A Game of Chess – Checkmate (1 of 2) March 19, 2012Posted by techtigger in flash fiction.
Tags: #fridayflash, flash fiction, Nox and Grimm
Hello everyone! I’m so sorry this has taken so long but my day job attacked in a big way. I’ve pretty much been scrounging to find time to sleep, so writing was not an option. But I finally got a day free yesterday, and rather than make you wait to read the whole finished peice, I’ll post it in two parts. I hope you’ll forgive me for the delay, and that you’ll enjoy the end of the short story
Lucien was the master of Ice, a warcaster and enchanter without equal amongst his peers. He could bury the entire north in snow, given a bit of time and enough reason. But the one skill he lacked, the one he truly needed now was healing. The gift ran through all Air kindreds, and by extension through his bloodline, diluted though it was with Ice. In him however, the talent was weak and lay dorment. Even if he hadn’t fallen in love with Serenna, he might have married her regardless just to rekindle the gift in his descendants.
It was that singular lack that brought him to the mountains to see the ghosts of his ancestors. He had a plan to save his wife, but it required that he not only bring out his healing gift, but learn to use it in less than three days.
The ghost of his great-great-great-great-grandfather Lordan shook his head as his pupil failed again. “My boy, perhaps it is time you considered an alternate plan,” he said.
Lucien wrestled one-handed with a bandage for the small cut on his forearm. He had not even managed to stop the bleeding, let alone seal the cut. “The first thing I asked for when I arrived was an alternate solution. None of you had one with an acceptable result.”
Lordan looked down his long nose at him. “There is what you want to do, and what you must do. Defeating the Shadowkin may well require you to give up what you want most.”
“Don’t prate at me about duty,” Lucien snapped, uncharacteristically short tempered. Failure was not something he was accustomed to. He took a deep breath and drew on Ice to cool down, but Lordan put a hand on his arm to stop him.
“Therein lies the problem. You draw too heavily on Ice. Air is breath, it is life, and Ice traps it, keeps it from flowing. Let go of it, Lucien.”
Lordan might as well have asked him to pluck the moon from the sky. Lucien could sense the Air, but only as an extension of the cold heart of winter. There was nothing of life in it, and trying to heal with that aspect of Air was like trying to work with all four limbs amputated. He let the energy go and stood up abruptly, stalking to the entrance of the cave.
Another ghost stood guard there, Lughaid, one of Lucien’s more warlike ancestors. The hoary old spirit stared out over the tree-clad slopes of the mountain, eyes fixed on the horizon. “It is hard to deny your nature, isn’t it? That is why I told you to put aside your half-human child. I did not think she was capable of being a true heir to our House.”
“And I told you what to do with your opinion,” Lucien replied.
Lughaid let out a sharp little laugh and pointed to the gathering clouds. “I’d like to take back what I said. Every word.”
The sky darkened and a shockwave rolled over them, with a sound like a thunderclap mingled with the screams of the damned. The mountains shook to their roots and as the sound died, a brisk wind ripped the clouds to tatters and blew them away.
Lughaid punched a fist in the air. “YES! The guardian is free, and so are we at long last, my kin! The Shadowkin are gone!”
Lucien brushed past him, his eyes on the gathering shadows beneath the trees. “If that were true, you would not still be here.”
The pine trees on the slopes below began to creak and sway, leaning forward and back as they ripped their roots from the ground. They lifted them up and plunged them into the ground again, earth and stone crumbling before their grotesque march.
“You are early, Shadowkin,” Lucien said, his quiet baritone somehow cutting easily through the din.
A woman’s voice shrieked from the depths of the forest. “Liar! Cheat! You changed the game!”
Lucien narrowed his eyes. “I have done nothing.”
Eyes that glowed a poisonous green moved amidst the trees that lurched up the slope. “No, you only sent your daughter to steal my hound. But no matter, I will soon even the score. Your wife will suffer every torment within my power before the end.”
“So be it. If I cannot save her, then I see no reason to hold back.”
The temperature dropped over a hundred degrees in an instant, and the trees exploded. The Shadowkin wailed and dove for the ground, but Lucien was already ahead of her. The roots exploded as well, the blast filling the valley below with shrapnel.
“You should not have let me see that branch in my wife’s summoning circle, Shadowkin,” Lucien said, as he gathered more energy for a third strike. “Did you think I wouldn’t find out that you needed an anchor to materialize?”
“You haven’t won yet!” she snarled, and the shadows fled.
Lucien ran to get his horse from the back of the cave. A flick of his hand iced over the debris field outside, and a touch to a carved stone on the horse’s harness released the enchantment that would give it sure footing.
Lordan hovered nearby as he readied his mount. “Shall we summon the guardian? He was a great healer in his day, and could easily do the enchantment you were attempting.”
“Do it,” Lucien said, “and let us hope that he will still answer your call.” He swung up into the saddle and sent his horse flying in pursuit of his foe.
