Author: Koumides PM
Enthousiasmos: the ecstasy experienced by possession of a god. An ancient enemy returns indiscriminately attacking the kingdoms of a divided land. As our heroes struggle to unite against this evil force they must also contend with their personal relationships, secret plots, fierce battles, the gods and their fate.Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Drama - Chapters: 7 - Words: 50,196 - Published: 07-01-12 - id: 3037717
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
A low whistle crooned through the quiet early morning, disrupting everything with its calculated dissonance, its defiant interruption of the dark. It came after half a night of silence, at a time when all good things should have slept. Ingleholm might have dismissed it as one of the many unfamiliar night birds of the strange Deep Land, but this was the stonegrouse's call, and the nearest stonegrouse was no less than four hundred leagues to the north. This was a call he had been waiting for, dreading, for many hours. His eyes immediately took to hunting for movement to the northeast, from whence the sound had come, and he hastily kicked dust onto the remnant embers of the small, carefully shielded fire. He shook away whatever drowsiness had settled in his head over the course of the night and set to work.
Stooping down, he placed a hand on a fellow soldier's arm to rouse her. She stirred under his touch, and did not wake immediately, but as he went to nudge her again, she awoke, clarity and realization shining with the moonlight in the deep pools of her eyes. He cursed at himself for not first waking the Scout-Lieutenant, but he was drawn to this woman. If we survive this light-forsaken night, I'll ask… No! Now is not the time for such thoughts, he chided himself. After reassuring her with a solemn nod, he stood and proceeded to wake the others, who woke in turn with a silent, practiced urgency.
The Scout-Lieutenant immediately ordered six Rangers into advanced positions with a concise flick of his fingers. Half of the remaining scouts were to form up in roughly spaced squads of four to support what remained of the King's Lancers with arrow-fire. The others were assigned to guard the Prelate and his retinue as final line of defense. In the event of necessity, these last were to coordinating a retreat, ensuring his survival in-the-Light, and ensuring the delivery of his message to the Mayoral Council of Old Courderont. Among them was Dawn, the brown-eyed soldier. Ingleholm's eyes followed as her contingent moved away into the brush.
Ingleholm's heart beat in his ears as he settled down next to his pack and equipment. His hand went unbidden to the worn pommel of his blade. He eased it in its scabbard, bared a hand of the steel to see for himself that it was still there. It was of little comfort, a mere half-stone of folded metal. Against what? The Light knows how many of those beasts and their masks. His hands moved rapidly as he removed his bowstave from its stained and dented leather case and strung it without looking. He watched the others as he worked, wondering which of his companions would live to see the sun rise again over, and who would lie dead-or worse, by the next night's fall. Will any of us live to sing the Dirges of Twilight for our fallen? Sensing his gaze, Hakhul eyed him inquisitively.
A Samar from beyond the western deserts, Hakhul was even more taciturn and frustrating to talk to than the others of his people that Ingleholm had encountered. Easier to wring blood from the sand than the plain truth from a Samar; but he was a fierce warrior and a fierce friend to Ingleholm. Will you sing for me, my friend? Or will I sing for you?
Ingleholm had known fear in battle before, but this was somehow different: the Masked Ones, if they still existed at all, were supposed to be poorly organized marauders, tribals, animists and pagans, superstitious club-wielding cannibals. The Excision should have prevented them from ever threatening the world again. Both Ingleholm and the Scout-Lieutenant had urged that the men be told the details of the scouts' report, insisting that the shock of meeting at night, in battle, a fantastical enemy plucked from childhood stories and children's nightmares could prove too traumatic for the diplomatic contingent, most of whom had never seen combat. But the Captain of the Lancers, a militarily inept dandy, whose well-oiled mustache was his most prized possession, and who just happened to be the favorite nephew of a High Prelate, overruled them both. He did so on the grounds that many might desert their post in the night if they knew. Ingleholm secretly believed that the Captain simply doubted the truth or accuracy of his report, and when he expressed this belief to Hakhul, Hakhul asked with simple mirth, "Why would he not, my friend?"
Embarrassed by the faithlessness of his thoughts, Ingleholm quickly crossed his wrists over his heart in salutation to the Light and nodded. Hakhul simply nodded back, the expression of secret humor for once gone from his face.
The loathsome beasts had proven nearly as clever as they were cruel- far more clever than the bumbling and clumsy, rage-blind cannibals depicted in the old stories. A pair of soldiers had died to ingeniously simple poisoned traps shortly after the dawn of their second morning beyond the last Amaranthine outposts; stiff bundles of hazel switches bound to the trunks of bushes beside the path, their tips soaked in some incredibly potent unknown venom. As the contingent passed, the two unlucky troopers had brushed by the bound twigs, grazing the exposed flesh of their ankles between their boots and leather greaves-thinking nothing of it until they fell over dead ten steps down the path. Ingleholm volunteered to help bury them.
