Author Topic: The Darkest Hour, Chapter 4  (Read 848 times)

Offline Benionin

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The Darkest Hour, Chapter 4
« on: December 29, 2016, 11:43:19 PM »
The Darkest Hour
Table of Contents

Chapter 4.1: Reigned In/Unleashed

     "As important as it is for the men to rest and recover," Gao Han was saying, "we can't let the Sorceress slip away. Someone will need to follow her--find out where she's going and how fast, whether or not she's having trouble with the beasts, and so on. Wen, you're relatively unmarred from our battles--goes with your role as a spirit-speaker. Pick one of the men and follow her trail."
     I swallowed. "Right, sir."
     "And don't drag off any of the stone-callers. We need them to fortify the camp."
     "Of course not, sir."
     Even as he walked away, our stone-callers began raising battlements from the ground. I walked over towards Jie. "How goes it?"
     He patted the wall he had just raised. "This is good earth. Good stone. Not like that powdery [redacted] we dealt with out in the Wastes. It'll hold against most anything." He smiled. "Well, who knows what will come out of these woods next?"
     I nodded and moved on. Near the center of the valley, our two healers were hard at work dealing with all of the injuries from the battle. I brushed the bandages on my burned arm. "Jiro," I asked, "how do you feel?"
     My friend's arm was in a sling and there was a bandage around his head, but he immediately jumped to his feet when he saw me. "Ready to keep fighting."
     "That's what I'd hoped you would say," I replied with a grin. "Can you march with that sling?"
     Jiro unhooked the sling from his shoulders and gave his arm an experimental stretch. "Don't need it."
     "Wait a minute, now wait a minute, you are in no condition to--" a healer began.
     "Healer, there are others who need your attention more," I said, cutting him off. "This one'll be fine. I'll take care of him."
     "So what's the plan?" Jiro asked as we walked off.
     "We're following the Sorceress--tracking her while the others recover and fortify here. I'm going to grab some supplies; wait here."
     Already some of our men were beginning to forage in the trees around the valley, and I carefully grabbed a satchel of the scavenged vegetables. Checking that my writing kit was in place on my belt as a force of habit, I returned to where Jiro was standing, leaning on his spear.
     "You ready?"
     He nodded. "Of course."
     "Then let's get moving."
     We exited the growing compound through a gate and began to march, Jiro using his spear as a walking stick. Following the Sorceress's trail through the end of the valley, we found where she had bridged Jie's chasm and crossed over the makeshift bridge of felled trees.
     "I'm surprised she isn't heading north, back towards the portal," I said as the trail continued to go dead south. "What is she thinking?"
     Jiro snorted. "Probably frightened that an entire army of monks is on her trail. If she knew half the truth she wouldn't have run. They would have slaughtered us easily if they had stood and fought." He spat. "Cowards."
     I wasn't sure if he was referring to the Verorians or those who had stayed behind--or both. Instead of pressing the issue, I kept moving. As we marched, Jiro began to lean more and more on his spear and fall farther and farther behind. I didn't stop, but I didn't lose sight of him either. Spotting a clearing, I stopped and waited for him to catch up, taking the opportunity to scribble down a few notes.
     "Looks like the Verorians stopped here earlier," I said. "They cleared out a lot less space this time."
     Jiro nodded, kicking the ashes of a campfire. "Looks like there are maybe a dozen of them left, by the size of the place."
     "Indeed. And they don't have shelter. Most if not all of the thralls who would carry it for them are dead and they abandoned their camp anyway. What surprises me is their course." I gestured at the stars becoming visible in the sky as night fell. "Southwest. Why?"
     Jiro shrugged. "I don't know and I don't care."
     I wrote a report on our progress for Gao Han and summoned a spirit to carry it to him, then spread out my bedroll. "I'll take second watch," I said. "Wake me before you fall asleep from exhaustion."
     Jiro saluted. "Yes, sir, commander."
     "I'm not the commander," I grumbled, fidgeting to try and find a comfortable spot on the hard ground. "The Stalwart is still in charge."
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Offline Benionin

