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Gathering Shadows – Part 5 February 18, 2013

Posted by techtigger in flash fiction.
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A tremor ran through the cavern, and the battle had begun. Tairwyn’s Mountain kin knelt down with palms flat on the ground, pouring out every ounce of energy they could muster to keep the Bore worms from collapsing the floor out from beneath the defenders.

In the darkened hallways, any flicker of motion was met with the thrum and whistle of arrows, as Aradann’s people unleashed a deadly rain into their foes. Grey stood next to Aradann, a spear held ready. He called out to his fellow Air kindreds, “Steady! Wait for a clear shot, make this count! Steady…”  The floor started to heave, and he could hear Tairwyn shouting, “Force ‘em up, lads!”

The whole cavern shook, and with a deafening roar the Bore worms burst out into the corridors. “NOW!” Grey bellowed, and as one the Air kin sang out war castings and sent their spears screaming down the hall. The worms recoiled from the impact, but let out a high pitched keen that dropped the Forest kin to their knees and sent the Mountain kin reeling.

“COUNTER STRIKE!” Grey ordered, and the Air kin raised their voices in a wall of sound that cancelled out the sonic attack beating down their allies. “READY SPEARS!” he said, and the second rank handed fresh weapons forward.

The hallway was filled with writhing, pallid forms.  The worms surged forward, rows of teeth undulating in their gaping, eager maws. Grey resisted the urge to step back, even though every instinct told him to run. He took a quick look right and left and saw the front ranks starting to waver. “Hold the lines, HOLD THE LINES!”  He took aim straight for the creature’s throat and sent the spear ripping down through its gullet.

A ragged cheer went up from the men around him as the worm jerked back into the tunnel. Their joy was short-lived, however, as they realized the creature was not retreating. It was being eaten whole by the other worms from the tail on up, each lurching gulp devouring another few feet of length. Soon enough, the hall would be clear of the carcass. Grey tried to pull in more Wind for another war casting, but the element wouldn’t answer his call. There were too many others trying to draw on the same dwindling resources.  The wyverns lurking outside the caves must have blocked the last of the ventilation shafts . “Second line!” he gasped out, hoping those behind him had saved enough Air to keep them going for a few more salvos.

Some of Aradann’s people had recovered, and fitful groups of arrows leapt from their bows. It did not stop the worms but Grey was desperately glad to see that it slowed them down. He took a quick look around to check on the battle lines. They were holding, barely. Some groups were already down to the third rank, however. “Galen, I hope you have that miracle!” he said.

“A few more minutes,” came the slightly distracted reply.

One of the Mountain kin cried out. “They’re going for the roof!” The cavern shook again, and chunks of rock started falling from the ceiling. “We can’t hold it!”

Aradann took his bow and jammed it into the floor. “We have you, brothers!” The other Forest kin followed his lead, and the bows sprouted up and up, branches spreading out to hold the roof and roots digging down, a whole forest created in the space of two heartbeats.

“Ah hah, I’ve got it!” Galen shouted, and a rush of cool, springtime air filled the room.  Grey looked back and his jaw nearly hit the floor. A huge portal, three times the size of any he had seen before filled the back half of the cavern, and on the far side was the city Zephyra.  Galen had done the impossible, opening a doorway to the far side of the world. The non-combatants were already streaming through, carrying the wounded and children on their backs.

Grey shouted out into the glorious fresh air, “Fall back behind the trees and hold!”

The battle lines shifted, and just in time. Fissures opened in the ground beyond the forest, and the ceiling collapsed in a landslide. The Bore worms backed off, burrowing away from the scorching sun that blazed down through the opening. Grey squinted in the sudden glare, shading his eyes with his hand.

The next attack happened so fast that it was all Grey could do to summon up a wind barrier in time to keep from being bitten in half.  A hiss and scrape of scales was followed by the crunch of splintering trees as the wyverns smashed into the lines.

Grey backed up a step, gathering his wits about him. There was plenty of air to fight with now but the flow was too chaotic with everyone desperately trying to save themselves.  If they didn’t start fighting together, they were doomed. “To me!” he cried out. “Form up on me! BARRIERS UP!”  He started singing out a cadence, his deep voice making the very stones hum in sympathy. More voiced joined to his and a solid wall of air formed between them and the wyverns. The Wind tribes slowly pulled together as they retreated back, step by step, dragging their dead and wounded along with them.

