Author Topic: The Darkest Hour, Chapter 2  (Read 318 times)

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The Darkest Hour, Chapter 2
« on: December 16, 2016, 05:28:56 AM »
The Darkest Hour
Table of Contents

Chapter 2.1: Gao Han/Go Home

     The next day a spirit courier returned with a scroll emblazoned with the seal of Xia Han. I rushed over to Gao Han's tent immediately (in retrospect, I seem to do this often). "Sir, news from the Council."
     He nodded grimly, not even looking up from his maps. "Excellent. We'll set out today. Leave a garrison force behind to hold the rift until more reinforcements arrive--which we'll undoubtedly need, this far from the Wall."
     "Sir, you don't even know what the scroll says yet. Are you so certain that your letter convinced them?"
     Now he looked up, surprised. "Why not? A chance to eliminate the Sorceress, which would strike a fatal blow to her Cult. A chance to colonize new, untainted lands for our people, to even find allies. A chance to prevent this corruption from spreading." I hadn't read the scroll, but I suspected it said something very different. Gao Han must have seen my skepticism on my face, for he sighed. "Trust me, Wen. I know the council. Ao Shun would never let this opportunity pass. He wants Aleta dead or captured more than any of us--he's fought her enough over the centuries. Read the scroll."
     I gulped and broke the seal, unraveling the scroll. "To Commander Gao Han of the Watch, from the Council of Sages.
     "Commander, we respect and admit that your argument has much merit, but we cannot--" I winced, then forced myself to continue, "--we cannot allow you to abandon your post on the Wall. Given the location of this rift and the amount of resources required to defend it, the council has decided to recall you to the Great Wall lest our defenses be pierced by our sworn enemies. We have already lost Captain Hyeon's force, and to lose yours as well would stretch our garrisons too thin. You are by no means to pursue the Sorceress through the rift, and failure to comply will be considered a treasonous act and will lead to the immediate and permanent exile from Jinhai of any party to such action.
     "Signed, Daode, Yuanshi, Lingbao, and Ao Shun."
     I looked up and saw shock on my commander's face. "Ao Shun signed that?" he asked, stunned. "That, that monstrosity of an order? He's condemning an entire world! Isn't it enough that our own world has been lost to the darkness?"
     I nodded, unsure of what to do, and the Stalwart's expression changed to one of the hardest steel. "If that is the decision of the Council, so be it. I answer to my oath and my conscience."
     "But sir, didn't your oath bind you to protect the Wall and obey the Council?"
     He glanced at me and shook his head. "No, my oath was to defend all lands untouched by corruption and to fight evil wherever it would be found, to never yield to villainy and to always protect." He pointed towards the rift, even though we couldn't see it through the walls of the tent. "Through that rift lies an innocent land not yet twisted into darkness. The greatest evil in all of Reish has travelled there, and I will not rest until it has been brought to heel."
     Technically the oath that every soldier of the Descendants of the Dragon takes does include all of those things. But it still contained the clause demanding obedience to the will of the council, and above all that we never abandon our post. That last part is repeated throughout, in fact. Yet I was struck by the unwavering feeling that Gao Han was right. He strode out of the command tent and towards the parade ground where all of our soldiers were assembled for their morning exercises. I followed him, and as he walked up, all activity ground to a halt.
     "At ease, men," Gao Han said smoothly, the rift swirling behind him. "I have just received orders from the Council of Sages at Xia Han," he began, "directing us to abandon this post and return to the Wall. These orders cite the difficulty of defending this position and the threat of leaving a portion of the Wall undefended, bereft of both Captain Hyeon's force and our own."
     The assembled soldiers muttered amongst themselves.
     Gao Han took a deep breath. "I have decided to disobey those orders."
     All discipline broke down.
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Re: The Darkest Hour, Chapter 2
« Reply #1 on: December 16, 2016, 05:31:23 AM »
Interlude--Captain Hyeon

