the gate, no doubt driven by arms more than human. Indeed, the way the gate groaned from but the second of the strikes suggested that whatever was wielding the battering ram was a great deal stronger than a human, or that the gates were weaker than anticipated.

As it was, it took a mere four strikes for the gates to fall open, their rotted wood snapped backwards over the barricade of stones that had buttressed their lower half. And to the top of that buttress leapt the attackers, gnolls, goblins, orcs, and all other manner of humanoid detritus. But most frightening of all were those creatures only just putting aside the logs they had wielded as battering rams: helfarchs. Several times the size of an adult human, they were quadrupedal in nature and possessed of a vicious lower jaw, while bone blades extended from the hands of the helfarch, replacing the last two fingers. Muscles rippled under the scaly skin, the arms attached lower upon the torso, while their feet were little more than bone stumps. If they were able to get past him and amongst his men, almost nothing would stop their rampage.

Knowing that the outcome of the battle rested upon the his ability to break through and rout the helfarchs, Iaprem leapt forward, his claymore sweeping from left to right in a simple attack at waist height. And as it did so, it burst into dazzling, stunning, light, fire roaring along the length of the blade and searing through the flesh of those unfortunates who had made themselves the front line of the humanoid charge. They fell to the side, mewling in pain, what fur they possessed releasing a foul stench as it slowly burnt away.

Behind him, the bonfire blazed into glorious light, and all along the ramparts torches that had lain dormant gave forth a warm and welcome glow, illuminating all the battlements and courtyard with light to see by. The attackers growled in frustration, their eyes forced to suddenly adjust to the blazing light they faced.

Despite the impressive actions of his first strike, around him there was no reluctance from the raiders to press forward, and although they generally attempted to stay out of his range, they had no qualms crashing into the front rank of his men, some even leaping straight onto the crumbling rock walls of the castle and climbing to get at the slingers and archers who made up the guards upon the top of the gate.

A bellow from below was able to warn those of their approaching danger, but soon they were hard pressed, apparently beset not only by climbers from this end of the gate, but also from without. Whatever happened there, though, was going to be beyond his powers to affect, for Iaprem soon found himself pressed in close about, his great sword proving somewhat less than effective when forced into a fighting line by the discipline of the soldiers behind him and the constant assaults of the raiders.

Flails, spears, swords, and all manner of weapons crashed into his men, most to be deflected away by shields, armour, or upturned arm, but there were always some that got through, and staggering away from the fighting line could be seen the wounded, heading towards the blaze at the back of the courtyard where stood those few men who were able to be spared and who had some knowledge of herbs and the like. Amongst those, of course, was Dregnon, although his eyes were often turned upwards, watching the boys in the tower above, waiting for the signal that the other gate had been assaulted. As of yet, the signal had not yet flowered, and the battle was merely being fought on the one front.

18

Mar

by thefourpartland

“You mean, attempt to draw the strike in? It’s a valid tactic, but I don’t think we have the kind of reserves that would let us achieve something like that. Unless you’ve got another pile of troops hiding in that pouch of yours.”

There was a murmur from another corner of the room. “What happens if we replace the soldiers on the gate we’re not expecting to be attacked with twice the number of recruits? It’ll look stronger, even if it isn’t.”

That comment left Iaprem pondering matters for a moment. Finally, he sat up straight and began to speak. “Well, first off, why wouldn’t they come through the gates? Can we really defend them heavily enough to force the raiders to head over the walls? Especially in the poor shape they’re in at the moment?”

It was Dregnon who answered, appropriate since he had been the one in charge of maintenance and the like on the old palace. “Sadly, a decent battering will send the wood flying. They look impressive, but at least some of the support structure is rotten or falling apart, and we don’t have the tools to repair them. I’ve got peasants doing their best to just block up the entrances with rubble, but depending on how fast they attack, it’ll provide little more than a minor barrier.”

“How long do you need to get the rubble high enough the gates can’t be opened?”

“Until sunset, at least. Maybe longer.” Dregnon began counting on his fingers, a habit he had picked up from his father, rest his soul. “More like the witching hour, sadly.”

Iaprem turned his eyes across the whole of the group that sat before him. “I need information on the enemy. How likely are they to attack at night?”

One of the lieutenants piped up from the back of the room. He was a young fellow, but already scarred by life, as was everyone in the room. Cheeks thin and almost sunken, with a burn mark scorched down one arm. “If you’re asking how many of them can see at night, sadly the answer seems to be most. The humans with them can’t, but that’s honestly a small minority.  I’d say two thirds of their forces could hit us tonight.”

“Then that’s what they’re going to do. Swarm us once the evening sun has gone down. That means we’re going to have to defend furiously at that point, and have plenty of torches at the ready. I’m sure there’s enough dry timber in this rotten hulk of a fortress to provide thousands of those. Make sure to set up bonfires that can’t be easily scattered at the most important points, especially in the courtyards.  And see if we can set up any kind of obstacles that will channel them towards the narrow points.”

