Author Topic: The Darkest Hour, Chapter 5  (Read 396 times)

Offline Benionin

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The Darkest Hour, Chapter 5
« on: January 01, 2017, 07:55:43 AM »
The Darkest Hour
Table of Contents

Chapter 5.1: Alive/Undead

     Back on my feet, I was already calling forth spirit armor. Even if we couldn't survive the beasts' attack, we could make them pay--and force them to close in rather than throw their spears from afar. Sensing my magic surrounding him, Jiro took a few steps forward and leveled his spear, placing himself between me and the beasts.
     The fox-men merely looked at us, growling back and forth to one another.
     "Well?" Jiro shouted, and their heads turned instantly to stare at us. "Well?"
     "If they aren't going to attack, I suggest that we back out of here very slowly," I said softly. "There's no reason to alarm them."
     Jiro shook his head. "I'd rather fight in the Sorceress's clearing than in those woods. Here I can see where they're coming from."
     I glanced at the beasts, waiting for them to make a move. "They may not attack us."
     "Well, if we turn and run they definitely will. If we run, they will chase. That's how animals work. Ao Shun's whiskers, that's how humans work half the time. But if we show our strength, it will confuse them. Buy us time."
     "And what do you suggest we do with the extra time?"
     "You're a scribe, right? So get to work on that report. The Sorceress is back in Reish. We failed."
     I shook my head, not that he could see. "We didn't fail. We drove her off and saved this world."
     "That may be so, but in case you forgot we've been banished. The only way we are going back home is with the Sorceress in chains, and clearly that isn't happening."
     The beasts were still watching us, and it seemed that they were as uncertain of what to do as we were. I noticed them shifting from foot to foot, then watched as several clustered and began to converse in low tones.
     "So, how long do you think this standoff can last?" I asked, fetching paper and ink from my writing supplies and kneeling. Using my knee as a hard surface, I began to scribble down a report. It definitely wasn't my best work, but I didn't know how much time we would have.
     "How long do you need?" Jiro asked, grinding his teeth. "If it's all the same to you, once you're done with that report I'd like to attack. Take them by surprise, may be able to deal some damage that way. I hate standing around."
     "Discipline, Jiro," I responded almost automatically. "Dying here won't accomplish anything. It's possible that the Stalwart is already on his way to reinforce us. Unlikely, but possible. Understood?" There was no response. I looked up. "Jiro, do you hear me?"
     He nodded. "You know, I don't think that'll be necessary. Look."
     There, walking out of the forest, were two humans. One was a man wearing leggings and a cloak, his wild hair somehow kept out of his face. Next to him was a woman I recognized wearing monk's robes. Tattered, but unmistakable.
     "Captain?" I said, my report forgotten. I stood up and saluted.
     Captain Hyeon smiled. "You're Gao Han's scribe, right? Wen, is it?"
     I nodded and bowed. "We received your message but arrived too late to secure the rift. Gao Han led a force through to track down the Sorceress. We managed to defeat her in battle, but she escaped with the remains of her entourage. I was sent to track her. She just opened a rift to Reish and got away."
     The captain nodded. "I see. The Stalwart's been industrious."
     "If you don't mind," I said, "I didn't exactly expect to see you here. We freed a few of the prisoners and they said you had escaped and disappeared. How did you survive?"
     Hyeon smiled again and gestured towards one of the vulpine beasts. "Mavuto helped me to escape and brought me to the Warpath's leader, Hehkeem. With the help of Coyle," the man standing next to her bowed, "our... translator, we were able to reach an alliance. Hehkeem sent members of his pack against the Sorceress. We only just arrived, but they said that you helped in the battle."
     I shook my head. "There was little we could do."
     "Where is the rest of the force? Gao Han's hundred men weren't wiped out by the Verorians, were they?"
     "As if," Jiro scoffed. "No, after the battle with the Sorceress's cultists the Stalwart fortified the area so our wounded could recover."
     "There's something else," I said. "We are nowhere near a hundred strong. The Sages ordered that the Rift be abandoned and Gao Han return to his post on the Wall. Only some twenty-five of us followed him here, and the battles have taken their toll. All of us who remain have been banished from Jinhai."
     Captain Hyeon gasped and Coyle frowned.
     "Is that bad?" he asked.
     "Bad?" Jiro exploded. "Bad? Banishment is the ultimate censure and you ask if it's bad?"
     Hyeon nodded. "To be cast out from Jinhai is to be cut off from all that is good in Reish. It brings dishonor upon your ancestors and dooms you to a slow death in the wastes."
     Coyle nodded. "I see."
     "Who is this man?" I asked, narrowing my eyes.
     "I told you," Hyeon replied, "he is our translator."
     "With the beasts?"
     "With anyone you want," Coyle declared. "I can learn any language in a heartbeat and teach anyone in two."
     Hyeon glared at him. "Discipline, Coyle. You exaggerate."
     He scowled. "It's true, though. If there's anyone you need to talk to, I'm your man."
     By now the beasts had closed in around us, but all signs of violence had passed. I let Jiro's spirit armor dissipate as the one beast, Mavuto, spoke. "Even with the Sorceress fled to Reish, there is much to discuss with your leader."
     I tried and failed to hide my shock that he was using our language. "Wha-what?"
     Captain Hyeon smiled. "We need to speak with Gao Han."
     I saluted again. "Of course, Captain."
     "Hehkeem will want to be there," Mavuto growled.
     "Naturally," Hyeon replied, her voice smooth. "He will be accorded respect proper to his station as Caller of the Warpath."
     "Caller of the Warpath?" Jiro asked.
     "For the time being, Hehkeem commands the loyalty of every beast in the Untamed World," Hyeon explained.
     I gulped. "Well, when would you like to depart?"
     "I think now would be good," Coyle said. "Hehkeem will follow at his own pace. He is still dealing with the Talich-born."
     "Talich?" Jiro asked.
     "It's his home," Hyeon said. "Now, let's return to your camp. I would suggest notifying Gao Han of recent events."
     I looked at my hastily written report. "You're right, I'll prepare a report immediately. Just a few minutes and we can head out."
     "I'll summon the courier while you write," Hyeon said, blue magic already swirling around her fingertips.
     "Thank you, Captain."
     Within no time, we were following the trail back northeast, surrounded by a score of vulpine beasts. It was without a doubt the strangest company I had ever kept.
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Offline Benionin

