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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




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