Chapter 4 appeared in issue 81.
Table of contents
Johannassen Khabriel, Lord-General of the armies of The Valley of Life, was a defeated man. Exhausted, drowning in despair, and full of contempt at the fact that he had not had enough skill to save his men, he stumbled into The City of his birth.
The buildings rose above him like witnesses to his failure. The rivers that crossed The City at intervals from the waterfalls that lined the cliffs around the valley could do nothing to clean his soul.
His wounded arm did not allow him the strength to lift his sword above his waist, and so it dragged. The scar the broken blade left in the dirt behind him was a marker for scouts and trackers miles long. He had started out on his journey at a full run, but now he trudged through the streets as if he were walking through mud. His shoulders were hunched and his back ached from walking improperly with a suit of full plate armor.
The enemy had left him alone since The City had come into view. The sight of civilization had made them all withdraw for the time being, but he didn’t think it would last for very long.
An enemy such as the kind he had faced earlier did not abate for long. It would not take the chance of letting him reassemble his men, what few there remained within The City, into a fighting force. If magic was the only thing that hurt them, what could a few hundred thousand commoners do to stave them off?
The citizens of The City were coming out in full force now. Dawn had come and passed, chasing the night into the other side of the world. And now the people of The City were going about their business as if they had no care in the world. Grocers hawked their goods at street corners, haberdashers hung their silks for everyone to see, and the ring of steel came from deep within the smiths’ shacks. For all intended purposes, life was continuing as usual.
The Lord-General wondered just how many of these people would ever survive what was about to happen. His presence was finally felt as he passed close through the market square. He felt the stares at first. And then he felt the fingers pointing in his direction. It was a mild shock to see the Lord-General of their armies walking among them, injured and wounded like a street dog. The realization that he was alone finally got the better of a little boy.
“Are you hurt, mister?” asked the little boy.
The Lord-General finally broke down under the weight of his responsibilities and injuries. He grabbed the boy from the shoulders and shook him until a man had to haul the boy away from his grasp. “We are all going to die! Every one of us! Run! Run, before the nightmares of your dreams come to life before your very eyes.”
A crowd gathered around him and they could see his world crumbling before their very eyes. Murmurs rippled through the crowd and he forced his way through them, parting them like a dolphin through water.
“There is no army left to protect us,” he said over his shoulder. His news shocked those who were close enough to hear his words as if they had been splashed with a pale of cold water.
His state of mind created a stirring within the crowd that could no longer be controlled. A fat, balding man dressed in the clothing of a farmer finally brought the crowd to a boil as the Lord-General made his way to his home in Castle Bonemeyer.
“Where is the army?” he asked the crowd. He worked them like a pauper would his flute. “Has the Dead Queen and her pet general finally doomed us all?”
A sharp agreement ran through the crowd, which had grown by fifty percent since encountering the little boy. The racket going on was getting the best of their curiosity and people started to amass.
“You have destroyed the army, have you not?” asked the bald man. “Your incompetence has led our armies and young men against incomprehensible odds, and you were coward enough to run away when you knew there was no hope left for survival.”
Johannassen Khabriel heard the words but did nothing to qualm the fears in those that depended on him to feel safe. Seeing their general defeated and clearly addled in the brain only fed fuel to the man’s words. A roar started to spread through the crowd. The situation was clearly becoming dangerous, but he felt powerless to do anything about it. He staggered a feet more and then fell to his knees. If these people wanted to lynch him, he was powerless to stop them. He was clearly outnumbered and maybe they were right. Maybe he did deserve to die. Those men that had died earlier under his command were their sons. Who better to pass judgment than a forlorn parent?
He turned the corner on to a side road and immediately the castle came into view. He could barely make out the top battlements and its high-flying banners rippling in the morning sun between the buildings rising all around him. The crowd gathered force as fathers and mothers demanded where their children were. Wives gathered around him, tears filling their eyes, as his silence drove the stake home that their loved ones were not coming home ever again.
The mob’s mood turned sour quickly enough and soon they were demanding answers, bumping the wounded general where otherwise they would have been afraid to stare at him straight in the eyes. He stumbled a couple of times, and only the masses around him kept him from spilling to the floor. It took some effort to swing at one man who had calmly tried to take his sword in the chaos of the crowd.
The Lord-General was a strong man, a proud man, and forcefully he made himself gather his wits. The mob was growing by the minute, and soon he expected half The City to be out there, casting their own verbal assault against the man that had failed them all. He knew as the mob grew, so were the chances of things getting violent.