It was the strangest battle Loki had ever fought. In a duel, he would face his opponent head on and fight until one of them yielded, or the killing blow was delivered. Not so here. All through the night he and his raiders harried the Fire kin – they stole their horses and wrecked their gear, but whenever their opponents tried to close they would fade away into the night. Somewhere deep down he felt like he was fighting without honor, but there was no honor in killing the very people he hoped to lead one day. The position his uncle had put him in was ridiculous.
He cantered back through the gates of the outpost on a stolen horse, with Anders riding at his side. The Storm kin swung stiffly to the ground, favoring a wound in his calf. “Looks like the non-combatants cleared out. Wonder if they left us any supplies?”
“I ordered them to empty the place,” Loki said. He dismounted and dug through the saddle bags. “Here, patch up that leg.” He tossed Anders a small medical kit. “Everyone, take whatever you can scrounge and leave the horses behind, they’re too blown to run much farther. We leave in ten minutes.”
Anders tested his newly bandaged leg. “It’ll hold for now, but I won’t be sprinting any time soon. Are you sure you know your way around those goat tracks up in the hills?”
Loki grinned. “I wasn’t only going up there to spend time alone with Nox. It’s important to know the ground you’re going to defend.”
Anders let out an amused snort. “Or have to run through if her angry father comes hunting your head.”
“Or that,” Loki agreed, amicably.
One of the Fire nomads on watch above the gates stood up, shading his eyes against the morning sun. “Dust cloud on the horizon, sir,” he called down.
“Get down you fool!” Loki yelled, but it was too late. A beam of light shot through him, and he toppled backwards. Loki ran to catch him, grunting from the impact, and lowered him to the gently ground. “Easy, we’ve got you. It’s just your shoulder, you’ll live.”
“Keep your heads down!” Anders roared. “Light travels for miles!”
More warnings came from the sentries posted around the walls. “Horses, coming in fast from the south!” “Incoming from the west!”
“They must have found where we stashed the horses,” Loki said. “Damn it all, I was hoping for more time.”
Beams of light riddled the upper levels of the outpost, cutting through the stone like it was soft butter. “Time to go, Red,” Anders said. “Those New Dawn bastards will only get stronger as the day goes on.”
Loki nodded and helped the Fire nomad to his feet. “Andy, I want you to get the wounded out of here. We’re going need to move fast, anyone that can’t keep up gets mustered out. Put ‘em on the horses and head through the portals to northwest. Three stops on, you can head across country to that waypost of Lucien’s.”
“Got it boss,” Anders said, and punched him lightly on the shoulder. “Don’t get caught.”
“I don’t plan on it.”
The remaining raiders gathered near the portal entrance, taking shelter beneath whatever cover they could find. The fire from the New Dawn soldiers was getting more accurate as they closed in, and large chunks of masonry rained into the courtyard. Blasts of flame made the walls glow red and began to melt as the Fire kin added their warcastings to the assault. Loki winced, thinking of all the hard work he and Nox had put into fixing the place. He didn’t even want to think what Grimm would say; the old Air kin had his heart wrapped up in his ancient home.
As the thunder of hoofbeats approached, he signaled to the men to ready their own warcastings. “We only need to hold a few minutes to buy the wounded time to get out of reach,” Loki called out. “When I give the signal, you run like Hel for that portal!”
There was no more time for orders. The courtyard lit up with a searing white light as the New Dawn soldiers lobbed a flash bomb through the gates. Loki countered with the dragon mark, channeling away the heat and filling the area with smoke. Figures made dim by the haze galloped through the gates, and were met by a crackle of lighting from the Storm kindreds. The screams of men and horses added to the din as a wave of fire broke over them, but Loki countered that as well, redirecting it up into the sky. A handful of rifles that must have survived the last raid let loose in a staccato rhythm, and now it was the defenders turn to add to the cries of the wounded. The Fire nomads struck back, whirling slings full of hot shot into the faces of their opponents.
The battle raged back and forth across the courtyard, until the air was so thick with smoke and dust from shattered stones that it was nigh impossible to tell friend from foe. Loki let out a piercing whistle, and with last blast of furnace heat he ran with his men back to the portal. The stumbled through, dragging their casualties with them, and two of the Storm kin set up lighting traps to stun the first troops to try to follow them through.
Loki took a quick headcount. All were accounted for, but only half had come through unscathed. “Let’s move. They’ll be on us any minute.”
They limped through the corridors, and sure enough there was another crackle as the traps were sprung, followed by the clatter of hooves on stone. Adrenaline gave speed to their tired legs, and the raiders pelted through the halls to the second portal.
Someone at the front of the line yelled, “More horses coming this way!”
The noise of hooves echoing in the hallway was deafening, but above the Loki heard Anders yelling, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”
“Stand down!” Loki bellowed. “Andy, what are you doing here!”
