Thursday, November 8, 2007

Chapter 9b: Out of the Frying Pan

So…how do you plan to get to the castle?” Horn asked the question that raced through everyone’s mind. “I mean, we can’t just barge out there, swords swinging. There’s enough to handle right here in the trainin’ yard where there ain’t supposed to be civilians. Gods only know how many is out on the streets.”


Stiles rubbed his temples as if that could ease his pounding headache. They had been waiting for an hour and the only sounds they heard had been occasional screaming throughout the city. Some of the screams cut through the air from just beyond the training yard wall, while others echoed from further away. None of the noises sounded like organized attack, no shouts of command or roars of victory, only the distant shrills of terror. They couldn’t remain in the dungeon offices, but he didn’t know if they would be able to make it anywhere else. They would be going to the castle blindly, without enough information to create a solid plan, but it couldn’t be helped.


“This is what we’re going to have to do.” Staying crouched down had begun to hurt his back, and he straightened while looking around at the men. “Ash, Wolf, Tarl, Arolyn, and Owl. You are the best with the bows, so grab all the arrows you can find in the storage lockers and bring them with you. We’re going out that door in a diamond formation with the archers at the points. They will drop the…uh...” Stiles didn’t know what to call the enemy. Were they civilians? Infected? Residents? What could he call a hostile force that had been friends and neighbors only hours before? No. I need to be honest with myself and the men. At this point it's us or them. “…enemy if they get within forty feet. We will warn them off at fifty, and if they continue to advance, then we'll have no choice but to treat them as hostile.”


The men looked back and forth at one another; most had never had to kill anyone before.


When the men returned with their borrowed bows and a meager supply of arrows, Stiles gathered everyone at the door. The anticipation and fear in the room became palpable as they all crouched around him in silence, being careful to stay below the window sill and out of sight. Stile’s heart thrummed in his chest and every muscle in his body tensed with anxiety. His arm froze with his hand on the door handle. Once the door opened, there would be no turning back. His mind raced with the concequences, but it had to be done. They had no other options.


He took a deep breath. The tension eased, and before it could return, he turned the handle and opened the door.


None of the people in the training yard turned to look until the group had passed through the door and took their positions. The archers formed the points of their diamond formation, while the other men stood between them with weapons drawn. Oswald and Gorney took position in the center. Gorney, because of his injury and Oswald on the premise of helping Gorney, though in reality he was simply too drunk to hold a decent formation.


The men advanced through the yard at a steady pace while the clumsy individuals of the training yard changed their direction and began maneuvering towards the guards from all directions.


Within seconds, the formation halted as a woman advanced within fifty feet of the guards, blocking their path to the gate. The archers lined their arrows on her stumbling form, their eyes darted back and forth, watching the other people gathering closer.


“Ma'am, I order you to halt!” Stiles impressed himself. His voice didn’t quake with the fear that threatened to consume him.


The woman shuffled forward, knees hardly bending as she stepped. The scene was all too familiar. Stiles thought back to the leper Drummen tried to stop verbally, knowing his commands fell on deaf ears. He still couldn’t bring himself to give the order to shoot the woman.


The gap closed by another ten feet.


“Halt!” a mumbled “please” that only he could hear, crawled its way from a throat that felt tight and dry with anxiety.


She shambled forward, closing the gap by another ten feet. Stiles froze, his mind working frantically to find a solution that didn’t involve ordering the men to shoot an arrow through her skull.


An arrow punched its way through her chest, forcing her to stumble backwards. As if the first arrow were an order to fire, three more sliced through the air piercing her torso. Fletching suddenly appeared in her chest, pointing in different directions, one going through her arm to pin it at her side. She tipped back, almost falling, and then resumed her march forward.


The arrows punched through Stiles' fear and brought forth his anger. He turned to his men and shouted. “Who fired without an order?”


Ash stepped up, notching another arrow. His ice blue eyes looked upon Stiles with disdain. “Me, sir.” The sir hissed out and dripped with sarcasm.


“Uh…sir?” Horn’s voice went unnoticed as the two men faced off.


“You don’t do a damn thing from now on without an order from me. You got that?”


“Sir?” A small word yet filled with frantic implications.


Ash pulled the arrow back against the taut string. “You weren’t gonna give that order. You…”


A scream tore through the training yard, redirecting Stile’s tension.


Oswald broke rank and ran at the arrow pierced woman, his sword drawn and pulled back for a killing blow. As he neared, the woman raised her arms up to grasp him, the arrow pierced arm pulling free from her torso, ripping flesh and scraping bone on its way out. He ignored the threat and brought his sword down on the crown of her head with a crack of bone and spray of blood. Without slowing down he ran past the collapsing woman, toward the gate in a screaming frenzy.


Oswald's violence drove through the men like a wolf howl in a herd of cattle. Five of the fifteen guards broke ranks and ran behind Oswald. Their weapons forgotten in their white knuckled grip as they sprinted toward the gate.


Stiles watched the men zig zag through the people in terrified awe as Ash released another arrow into a man who had gotten too close to what remained of the guards' formation. The other guards turned to him, wanting to be told what to do.


