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Authors: Tristan Gregory

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BOOK: Twixt Heaven And Hell
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“I think it is, Balkan. I truly do.”

 

Over the next hour, they decided that a great deal of research still needed doing before Balkan brought his work to the attention of the Council.

“I’ll need to enlist acolytes to help me test the runes,” Balkan stated, sitting in the large comfortable chair while Darius perched upon a stool. “And have a proper laboratory set up.”

“And,” Darius said pensively, “You’ll need to find somebody who can carve a proper frog.”

 

Chapter Eight

 

Torrey stumbled into the bushes to relieve himself, nearly tripping over his own feet on the way. He was glad none of the others were paying attention – he was always loudly boasting that a mountain dweller was hardy and sure-footed. If his comrades saw him stumble in these lowlands – with hardly any proper hills even, much less mountains – he would never hear the end of it.

Torrey grinned in the dark as he loosed the laces on his breeches. Chances are, even if they had seen, none of them would remember it come morning. One of the others, a good bloke, had produced two skins of a rough, tasty drink as soon as they’d set camp. The soldier claimed to have saved it all the way from Riverside, waiting for a good reason to celebrate. They had all agreed that being pulled off the border for the first time in six months qualified.

Two skins wouldn’t have been enough for even a swallow amongst the hundred men in the camp, but several other men had wine they’d managed to wheedle out of the officers before the split. Wine didn’t have the kick of the other stuff, but plenty of men accepted it all the same. Torrey had decided to try something new. The warmth in his belly had been fierce after the first swallow, and had since spread to his limbs.

It was a clumsy heat, Torrey decided as he tried – thrice – to lace up his breeches. He chuckled at the way his fingers fumbled the familiar motions.

The camp was a stone’s throw away, and Torrey could still clearly hear the singing and yelling. The latrines weren’t dug yet, which was why he was watering the plants. He imagined they’d be put somewhere out here. The army had split off into smaller groups of one or two-hundred in order to stave off the ‘camp smell’ - that foul stench that accompanies any large group of soldiers. It could be staved off yet longer if they placed the latrines as far as conveniently possible from the orderly rows of their tents.

Torrey hoped they’d be here for at least a ten-day, maybe even a full fortnight, though there was no telling. The skirmishes and raids on the front made for constant attrition, and the officers never did bother to ask the soldiers if they were ready to go back to the fighting yet.

Before he started back to the company of his fellows, Torrey took a moment to look out at the land. The grassland stretched to the horizon many miles away, illuminated by the nearly-
full moon
and broken occasionally by the silhouette of a tree. It had an eerie beauty that was sharply removed from the cluttered vistas of his tribe’s mountainous home.

As the mind of a man in his cups will, Torrey's wandered down many paths; Past battles, futures hopes. Past lusts, future loves. He contemplated them all -

- until the sky was lit with a pillar of fire, as if the sun had decided to rise again in fury – on the wrong side of the world.

At first Torrey thought he was having a vision, as men say wizards oftentimes do. Surely, this great inferno in the sky was not real? Then a great wind ripped across the grassland and Torrey was nearly knocked off his feet by the blast of hot air.

Then the world was dark again. The rough light that cast aside the moon’s humble brilliance had dazzled Torrey’s eyes and ruined his vision. Instead of the wanly-lit grassland that he had beheld only moments before, he saw only darkness – and the afterimage of the great flaming spear he had beheld, dancing before his eyes.

When he had recovered his wits, Torrey became aware of one more thing. The peace of the night air had not returned with the sudden vanishing of the flame. The stillness was broken now – with war cries.

The war cries of the Enemy.

Torrey fumbled for the axe upon his belt. Drink again made fools of his fingers as they quested against the straps that held the weapon to his hip. Before he could bring the haft to his grip, they were upon him. From out of the darkness they streamed, finally drawing close enough that Torrey’s ruined sight could make them out in the moonlight. It was just like any other nighttime raid – except that Torrey was very, very far from the border, far from the fighting. Far from the danger.