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Re: The Darkest Hour, Chapter 4
« Reply #1 on: December 29, 2016, 11:43:27 PM »

      Being a dimensional scout is never the safest task. That's part of why Justin had signed up. Inquisitive and adventurous, he was eager to explore new worlds and encounter new civilizations. It was supposed to be exciting, something to tell stories about and a way to garner scars to impress the ladies.
     This... was boring.
     He was walking around a dead world, a vast graveyard. There was neither life nor any sign of the passage of time, only ruins and mass piles of corpses. Whatever had happened here, it could have been a month or a millennium ago. Justin kicked a stray brick and sent it bouncing down the street, stirring up dust.
     "Boring, boring, boring," he muttered.
      It wasn't even that just one area of the world was devoid of life. He had assembled a motorcycle and sped south approximately halfway across the continent (if his estimates were correct) and the only interesting thing to be had was a bout of acid rain. Dead trees, dead skies, dead towns.
     And now a dead city.
     If his map was right, this city roughly corresponded to the location of Lanstead. "Damn curious," he muttered. "Even given the geographical similarities, why would there be a city in the same location? It's not like Lanstead's location is ideal. Reasonable distance from the coast and intersects trade routes, but why would those be identical in this world?
     "Now that is curious," he said, noticing a clocktower near the city center. He pulled up in front of it, carefully maneuvering his bike around the corpses, and looked up. "Just like in Lanstead." He glanced at the clock, but it had stopped working long ago. "11:50."
     Justin's annoyance and boredom was replaced with an eerie sense of wrongness, of not belonging. This world was uncanny--similar enough to his own home to be recognizable, but horribly different. Horribly dead. He was suddenly aware of every single body lying in the street around him.
     The air was oppressive, and Justin was overcome with a sudden sense of vertigo. The buildings around him seemed to stretch infinitely into the sky and the air felt as thick as molasses. Taking a deep breath, Justin took a careful, cautious step forward.
     He hesitated. This city of the dead had lain undisturbed for untold years. Shaking his head and taking another gulp of the stifling air, Justin took another step. He was keenly aware of the heat of the day and of the sweat on his back.
     "There'll be a landing at the top of the clocktower where I can get some clean air and clear my head," he said, taking another careful step. Small clouds of dust were kicked up by every move that he made. Three more steps and he was inside. He breathed a sigh of relief, then tensed.
     In the street, the corpses had been unnerving, almost accusing him of disturbing them. 'How dare he, the living, stir this dead world?' they seemed to say. He had been glad to leave them behind, but there were more of them inside. The clocktower was practically overflowing with the bodies.
     The elevators were dead, but Justin decided that he wouldn't have trusted them even if they had been operational. Fortunately, he knew where to find the stairs. He gagged as he opened up the door to the stairwell and paused to let the stagnant air circulate.
     Justin found that he hated the silence of the place.
     "Damn it, do something!" he shouted, but his outburst was swallowed up by the dead world and only served to worsen his sense of isolation. Grumbling, he took to the stairs, doing his best to avoid stepping on any bodies. Unfortunately, there were so many that sometimes he simply didn't have a choice.
     "I'm not doing any comical jumps," he apologized as he stepped on someone's chest. "Sorry."
     It was then that he noticed that every single body had received some form of cybernetic augmentation. From artificial arms to reinforced ribcages to mechanical eyes, there wasn't a single unblemished body in the tower. Or, he realized, thinking back to his previous interactions with the corpses, the entire world.
     "Those don't look healthy," he said, indicating a coil of modifications that had replaced a corpse's neck. "Why'd you have them added? What would possess you to graft a malignant machine onto yourself?"
     The corpse didn't answer.
     When Justin reached the landing at the top of the clocktower, he was treated to a view of the dead city through a shattered window. "What a dreadful place," he muttered, absentmindedly resting his hand on the edge.
     "Ow!" he exclaimed as he sliced his palm open, clenching it and reaching for a bandage. "Of all of the stupid things to do, Justin, you cut your hand. Oh, very brave."
     Some drops of blood fell from the glass and landed on the ground far below while a trickle of blood dripped from his hand. Justin paused in the midst of bandaging the cut.
     In a dead world like this one, you grow used to silence. Nothing makes a sound unless you do, because you're the only one to make the sound. Machines have long since broken down, rivers have run dry, and when all life is gone there are no animals or insects to fill the air with noise. All of this combined to make Justin keenly aware of the whirring of machinery behind him.
     Turning, he saw one of the corpses come to life, orange lights blinking out from the machines that Justin now saw all too clearly had completely overtaken its body. Then another corpse whirred to life, and another, and another.
     Justin's blood ran cold at the memory of how many corpses had filled the stairway--and beyond. He reached for his pistol, but a mechanical vise closed around his hand. Whirling, he saw that there were more of these creatures coming from behind him.
     With a sudden lurch of movement, the zomborgs dashed forward and tore him apart.
« Last Edit: December 30, 2016, 06:56:59 AM by Benionin »
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Offline Benionin