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Re: The Darkest Hour, Chapter 5
« Reply #1 on: January 01, 2017, 08:01:33 AM »
Interlude--Heimdall

     He was drilling his wing when the word spread. As soon as they heard, his angels ceased their practicing and the entire wing departed for one of Solace's muster points.
It can't be true, he thought, remembering that fateful day hundreds of years ago. Not again.
     Yet there was Jubalia's message, projected over the muster point. "Avarrach has risen," it said, only three words. But perhaps the three most dreaded words known to the angels. Flexing his wings, Heimdall took off and rushed to the nearest observation post, racing ahead of other likeminded angels.
     He was not the first to arrive.
     "Heimdall," nodded Kraos, who was already watching the mortal realm below.
     The Overseer threw up a salute. "Sir."
     "Is it true?" Kraos said with an upraised brow. "Yes. The lifeless are already spilling into the Old World below us. Their incursion is limited to the local beasts at the moment, but it's only a matter of time before they begin to encounter humans."
     "Then we should bring the battle to them immediately," Heimdall said. "Limit the damage that can be done, prevent the demons from gaining any more power."
     "Unfortunately, that decision belongs to neither of us," Kraos said, turning his gaze back to the observation post. "Sol will decide."
     "I'll prepare my soldiers for battle at once, then," Heimdall said, but the Champion of Ruin shook his head.
     "To deploy our forces in the mortal realms is nearly impossible. Not only would it be a logistical nightmare with the multiple dimensions that the Avarrachians are invading, but the energy cost of opening the Gate alone would be enormous."
     "Nevertheless, we must act. Those people need our help, Kraos. We can't just let the Avarrachians overwhelm the mortal realms."
     Kraos placed his hand firmly on Heimdall's shoulder. "You would do well to remember that the decision is not yours to make," he said, a warning in his voice. "Sol 'must' do nothing. He will hear of this conversation, Heimdall, and it will not go well for you."
     He brushed off the champion's hand. "So be it. I will not have it said that Heimdall left the mortals to their fate when they most needed aid." With a flash of his metal wings, he left the observation post and returned to his unit's practice grounds.
     Twenty angels, well-trained, battle-hardened, disciplined. And loyal. No wing leader could ask for more. "Sir?" one asked as Heimdall landed in front of them.
     "Let's move. We're going to the mortal realms."
     "Sol has approved this?"
     Heimdall shook his head. "No. I have. We'll follow the scouting paths, slip out, and join the fight against the lifeless before they can do any damage."
     "When do we leave?"
     "Now."
     Heimdall took off, flying low to the ground, his wing close behind. He chose an indirect route, knowing that most of the main routes to the scouting paths would be watched. They always were, and Sol would brook no insubordination from brash wing leaders.