The first marauder to notice him came straight on, and though his wits were confounded by the wicked liquor of Riverside, his instincts saved him. He ducked beneath the man’s blow and fell to the ground. His hands abandoned their quest for the axe and reached instead for his knife, a smallish thing good only for eating supper. As his attacker twisted again to swing his weapon – a cruel, serrated slashing spear – Torrey leapt into him. The spear shaft clouted him on the side of the head, but he drove his dagger into the man’s throat.

They fell, both thrashing about. But Torrey had the upper hand, for the man’s strength fled quickly with his throat cut. Torrey’s hands and chest were hot with blood.

Then a spear took him in the back.

Torrey felt only a sting – but when he attempted to rise again his legs refused to move. The best he could do was roll over onto his back, away from the corpse beneath him.

His eyesight already fading, he beheld still more of the fiery pillars in the distance. One, two, and more, they exploded from the sky like lightning from an evil storm.

Torrey realized his air was short. No matter how deeply he gasped, he couldn’t seem to catch his breath. As his vision faded to black, his last sight was of the angry fires against the sky – and his last thought was that something had gone horribly wrong.

 

Chapter Nine

 

By candlelight, Arric poured over the latest string of reports from the front. These were written reports, from all the commands not considered important enough to be assigned a Globe to contact Bastion by more direct means.

The war slumbered, it seemed. In Arric’s mind, the conflict he had fought all his life had taken on the aspects of a natural beast. When it hungered, men died. When it slept, soldiers could rest as well. And when it felt playful… well, cats generally amused themselves with the mice they caught. Directly before devouring them.

If Arric had anything to say about it, the War would soon feel playful again – but the Enemy would be the mouse this time. Bastion had nearly twenty thousand men camped in a deep valley to the south of Fortress Nebeth. Eighteen Wizards were there. Entire new spells had been devised to divert the enemy's eye and keep the preparations secret, and the Angels themselves were aiding the plan.

Soon, Arric would give the order, and the soldiers of Bastion would flood out of their hiding place to fall upon the nearby encampment at Cairn. Though it was not a proper fortress, Cairn had been occupied long enough that the Enemy had erected substantial earthworks for its improved defense. Surrounded by dense forest to the south, and sheer cliffs and the river to the west, it was highly defensible. Once Bastion’s forces took it, a true fortress would be erected and they would have a stronghold to rival Fortress Nebeth jutting deep into the Enemy’s lands.

Just a few more days, Arric told himself. To get all the soldiers they could into the valley, to make sure the enemy had no inkling of their plans – they had experienced scouts keeping an eye on Cairn to make sure no sudden influx of troops spoiled their attack. Thus far everything was going well.

Arric would eventually look back and realize that should have been his first clue that trouble lurked.

A breathless acolyte appeared in the doorway and Arric looked up in alarm.

“Sir! Urgent news from the globes, you’re needed!”

Arric burst from his chair. As he followed the young man out his mood began to quickly sink. He felt in his bones that this was no raid warning, nor news of an overrun border fort. Such things, though terrible, were relatively commonplace. Arric felt disaster in this.

The globe room was crowded and noisy. Over two score globes –  each a perfect sphere of the purest crystal, magically linked with a twin somewhere out in the lands controlled by Bastion – filled the tables on special iron stands. Wizards tended them at all hours, collecting reports and messages from the border. The room was in chaos, every man present shouting at once. Arric grabbed the arm of Thurstan, the wizard currently in charge.

“What is going on?” He shouted above the din.

“Arric! Thank the Choirs. Nebeth is under attack! The Fortress is surrounded!”

Complete confusion clouded Arric’s mind. Fortress Nebeth was not currently on the front. Surely this was some mistake?

Arric hurriedly moved to the table where stood the
two
globes connected to Fortress Nebeth, so crucial was the stronghold. Rudely shoving aside the man speaking into one, he peered intently into the crystal and discerned the face of Wizard Ethion, the commander of Nebeth.

“Arric!” said a voice within the Council Leader’s head. “We are surrounded! I don’t know how – we’ve had no warning from the border! Sentries reported magic, it must have been magic. Pillars of fire, they said! You have to send help! They’re already beyond the first gates, they’re inside the plateau! Several sorcerers – “

The voice ceased and Ethion’s picture faded momentarily from the globe. Arric recognized the signs of interference from the enemy, targeted magic used to interrupt the globes. Ethion's face returned, and his voice started up once more. Arric cut him off.