As Anders reined in his lathered mount, Loki could see that the normally unflappable Storm kin was shaken.
“The portals are ruined. Claw marks this wide across the markings on the stones,” Anders said, spreading his hand to show the size. “And we found this by one of them.” He reached into a pocket and gingerly pulled out a few glowing, jagged pieces of glass. “Nox must have thrown it as a diversion.”
Loki’s heart stopped as he took the shards. One of them was intact enough to see that it was a petal from the fire rose he had made for her. Somewhere behind him the alarm was being raised by the rear guard, but he couldn’t get any thoughts past the one that she might be gone.
Anders shook his shoulder. “C’mon Red, snap out of it. For all we know she’s fine. Let’s just get you on a horse and get moving.”
Loki brushed him off. “I’m staying. It’s me they’re after, they won’t follow you.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” Anders said, and turned to signal one of the men to bring up a mount. He had to stop to grab the reins of his own horse though as it snorted and sidled away from Loki.
Loki knew he was losing control of the dragon mark, but he didn’t care. He could feel scales spreading along his neck and the back of his arms, and smoke rolled out from his mouth and nostrils. “Goodbye, Andy.” He made a motion as if ripping something up from the ground, and a sheet of molten lava shot up between them. The horses bred by Fire kin were used to flames and heat, but the choking, sulfurous fumes that came from the magma were too much for them. They bolted, and their hapless riders could do nothing but hang on.
When the first regiments of Fire kin arrived, they found Loki sitting on a pile of cooling lava, turning a small piece of glass in his hand. The lords Ash and Ember were in the lead, and they cautiously approached through the haze of smoke that surrounded him.
Loki closed his fist around the glass and glanced up at them. “I know what drove you here. And you know that I could have ended this any time I wanted to.”
Lord Ash shifted his balance, his hand dropping instinctively to the hilt of his sword. Lord Ember seemed more curious than worried, however. “But you did not end it,” he said, and looked the younger man up and down, a slight smile on his face. “My word, add a longer beard and you’d be the spitting image of your father.”
Loki stood up abruptly, and snorted as Ash took a few hurried steps back. “Relax man, haven’t I just said if I wanted you dead, you’d be gone already? I have a task for you,” he said. “Send word to that coward of an uncle of mine, tell him that you have me cornered. That should bring him out from under whatever rock he’s hiding under. After that, all you need do is stay out of the way.”
“You’re mad,” Ash said, his sword half-drawn. “You think you can give us orders when we have you surrounded?”
Ember put a hand on his wrist. “Don’t be an ass. Look at him, can you doubt now that he’s Ky’s son? Or that he has the dragon mark? We should be taking a knee and asking his forgiveness.” He let Ash go and signaled to one of his men. “Send the flare up.”
“No, Balor will kill them!” cried Ash.
Ember gave him a small, fatalistic shrug. “For all we know he’s killed our families already. You know he wants our lands; we’ve never been loyal enough for him. Send the signal.”
Ash cried, “No!” but the soldier was loyal to Ember, and sketched a fiery casting mark in the air. A ball of light blasted up through the ceiling and hurtled through the sky like a second sun rising. Ember ordered the men back and gave Loki a respectful bow before moving out of the way.
A portal opened where the light of the flare shone down, and a troop of New Dawn cultists poured out into the hallway. From behind them, Loki heard his uncle’s voice, saying, “Kill him.”
Loki was in motion before the portal had finished opening. Dragon scale armor covered him from head to foot, and flames leapt from his hands to form a long, curving saber and wickedly sharp poniard. He whirled into the midst them, one blade slashing across the throats of two cultists and the other buried hilt-deep in a third man’s chest. He ripped the blade out and kicked the corpse into his comrades, slowing them down so he could work on the men behind him. He ducked a blow and pivoted, raking the saber across the belly of the next man and letting his momentum add weight as he punched the poniard into another man’s throat. His saber flickered left, right, left, and three more fell.
The rest back-pedaled, shocked by the ferocity of his attack. He did not give them time to recover, leaping over the pile of bodies and hitting them at a run. Several more fell, too closely packed against their neighbors to get their swords up in time to stop him. The rest scrambled to get back through the portal, and Loki could see that it was starting to close. He drew on Fire for speed, Earth for more strength and hit them so hard that he sent the last of them sprawling head-first into the ground ahead of him. As soon as he passed through he set the dragon mark loose. “This for all the children of the Fire nomads you’ve tortured and killed!”
They did not even have time to scream. The ground heaved open and lava erupted from the earth’s molten core. Their dark silhouettes hung in the air for a heartbeat, and were gone.
Loki walked out across the darkening crust over the lava, ashes falling around him like a grey snow. There was no-one left, and the only sound was the distant drumming of hooves. He let out a growl. “Oh no, you don’t, uncle. You’re not getting away so easily.” He drew once more on the elements and raced after him.