     They'll be watching the routes to the paths, but not the paths themselves, Heimdall knew. The paths are kept sealed.
     But when, after all of his backtracking, after his long and winding route, Heimdall and his wing finally arrived at the entrance to the scouting paths, the seal had been broken. Champions were there in full force. And at the center of the crowd hovered Sol.
     Heimdall's force immediately came to a halt, uncertain of how to proceed. Quickly surrounded by the more powerful retinues of the champions, Heimdall hung his head and held up his weapons in surrender.
The shortest mutiny in history, he thought as the guards marched him away.
     He glanced back towards Sol, watching as the Overseers' leader gave directions to another angel. A scout. Who saluted and entered the scouting paths, on her way to the mortal realms below. He saw nothing else as the guards forced him into a secured transport.
     "I'm sorry," he whispered to his soldiers. "I shouldn't have dragged you into this. I was a fool."

     "You were lucky," a voice said, and Heimdall looked up in his cell. Another angel with feathery wings--true wings--was walking through the door, keys dangling from her right hand. Short black hair fell on either side of her face.
     "My wing?" he asked.
     "Will go unpunished," the angel nodded.
     "And my wings?" he said, daring to hope.
     She nodded again. "You'll keep your wings and your rank. Sol was debating between having you rot in the cell for all eternity or having you be killed and seeing what your new aspect would be when you reformed in another hundred years." She smiled softly. "But I told him that the worlds need protectors now more than ever. You were acting in haste, of course, but when we deploy in the mortal realms we'll need every angel we have." She tossed him the keys and turned to leave.
     "Wait," he said, even as he unlocked his shackles. "Who are you?"
     "Just another person who looks out for others. Another protector, like you. They call me Cassial."
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Offline Benionin

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Re: The Darkest Hour, Chapter 5
« Reply #2 on: January 01, 2017, 08:08:21 AM »
5.2

     When we arrived back at the now heavily fortified encampment, they opened the gates for our procession. Jie was one of those standing guard. He looked exhausted, with a bloody gash across his cheek where some blade had cut him.
     "Wen, good to have you back. Jiro, you missed a spot of action."
     "What?" demanded my friend, and I cracked a smile.
     "We had our own share of action, Jie. What happened here?"
     "We were attacked by a group of humans. Some of them wore golden armor, and others in gray uniforms were directing metal monsters at us. The attack was ferocious, but we held." He clenched his fist. "By all the Sages, we held. It cost us, but we held."
     "How many are left?" I asked, dreading the answer.
     "13," Gao Han said, striding purposefully up to us. "Counting you two." He paused and smiled. "Captain Hyeon, it is good to have you back. How are you?"
     "Worse for wear, but ready to fight." She turned and gestured to the two fox-like beasts behind her, and the column of fifty beasts still outside the walls. "May I present Hehkeem, the Caller of the Warpath, and Mavuto, his second amongst the Vulpines."
     Gao Han bowed. "I am honored by your presence, Hehkeem."
     "Thank you," the beast rumbled in our language, and I smiled as the other remaining monks stiffened in surprise. "The Talich-outsiders are vicious; it is good to see that you Descendants of the Dragon can be reasoned with."
     "My name is Commander Gao Han, called the Stalwart. Please, come with me and we can discuss our alliance with more depth in some privacy."
     "Hello," Coyle said, stepping forward and reaching out to take Gao Han's hand. "My name is Coyle."
     Gao Han ignored him. "Honored Hehkeem, my command tent is this way. I'm sure there is much to discuss. Captain, I would be honored by your presence as well." The three walked off, already deep in discussion.
     Coyle grimaced. "What am I, thin air?" he muttered darkly, and I smiled at his discomfort. Captain Hyeon was right: something about him seemed wrong, ingenuous. Affected.
     "What's the matter, translator?" Jiro jibed. "A little stung?"
     Coyle glared at him and walked out of the compound, back towards the group of beasts still waiting outside. Mavuto watched him go. "He won't find a warm welcome there," the vulpine mused. "We don't trust you humans, especially after what the Talich-outsiders did. And now the deathless."
     "Deathless?" I asked.
     "Foul creatures from another world. Not yours, not Talich. Some other place. We're not sure where, but they have Hehkeem worried. We have lost many warriors, but these creatures refuse to die. Our own rise again, changed, to fight against us, heedless of the bonds of pack or brotherhood."
     "What does Hehkeem think we should do against these deathless creatures?" I asked.
     "He doesn't know, Mavuto responded. "He doesn't know."