“Help is on the way! Go to the fight, Ethion! The Fortress must not fall! Go! Help is on the way!” Arric repeated and severed the link. For the barest fraction of a second he stood staring into the empty crystal as his mind reeled.

The room had quieted a great deal during Arric’s exchange, all present awaiting his orders. He looked up at them.

“Contact every field command! Let them know that the Enemy has made his way across the border, have all forts on alert. I want First, Second, and Fifth armies marching to Nebeth immediately! Get them moving!”

As the wizards went about their work, another came up to Arric. “Arric! They didn’t cross the border.”

“What?” Arric exclaimed. “Then how?”

“We don’t know. But every border garrison is accounted for; none report any unusual activity for days! There haven’t been any sightings along the river, either. We don’t know where they came from.”

In Arric’s mind, he saw the map which he had left back in his chamber. The border between the lands of Bastion and the lands of their foe was inconstant in many places. Forts had been built by both sides at numerous places, but always the lynchpin was Nebeth. Bastion had retaken it several years ago and pushed the border to its current position, miles away from the mighty fortress. It should not have been possible for the enemy to mount a sneak attack large enough to take Nebeth.

Then Arric’s blood ran cold. Again, his mind’s eyes swooped over lines on the map, saw the terrain those lines represented, and it focused on a large-but-nondescript valley many miles south of the Fortress, away from the sheltering safety of any fort.

Twenty thousand men were now cut off from any communication – or support – from Bastion.

 

Generals were roused from their beds; Wizards from their studies. The messengers from the Crown gave no explanation for the call – only that they were all summoned to the council chamber at once.

As the men began filling the circular room, Arric did a silent headcount, intending to begin as soon as the key individuals had arrived. Every man called had had a part in the secret assault on Cairn. They would now plan how to evacuate the forces involved from their hidden location before the enemy discovered them.

Further news from the globe room had not been good. Scouts from the strongholds nearest Nebeth had reported back that the enemy had taken the fortress and there were no further signs of fighting. The enemy had enough soldiers – and, assumedly, enough sorcerers – to repel even a determined assault. Arric had ordered the nearby commanders to take up defensive positions around the Fortress in order to deny further incursion into the lands of Bastion.

Arric noted with displeasure that as Lazarus entered the chamber, Darius accompanied him. Darius had had no part in the planning, but if Arric chose to order him from the chamber the stubborn man would surely argue – and they could not afford to waste time.

“Lazarus, good,” Arric began, and the muttering in the chamber died away quickly as he began to speak. “We can begin.”

The room was conspicuously quiet as Arric outlined the events of the past few hours. There were no murmured words, no gasps – even the breathing of the assembled was silent. Darius, too, was uncharacteristically tranquil, though Arric knew that would not last long.

When Arric finished, it was not Darius that said it, though. One of the members of the High Council spoke up with fear in his voice.

“It seems Darius has been vindicated, then. Only the new magic he claims to have witnessed could explain this. The enemy has found a way to move men with magic.”

The macabre calm was then shattered – every Wizard and General spoke at once with their denials, affirmations, and alternate explanations. Arric rose from his seat and after a few moments of shouting and waving his hands for attention, managed to silence them again. He spoke then, loudly to remind them all who was in charge of the Council.

“Enough! I do not like it, but the facts are before us. The border is intact; no forts have been taken or have even seen significant enemy forces in a week. Patrols have ranged unmolested. I refuse to believe that our commanders on the front are so incompetent as to let an entire army
slip
right by them! Darius is vindicated, indeed.”

Here Arric stared straight at the troublesome Wizard, who had stood stony-faced by the wall the entire time. His expression did not change at the Council Leader’s words. He seemed hardly to be paying attention.

Damn the man
, Arric thought.
Silent
when given the perfect chance to gloat
.

“Well, Darius? Have you anything to say?”