The Lord-General was a big man, and there were none that he had known who had his height. Using this advantage over the masses, he searched for a place where he could hide. He considered running into the Dark Rose Tavern, but any chance of protection there would be futile. There was no way he could fight off all these people if they chose to attack him.
He turned to look up the other way and found a rock slamming him in the face. The blow to the head plus the loss of blood from his injuries combined were finally enough to drive him to his knees. He didn’t think he was ever going to get up this time. Resignedly, he prepared for the inevitable.
Instead, he felt a hush spread through the crowd. The crowd quieted in the face of a newly arrived presence and they parted like water over rocks. Through blurry eyes, he saw someone grab the fat, balding man who had started all the hysteria by his collar.
“If you start a riot,” said a voice the Lord-General found hauntingly familiar, “I will castrate you and throw you into the deepest dungeon hole found beneath Castle Bonemeyer.”
“Leave him be,” said another voice, a female’s voice. “He is just a peasant. There will be time to deal with him later. No matter how far he runs.”
Strong hands pulled Johannassen Khabriel up to his feet. He was still clearly dazed and had to rely on the other man to keep his feet beneath him. When his vision cleared, he found himself staring straight into the eyes of Wolfgang Neverfolt. There was something wild in the man’s eyes the Lord-General found dangerous, but he could not have been happier at the moment.
“My lord,” greeted Marguer Losom. Her voice was respectful but sharp. “What has transpired? You are wounded beyond recognition, and most importantly of all, you are alone.”
“The army,” he gasped. “It is destroyed. This very dawn we were struck swift and hard. Thousands of creatures made of shadow overran us. They came out of Sydowen Forest like dogs on a hunt and pressed us against the shores of the Lake of Dead Men. Trapped, all of my men fell before the sun’s first rays even hit the eastern horizon.”
Wolfgang Neverfolt looked horror stricken. “And what of Remen? Is he alive? Tell me you fool!”
The Lord-General shook his head negative. “Remy died saving my life, my lord.” A spasm of coughs kept Johannassen Khabriel from continuing for a long moment. In those few seconds he had to inspect Lord Neverfolt, he knew he had made an enemy for life.
Marguer Losom had to catch the general as Wolfgang Neverfolt released his grip on him. “Careful, he is still the general,” was all she could say as she laid the younger man down on his back. Under her breath she said, “Although of what, only time will tell.”
Wolfgang Neverfolt was not paying attention. His eyes roamed the crowd like a man seeing a far away place viewed only in his memories. As his gaze fell over the people of The City, they shrank away from the power of the beast that still coursed through his veins though dormant. The anger in his face plus his lupine ears made his overbearing frame appear as if it were transforming into some hideous creature out of legend.
Before the crowd could gather its courage again to cause unrest, a cloud of white light burst all around them. Dirt swirled around their feet, collected into small wind tunnels, and then the very oxygen was sucked out of the air. Ellen Pinto Roe stepped through a blue disc of swirling light that remained open as she came to stand before the head of The Council, the Representative of the People, and the Lord-General.
Her presence was enough to make much of the crowd disperse in fear. Those who had nothing better to do watched from the dark recesses of nearby alleys.
The Guardian and the head of The Council locked stares for a moment before Ellen Pinto Roe turned her attention to Marguer Losom and the Lord-General. “Is he dying?” came the simple question.
Marguer Losom was under no obligation to answer, but she felt it to be in her best interest to answer the queen’s pet mage. “It appears so. He has lost a lot of blood and he was struck in the head with a rock. Lord Wolfgang and I put a stop to the chaos as soon as we realized what was happening.”
Ellen Pinto Roe knelt down in front of the woman to inspect the general and stared into the woman’s eyes. “It would be interesting to know why you and the head of The Council would be meeting here, in the middle of The City.” Even as she said it, a soft blue light was emanating from her right hand. The general visibly calmed.
Before the other woman could reply to the accusations, Ellen Pinto Roe picked the general up and put his right hand over her shoulders to help him stand up. The Lord-General was conscious by the width of a hair. “If you are a representative of the people, now is your chance to prove it. The wolves are at the gates, and The City will be lost. You have one hour to evacuate half of this city. The other half will perish in the fires spoken of by The Prophet of Dreams. The people will burn, and The City will fall.”
“What of the king?” asked Wolfgang Neverfolt.
Ellen Pinto Roe could only look at him as she shook her head. “He passed away this morning in the pre-dawn hours of the night. The prophecies are all true. You now have the youngest and first female ruler to hold the throne of Castle Bonemeyer. Accept it and get your family out of Wolvenshire before it is too late.”
She turned to face the young woman before her. “Marguer, you have one hour. I will meet you in front of Castle Bonemeyer then. Now do what you must. Hurry!”