     Night came swiftly. Hehkeem, Hyeon, and Gao Han were still in his command tent, discussing whatever it was that they were discussing--I remember being somewhat upset that even I, Gao Han's trusted scribe, wasn't privy to the meeting. Mavuto and ten other beasts stayed inside the compound with us, while the other forty remained outside; our fort wasn't large enough to house all of them, even with our losses. Jie and I kept watch while the few remaining monks slept.
     "She got away, Jie," I said. "We couldn't stop her."
     "You did your best, Wen. The Sorceress is a powerful spellcaster, and no two of us, not even the Stalwart, could have stopped her on their own. Your friend Xu used to say that stone will be stone, no matter what, and that's the truth."
     "You stone-callers use stone as a metaphor for everything, don't you?" I smiled, though it didn't remove the sting of the failure.
     "At least you recovered Captain Hyeon and met with these beasts. We needed the reinforcements."
     "How long, do you think, before we're all gone? We won't be reinforced, so we'll just die off one by one, from age or from battle. Who do you think will be the last of us in this world?"
     He shrugged. "Doesn't matter. We stand until we fall. The Jinhai way." He patted the wall's battlements. "Look at this stone. It's solid, good quality earth. Unyielding. It doesn't worry about its future. Someday the winds or the rains will wear it down into nothing again, but the stone doesn't preoccupy itself with that."
     "Stones are inanimate, you know that, right? It doesn't think of the future because it doesn't think at all."
     Jie chuckled. "Well, you get my point. Worrying about the future won't make it come any faster or slower. Take things in stride and keep fighting. For Jinhai."
     "But the Sorceress is gone."
     "Then we fight these deathless ones, or the golden knights with the crimson banners--the Talich-outsiders, I believe they were called. There will always be foes who threaten our home, Wen."
     "How was that fight?"
     "Like I said, the attack was ferocious. Knights in golden armor climbed our walls and sought to overcome us. They fought with a fury unmatched in all of Reish, and their assault was swift, merciless. In the back of their formation, a bearded man directed their assault, searching out the weak points in our defenses. It's thanks to Gao Han that we were able to hold them off at all. It rankled them to retreat, but we threw them from the walls." He shuddered. "Barely. Never have I witnessed a more brutal attack, and never have I seen someone so calmly direct their own soldiers to the slaughter."
     "Did they even try to speak with you?"
     He shook his head. "No, they just--wait, do you hear that?"
     "What?" I tilted my head, angling my ears towards the woods surrounding our encampment. I heard nothing.
     "The silence."
     And suddenly I realized. On Reish, I was so used to the world being dead, corrupted. Silent, except for footsteps along the Great Wall. But this world was alive, vibrant. Full of life and noise.
     Except for now.
     "Rouse the men," Jie said, and I nodded, already leaping down from the wall into the heart of the camp.
     I shook Jiro awake. "Something's up. Wake the others." Then I cautiously approached Mavuto. "Sir," I said, but the beast didn't stir. Gulping, I reached down and touched the fox-man's shoulder. "Sir," I repeated, and his eyes flashed open.
     "What?" he snarled, and I noticed just how sharp his teeth were.
     "Something's going on," I said.
     Mavuto sniffed the air. "The deathless," he growled, so low I felt it in my chest more than I heard it in my ears. The beast barked and his retinue of ten were up, as was Coyle, the translator.
     "Coyle, we have some spare armor that you can use," I said.
     He nodded. "My thanks, and I'm sorry for your losses."
     "Every soldier knew what he was getting into," I replied stiffly. "The armor's over there. Suit up."
     I jogged back up to the walls as the battle began to unfold. A sea of twinkling orange lights approached from the southwest, the same direction the Sorceress had fled. Already the forty beasts of Hehkeem's entourage were snarling and fighting the enemy, engaged in a battle in the darkness of night that I could barely see. Mavuto joined me on the wall.
     "What do you see?" I asked.
     He growled. "The deathless."
     "How are your brethren doing?"
     He paused. "Not well," he finally said, grinding out the words. "Not well at all."
     The commanders rushed out of Gao Han's tent. As Hehkeem rushed outside to lead his beasts in battle, Gao Han took up a position at the gate and directed Hyeon to take command of the walls. But as the sea of blinking orange lights advanced, I could see that the beasts were struggling.
     "What can we do?" I asked.
     "I don't know," Mavuto replied. "If you kill the deathless, they simply get back up."
     Confused, I reached out with my magic, extending my senses to try to detect the souls of those fighting against the beasts. I sensed the spirits of the dead that suffused this unblemished world, sensed the spirits that had followed us from Jinhai, and even noticed the souls of the beasts, although they were a different color than the other spirits [Translator's note: Wen's description here is loosely translated, and the author himself had scratched out and rewritten the words repeatedly in an attempt to explain what he meant]. And beyond the beasts...
     I recoiled. Pain, anguish, madness. Eternal suffering. Within the bodies of the deathless things attacking us, the souls of the once-living were trapped and writhing in endless torment. From then on, I knew what to call them. Even as the beasts were overrun and Hehkeem fell, even as Mavuto and his ten howled in rage and loss, even as the orange lights moved inexorably, inevitably closer, I whispered the name.
     "The Soul-trapped."
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Offline Benionin