In the evening of that same day, Hakhul had barely saved Ingleholm himself from a pit trap, catching him by sword sash at the last moment and hauling him up from within a hand of the crudely sharpened timbers at the bottom. Since then they had avoided the game trails. The dense pine woods, the brambles and deadfall slowly transitioned into the sparse, craggy foothills of the Red Teeth, the jagged barrier separating the rest of the world from the realm of fairytale monsters. For centuries, it had been said that either you were to their west, seeing these mountains in the light of the setting sun, their peaks tinged red in the fading day, or you were to their east, and you were dead. But few survivors of the War of Masks still lived, and as the decades passed, turned into centuries, and time dulled blades of the Elemental kingdoms, memories of the hordes of masked berserkers and their blood-chilling war-cries faded and turned into myth.
The company's plan, upon departing the City of the Light, had been to skirt the base of the Teeth until the range broke eastward, then to make their way through the Windwood, the massive forest that spanned the northern border of the broken kingdom of Old Courderont, and travel along the Silver Ore's in much the same manner. But as they picked their way south, farther from their borders with each step, deeper into dead, forsaken lands, fate, and the Light, seemed to abandon them. Courses through the wind-carved warren of crags and canyons, surveyed by the outrunners to be clear and passable in the morning would be blocked by avalanche at midday. A shallow crossing of one of the many melt water springs scouted at midday would be a roaring impassable wash come sunset. The canyons themselves seemed to conspire delay, and the contingent progressed at a crawl. Their charge and the official leader of their expedition was a fat, weak-featured Prelate of the Illuminated. His constant stream of complaints and droning supplications to the Light for deliverance "from such dim, ill-lit surroundings" lent credence to Ingleholm's suspicion that he'd been sent with them at least in part to spare his brothers in the Prelature from the constant burden of his presence.
The fourth day after their departure from Amaranth's southern-most outpost found Ingleholm and Hakhul scouting for alternate routes around yet another avalanche. The Prelate and his retinue wagon were the problem. Even the richest noble in Amaranth had grown up plying the crags and peaks in search of Roc eggs or cableberries or other treasures of the heights, and tallest of the Teeth were trifling anthills when compared to some the lesser peaks of the Northrim. But the clergy, committed to the cloistered monasteries of the Light from birth, grew up behind thick stone walls, unexposed to the harsh mountain winds that tempered the bodies and wits of other Amaranthines.
While scrambling over the uneven crest of one of the looming buttes that gave the region its name, Ingleholm contemplated various comic ways by which the priest and his possessions could be manually tied and hoisted over the impasse. Climbing methodically with pick and grapple, lost in his thoughts, he nearly lost his footing when a high, sharp signal whistle pierced the dead air from a neighboring butte. Hakhul waved him across decisively before disappearing over the ridge.
Moisture rose in buffeting gusts from a deep ravine, quickly evaporating in the arid heat of the plateau. Hakhul lay on his chest, peering over the edge as the rising mist gathered in beads on the skin of his face and neck.
"Come. Look, look at what lies in our path," he said, without turning. "Our goal, it seems it is not to be reached easily."
"What, another dead end?" joked Ingleholm.
"It might be called as much by some," said Hakhul.
Ingleholm chuckled ruefully as he approached the overhang. Like blood from the sand, he mused.
What he saw, as he knelt and peered down into the shadows of the ravine, choked the laughter from his throat and turned his blood into ice in his veins.
Dozens of hundreds of figures marched along the banks of a narrow stream at the bottom of the crevice. In ranks of four across, they moved in and out of the jagged shadows of the cliffs that rose on either side of them, and their lines stretched as far as either scout could see. Most carried pikes, but some hefted crude, double-bladed axes. Most wore pieced-together collections of hide and boiled leather sloppily painted over in a deep burgundy, likely scavenged from several different sources evidenced by their poor fits and gaps the between pieces.
A handful, in well-crafted coats of silver chain that glistened beneath black-dyed burlap robes, rode on well-bred black mounts at the head of the neatly meted columns. They sat atop huge armored war-horses and rode with an upright ease that was both rigid and relaxed. Silver-hilted blades, resting in gilded curving scabbards, bounced at their hips. All, to a one, wore over their faces, masks of iron-bound wood slats, with cruel, violent eye-holes, bordered in a bloody red, glaring out above a mouth of viciously carved red fangs. The masks curved around each man's head, ear-to-ear and crown-to-chin, and were secured in the back with a solid hand's width of seamless black iron.
