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Authors: Tristan Gregory

Twixt Heaven And Hell

BOOK: Twixt Heaven And Hell
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Twixt Heaven and Hell

by Tristan Gregory

 

©
2012 Tristan Gregory

 

Cover art by
Graham Hanks

Map by
Joseph Freistuhler

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.

All rights reserved. No parts of this book may be used or reproduced in any format without permission from the author.

 

Chapter One

 

The morning mist obscured the clearing ahead. It was fortunate – if Darius had been able to see clearly, the churning in his stomach might have exploded into outright nausea. As it was, he had to concentrate to keep from retching.

Quiet curses from the men behind him were the only sound to break the stillness of the morning air. Many of the soldiers had their weapons to hand, though they had seen no enemy. Some eyed the forest suspiciously, peering into the underbrush.

Darius forced himself to keep his eyes on the remains of the small town. Charred devastation filled the glade where once the town of Deem’s Crossing had sat. Not a single building stood whole. Every wooden shop, every humble, thatched domicile had been put to the torch. The inhabitants of the town, it seemed, had shared a similar fate – he caught sight of a corpse, incomplete from the waist down, tied by both wrists to the scorched frame of the only two-storied building in the town.

“Robert,” Darius beckoned to his lieutenant.

Robert was already at his shoulder. “Sir?”

“Have the men surround the village. Put out a double ring of sentries – I want no surprises.”

“Yes, sir.”

Robert spun on his heel and began giving orders in a low voice. Darius's men – the elite company called the Gryphons – spread out quickly and with practiced ease slipped into the forest at both sides.

Darius did not think the Enemy was still nearby. He had already examined the area as far as his magic would reach. Save for his own soldiers, there was nothing moving that he could feel. Even the wildlife had fled the area. It was his unease that spurred him to such excessive caution.

Darius knelt and stretched out his will towards the village, letting his eyelids droop. In most ways, magic could tell him no more than his other senses. The charred wood still held the memory of fire, and in places there were remnants of the sorcery that had set it alight. The blood upon the ground still spoke faintly of life, telling him that the people here had died less than a day before.

There was something more, though, beyond the wanton destruction. Darius could feel a strange, vile miasma spreading from the ruins.

Robert knelt beside him, breaking his concentration. Darius looked at his second-in-command to see that Robert's stubble-covered jaw was clenched. It was the closest he had ever seen the man come to breaking his famous stoicism.

“What
happened
here, sir?” Robert asked, his unease finding its way into his voice. Darius knew his lieutenant was asking about more than the attack.

“You can feel it too?”

Robert nodded without meeting Darius's eyes. “Something is wrong here. I could swear I hear screams. It's almost as if a Demon were nearby.”

Robert spoke the last sentence in a whisper for he and his captain alone. It would not do to spook the soldiers – even the most battle-hardened veteran trembled at the thought of the Great Enemy.

Darius shook his head. “No Demon, Choirs be blessed. You're right, though – the feeling is similar. It is...” Darius trailed off as he sank into his magic once more, studying the strange taint.

“It is a memory,” he finished eventually. “An echo of the village's last moments.”

“I've never heard of magic like this,” Robert said.

Darius shook his head as he thought. “I don't think any sorcerer could have done this. It's as if the terror these people felt at the end was so powerful it took a life of its own, even as they died. It soaked into the land itself.”

Robert said nothing. He was not a wizard, and could not feel anything beyond the skin-crawling corruption. That he could feel it at all was proof of its intensity. Much of magic was indiscernible to ordinary men.

Darius fell silent once more. He ceased his study of the ghastly phenomenon and bent his efforts to eradicating it. He applied his will to its cusp, pushing it back towards the ruins, hoping the peaceful power of the forest around him would return – but it was no use. He was not dealing with some sorcerer's foul work, but a terrible force that had corrupted the ruins.

The terror and pain that soaked the dirt of the village was, now,
natural
.

Darius spread his senses wide, and felt that somewhere deep down the land still remembered serenity – but that memory was fading. How long before it disappeared completely? How long before this patch of horror was beyond any power to remove?

Then Darius was aware of a powerful counterpoint to the darkness – an island of calm amidst the pain. Even as he bent his will to study it, Darius realized that this beacon of peace stood at his shoulder.

It was Robert. Though revulsion occasionally roiled through him, it was nothing compared to the steady old veteran's habitual calm. Without a second thought, Darius wove magic about his lieutenant, and instead of simply trying to destroy the evil of the ruins, he drowned it in peacefulness.

It worked, to an extent. Robert was only one man, though. Hundreds had died here, and their suffering echoed with power.

Darius rose quickly. His lieutenant did not seem to notice anything amiss, and looked steadily back as his commander speared him with a surprised stare.

“Gather the men back,” Darius said quickly. “All of them.”

As the soldiers assembled once more, Darius peered into them, as he had with Robert. Most of them were experienced soldiers, and held onto a rigid calm – but it was a shell. Beneath it their spirits were troubled greatly. It would not do.

“We must set this place to rights,” Darius announced. “These are people of Bastion, and they will have a proper burial. Search the village. Gather up the bodies of the fallen, and bring them back to the square. Work in pairs – that will speed your labor. Go.”

As the men began their grim work, Robert leaned his mouth close to the wizard’s ear. “Sir, we lose time with this. Perhaps it would be wiser to –“


No.” Darius cut him off with a shake of his head. “This evil will not fade on its own, Robert. It will only get stronger.  I will
not
allow the Enemy a victory like this in our own lands.” He turned with a smile. “The ones who did this are heading further from
the border, and they do not know we are following. We will catch them still.”

More importantly, there were no more villages in their path; nothing for the Enemy to savage but grass and trees all the way to the mountains. Robert nodded his obeisance.

