Monday, March 17, 2008

Chapter 12d: Drummen in the Cave

The water had risen to his upper thighs, soaking his britches with cold. He didn’t care. His brothers and sisters had been arriving, a few at a time, for hours. They stood around him. He couldn’t see them but the stone cavern echoed the sloshing water as they shifted in anticipation of the feast to come.

The dreams of rending flesh, warm blood and screaming voices continued. They pacified him, temporarily quenching his hunger, but they hardly controlled his need. The visions barely kept him under control. His tongue licked moisture from his upper lip. His teeth chewed the soft flesh of the lower one. He craved flesh, a hunger that the dreams wouldn’t be able to fulfill much longer.

A splash echoed. A low growl thrummed over the rippling water and reverberated off the walls of the cave. The growl grew into a roar. Water splashed. Bones crunched. The rich smell of blood wafted through the air, a faint aroma that stood out from the smell of rot and mildew. The odor drifted through the air like a steak cooked over an open pit. He hungered. It almost drove Drummen to action. Almost.

He didn’t turn to look, but he could hear the wet feasting stirring the water behind him. A beast had entered the cave; a beast like himself, but different. A predator had taken one of his brethren. A predator sent by the Voice. Another creature slid through the water behind the predator; one like himself, but different.

The two new presences were also brothers, older brothers; wiser brothers. The Voice told Drummen to obey them, to follow their commands. They would show him a cornucopia of flesh, rivers of blood.

He could hear the beast snapping and tearing meat from bones. Water splashed and rippled, soaking more of his pants. He didn’t care. The creature feasted in the humid darkness. The beast devoured one of his brothers. He hardly noticed as the wet smacking continued for minutes, maybe hours. Time no longer mattered. He only cared about his hunger, his hunger and the Voice.

Finally the meal ended. The ripples and splashes lessened.

The beast and the stranger moved through the liquid water, the black void. They moved by him, an arms length away. The predator splashed through the water; proud, daring any of his brethren to approach him. The other one moved with a fluid grace, a smooth wake ripped through the waters behind him. The beast and the stranger moved with intent, a hunter’s stride.

The beast thoughts radiated to Drummen; a kindred spirit living for hunger, anger, and hate. The stranger’s mind shone like green swamp gas, vile and shapeless. Alien.

The beasts splashing stopped, but the smooth wake of the stranger continued up the dark cavern corridor. It had another purpose, one that didn’t involve waiting with the beast, or Drummen.

Within minutes the echoes of the strangers ripples diminished and again water dripping from the ceiling and the occasional shifting of his brethren were the only sounds to be heard other than the occasional growl of the beast.

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Chapter 12c: Rescue Plans

Stiles stood next to the War Room door rubbing his temples. The War Room. He had never been within the palace walls before being rescued from the training yard. Just a few short hours ago he had been a lackey for Drummen and now he stood in the palace waiting to be called to a private conference with the Duke and his top advisors. I bet Wellan’s in there. Thinking the Wizard would be in attendance comforted him a little, but there would also be generals and maybe even that haughty Priest, Piet Lithor. Thinking about the Piet stole the comfort Stiles gained from imagining the Wizard’s presence.

What if they think I did a terrible job of getting my men out of the dungeon? What if they want to demote me, put me under Ash, or even throw me out of the city guard all together? His hand rubbed up and down the leg of his britches. His stomach twisted into a knot.

He had botched the dungeon breakout. He had hesitated when he should have know what to do and acted. Ash shouldn’t have been the one making the decisions. Stiles had the responsibility of keeping his men together, keeping them from being killed. Maybe I should step down, suggest to the Duke that Ash be put in charge? Ash had the men’s respect. He didn’t hesitate, didn’t crumble under pressure.

What if they have another assignment for me? Maybe they want me to sneak out and get help? The thought didn’t ease his anxiety.

He spun around as pounding footsteps raced toward him, a guard. The man stopped in front of the oaken War Room door, straightening his helmet. He beat on the door with a glove-covered hand.