Because of the depth of the crevice and the great vertical distance from which the scouts were viewing these figures, even they, with their Ranger's eyes practiced at the rapid and accurate assessment of the strength of armed enemies did not at first realize that, in proportion to their trappings of war, their pikes and swords and mounts and piecemeal armor, these figures were each, much larger- taller, broader and more muscular- than normal men should be. Both scouts seemed to realize this at once, and it finally occurred to them who- what- these soldiers were. Ingleholm breathed in sharply through clenched teeth. Hakhul merely nodded to himself.
"Blind me…" Ingleholm gasped. "Those, those aren't-? It cannot be."
Hakhul responded blithely, his wistful smile evident in his voice, "Ah, but it is, my friend. And so it clearly can. They are here. They are not the culled and hobbled cave-dwellers men have always thought them to be. Perhaps they never were."
Used to the perpetual laughter in Hakhul's voice and the endless cavalcade of riddles, Ingleholm merely grunted.
"Must have twenty squads down there," he mused. "A thousand men-" he stopped short, perturbed and unsure at having used the word men. "We checked this crevice already," he whispered excitedly. "This morning the water was four spans up that wall at least, and moving faster than a horse might run."
"Indeed," replied Hakhul, slowly, simply and with a quiet calm that sat poorly with Ingleholm.
The haunting birdcall sounded again, summoning Ingleholm back to the present, and he looked up to find the nervous eyes of his squad on him. The falls hummed softly in the distance, their primal sigh reminding him of the winds in the aeries of Engrin's Reach, the western steppes sprawling out before him, and of Dawn. With a noiseless sigh he banished the thoughts from his mind, as if expelling them with the air in his lungs. He stood up slowly, deliberately, and signaled, "Steady," in the hand cant of the Rangers. One by one, he pulled the arrows from the quiver at his hip, and stuck them point-first into the rocky clay. The others jumped to do the same as, broken from the familiar physical rhythms of combat preparation began to take over. The Scout Rangers, unlike the puffed up King's Lancers that still wore their draping and bulky ceremonial tunics over their armor, were no strangers to actual combat. Ingleholm's unit was highly decorated, and had been stationed on the western steppes before being mysteriously summoned to the capital, at the request of the High Priest himself- light illuminate him.
The small rise on which they had made camp was as defensible a spot as was to be found along the floor of the valley. They had built camp on the flat, safely away from the frequent rock falls that boomed down the cliff and shattered in gouts of dust and gravel. Three hundred spans to the north, the cliffs rose like a black curtain. Equidistant to the south, the forest began tentatively. Low, gripping brush blanketed the rocky field. Gnarled and stunted cedars gradually gave way to sturdier, taller, healthier specimens, as if the taint of death emanating from the Deep Lands pervaded the very soil near the cliffs. In the distance, silhouetted by the setting moon, the swaying peaks of larger trees marked the true beginning of the Windwood.
The woods were dark and Ingleholm assumed it was just a matter of time before the dawn broke in the east. But the dense, towering trees would choke the morning light for a time afterwards. As the minutes dragged on, he began to fear, not for the safety of the other soldiers who departed, but for himself. If they did not return, his own doom would be certain.
A crash in the underbrush captured their attention; alongside the ridge from the north the enemy appeared. He could discern armored limbs, slender and powerful as they pounded the earth, but what stole his attention were the hideous masks that covered their faces and upper bodies. They ran without regard to their lives and many were felled with arrows. Ingleholm was not sure whether the enemy was merely brazen and straight forward in attacking or was this deception? It was a combination of both. As the soldiers engaged the enemy who were not felled by the archers, arrows whistled down from the top of the ravine killing both friend and foe. Bold enemies leapt down from the ravine to join in the carnage.
The Rangers dropped their bows and the sound of swords being unsheathed filled the air for a moment only to be drowned out by the cries of men and the beasts suffering from mortal wounds. Ingleholm ran to a comrade, Dolgren, who was battling a horribly large Masked One and drove his blade deep into the beast's chest. To his surprise, the steel only seemed to infuriate the enemy who knocked Ingleholm back with great strength. He let out a gasp as he fell, his armor clattering on the ground. The enemy viciously removed Dolgren's throat and turned in time to eviscerate a lancer with a downward slash. The Masked One ripped its blade from the lancer's crumpling body and turned toward Ingleholm. Its mask was soaking up the blood of the two men it killed. Its eyes visibly fluttered in the eyeholes, blinking away blood that had sprayed in.
Ingleholm tried crawling away, but the Masked One was upon him with two great strides. Ingleholm fumbled then gripped his scabbard holding it pathetically above him- a feeble defense he knew, from the Masked One's bloodied steel. A lancer appeared from behind the Masked One and with a deft thrust the Masked One froze, twitched once and collapsed to the ground. The lancer hauled Ingleholm to his feet and ran past him. Ingleholm crawled to the Masked One turned the heavy corpse to its side and pulled his sword out of its chest cavity.