Before he could answer, Oswald went through the gate and out of sight. A piercing scream tore through the drizzle, all the men running behind Oswald halted, seeing something that Stiles couldn’t. They raised their weapons and drew as they looked back and forth along the opening of the gate. Their eyes widened, and their mouths opened in terror.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Chapter 9a: A Duke’s Dilemma

"The laws of man, rules society places upon itself to call itself civilized, different from the other creatures of nature. Justice and fairness. These don't apply in the real world, the world outside of man's control. What should the world be like without the laws of man, only following the chaotic laws of nature, of the beasts of the wild?"


~Dokkien the Wise





Wellan’s long strides ate up the distance as he traveled to the war room to meet with Duke Renier. Exhaustion threatened to take him over, but he had to tell the Duke about the fall of his city, a fall that the Duke would take hard.


Wellan had exhausted most of his powers in the battle at the open market, leaving smoldering corpses in his wake. Still the dead had continued to come from every corner of the market, flowing in from the nearby homes like a flood of ants taking down prey. He knew that he fought a battle he couldn’t win, so he ran, fleeing back to the castle walls. The undead swarmed to every side of him, stumbling out of the forest and into the road, when he felt the mystical energy being released. Its power radiated across his skin like a puff of air full of sand. He couldn’t ignore the feeling. Wellan changed his path to run through the woods, side-stepping the shambling forms, and see what had caused the phenomena.


He hadn’t traveled far when he came upon the Lady Rachelle, lying in the middle of the street. The undead closing in around her. An ember of magic that only he could see smoldered in the palm of her hand, a blue coal of slowly fading energy. A brightly clad woman kneeled over a half-conscious man. He fought to stand against legs that wouldn’t support him.


Without hesitation, Wellan hurled bursts of flaming power, using the last of his stored energy on the mob of undead. Some burst into flame while others fell back from the heat and force of the concussions. He ran to Rachelle, scooped her into his arms. With a scowl of determination he turned to the man and woman bellowing, “Come with me.”


Neither argued, the woman held the man upright, helping him walk, and followed the wizard to the castle gates. The dead shuffled slowly behind in pursuit.


It didn't take long to outdistance the shambling corpses and reach the front gate. The nervous guard had the gates open before they reached him, as just as quickly closed them again when the group had passed under the wall. Wellan didn't bother to look at the man as he said, "Make sure that door stays shut and don't let anyone else through."


"My Lord wizard, what if someone..."


A hand pushed through the small gate window, reaching in and slapping the back of the guard's armor in a pathetic attempt to pull him to the gate. The man lept forward and turned to the gate, sword half drawn.


"What the bloody hell..."


Wellan stopped just long enough to turn and nod his head at the bloody, bite riddled arm and say, "That's all there is out there. Make sure they stay on that side of the wall."


With the gate taken care of, Wellan and his companions walked to Castle Renier, where he had found the remaining castle servants huddled together in the main entrenceway, waiting to hear what was happening to their beloved city.


Wellan didn't answer any of their questions. He didn't know how. Instead he handed them Madame Rachelle and told them to take care of her and the injured man. It would give them something to do to take their mind off of the civilization collapsing around them.


As Wellan pushed open the heavy wooden doors of the War room, he wondered about the condition of Rachelle and what had cause the outburst of power. He would find out later, when time allowed. For now, he had to meet with his Duke.


Duke Renier looked up from a map on the great oak table as Wellan walked through the open door of the war room. The Duke looked angry and tired, giving him the appearance of a much older man. A middle aged guard also straightened and stared at the wizard, fear and self doubt evident in his wide eyes.


“That will be all, General Rancor.”


The young man almost stumbled over his own feet as he tried to choose between saluting the Duke and leaving the room. He performed a clumsy combination of both, backing out of the room and past the wizard.


When the man disapeared through the door, Wellan turned to the Duke and frowned. “General Rancor?”


Duke Renier sighed, shaking his head. “He’s the highest ranking...living soldier I’ve been able to find. A hell of a promotion too, from major to general in one fell swoop.” He stooped over the table again, his shoulders bunched in rage. “What are we to do, Wellan? In just a few short hours this…this plague has swept through my city, killing residents without mercy. Dead! Dead for only an hour or so and then they are back. Back to…to…”


His head turned to face Wellan, eyes red and glossy. “Some died right here in the castle. Here in my own home. We tried to find help, but even as we did, they came back. Not as the men they were, but as maniacs, intent on killing…and eating those they killed!”



Wellan remained quiet, letting his friend speak, allowing him to release some of the anger and frustration that filled his soul. “I had to kill my own men, Wellan. I had to kill them with the very sword that is sworn to protect them. I had to order the rest of my men, the ones who weren’t afflicted, to kill their comrades, to throw any dead victims over the walls. Is this what my city has come to? Is this where I have led my people?”


He looked down at the table again and brought a hand up to wipe his eyes. A sob shook his shoulders. “Is this what I’ve done with the responsibility that I’ve been entrusted with, my friend?”



Wellan grasped the Dukes shoulder and squeezed gently. His voice shook as he whispered, “No, my friend. This was unavoidable, an unprovoked attack. There was no way to know that it would happen, and no way to defend against it.”


Duke Renier lifted his head and stared at the far wall, his voice hardening with resolve. “What are you saying, Wellan? Who attacked my city, my people?” His gaze locked onto the wizard's.


Wellan returned his stare. “I don’t know, my lord, but this has the stench of necromancy all about it. I fought those creatures by the Open Market almost an hour ago, and I could feel the dark power radiating from their souls. This is no natural disease. It's a thing of darkness and magic.”

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