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Re: The Darkest Hour, Chapter 4
« Reply #2 on: December 29, 2016, 11:43:34 PM »

     We were marching along the trail the next morning when I was struck by a realization and stopped. "Jiro, you notice anything odd?"
     He shook his head. "No, why?"
     "The beasts. They aren't attacking us. We haven't encountered any of them since the other day."
     He shrugged and kept moving. "Maybe they learned their lesson. It's not like they were constantly fighting us before."
     I shook my head. "Before we were travelling in a group. Not attacking us was the correct move. But now it's just the two of us. I caught a glimpse of a beast off the trail half an hour ago. By all rights it should have challenged us and attacked the intruders in its territory. We don't have numbers on our side, like we did before. But we weren't attacked."
     "Maybe the Sorceress scared them off."
     "If so, we wouldn't be finding all of the corpses along the side of the trail that she killed. They're still fighting her, but not us."
     Jiro stopped, shrugged, and kept moving. "I don't know what to tell you, but there's nothing we can do about it. We'll just have to keep following the trail. There's no sense in worrying over what we cannot control."
     "Jiro, that sounded suspiciously like something Xu would say," I laughed. "Fine, let's keep moving."
     "Discipline, Strength, and Honor, bud."
     I nodded. "Discipline, Strength, and Honor. The Jinhai way."
     Shortly thereafter we encountered a ravine. And by 'encountered,' I mean we fell down. The bridge that the Sorceress had made was less than stable, you see, and collapsed out from under us. Gravity, on the other hand, was perfectly functional.
     "Where's my writing kit?" I demanded as I hauled myself to my feet, wiping leaves and mud off of my robes.
     We scanned the side of the ravine, then Jiro pointed at a bush. "Up there."
     Grumbling, I tried to climb the ravine's side and get to it, but the moss, fallen leaves, and mud made it nearly impossible to gain any traction. "Almost there," I muttered, and I managed to grab onto it just a moment before sliding back down to the ravine's bottom.
     "You good?"
     I shook my head. "My copy of The Art of Defense is still up there," I said, pointing.
     "Leave it," Jiro said. "We've already wasted too much time. Let's get going." He started along the ravine's bottom. "There's a spot over here that I think we can use to climb out."
     "But, my book!"
     "Leave it! Damn, Wen, it's just a book. There are a billion copies of it at home. Sages know that the loss of one won't be the end of the world. It won't be the end of this world either. There are probably five more copies back at camp, too. Let's just get out of here, find the Sorceress, and then report to Gao Han. You still have your papers and inks to report, right?" I nodded. "Then let's get moving."
     After finding our way out of the ravine it was easy enough to pick back up on the trail. The Sorceress wouldn't stoop to hiking through the wilderness if she could clear the way with some of her death magic. The wastefulness of it all disgusts me to this day.
     "Where is she going?" I asked out loud.
     Jiro stopped me. "Shh," he said. "Do you smell that?"
     It was the stench of singed meat. I nodded.
     "We're catching up," he whispered. "Let's stay quiet."
     I nodded.
     We moved forward as silently as we could, and pretty soon we heard the tell-tale crackling of spells and the roars of beasts. I signaled to Jiro to move off of the trail and we took to the trees by its side. It certainly made marching more difficult, but the forest gave us cover and the sounds of our movement were covered by the sounds of conflict ahead.
     "Hey, Wen, do you have a map?" Jiro suddenly asked, stopping short. I nearly ran into him.
     "Of Reish?"
     "Yeah, why?"
     "Let's take a look at it."
     So we stopped our trip through the dense undergrowth while I pulled out my map, spreading it out on the ground. "Okay, what are you looking for?"
     "You mentioned that this might be a parallel universe of sorts to our own. An alternate reality. Same stars and all."
     "Sure, but are you saying that the geography is mirrored too?"
     "Why not?"
     I looked at the map and traced an approximation of our route. "That would put us... nearly on top of the Lone Keep."
     Jiro nodded grimly. "We know why she wasn't heading north back to the rift, then. She's taking the short route home."
     "But what makes her think that there will be another rift here?"
     "You saw the magic she used to keep the one rift open. Maybe she can open another one."
     "Do you really think that?"
     "Why not? She's an immortal, powerful sorceress who has been dealing in magic better left alone for centuries. I bet we don't even know half of what she can do."
     I put the map away, brushing leaves off of its back. "In that case, we may have to hurry and stop her ourselves."
     Jiro clapped me on the shoulder. "Excellent. There's a battle up ahead and I'm looking forward to it."
« Last Edit: December 30, 2016, 07:02:39 AM by Benionin »
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Re: The Darkest Hour, Chapter 4
« Reply #3 on: December 29, 2016, 11:43:41 PM »