Ingleholm turned toward the sound and saw it was Dolgren. The man was slowly writhing on the ground clutching at his throat. Blood seeped through his fingers each time he wheezed. He was trying to speak. Ingleholm scrambled to him and grasped the man by his hands helping to apply pressure to the throat. Dolgren's wheezes increased in frequency but diminished in strength, his pleading eyes lost clarity.
"Hiiin, hiin, hin…!"
"Stop! Don't speak!" Ingleholm cried. "No!"
An arrow flew by his ear and Ingleholm let out a frustrated scream. He turned in the direction from where the arrow was fired.
"I- I'm sorry Dolgren."
The dying man shook his head. He did not want to be left alone.
Ingleholm left Dolgren, who clutched feebly to his arm and ran headlong into the battle. He pushed his way against bodies and was knocked to the ground by a Masked One who tackled a Ranger next to him. The three wrestled on the rocky ground and Ingleholm was bashed in his nose and mouth by an errant fist, he howled and his hands went to his face. When he overcame the pain he turned to see that the Masked One had mounted the Ranger and was pummeling her face with its iron gauntlet. Ingleholm, overcome with wrath, seized the Masked One by its neck and twisted as violently as he could. He could feel vibrations from bones snapping and with satisfaction he released the body. The Masked One collapsed next to the fallen Ranger and Ingleholm was horrified that he could not identify his disfigured ally. Ingleholm tried getting up and was knocked down again. Feet trampled all around him and bodies continued to fall around him. He got up finally and let out a war cry as he dashed toward the nearest cursed mask…
Ingleholm's helmet slipped over his eyes and he felt twisted daggers plunge into his skin and limbs. He began to scream as he swung his sword blindly. He felt revulsion at the masses swarming against him and the slain tripping his feet. Hysteria rose and overcame him. He had to escape. Pushing and stumbling through the madness he found himself running in the dark, narrowly slipping through the swath of trees.
Ingleholm could only hear his own erratic breathing coming out in pained whimpers. Fear had numbed any injury and he was able to run swiftly. He thought he heard someone cry his name. The woods became peaceful, the din behind him faded. He ran a great distance when he stumbled upon the prelate's carriage. Cowering behind a bush he saw first hand the precautions the captain had taken were unsuccessful. On the ground around the carriage were several Lancers with weapons held to their throats. A Masked One kicked the locked door of the carriage in and reached inside. Shrill screams came from the carriage as the Masked One reached in. The prelate was ripped from the carriage falling face first into the leaves. Another Masked One stalked over and lifted the prelate up by the nape of his robes and appeared to be examining him. The prelate cried and covered his head with arms. The Masked One addressed the others with a disapproving and discouraging shriek that chilled Ingleholm's blood.
One responded with a few, also boar like grunts, and Ingleholm saw another nod as if in agreement. The Masked One whipped a dagger out of its belt and forced the prelate down on the ground out of Ingleholm's sight. He could only see the Masked One now. Its arm became a blur, stabbing too fast to have any accuracy. The others watched for a time then returned their attention to the prisoners or the carriage. Aside from the prelate's shrieks, Ingleholm could only hear one of the Lancers sobbing.
Ingleholm crept away quietly and began running again in the opposite direction. When he chanced to glance backwards he was relieved to see none pursuing him. His boots clipped a root as his head was turned and he tumbled into a dry streambed. Ingleholm caught his breath, pulled himself to his feet and pressed on. The path sloped downward and at times he had to scramble over fallen trees. After a time the bed became wet, the mud sucked at his feet. He reached for a tree branch and gingerly stepped on to dry land when an arrow lodged itself in his lower thigh. His back arched from the pain and he tried to flee, but the pain was crippling and he could only hobble. It was not very long before he was overtaken.
They took advantage of his disabled range of motion, sidestepping the arcs of his sword and bashing him with wooden poles. They howled and laughed when he gradually began to tire, slower and slower he pulled himself to his feet. They would prod his exposed body with nasty cuts to reinvigorate him. They were still dancing around him when their chieftain arrived. The chieftain's wooden mask and limbs were soiled with the blood of Ingleholm's fellows. With a grunt, the chieftain lifted his spear and jabbed Ingleholm in the chest knocking him onto his back. As he hit the ground, he let out a sigh of resignation and made no attempt to get up. Whether out of pity or efficiency, Ingleholm could not figure, the chieftain raised his weapon in a calculated manner, as if to signal the blow was intended to be fatal. The swing of the spear culminated with a sound like wood being split. As Ingleholm's head rolled, disturbing the autumnal leaves, the lesser ones shrieked squeals of delight.