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Re: The Darkest Hour, Chapter 5
« Reply #3 on: January 01, 2017, 08:11:16 AM »
Interlude--Vasir

     Half of his immense form was already free when the Sorceress returned. Vasir laughed, dueling her one-handedly while he freed the rest of his body. The first thirty-seven hours of the duel, when he was still partially enchained, were the hardest, but even the immortal Sorceress tired.
     The dungeons beneath the Keep shook as Vasir drove Aleta back, through the immense door, into the dungeons proper. She fled before his might, towards the hall of the Keep and her cultists.
     "Puny mortals," Vasir laughed as he clawed his way through the dungeon hallway, scattering menials and sending lesser monsters running for cover. Pausing for a moment, he transformed a chained monk in one cell into a demon, writhing in pain from the change that overcame his body. "Puny mortals," Vasir repeated, chuckling.
     There was another set of doors, thick and mighty. Oak. Purple magic coursed along the beams, reinforcing them against escape. Vasir slammed into the doors, and they shuddered on impact, shaking the whole of Veroria. He slammed into them again, relishing the challenge and the freedom that had been denied him for so long. Deep underground, a fault line buckled and tremors began to shake the earth.
     A third time Vasir charged the doors, and a third time it held, the wood splintering before his onslaught. Yet when he slammed into the doors a fourth time they burst forward, ripped from their hinges and torn asunder. Purple magic flashed brightly and died, and Vasir felt the entire dungeon drain of energy. Laughing, he bounded into the Great Hall of the Keep, his wings extended, gliding, soaring.
     "It's good to be free," Vasir chortled, kicking over long tables and sending cultists running for cover. Those who didn't, died.
     Pain lacerated his side and the arch-demon turned to face Aleta, her brown hair whirling in a magical wind. "I will see you back in those chains!" she shouted, but Vasir only laughed.
     "I will have fun with this," he said, stomping towards where she stood at the head of the hall. Dark magic crackled along his claws and he licked his lips in anticipation of the battle to come. "Everything I suffered, you will suffer, little woman," he said.
     Then the world lurched, and Vasir fell to his knees, a hand reaching out to stabilize himself. "Another rift?" he whispered, casting out his senses. Sure enough, one had opened right in the middle of the Keep, just outside of the doors to the hall. And through it were pouring...
     "Avarrach," the demon growled, his mind alight with memories. So much anguish, so much suffering... so much delicious power from the mortals of that realm. How had they spilled forth? Who had awoken them, led them to the Old World, and now here to Reish? Lightning crackled above him and he shook his head.
     The Sleepers did not matter. Only the Sorceress.
     Even as the zomborgs began to flood into the hall, Vasir paid them no heed. He had eyes for one and one alone, and she would be his. His to torment as he had been tormented. "Revenge," he muttered, "is so sweet."
     Deflecting death spells off of his wings, Vasir leapt forward. Even Aleta, the immortal Sorceress of Reish, more powerful than any other denizen of this mortal plane, stood no chance against the Demon Prince of Torment.
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Re: The Darkest Hour, Chapter 5
« Reply #4 on: January 01, 2017, 08:18:12 AM »
5.3