The wyverns would not give up so easily. They began uprooting the trees, wings straining as they beat skywards. At the apex of their flight they let the trunks go, dropping them down like the spears of giants. They hammered into the shimmering half-dome of the barrier, causing it to buckle. One by one, the defenders collapsed as their strength failed.

Grey could just see out of the corner of his eye the flashes of color as Galen’s brightly dressed people pulled the casualties through to safety. The wyverns must have seen them as well, because they were aiming now for the top of the air dome, where it met the edge of the portal. They battered away at it with boulders and trees, even the carcasses of dead Bore worms. Grey watched in horror as the barrier wavered and sagged. If it fell, the portal was large enough to let the beasts fly through into Zephyra. The peaceful enclave of healers would be massacred.

A strange calm settled in over Grey. He looked up into the hot, dry desert air, the silhouettes of the wyverns wheeling overhead against the sun like shadowy vultures. He could see the patterns they wove in the sky, swirling in one vast Air casting. “They’re summoning Air to aid their fight, like us!” he thought, and a grim smile crossed his face.

Any casting made can be broken.

He changed the cadence, and his rumbling voice gathering up all the sounds around him – the echoes of the worms tunneling in the caverns deep below them, the whistling shrieks of the wyverns, the cries of the dying and the moaning Wind that blew through the shattered trees. The war casting spiraled up into the sky in a mournful howl, sounding like a battle cry from Hel’s own hound. It ripped into the wyverns’ casting and exploded.  Grey rolled the concussive wave from the blast into the war casting and kept it going, tearing the beasts apart. At some point he realized the he was no longer singing out a casting so much as screaming his defiance into the sky, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered, except the need to protect his people. He kept the maelstrom churning until the last wyvern fell.

All at once, the energy drained out of him and everything went dark.  The next thing he knew he was lying flat on his back amidst a pile of splintered trees and rock. He could hear voices, but they seemed so distant that he paid them no mind. Galen’s face swam into view. Grey felt a hand on his chest and his heart lurched as it started beating again, and his lungs filled with cool air.  Hands lifted him up and carried him, a strange tingling sensation running over his skin as they crossed through the portal. They set him down gently, and he saw Galen drawing energy from the casting marks around portal to close it.

On the far side, a wyvern covered in blood and gore crawled toward Galen. Its wings were broken and half its scales were ripped off, but its gaze had latched onto the old Air kin.  Grey tried to yell a warning, but the words only came out as a hoarse moan.

An oily black substance moved across the yellow orbs of the creature’s eyes, and it let out a bubbling shriek of pure hatred as it launched itself at Galen. The old Air kin dodged to one side with more speed and grace than Grey could have imagined, snatched up a sword and with one precise, surgical strike he thrust the blade straight into the wyvern’s brain. Galen stepped back, and with a pre-emptory gesture summoned enough Wind to blow the creature back into the cavern, and the portal snapped shut.

For a moment everyone stood motionless, stunned. Then a woodlark raised its voice in a buoyant trill, and a breeze sent the wind chimes and air flutes that adorned the city into a gentle lullaby. As Galen made his way through the crowds, spontaneous cheers broke out in his wake.  He knelt at Grey’s side and checked his pulse, his manner as calm as ever. But the look in his eyes was deeply troubled.

Grey coughed to clear the dust from his raw, aching throat, and croaked, “Was it just me, or did that thing recognize you?”

<–Gathering Shadows, Pt. 4

 

Gathering Shadows – Part 4 February 2, 2013

Posted by techtigger in flash fiction.
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Grey headed down the hall to the lower storage caverns with Cavall padding along at his side. The hound’s hackles were standing up, and a snarl curled his muzzle.  Grey put a hand on his head to quiet his growls. “Hush a moment. Let me listen.” Cavall looked up at his master, then went back to watching the hall with fierce intensity.