     The Great Fortress of Xia Han was certainly a sight to behold. Towering, snow-capped spires, grand facades, and storehouses vast enough to feed the entire population of Jinhai for a month. It was magnificent. It was colossal. Looking at it made Jeong-Ho feel even smaller than he did atop the Wall.
     Adjusting his pack about his shoulders, the archer marched in the gate.
     Guards immediately stopped him.
     "Name, position, and business."
     Jeong-Ho forced a smile. "Jeong-Ho, of the twenty-third garrison. I'm a messenger from Gao Han's force."
     The guard frowned. "We haven't received word from the Stalwart in several days."
     Jeong-Ho nodded. "That's why I'm here."
     "An archer? What happened to your scribe, your spirit-speakers?"
     He forced his face to go blank. "My report is to the Sages, guardsman. Not to you."
     "Very well. Proceed."
      And then he was past the gate, immediately swept up in the bustle of the fortress, and suddenly explaining his position to a seneschal in order to gain a private audience with the council of Sages.
     A massive set of doors opened and Jeong-Ho entered in, looking around in awe. It was a garden, naturally. Cherry trees abounded and small waterways gurgled. There, seated in the middle, were three of the Sages. Bowing, Jeong-Ho advanced.
     "Honored Sages," he began, "my name is Jeong-Ho. I am an archer of the twenty-third garrison, sent with a message."
      He knew all of the sages by sight, of course. Yuanshi raised an eyebrow. "This is highly irregular, soldier."
     "I know sir, but these are irregular times. I have come with a report and a request."
     "Very well," Daode said, eyeing him carefully. "What is your report?"
     "Several days ago, we received word from Captain Hyeon concerning a portal between worlds. The Stalwart was determined to go to her aid, so we rushed to the defensive position she had established only to arrive too late. Her force had been either wiped out or captured, and the Sorceress had passed through the rift."
     "All of this is known to us," Yuanshi pointed out, only to be quieted by a look from Lingbao.
     "After fighting off an attack by the Exiles, Gao Han informed us that he had received orders to retreat from the position and return to the Wall. He then told us of his intent to disobey those orders and released us to follow our consciences. Several soldiers stayed behind to join him as he hunted down the Sorceress through the portal, but the rest of us returned to the Wall. We have since repulsed one incursion by the Exiles and two attacks by the Cult of Verore."
     Daode sighed. "It is as I feared, then. The Stalwart let his anger and zeal get the better of him. Very well, he knew the consequences. He is hereafter banished--"
     "Honored Sages," Jeong-Ho cut in, "that was my report. I would like to share my request with you before you take any action."
     "You presume?" Yuanshi demanded, but Lingbao calmed him with an upraised palm.