“Come in.” a muffled voice from behind the door.

The guard pushed the door open and strode into the room. Stiles peaked around the corner. Inside the room sat a large table with a map of the city laid across it, painted wooden markers stood at different points across the map. Three men leaned over the table, the Duke himself, Wellan, and an upper ranking guard that Stiles barely knew, but not a general, and no Piet.

The guard snapped his hand to his chest in a salute before speaking in a winded voice, “My lord Duke. The people are moving away from the palace, further into the city.”

The Duke straightened from his bent position over the table, his brows coming together at the bridge of his nose. “They are retreating?”

“To be honest, sir, we are not sure what they are doing. About ten minutes ago they turned and started walking away from the palace. The areas around the walls are cleared of them for the moment.”

Duke Renier turned to Wellan, a what do you think look on his face. Wellan shrugged. The Duke turned back to the guard. “Groyce. Your name is Groyce isn’t it?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Well, Groyce, did you see where they went?”

“No, my lord. The drizzle is starting to slacken, but visibility is still poor and the surrounding trees and buildings hid them from us pretty quickly.”

The Duke faced Wellan. “Well, my friend, do you have any idea as to what may be happening?”

Wellan shook his head. “I haven’t got a clue, but I don’t think they are retreating. Whatever is going on, I don’t believe it bodes well for us.”

“Well, I think we should use this to our advantage.” He turned back to Groyce. “Thank you for that information, Groyce. You’re dismissed.”

The guard saluted once more before turning and striding out of the room.

The Duke waved to Stiles. “Come in Stiles.”

He walked into the room. Every step felt more awkward and clumsy than the last, a duck waddling through a room full of hawks. He could feel his face turning red. He stopped in front of the Duke. His salute seemed lame after seeing the other guard do it. “You wished to see me, my lord?”

“Yes, Stiles, I have a job for you and it looks like the Fates are smiling on you today.”

“A…a job, sir?”

“Yes. A few hours ago someone rang the bell on top of the Temple of Vaspar. The guards on the wall said they saw at least three men moving about in the bell tower and there could be more people below. I would like you and your men to go to the Temple and bring those people back. I don’t know how they have survived there this long. I would send some of my personal guards, but there are few left.”

He wasn’t being demoted, not even reprimanded. The Duke had handed him an important assignment. He stood straighter. “You can count on me, Sir.”

The Duke smiled, “I knew I could, Stiles. When you and your men reach the church I would like half of your men to keep going, to get out of the city and go to Baron Milchev’s castle. I need to warn him of this epidemic and see if he can send help, though I’m not sure he will. He is an ornery bastard to say the least, but he needs to be warned of what happened here. Hopefully it will keep him from suffering our fate.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Wellan cleared his throat. “You might also want to send some of the men into the city. Let them find out where the people have gone and report back here.”

“That is an excellent idea. Send a quarter of your men to warn Baron Milchev and another quarter to find out where the people are and what they are doing. You can decide which men will be scouting and which will go to the Baron.”

“Yes, Sir. They are good men. I know they can do as you ask.” They aren’t going to be happy to hear about this assignment. Not happy at all.

Duke Renier rubbed his chin, thinking. “Wellan and I had discussed causing a distraction to pull the people away from a section of the wall and then lowering your men down on ropes, but since they have left the area around the walls I think you should try and go out the front gates. What do you think Wellan?”

The wizard’s eyebrows rose in surprise. He smiled. “Their retreat at this moment is fortunate. I think we should give it a try.”

“Then the front gate it is. If they don’t return you can come back that way also. If they do return we will keep an eye out for you. If we see you coming we will distract them as we planned and lower ropes down to pull you to the top of the wall.”

Stiles clasped his hands behind his back. “That sounds good. Anything else, my Lord?”

“No. That will be all.”

“Yes, Sir.” Stiles’ salute remained as awkward as ever.

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