It was all happening so fast. The young woman’s mind was visibly racing. “I can’t do this alone!” she cried.
There was no pity in Ellen Pinto Roe’s voice. “You will have to. Start with the lords on The Council. I have already instructed the Home Guard to do what it can. Already, they have begun to sweep through the streets. Make no mistake about it, those left behind will die.”
And then the Life of the Keep, the greatest mage to ever hold any power in the kingdom of The Valley of Life stepped thought her portal of blue light, the general in hand, and disappeared. To some it would be the last time they would ever see her, the mysterious woman in her black leather outfit and slender sword.
Marguer Losom turned to look for Wolfgang Neverfolt but he was already gone to attend to his own duties. She found herself alone wondering where to begin her insurmountable task.
* * *
News of the king’s death and The City’s doom spread from person to person, from house to house, from block to block like a fire, getting strength and veracity by the power of word of mouth.
But it didn’t reach everyone in time.
Samuel McDougan sat at the head of the table. He was by no means a lord nor a man of stature, but he did have command of his household, and by every right, had a say in the lives of his four children.
Today had been a good day. The corn outside was flourishing, which meant he could hold off going to the market for corn and flour. The Lake of Dead Men kept replenishing his storage of fish, and the river way Suldas kept his store of fresh water filled. All of The City’s waterways had a name, and he was lucky to live right next to one of the cleanest aqueducts that fed into the Lake of Dead Men.
Mary Beth came into the dining room and placed the last of her dishes in the middle of the table. The pot roast smelled delicious, the corn was dripping butter, and the mashed potatoes were creamy. It smelled like another one of Mary Beth’s fine meals.
Jeremiah and Addley came in soon after, his eldest son leading the youngest by the hand. Jeremiah would be a fine soldier one day, under the leadership of the Lord-General Johannassen Khabriel. Addley was still young and time would only tell what exactly was the child’s calling. Both youngsters sat to Samuel McDougan’s right.
Emily came into the dining room carrying plates and silverware, quickly laying them out properly before her familial guests. It was no wonder why Jeremiah’s older sister was the talk of the block. Her beauty far outshone her years. She had long, sandy blonde hair that fell down to her shoulders. Her brown eyes were the color of the sunset, and her soft skin golden brown.
At the age of sixteen, she had many nobles calling and the future seemed bright, indeed. But it was his youngest child that he was the proudest of. Danielle could barely crawl on all fours, but unlike other babies, she had the incredible intelligence to read, write, and speak at such a tender age. It wasn’t everyday that a child was born as intelligently as the nobles of Castle Bonemeyer.
Life was definitely taking a turn for the better for Samuel McDougan. For the first time after a life of hard work and strife, he saw an opening that might lead to bigger and better things.
“Did you finish all your chores, Jeremiah?” he asked his oldest son.
“Yes, sir,” came the expected reply.
“Enough of chores, Sammy,” said his loving wife. “Let us all eat and bless this day.”
“Fair enough,” was all the head of the McDougan clan said as he reached over and served himself mashed potatoes.
It was then that he first heard the loud crashing sound heading his way. It sounded like giants had come to The City and were destroying it, decimating buildings in front of them and leaving them in tatters in their wake.
For a second, they stared at each other, each waiting for the other to explain the sound. Outside people were yelling and screaming. Samuel could see them running and pointing at something that was obviously getting closer by the second.
Danielle was the first to cry out. Before he could stand up to see what was happening, his wall exploded in a shower of splinters and debris. He reached for his oldest son and his oldest daughter, barely getting them out of the way as a shimmering wall of red light sliced through the table cleanly severing it in half.
The wall came and went, and left the McDougans split in half. The wall gave out a soft humming sound and no one dared to touch it. “Stay back!” he yelled to his family. “Nobody touch it!”
Mary Beth crowded her two youngest children into the folds of her skirts. The two children were obviously frightened. Samuel McDougan tried to take control of the situation. “Jeremiah, take Emily, and go out the window in the back. Quickly!” He watched them go.
He turned to his wife. “The Guardian can explain everything. I’m sure of it. So just stay calm, my Mary.”
Through the gaping whole in the wall where the red shimmering force had come through, he could see people yelling and pointing. “I need you to go outside and tell me how far the wall stretches out for. I will go out through the back, as well.”
She turned to go look when they both heard Emily cry out. “Father, help us!”
Samuel McDougan felt his heart drop. He turned to run towards the back when a black shadow flew in through the window at the back of the house. Samuel McDougan heard his wife cry out in fear. He picked up a wooden chair that had been sliced in half and used it to stave off the creature that was grinning hideously at him. He was pinned between the red magical force and the black creature.
