Bewildering Stories

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The Prophet of Dreams

Chapter 16: Checkmate

by Julian Lawler III

Chapter 13 appeared in issue 89.
Table of Contents

Remy was the first to die. The arrow took him in his eye even as the warning shout went up. Remy Neverfolt, a soldier’s soldier, the type of man to rally troops in the face of insurmountable odds, the kind of leader kingdoms wanted in place to follow orders, was the first to leave the world of the living.

A wave of shock slammed through the men’s ranks as the Lord General’s second-in-command slumped off his saddle, his one remaining eye glazing over as the life escaped him. The Lord-General tried to catch his childhood friend but, under the weight of his dying body and his family armor, couldn’t hold him for long. They hugged for a brief moment and Remy Neverfolt coughed up blood on his would-be savior’s chest before slumping off to the ground, where he was lost under their heavy horses. The Lord-General held on to his friend’s gauntleted hand for a second and then let go.

Disciplined, the column held until the first volley of arrows broke free from the trees to the right like hornets. There were so many arrows in the pre-dawn sky, it would later remind the Lord-General of a tidal wave. A man could build a solid boat, but in the face of such a wall, it was as good as a scrap of paper in the wind.

When the wave hit, man and beast fell like dolls filled with giant needles. The soft sand along the shore quickly filled with the dead. The waters of the Lake of Dead Men to the Lord-General’s left burned with the blood of his comrades.

The flag boy, trying to make his way to the back of the column while waving his flag proudly to the skies, was next. His body was trampled by the very troops he was trying to display. It was as if the enemy found the army’s flag offensive and the arrows continued to fly at the little flag boy’s body long after life had ceased to exist within it. The boy’s carcass was nothing more than a riddled bag of bones.

Clearly beyond help, the Lord-General turned away from his flag boy to more immediate matters. A bottleneck was forming, a crushing vice created by the forest line to the right and the shoreline to the left. With all the bodies quickly piling up at their feet, the enemy was having target practice. It was becoming increasingly difficult for his soldiers to move.

It was a situation he didn’t have a grasp on. Any general worth his salt knew that the outcome of any battle was heavily swayed by the conflict’s first few moments. Sitting on his horse, shield raised to the skies above, visor down, and mace in hand, the Lord-General’s hard and cold, blue eyes weighed his next move.

If this were a chess match, Remy had been slain by a pawn. The Lord-General, trying to rally his troops, felt like the king piece, limited to single movements, as in the game. A memory crept slowly into his mind of his winning a game once with a few pawns and the king. Under the pressure of the current situation, the memory eluded him.

“Jaymes,” he said. “Bring those men in closer to the rank and file.”

The older man turned to bark his orders. “They’ll be dead before they can get back to the line,” muttered the Lord-General under his breath. Even as he spoke, the men were cut down like trees by a logger’s axe.

“I need a head count, Jaymes,” he asked, surveying what vestiges remained of his troops. He turned to his right when no response came and found the older man crushed under his mount, the armor bent and dented under the weight of his fallen horse.

“Get back to those rocks!” he screamed. “Move it! On the double!” He reined his horse in and brought it about, not waiting to see if anyone would follow. His men were well trained, and his orders on the battlefield were law.

Arrow upon arrow pelted him and he had to swat at them like flies. One found its way between his helmet and his neck. The arrowhead began chaffing his skin, rubbing the skin raw. The only thing that kept the arrow from killing him was the protective metal collar he wore.

His destination was a ridge of rocks back in the direction where they had come from. It was not the most defensible position, but it would offer some shelter from the arrows that were raining from the sky.

He pointed with his sword, “To those rocks!”

It was a position where they could draw the enemy out, instead of being their target dolls. The men were getting closer. Some of the soldiers struggled to get off their mounts, desperate to reach some semblance of safety. The line of men that should have stretched to the horizon was now a thread of linen falling apart.

It would have been impossible to see them in the pre-dawn night, but the moon hung high over the waters of the Lake of Dead Men. Out of two thousand troops, there must have been only six hundred men left. The enemy was decimating them. Had already utterly destroyed them, he thought darkly.

Then something flashed overhead. At first the Lord-General thought it was lightning. He thought clouds were rolling in and soon not only would have to contend with arrows killing men, but he would have to deal with rain and the things that came with it. And then a slow realization took hold of him. It wasn’t lightning from a thunderstorm or clouds slowly creeping over the land like cattle. Lightning was deadly enough.