     Hands thrust a bowl filled with smoking meat through the bars of her cage. "Eat," her captor said, "it is good."
     Hyeon considered ignoring the food, making a point of starving herself to death and denying the Cultists the pleasure of killing her. But that was foolish. If she grew too weak they would kill her anyway. While she was alive and strong, she could fight back, could try to escape. So she ate the steaming flesh, mourning the beast who had been slain by the Verorians to satisfy their greed. Although she could not see the carcasses, she knew that more meat was being wasted than consumed, even if she and the other six prisoners were fed the unwanted scraps.
     She tested the bars of the cage. Still magically strengthened against her escape. All of the cages had been so reinforced after another one of her soldiers had broken free, so it was no surprise that the magical bindings were still there. Nevertheless, she constantly checked.
     Hyeon stretched out her arms and legs, trying to ease the cramps that had built up after two days of being locked inside a space far too small for a human. As she did so, she heard a roar.
     Another beast had come to die.
     She watched as a mighty animal crashed into their clearing, a four-legged beast with glimmering antlers that dazzled the eyes. Death spells flew past it, their casters' aim thrown off by the sudden charge and the reflective antlers. Hyeon watched grimly as the beast trampled over a cultist, then over one of many thralls, then disappeared into the trees on the other side of the clearing.
     It charged again, only to meet a wall of death, disintegrated by dark magics. Hyeon sighed.
     Then gasped as her cage suddenly lurched, moving quickly away from the column of cultists. She twisted her head to see a large, furred creature with broad shoulders carrying her prison, running like a man through the trees. It turned its head, triangular with pointed ears like the foxes in Jinhai, and motioned for her to be quiet.
     So she remained quiet and focused, turning back to make sure that there was no pursuit. But no one followed them and after an hour of the swaying run of the vulpine beast, it stopped and put down the cage.
     Tapping its chest, the fox said "Mavuto." It repeated the gesture and the sound, and Hyeon nodded. She pointed at the beast and repeated "Mah-voo-to," then pointed towards herself. "Hyeon."
     Mavuto nodded, then spoke a string of words that she did not understand. Hyeon shook her head, and he growled. Muscles straining, the beast tore off the roof of her prison and tilted it over, allowing her to crawl out.
     Standing, Hyeon winced as she stretched the sore muscles, then straightened and bowed. "Thank you, Mavuto," she said, trying to impart as much gratitude as possible.
     Mavuto nodded. "Hyeon," he said, then another word, gesturing for her to follow him. Not knowing what else to do, she did.
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Re: The Darkest Hour, Chapter 2
« Reply #2 on: December 16, 2016, 05:35:11 AM »
2.2

     The monks were shouting at one another in complete disarray, all reason and sense lost in the noise. After a minute of the chaos and utter lack of discipline, Gao Han stomped his foot once. Silence fell and order was restored.
     "I want to make this completely clear," the Stalwart went on. "I am going to disobey a direct order from the Council of Sages and go through that rift. I and whoever follows me will be banished from Jinhai. All of you are free to decide whether or not to follow orders or follow me; I won't coerce anyone.
     "But since I am openly disregarding orders, I'd like to explain myself. I swore to fight evil and protect the innocent, to fight tooth and nail to hold every inch of untainted ground. As I see it, my oath and my conscience compel me to protect the untamed world through that rift. You may think differently, but that is what I believe. I will not be turned aside from this. But each of you must make up your own mind and follow your own conscience." Turning around, Gao Han left the parade ground.
     There was an immediate uproar, with the assembled soldiers quickly taking sides. I raced over to my own friends.
     "There's no question about it," Jiro was saying, "I'm going with him to hunt that [redacted] down."
     Xu shook his head. "Patience, Jiro, patience. You lack discipline." The warrior bristled at the insult, but I put a hand on his shoulder to calm him down as Xu continued. "I cannot ignore a direct order from the Council," the stone-caller said. "I swore to defend Jinhai and all of its people and to never abandon my post. This is desertion."
     Jiro jerked, his hands flying to his spear as Jeong-Ho and I tackled him and held him down. "Violence is not the way," I hissed at him. "You heard the commander. We are all free to make our choices. You will go, but Xu will stay."
     I looked up at him. He hadn't even flinched. "This entire situation reeks of imprudence and recklessness," he said calmly. "I will not condone that, nor Gao Han's deliberately corrupt interpretation of our oath."
     "Xu," I said, my own temper flaring, "I have let you speak your mind, as is your right. But I will not condone such a brazen insult to our commander. He is a braver and nobler man than you, and his intentions are pure."
     He smiled. "I am glad you are standing up for him, Wen, but I feel that he has gone too far this time. If the Stalwart fails to check his pride in his haste, he will bring infamy down upon his entire family. These events have happened far too fast for my liking, and I think the commander is making a mistake in his zeal. Just as Jiro is." He shook his head and smiled sadly. "As, I can see, you are too. I had hoped you would be wiser than that, my friend."
     "Just as I had hoped that you would be by our side when we faced down the Sorceress, friend," I said. "Jeong-Ho? Where do you stand?"
     He gulped. "I stand with my people. I will fulfill my oath and protect Jinhai from all comers. I will not abandon my family to corruption in some mad dash for glory." He held up his hands. "I know, I know, but Gao Han's actions are unreasonable. His mind is clouded with emotion and he is acting in haste. I remember a very different oath than he does. Remember, my friend, that from discipline cometh strength. Especially you, Jiro. We must all control our emotions lest they lead us astray. I fear that the commander has lost his sense of discipline."
     "From discipline cometh strength," Xu agreed," and from strength cometh honor."
     "Discipline, strength, and honor," the two said. "The Jinhai way."
     I shook my head. "What Gao Han has said, it feels right to me. I don't care what you say; he knows what he is doing, and I will follow him." I patted my pouch of papers and inks, smiling. "And I will make sure that his actions will not be forgotten."
     Jiro nodded, as did Jeong-Ho. "Remember him as he would wish to be remembered," the archer said.
     I nodded. "Then it's farewell."
     "Indeed." The two of them walked off.
     "Those cowards," Jiro growled, and I cuffed him.
     "Don't say that," I scolded. "We all have our reasons."
     When all was said--and there was much to be said in the chaos--twenty-five of us stayed. The others all formed up and marched off, and our two groups parted on as best terms as possible. It was strained and I confiscated Jiro's weapon beforehand as a safeguard, but ultimately there was no violence.
     Still, I couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief when they were gone.
     As they disappeared in a cloud of dust, Gao Han turned and faced those of us who remained. Before he had been standing tall and proud, but now he let out a deep breath and seemed deflated, even defeated. "So many gone," I saw him whisper. He straightened and addressed those of us who had stayed.
     "Men, I thank you for your support. Together we will hunt down the Sorceress and bring her to justice. For Jinhai!"
     We cheered, but it was subdued.
     "Pack up, but know that we'll need to travel light and fast. Burn whatever needs to be left behind. We march in half an hour."
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Re: The Darkest Hour, Chapter 2
« Reply #3 on: December 16, 2016, 05:38:50 AM »
Interlude--Aleta, Immortal Caretaker