The creature’s shadowy essence swirled around itself, coalescing into other small shapes, but its gaze never wavered. Samuel took a jab at it, but he was no fighter. The creature’s claws shifted right before his very eyes and turned into what looked like a sword.
Behind the creature, two more of the shadowy things crawled through the window on all fours. They let out a growl and then they hung on the wall long enough to tear another scream from Mary Beth McDougan.
“Momma, what’s happening?” cried one of the younger children from underneath the folds of her skirt.
Samuel McDougan knew he was a doomed man. He was never going to see his Jeremiah march down the streets of The City with the armies of the Lord-General. He was never going to see just how far Danielle would further the advancements of the knowledge of the world. Emily would never be a beautiful bride in one of those courts the nobles possessed.
He turned to his wife. “Head for Castle Bonemeyer! The Guardian and the Dead Queen will protect you!” The Dead Queen. He knew now he would never see the first woman ever to rule The Valley of Life sit on her throne. How he had supported her down at the tavern.
The shadows took their opening and jumped on him with all their evil ferocity. Samuel cried out in pain as the first sword thrust exploded out of his chest. His eyes watered and he had to blink away the tears so he could make sure his wife was running away from this horrendous scene.
The second and third sword thrusts felt like tiny pinpricks, and he felt himself fall to his knees. Mary Beth McDougan told her children to run, shielding their eyes from the horrible scene playing out before them. Then she reached over and tipped what was left of their dining room table over to the floor.
“Samuel!” she cried. She placed her hand on the red wall of magical force, a single tear from the corner of her eye running down her face.
It took all of Samuel McDougan’s will to stay on his knees, but he found the strength somehow to reach up and put his hand on her hand, a gesture that she would not forget for the remainder of her life.
“I love you,” she mouthed.
And then his world went black and the shadows dragged him out of the dinning room and into the back of the house.
* * *
Marguer Losom was stupefied by the sheer horror of the red shimmering wall that was turning her city into two. The thin sheet of magic rose hundreds of feet into the air, partially blocking the sun on the far side. It was a single sheet of magic, thin as a sheet of paper, but its effects were devastating.
Buildings made of solid stone were cut in two like slices of cheese. People walking across The City’s many bridges were cut off from the other side: those bridges that had not been cut right in their epicenter, crumbled to the waterways below. Some of the waterways that the wall kept from flowing into the Lake of Dead Men overflowed into streets and homes.
Marguer Losom could see through the wall, and to the people who had been caught on the other side. She could see black shapes running through the streets cutting her people down. The thought of being caught on the other side was almost too much for her. There was no way of telling what exactly was going on at the other side, but she was not too eager to find out.
She stood on a throng of a thousand people, and more were streaming out of their houses, cottages, and shacks to join the gathering refugee camp. The people’s faces showed the common fear in the air, the uncertainty of having to leave their homes for a road some had never traveled before. Where they were going, nobody knew. There wasn’t another town for weeks on end; to the north lay the great Lake of Dead Men, to the south laid the great swamps of Gildahan, to the east lay the twisted oaks of Sydowen Forest, and to the west rose the ancient peaks of the Razor Run Mountains.
The streets were filling by the minute. Carts, wagons, and pack mules were lining up for the long ascent up the cliff side to the gates of Castle Bonemeyer. Already, a trail of people made their way to the castle. The line was at least a mile long. She could see the Home Guard giving out instructions at the top.
Castle Bonemeyer stood over her, its impenetrable walls a beacon to those who wished to escape the carnage that was transpiring behind them. She felt a tear roll down her face and was surprised by it. She never thought of leaving her home for all her silent misgiving about the Dead Queen. But to see The City on its knees was a terrible shock to her. Castle Bonemeyer would not protect them this day and for all intended purposes that scared her the most.
Pillars of smoke rose over the wall in giant plumes of grey ash and black soot. An explosion rocked the sky overhead and a unified gasp rippled through the crowd. Marguer Losom involuntarily covered her head. It was time to get these people out of The City. If there were any in The City that did not know of the eminent danger around them, they would know of it soon enough. The wall was closing in on the other side of the valley with stunning speed. It had a mile to go.
She was half way up the cliff road when the wall hit the other side of the valley. The explosion brought more than its share of cries from the following crowd as everyone lowered their heads and looked back. Large pieces of rock fell to the bottom below, trees were uprooted and ripped from the ground, and a gaping hole remained where solid earth had been before. The cliff above was no longer there.
Marguer Losom shivered in spite of the high noon sun. The sealing of The City was now complete.
Copyright © 2004 by Julian Lawler III