     "Very well," Daode said, "what is your request?"
     "Honored Sages, I would prefer that the Stalwart's decision to abandon his post be kept quiet, and for the honor of his family--and the families of those who chose to follow him--to be unmarred. He and all of those with him are likely already dead, and it does no harm to allow them their dignity and honor for doing what they felt was right. The vast majority of us returned to the Wall and are defending it--there was no breach of security in the few days that we were gone.
     "Announcing that the Stalwart has disregarded direct orders, on the other hand, would be ruinous to the reputation of one of your finest commanders in recent years, and ruinous to the morale of the entire garrison. There is no benefit to his banishment--he has already banished himself. There is no harm in leaving his honor intact."
     Yuanshi scowled and shook his head. "There is the truth, young man, and the truth is that the Stalwart is a deserter, along with several men. Who were the men who followed him into exile?"
     Jeong-Ho smiled sadly and shook his head. "I have no gift for memory and our scribe was slain in battle with the foul demons of the Wastes. The records are lost and I can't tell you who or how many men are gone. We have fought several battles and have sustained losses. I doubt anyone can keep track of our garrison's roster."
     Yuanshi exploded in rage. "You dare lie? You dare to protect the deserters who endangered everything that we have worked to protect for generations? You are a disgrace, young man. Get out of my sight."
     Jeong-Ho bowed and made to leave when a deep voice rumbled above him. "The young man speaks wisdom, Yuanshi." Stunned, the archer looked up.
     There, coiled around the garden's ceiling, was Ao Shun, the ageless dragon sage, the founder of the Descendants of the Dragon. Wise, immortal, and larger than Jeong-Ho had even imagined, Ao Shun floated down from above and came to rest on the garden floor, his immense length circling the entire room.
     "He is to be commended for his loyalty in choosing to remain behind," the dragon sage continued, his deep voice shaking Jeong-Ho to his bones, "and commended for his loyalty to his comrades who chose not to."
     "But--" Yuanshi was cut off by a glare from Lingbao.
     "As far as I am concerned," Ao Shun rumbled, "Gao Han died fighting the Cult of Verore out in the Demon Wastes on a sanctioned mission. There were many other casualties including the scribe, all of whom are to be accorded full honors. The Stalwart was a hero who died nobly to protect the land he loved. Understood?"
     Yuanshi scowled but said nothing. Lingbao nodded, as did Daode.
     "Very well," the Sage of Strength said, "you are dismissed. Thank you for your report, Jeong-Ho."
« Last Edit: December 30, 2016, 07:06:50 AM by Benionin »
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Re: The Darkest Hour, Chapter 4
« Reply #4 on: December 29, 2016, 11:43:59 PM »