     For so long, she had been apart. Not alone, never alone, but the only one of her kind. And the only one to never die.
     But when the portals had opened, more people like her had passed through. Men and women in golden armor and gray uniforms. But these people were not like her. They did not nurture, did not protect. They destroyed the land and killed the beasts who inhabited it. Their machines flew around the Old World, buzzing like insects. Their men slaughtered her people.
     "I call upon my right to summon the Warpath," Hehkeem had said. "We must fight together against the outsiders."
     Aleta cried as she sensed death filling her world. It wasn't that she disliked death or wasn't used to it; even though she was immortal, the Caretaker had a deep understanding of the cycle of life and death, an appreciation of how each creature had a time and place. But these outsiders were killing more than they needed to survive. This was not death in service of life.
     And now these outsiders from the north, bringing their death magic. Reports had come in that the very ground withered in their wake.
     For so long, Aleta had been alone, even when she was surrounded by companions. She had welcomed the chance to meet more of her kind, only to be horrified by the destruction that they had wrought.
     "If only we could talk to them, reason with them," she said, not for the first time.
     That was when he arrived.
     The man's hair had grown long and wild. He had cast off his red armor and abandoned his seven-foot sword. Escorted by the leonine chief, Shamba, the man darted forwards on all fours before standing in front of Aleta and bowing.
     He pointed at his own chest. "Coyle," he said.
     Aleta placed a hand over her own heart. "Aleta."
     He seemed surprised, but quickly hid it. He smiled broadly and gestured for her to continue speaking.
     "Can you even understand me?" Aleta asked. "I thought you outsiders spoke a different language." She frowned, but he just smiled and gestured for her to continue. "I am Aleta, the Caretaker. Why are your people attacking us? Why are you destroying our home? Do you understand any of this?"
     Then he spoke, haltingly, in the language of the Warpath. "I am Coyle. I understand..." he grasped at the air, said a few words in the outsider tongue, then furrowed his brow.
     There was some sort of magic to this man. Aleta noticed how quickly he had acclimated to his primal surroundings--if she wasn't mistaken his muscles had already grown slightly just from standing next to Shamba.
Is he absorbing power from around him?
     He gestured for her to say something else. "What do you want me to talk about?" she asked.
     "Any," he said, the word coming smoothly than before.
     "Anything at all?" He nodded. "You're learning the language intuitively as I speak it, right?" Another nod. "That's a very impressive skill. Where did you pick it up?"
     He shrugged. "Speak, Aleta. I learn."
     "I do not trust this outsider, Caretaker," Shamba growled.
     "Trust," Coyle agreed. "Very hard to come by. I will..." he paused. "Pick it up."
     Aleta couldn't help but smile. "Very well, outsider. You wish for me to speak? Let me tell you of this world that your people would destroy. Let me tell you of the Warpath." He nodded, and the two of them sat down. Aleta spoke for hours, the outsider male hanging onto every single word.
     Then, just as the sun was setting, he rose.
     "Thank you, Caretaker, for your tale," he said in her language. "I think I have the hang of this speak now." She scrunched up her face and he laughed. "Well, mostly. 'Speak' was the wrong word there, wasn't it? No matter. How would you like to learn some of my language? It will help you to communicate with the Talich-outsiders. Even make peace with them, stop the fighting. Stop the unnatural death."
     She smiled sadly. "I'm afraid that I cannot learn as you do," she said. "It would take much time."
     Coyle grinned. "Have no fear. As I learn, so I teach." He closed his eyes, deep in concentration, then placed a hand on her shoulder. With a jolt, Aleta knew the language of Talich. "You too, Shamba," he said, turning to the suspicious chieftain. Growling, the leonine knelt and Coyle placed his hand on the animal's forehead.
     Coyle rubbed his temples. "There's only so many times I can do that before I lose mastery of the language, but if I can talk to a few more of your chieftains maybe we can bring an end to this destruction."
     Aleta smiled and spoke in the language of Talich. "I believe that can be arranged."
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Re: The Darkest Hour, Chapter 2
« Reply #4 on: December 16, 2016, 05:48:16 AM »
2.3