When the task was done, Darius gathered his men to him. They stood in a ring around the village square with the still-smoldering ashes of the dead village at their backs. The mass grave before them was marked with dozens of the three-spoked symbol that Bastion often placed above its fallen, to represent the mighty Angels who guarded them.

“Now our brothers and sisters will rest,” Darius said to the men. “The War is cruel, but they are beyond its reach. Let our souls rest easy for a moment, and join with them in peace.”

As he spoke he brought magic forth. Where before his soldiers had been in turmoil, now many relaxed into calm. Soldiers took solace in action, and Darius had long known that the respect shown towards the dead was meant to ease the pain of the living.

With Darius to guide it, the serenity flowed outward from the soldiers. Like water dousing a fire it engulfed the terrible memories of the slain. Their final moments had been so powerful Darius could nearly see them, but those echoes faded and disappeared before his will, amplified as it was by the emotions of hundreds of men.

Then, there was peace. Little by little the sounds of the forest returned. Birdsong crept closer as the wildlife realized that whatever malaise had lain upon the area was gone now.

It took only a few heartbeats – but as Darius looked about, he could see that the Gryphons noticed the change. Darius wondered how he would tell them it was they, as much as he, who had wrought it.

Darius had shouldered much of the burden, though. The spell had sapped his strength, and he could suddenly feel weariness try to settle into his bones. He ignored it, and spoke again.

“Come, Gryphons. We have seen to the victims – now let us give the villains their due. We'll march by moonlight if we must.”

The Gryphons formed a column as they trickled from the town – the scouts had already loped out to the front, to guide their fellows upon the enemy's trail. Darius and Robert moved to the head of the column. Something in the wizard's face must have given away his fatigue, for Robert spoke to him in low tones.

“Are you sure you don't need to rest a bit, sir?”

Darius shook his head. “We took the time we needed, but I'm not going to give the Enemy a moment more. If the scouts are right, we can still catch them tomorrow.”

Robert nodded, but an unspoken question still loomed in his eyes. Darius chuckled lightly. “Don’t worry about me, Robert. I know my limits.” The wizard trotted away, called out encouragement to the men, who began to pick up their pace.

 

***

 

Despite having to quickly acknowledge – to himself – that he was exhausted, Darius was reluctant to leave off the chase. Eventually, Robert had to give the order to make camp, after seeing the wizard conceal a stumble in the failing light.

Sentries were posted, but no cook fires were lit, and no tents went up. The men spread their bedrolls out upon the ground and dozed after eating the evening rations. They slept in their armor and kept their weapons close to hand – some snoring with hands upon their sword hilts.

Darius hurriedly wolfed down his evening meal, wanting to clear the last obstacle between himself and rest. As he washed the last of the dried meat and fruit down his throat with a swallow of water, a soldier approached him. The man was one of the newest of the band, recruited the last time the Gryphons had been in Bastion. Through his fatigue Darius had trouble recalling the man's name, and hoped he wouldn't be forced to admit as much.

The soldier saluted crisply, showing no weariness despite the ordeal of long travel and the horror of coming upon the village. His bright green eyes held some sorrow, though.

“Wizard Darius?”

Darius grinned and shook his head. “Don't be so formal. You're a Gryphon now – forget the 'wizard.' I'm your captain.”

The young man mirrored his smile and bobbed his head. “Sorry, Captain. I just wanted to say,” he paused a moment and scrubbed a hand across his face. “Um, thank you. For what you did at the Crossing.”

Darius studied the man's face, and sighed. “You knew someone there.”

“Yes sir. A cousin.”

“I'm so sorry,” Darius said as again he inwardly cursed his inability to remember the soldier's name.

“We all are, sir. We could feel something wrong about the place when we arrived, something more than just the blood and ashes. It made me feel like – like the dead weren't resting, somehow. I won't enjoy telling the family back home that he died, sir, but at least I can say he's at peace and know it's true.”

Darius smiled and nodded. “You're welcome, for yours and his sake. Get to sleep, now. We've still half the job left to do.”

The man gave a toothy grin, showing the predatory nature that all the Gryphons shared. Burying the dead was well and good, but burying the Enemy was better.

“Yes sir,” he said, and departed for his bedroll.

As Darius settled onto a thick patch of grass, Robert returned from his rounds. “It's amazing, sir,” he said as he lay down near his captain. “Coming upon the village like we did would have devastated most soldiers. Seeing you fix it, feeling it being made right, it changed everything. Morale is as strong as ever.”


Good,” Darius said, then mused aloud: “It might have something to do with
how
I worked the spell. I wonder...”

“Sir?”

Darius rolled over to face his lieutenant. “I involved the soldiers in the spell. And you as well, Robert. The corruption was human emotion that had acquired power of its own. It could only be fought by a similar force. I didn't have much time to think about it, but using the men like that could have affected them, somehow.”

“Maybe it helped,” Robert said.

“Perhaps.” Darius said. “It certainly took more of a toll on me than it should have. If we were attacked now, I would be next to useless.”

Robert cocked an eyebrow, his favorite mannerism. “Then I say, it is good we are the pursuers here, and not the pursued.”

A smile cracked the wizard’s face for the first time since the morning. “Well put. It bears studying, though.”

“Wizards!” Robert snorted. “Everything ‘bears studying’ with you.”

Despite his weariness, Darius lifted himself up on one elbow, a spark of excitement still smoldering away in his chest.

“I’m serious Robert. Do you realize what happened today? Nothing like this has ever been done.” Wetting his dry lips, Darius let himself settle onto his back. “And yet, I did it practically alone, with the help of common soldiers. This is a whole new facet to magic, something wholly outside the realm of what the Cherubim taught us.” He looked again at Robert. “It could change the course of the war.”

BOOK: Twixt Heaven And Hell
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