Grey could still hear the sounds of early morning activity behind him – quiet conversation mixed with the echo of footsteps moving back and forth through the big cavern. He blocked that out and focused on the other end of the tunnel. Gusts of air blew fitfully at the torches on the walls, making them snap and gutter, almost to the point of extinguishing. The hallway itself groaned and grumbled as if he were in the belly of some great stone beast.  Down the throat, and straight to the gullet I go, he thought, laughing quietly to himself. If father saw me jumping at the sound of wind in the tunnels, I’d never live it down.

They had just passed the entrance that led to the cisterns when Cavall let out a deep rip-saw of a growl. The ground beneath their feet started to rattle, and Grey had to put a hand out to steady himself. “What in Hel’s name is going on down here?”

The solid stone wall bulged outwards, and he jerked his hand away. The rattling continued, coming in even pulses, as if something were battering at the cavern walls from inside the stone.  Cavall started scratching at the wall, barking furiously. Grey grabbed his collar and pulled him back. “No Cavall! Heel!”

The words had no sooner left his mouth than the wall exploded outwards, throwing them back and showering the tunnel with razor sharp chunks of rock. Grey and Cavall both yelped as they slammed into the far wall. Grey picked himself up off the floor, head spinning, only to look straight into the face of a nightmare.

Something that looked like a giant millipede larva crawled out of the hole in the wall. It had milky white eyes set above a round maw, ringed with teeth. Hundreds of legs tore at the stone, and its pallid skin pulsed as it heaved the rest of its bulk out into the hallway. Grey put up an Air shield just as the worm lunged down, its teeth undulating as they tried to find purchase to bite through the shield.

“Bloody Hel!” Grey said, instinctively trying to scrabble backwards. Suddenly his joke about gullets wasn’t so funny. Cavall stirred next to him, letting out a plaintive whine as he struggled to get his paws under him.  The worm made a strange convulsive movement, and its maw stretched wider.

“It’s going to swallow us whole!” Grey cried. He reached out with his senses to summon Air to fight with, but the wind had died off. The worm bit down harder, its teeth sinking in, and Grey gagged as its fetid breath seeped through the shield and washed over him.  “Ugly and bad breath, just great…wait, breath…that’s it!”

Grey reached out again and summoned the only bit of moving air left – from the lungs of his attacker. He yanked the air out and the creature whipped its head back, flailing madly as it struggled to breath. Grey scooped up Cavall and put the hound over his shoulders with a grunt of effort, and ran as fast as his shaking legs could take him back up the hallway.

The ground started rocking beneath his feet again, and he heard the alarms being sounded as he burst out into the central cavern. “Bore worms in the lower caverns!” he gasped out. He leaned down to set the heavy hound on the floor.

Someone else ran in from the upper hallways. “Wyverns outside! I went to see what was cutting off the air flow through the tunnels and nearly got my head bit off!  The damn things are dropping rocks over the vent holes!”

One of the healers looked around with wild eyes. “We’re trapped. We can’t get out!”

Grey could see the panic spreading through the room. He grabbed a spear from the rack on the wall and BANG!  He hammered the butt into the floor. Every eye in the place turned on him. “We’re not done yet,” Grey said, his voice commanding. “While there is life, there’s hope. We need only take out the worms. The adult wyverns are too big to get in these tunnels. Tairwyn, can you keep the bore worms from tunneling under us?”

The Mountain kin nodded, his long mustachios bobbing. “Aye laddie, for a little while.”

“Good. Aradann, I need two of your archers at every hall entrance to provide covering fire.”

The dark skinned Forest kin nodded as well. He picked up a stout branch from the wood pile next to the fire, and it stretched out into a heavy, curved bow.  “You may count on us.”

Grey looked around what was left of his people, and at the huddled group of Galen’s healers.  “Everyone who can still fight, gather at the hall entrances, three abreast. If someone falls, pull them back and take their place. Everyone else, summon as much Air as you can for us to fight with. Galen,” he said. “I’m sure your people know what to do with the casualties.”

The elder Air kin looked up from where he was scribbling furiously on a scrap of parchment. “Of course. And I may have an idea that will help. But I will need a little time to pull it off.”

Grey clapped him on the arm. “I was hoping you could whip us up another miracle. We’ll buy you as much time as we can.” He turned back to the hallway and readied the few war castings he knew that could work on limited air flow. The ground started to shake again. “Here they come. Ready yourselves…”

—–

<- Gathering Shadows, Part 3

 

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