     The world was too bright, the air too clear. Each breath was overwhelmingly sweet, free of the toxins that I didn't even know I had grown accustomed to on Reish. And the green. I have never seen so much green in my life, nor such vibrant color. It was thoroughly disorienting, and the entire column stumbled along for the first five minutes, overwhelmed by the vitality of this world.
     And with each breath we took, we knew: we were right. We could not abandon this world to the Sorceress when we had a chance to defend it. With every breath I stood taller, confident. Even being banished from Jinhai was worth the righteousness that we felt in those first moments, surrounded by the thoroughly alive world, a world so different from our own--a world that had gone so right where ours had gone so horribly wrong.
     I watched Gao Han regain his composure, his eyes alight and determined. He glanced around the clearing that surrounded the rift, taking it all in. Then his eyes narrowed and he set off at a jog. We fell in behind him, glorying in the colors around us.
     Only to follow the Sorceress's trail. It was not a difficult path to follow. She had made it easy both to track and to pursue her by clearing out the trees and undergrowth where it had grown too thick for her entourage, leaving a corrupted trail of death that we recognized all too well.
     Jiro snarled. "This stinks of the Sorceress."
     I rolled my eyes. "Of course it does. Why do you think we're following it?"
     Suddenly we came to a halt. Gao Han knelt by the edge of the death-trail and waved me over. "What do you think?" he asked, gesturing at the grass. It had been singed in a square pattern, but not destroyed.
     "Looks like binding magic," I said, kneeling down to get a closer look. I took a deep breath, concentrating, and placed my hand over the scorch marks. Blue spirit magic swirled around my hand, then cleared. I took a deep breath and nodded. "Definitely binding magic. And the Sorceress's as well, judging by the strength. It matches her other handiwork."
     Gao Han nodded. "As I suspected. Someone tried to escape."
     "So they did take prisoners."
     "And at least one was alive... when they were here. Do you know how old this is?"
     I shook my head. "Maybe if I knew more about this world, the rate at which the grass grows, and a million other details. I can only guess."
     "Then guess."
     "A day ago? No more than two, I think."
     "This damn death magic is a clear trail, but it's making it impossible to tell how quickly they're going." He nodded and stood up. "We need to keep moving, and fast. The sooner we catch up to the Sorceress, the better."
     We marched for another hour before stopping for lunch in an area that had been more widely cleared by the Verorians. "Look here," Jiro said, kicking a corpse, "they must have run into something."
     "Captain Hyeon did mention beasts coming through the rift," I said, examining the body. "Whatever it is, it definitely isn't human."
     Jiro nodded and pointed at the edge of the trees. "I'm willing to bet that there are corpses of cultists out there. How long do you think they stayed at this spot?"
     Jie, one of the few stone-callers to join us, spoke up. "Judging by the size of the clearing they created and the remains of several campsites, I would guess that this was an overnight camp. Look, you can see here that a large tent was set up, no doubt for the Sorceress. On the other side of the clearing the ground has been depressed, suggesting a heavy load--such as prison cages."
     "Can you tell how many?" I asked.
     He shook his head. "No. The earth doesn't tell me everything, sadly."
     "If they stayed here overnight," I began.
     "Then if we can keep marching that will mean that we're catching up to them," Jiro finished, grinning. "I can't wait to see the look on their faces when we slaughter them."
     "Discipline, Jiro," I said, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Don't be overeager, and don't underestimate your foe. Remember that our strength is not what it was yesterday."
     At the other end of the clearing, Gao Han spoke up. "Enough talk, we need to keep moving." So we did.
     As the sun began to set behind the trees--trees, whole forests of them, like none I had ever witnessed or even heard of on Reish--Gao Han called a halt, sniffing the air. "Rain!" he barked out. "Take cover!"
     We scrambled away from the unprotected openness of the death-trail, hurriedly setting up lean-tos beneath the trees on the trail's edge. I summoned a layer of spirit armor above my makeshift tent, watching the entire forest light up as Gao Han summoned enough spirit armor to protect the entire force. The rain came down, plop-plop-plopping onto the magical shields with a steady beat before running off to the ground. We huddled beneath our canopies, eyeing the skies warily as they turned a mixture of red and black from the sunset and the rainclouds.
     And then Jiro laughed. "We're fools," he said, grinning from ear to ear. And then he cast off his rain-cloak and walked out into the open, spreading his arms wide and laughing. Before I could respond he cupped his hands together and began to drink the rainwater. I froze with a protective spell on my lips, horrified.
     He's a dead man. What's gotten into him?
     Then he turned around and grinned again, laughing at all of us. "We're not on Reish, remember?" Jiro said, gesturing at the trees and life around us. "The rain isn't poison here."
     Gao Han let the spirit armor fade and we all had a good chuckle at our own foolishness. I walked out to Jiro and shook his hand, letting the rainwater soak into my hair and run down my back. It felt good, refreshing. I couldn't remember the last time I had witnessed one of the few 'safe rains' back in Jinhai. "Old habits die hard," I said, smiling at my friend.
     He grinned. "My first instinct was to find cover as well."
     "Now that we've all made sufficient fools of ourselves," Gao Han declared, "we might as well make camp for the night. Wen, arrange the watch shifts."
     I bowed. "Of course, commander."
     Gao Han looked up at the sky, rain streaming down his face as he smiled. "Beautiful," he whispered. "Absolutely beautiful."