This lightning was coming from the trees, and it was slamming straight into whatever remained of his troops. A fork of silver fire snaked its way through his men, connecting up to thirty of them together like a puzzle. Men sizzled in their armor, their eyes lit with silver fire. The smell of charred flesh traveled through the air to the Lord-General’s nose, and it was a grim reminder of what was transpiring before his very eyes.

More men reached the rocks, Micah Drogendahl, Ro Brendan, Aldrige Teineme, and countless others. The look in their eyes told him everything. They were men used to dealing with enemies. If they were challenged, they rose to meet that challenge. But nothing in their entire lives had prepared them for something like this. The sound of their comrades’ cries rang loud in their ears and their faces were as ashen as if they had seen a ghost.

One man decided to try and help his comrades and stepped out from behind the rock and was immediately hit with a lightning bolt that left a hole the size of a fruit in the middle of his chest. His eyes were still blinking when he fell to his knees and tumbled over, his body smoking like a cigar. Blain Cannon had never been good at following orders. Fool man.

The Lord-General clenched his fist in anger. His armor was bent and broken, and his mind, possibly the sharpest weapon he possessed, was failing him. The only thing left to him was his sword, and there wasn’t much use for it in his current predicament. Sensing that something had to be done soon or he would lose all of his men, he decided to call a retreat. Better to retreat and regroup and fight again, than to fall this day and die in defeat. He turned to another man that was close to his side.

The Lord-General couldn’t remember the man’s name. He thought it was Daren Coldwell. Slender and wiry, Daren Coldwell was exceptional with a bow. It was rumored his mother had slept with someone to get her son into the army.

“Sound your horn, boy,” commanded the Lord-General. “Be quick about it, too. There isn’t much time before it will just be you and me out here.”

The boy’s eyes were wide with fear. Barely over 17 years old and his young mind had already seen everything there was to see in the world. Accomplishment. Sex. War. Magic. Murder. Death. The boy reached for his horn uncertainly. He licked his lips once and then put the instrument to his lips.

As soon as the call went out, the attacks on the troops stopped. The silence that followed was deafening. None of his soldiers moved. A few cries of pain rose into the sky, and the Lord-General grimaced. They were only a hundred feet away, but they might as well have been on the other side of the world. The cries he was hearing were that of the dead, they just didn’t know it, yet.

“Sir!” He felt Daren Coldwell’s hand on his shoulder. There was something hysterical in the boy’s voice.

“What is it?” he asked, just barely above a whisper.

Daren Coldwell pointed and the Lord-General turned just in time to see his world fall apart. A ball of fire as bright as the sun was making its way straight into the sky. At first, he didn’t know what it was supposed to do until he saw it arch for a bit and then come down almost right in front of him.

The liquid lava hit the ridge of rocks and the world exploded in a shower of fire and sparks. Debris flew in every direction and he had to raise his hands over his head to protect himself. Dirt crystallized all around him and he almost lost his footing on the slick surface. He had never seen rock melt like that.

Whatever protection the ridge had offered was gone now. Exposed and certain of his death should he remain, he decided to flee. The horn had sounded and the call had been given. He turned to Daren Coldwell and found the boy under the glassy surface that used to be part of the sandy shore.

Half of the boy’s face was burned off, and his arms were raised protectively in front of him. The look in his eyes told the Lord-General what was going through the young man’s mind in those last moments before the blast had taken his life.

Life was not supposed to be this way. That’s what those eyes said.

The Lord-General was supposed to die with his men. This was not how it was supposed to be. What kept him going was his call to duty. A soldier knew his place. Its what gave him purpose, gave his life meaning. If a soldier broke that sense of duty, then what was he?

Nothing, he supposed.

Suddenly a questioned popped into his head. Had he ever won a game of chess with the king piece alone? He would have liked to think that the situation was clouding his memory; that the reason he couldn’t remember ever winning with the king piece alone was because he was in a fight for his life. But he knew.

The answer was no. There were no memories because he had never done it. He had never won a game of chess with just the king piece alone. He didn’t think he would make it out of this alone, either.

Copyright © 2004 by Julian Lawler III

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