     We followed the sounds of battle and found the Sorceress standing in the midst of another magic-made clearing. Her entourage was reduced to only a few other cultists, including the one with glasses and the one with a mask. There were maybe five of them, certainly no more than ten. Surrounding them was a force of beasts, but these were different than the beasts we had previously encountered. They were humanoid, even if they did have fur and fox-like faces.
     When they moved, the fox-men worked together. Armed with spears, they seemed to be speaking to each other as they howled and darted forward, searching for a weak point in the cultist's defenses, dodging backwards just in time to avoid the deadly magic.
     Not every beast was so agile or quick to dodge all of the magic, however, and the evidence of their continued assault was found in the corpses filling the clearing. There were maybe seven beasts lying still already, and as I watched another one fell to a quick blast from the cultist with glasses.
     "Let's go help them," Jiro said, but I held him back.
     "Wait. We don't know if they'll attack us, and I want to see what happens."
     The Sorceress was preparing something big. Directing one of her cultists forward, she began uttering a powerful incantation and tracing glowing runes into the air. Roaring, the beasts charged, barreling through the one cultist's spells and crushing her with powerful blows. The fox-men hurled their spears forward, felling another cultist. Then they surged forward.
     And died.
     Aleta's spell was complete and death erupted from each of the charging beasts, swirling runes marking their passing. As the purple magic dissipated they fell.
     "Now we attack," I said, already summoning the ancestors' strength to my limbs as I bounded out of the trees and into the clearing. More of the vulpine beasts were emerging from the trees on the opposite side and I saw the Sorceress direct her last two cultists to hold them off. The path was clear.
     Jiro was running behind me, his weariness and wounds forgotten. Within moments we had crossed the clearing while the cultists were occupied with the beasts, the wary fox-men keeping their distance. Aleta's eyes were closed in concentration and she was rapidly muttering something under her breath. As we drew close, her eyes flashed open and she shouted in alarm. "Fools!" she snarled, and her two cultists spun around.
     The one with the mask strode towards us, magically ripping the blood from the body of one of her fallen comrades and hurling it at Jiro. I summoned a shield in the air to block it, absorbing the blow as she snarled. Meanwhile the spectacled cultist held off the beasts with more spells and Aleta continued her incantation.
     Jiro lunged with his spear, aiming for the cultist's throat. A ritual dagger flew upwards and deflected the blow, followed by a quick blast of lightning that threw him backwards. Growling, I struck out with my fists, ancestral strength empowering my blows. She fell back, out of my reach, and crafted the blood of a fallen beast into a deadly projectile. I ducked under the arrow of blood and pressed my attack. In response the cultist took another backwards step and threw a death spell at me.
     "Ancestors," I whispered in the moment before the spell struck, "today is not my time." The death magic washed over me and then dissipated, replaced by a wash of cool air. "Thank you," I said, and took another step forward. Behind me Jiro was trying to break a magical wall that had been built around the Sorceress, but every attack seemed to bounce off of the reflective shield.
     Suddenly the entire world lurched. I stumbled involuntarily and fell to the ground. Turning, I saw the Sorceress rise to her feet. She was standing beside a rift to Reish, purple lightning crackling around its edges and forcing the barrier between realities apart. A dismissive wave sent Jiro and the attacking beasts that were still on their feet sprawling. Then she stepped through, the two cultists racing to reach the portal before it closed.
     Scrambling to my feet, I threw a rock that was on the ground. It hit the Sorceress on her shoulder and she turned around and laughed. "Have fun, little monks," she said, and the rift closed.
     The world lurched again and I fell to my knees, breathing heavily. "That... isn't... natural..." I finally said.
     Jiro quickly moved to my side and shook his head. "No, it isn't." One hand reached down to help me up, but his eyes were focused on the beasts now filling the clearing. There were over a dozen of the fox-men still standing, many armed with crude spears and swords.
     We didn't stand a chance.
« Last Edit: December 30, 2016, 07:10:42 AM by Benionin »
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Re: The Darkest Hour, Chapter 4
« Reply #5 on: December 30, 2016, 07:11:55 AM »
Chapter 4 is now posted. No ETA on chapter 5 yet.
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Offline belial12

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Re: The Darkest Hour, Chapter 4
« Reply #6 on: December 30, 2016, 08:51:24 AM »
can't wait for chapter five! oh why do you torture me so? T.T

Offline TameRlane

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Re: The Darkest Hour, Chapter 4
« Reply #7 on: January 01, 2017, 06:32:48 PM »
I loved the Kyrallic interlude... so cool. 
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