So ends chapter 2. The hunt is afoot, and on the other side of the Untamed World the United Talich Front is invading. For those of you wondering, I've written Coyle with the ability to absorb the powers and abilities of those around him--including language. He can also transfer those abilities to others. Although he claims to be working to help stop the violence, his true motives remain unclear.
The last scene, with the rain, is one of my favorites. I've thought a lot about how the different environments on the various worlds would affect the characters' attitudes, and the contrast between the Untamed World and Reish is a huge influence. As I see it, it's a major part of why Gao Han's fighting.

I hope you've enjoyed it so far, and stay tuned for Chapter 3!
« Last Edit: December 20, 2016, 04:02:45 PM by Benionin »
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Offline TameRlane

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Re: The Darkest Hour, Chapter 2
« Reply #5 on: December 17, 2016, 02:14:44 AM »
Quote
"Rain!" he barked out. "Take cover!"
haha nice touch. Always a good read Ben! ;D Keep it up man!

When primal Coyle met Aleta i thought he'd kinda scurry around her sniffing like a canine haha. but the power absorb/ transfer is an interesting way of explaining the different Coyles' abilities; I like it.


 8)
« Last Edit: December 17, 2016, 05:24:48 AM by TameRlane »
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Re: The Darkest Hour, Chapter 2
« Reply #6 on: December 17, 2016, 09:36:26 PM »
can't wait for chapter 3!

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Re: The Darkest Hour, Chapter 2
« Reply #7 on: December 18, 2016, 09:04:47 PM »
So who is Liand the Fearless lore wise? And where would he be?

Is he the type who would lead a troop in defiance of the councils order (or mb in reaction to Gao Han's punishment) in solidarity with Gao Han like old war buddies to support Han's expedition(hunt?)?
« Last Edit: December 18, 2016, 09:06:40 PM by TameRlane »
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Re: The Darkest Hour, Chapter 2
« Reply #8 on: December 18, 2016, 09:15:42 PM »
I don't know too much about Liand and he wasn't on my radar when I started this, but those returning soldiers are going to need a commander...
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