A tiny smirk curled the corners of the other man’s mouth. When he spoke, his voice bordered on disdainful. “This alone: I am unsurprised that disaster followed from the dismissal of my report. I suggest we get on with doing something about it.”

Teeth grating, Arric nodded. Damn the man, indeed. “Yes. Gentlemen, you are all familiar with the planned assault upon Cairn. This has rendered such an event impossible. We must remove those men from the valley in the safest way possible, and we must do it quickly.”

Again the room exploded in loud and disorderly argument, in which Darius now took part with gusto. His voice soon won out over many others with his opinion – “Nonsense! We should press the attack, and we should do it now! Were not our preparations practically complete?”

Several of the Generals sounded their agreement, and were joined by two or three Wizards. Press the attack now, they all said. Give the enemy something to worry about as well. Arric promptly laid such calls to rest.

“Out of the question. With Nebeth fallen we have no way to reinforce or resupply our men at Cairn. They would be cut off.”

“As are the enemy forces at Nebeth! You don’t see them shy from the danger!”

Darius’s words brought many angry retorts, which Arric again silenced. “You suggest we behave more like the enemy, Darius?”

“Only when they are winning,” came the heated reply.

Arric had no answer for that ridiculous statement, and ignored it. “This is not the issue, gentlemen! I have given you our course – we must evacuate our army from the valley and get them back beyond the Fortress. If we can do this without discovery then we may be able to reuse the valley and our preparations at a later date, after retaking Nebeth,” he concluded, hoping to appease the others.

“A feint then, a diversionary attack,” Darius spoke again. “To the north-eastern approach. Draw their attention as far from the valley as possible.”

“You wish to throw away the lives of more soldiers?” one man asked.

“Silence,” Arric scolded him. Much as he hated to encourage Darius, the plan was a good one. “We’ll lose perhaps three thousand men if the feint goes poorly. There are twenty thousand soldiers in that valley, and almost a dozen wizards. If we lose them, we lose all flexibility on the border.”

“We have three armies en route to Nebeth already,” a General proclaimed. “Only Fifth need travel far to attack from the east.”

“Yes,” Darius agreed. “Have them join with the others to make our intentions plain.” Arric was listening closely, and so heard the man add under his breath, “Just like always.”

It took half an hour to decide on the specifics of the plan, despite the simplicity of the concept. Darius was incongruously helpful in speeding along decisions over the details, his aggressive focus helping to keep others in check when they wanted to discuss some triviality to death. For this, Arric was thankful. He could count the times Darius had been more helpful than troublesome on the fingers of one hand, while drinking tea.

Just when Arric was about to announce an end to the council, the doors creaked open. All heads turned to this interruption. Given the late hour, any messenger could only bring further bad news.

Any human messenger, that is. Into the chamber stepped a figure of awe; Makaelic, Archangel and First of the Seraphim.

He was dressed as any other Seraph, all in shimmering robes with a hood that completely covered his face. His head ever-bowed, no part of his countenance could be seen. His robes – of the deep, lustrous blue of the Seraphim – were hemmed and bounded by silver cloth covered in golden runes. The glowing expanse of his mighty wings partially obscured the sword that hung from his belt.

One always knew the chiefs of the Angels, whether or not one had met them before. To stand before Makaelic was to know that here stood the being who had led the forces of Heaven in the Great War since time began.

Makaelic, though, was marked out yet more. A diadem formed of several links made a broken circle above his head. It did not rest upon his cowl, but rather held its place a scant finger’s breadth above. For its entire length it was a pure, simple – though segmented – golden ring, and it shined with a light akin to that which illuminated the Angels’ wings.

Every man in the chamber stood in respect, a gesture which was as much automatic as it was heartfelt. It was exceedingly rare for Makaelic himself to visit Bastion. Few of the Archangels – save for Aethel – made their presence known in the mortal world save for the battlefield – where they always appeared without warning and just when they were needed.

Makealic bowed. “Honored men of Bastion,” he said in a deep, resonant voice. “You have reached a decision regarding your stranded soldiers?”

In the peculiar manner of Angels he already knew of the crisis at hand.

BOOK: Twixt Heaven And Hell
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