“I’ll work on that, and see if I can get people to safety in the old storerooms below the palace. There’s enough room down there to hide the elderly and the children, at least.” Dregnon departed, his threadbare robes of office flapping behind him.

“And you and I best get to the walls, watch our enemy. And the men will need a symbol too.” Yenque was smiling as he said this, envisioning the great battle that was to come. Much as he had long ago tried to shed his desires for glory, there was something inherently noble in the last stand against a foe greater than oneself. Perhaps there was a little bit of the fabled order of the Knights Paladin in his soul after all.

His commander, however, showed no such higher ideals. “Get rocks and sling stones up on the walls. We’re going to have to kill as many of them before they hit the walls and we’re actually vulnerable. I’m guessing they didn’t bring much in the way of archery?”

“Not that we saw, sir.” It was the same lieutenant as before.

“Good, that gives us something in the way of an advantage, but there’s only so much we can rely on.” Iaprem rose, dismissing the others with a wave of his hand. “If you need me, I’ll be in the armoury, wedging myself into that old metal casket. And then I’ll see you on the walls.” At last, he permitted himself a small smile, one that echoed around the room as much as possible, although in most cases it was little more than a grim rictus, a spectre of the death that waited for them all this night.

***

The afternoon and twilight hours, busy though they were, did little to either tire or calm Iaprem, so electric were his nerves. His body shook and twitched, little spasms running along one limb to another, the thrill of the upcoming battle overcoming his normally stoic demeanour.

As the last of the sun’s light swept over the old palace of Cynlyaa, its Warleader let his eyes roam across the preparations. They had managed to stack a five foot high pile of rubble against the base of the gate at this end of the old palace, but only three feet at the other, and were hoping that this was the point of concentration. To that end, he had reinforced the gate guards upon the southern entrance with twice their number in recruits, a show of force that Iaprem hoped would drive the enemy commander, whomever he might be, into charging straight at this gate in a simple frontal assault.

About him on the wall lay plenty of debris and old timber, to be used for levering those crumbled stones down onto the attackers below. Likewise, most of the men who were talented with slings were gathered here, in the hopes his ruse worked. If he could force the enemy to fight in the narrow confines of the gate house, with his blade to the forefront they should be able to hold the raiders at bay. It was a faint hope, but a hope nevertheless.

Of course, his enemy would be able to see far better than he, or his soldiers, and they almost certainly had characteristics that he had not foreseen. Indeed, even one petty hedge mage could turn the course of the battle with a few cheap glamours. But there was nothing for it, and so he waited at his post above the gate, a statue riddled with nervous energy, twitching and shaking back and forth.

***

At the other end of the palace, Yenque was going through a similar series of feelings, although in his case, the energy was not nerves, but the feeling of a higher calling sweeping over him. Here he was, no doubt at the end of days, preparing to defend the last citadel of civilization against the dreadful assaults of a barbarian horde. In his mind, he knew that more often than not, civilization had indeed fallen to the barbarians. His very people’s history was based upon that fact, for they had once been a horde sweeping out of the plains to conquer those around them. But in his heart, he knew that he was on the side of right, and thus there had to be a god from up above looking down upon him.

The feeling that knowledge gave him inspired his weapon arms, letting them flow fast and free as he warmed them, spinning through the training forms in a lazy yet skilful way that drew the eyes not only of the soldiers standing beside him on the battlements, but also that force that had gathered amongst the ruins outside of the south gate. Their leader, a petty chieftain called Ngaphasi, watched as the fading sunlight sparkled off this warrior atop the battlements, and felt his courage, his surety, drain away.

Before, whenever he had raided these people, they had offered him their goods almost at the first hint of a threat, and taking them captive had been so easy even his children had done so. But now they appeared determined, ready, and armed in greater numbers than he had ever seen before. He was unsure where they had discovered such numbers of trained soldiers, but discovered them they clearly had.

While Ngaphasi was no coward, and was prepared to go through with the attacks, those of his tribe around him were less solid of heart, and he could see those on the fringes slipping away into the night, no doubt to mark themselves with wounds and the detritus of battle, and wander into the main camp as the night turned to dawn, claiming to have been fighting, while they had done no such thing.

He turned and cursed at them, telling them to hold, to wait, and such was their fear of him, and of the wrath that he could bring down upon him, almost all held their ground, although their feet stamped about and they shifted with quick, furtive, actions, always wondering if they could indeed slip away.

But perhaps, he mused, it would be better if I waited until the other attack was well joined before I commit my tribe to the attack. After all, we are merely the surety for the great force attacking the north gate. Those thoughts safely ensconced within his head, Ngaphasi settled down to wait, and watch the battle unfold.