     Hehkeem hadn't stood a chance. And if he hadn't, what chance did we have? Gao Han beat his chest and roared a challenge from the front gate while Captain Hyeon summoned spirits to help defend the walls. I could sense their disquiet at the foe we were presented with. I whispered the name again.
     "The Soul-trapped."
     "What did you say?" Jie asked from next to me.
     "These people. Their souls are trapped in their bodies. In pain." I shook my head sadly. "I can think of no worse fate."
     "Well," Jiro chimed in, "I'd rather not join their fate, if it's all the same."
Mavuto growled as the soul-trapped reached the base of the walls. The creatures milled around, stared up at us, and then they began to climb.
     Coyle joined us on the wall, layers of jade armor covering him from head to toe. Glancing over in the light of the flickering torches, it looked like even his sword had changed to match his new outfit. I couldn't tell, and turned my attention back to the coming assault.
     "Out of curiosity," the strange man asked, "if they can't die then how do we kill them?"
     "That's the problem," Mavuto growled.
     And then, they were upon us.
     Jiro stabbed with his spear, throwing the bodies with the glittering orange lights from the walls and into the horde below. Coyle swung his sword, cutting off limbs and through torsos, beheading some and stabbing others. He was an immovable agent of death--suddenly, I was glad he was on our side. None of the soul-trapped could even scratch him, and in spite of his layers of armor he moved as quickly as a whirlwind. Next to him, Jie struck out with fists as hard as stone, shrugging off blows and returning them with brutal precision. Mavuto fought with a primal rage that chilled me to the bone, howling as he ripped the soul-trapped apart and flung them into the darkness outside of the walls.
     But as hard as we fought, they didn't stop coming.
     They never stopped coming.
     I summoned layers of spirit armor to protect Jiro as he slipped and faltered and Coyle stepped in, taking over even more of the defense of the wall with a determination I had seen in only one other man. Glancing over, I saw that the Stalwart was holding the gate against a soul-trapped beast, a tusked monstrosity over twice his size. Unflinchingly he stood, swaying out of the way of blows and striking back with feet and fists.
     I was interrupted as Jie cried out in pain. One of the monsters had managed to carve a gouge into his arm, and it was bleeding profusely. Then, horribly, it stopped, and I watched coiling metal fill the wound, with an orange light flickering.
     "Jie!" I shouted, running over and kicking the soul-trapped that had wounded him off of the wall.
     He slumped to his knees, holding his arm and grimacing in pain. I watched the spread of the metal stop, then start back up slowly. Inexorably. Advancing along his arm just as inevitably as the monsters were advancing on our position.
     "I am as stone," Jie grimaced, grinding the words out through clenched teeth. "Immovable, solid, and strong." He looked up. "It's spreading. I don't know how much longer I have until I'm one of them." His eyes closed and he clenched his teeth again. "From Discipline cometh Strength."
     "From Strength cometh Honor," I finished. "Hang in there Jie, hang in there." I looked up as Jiro rushed over and knocked another soul-trapped from the wall right next to us, nodded at him in thanks. "We'll find a medic, once this is over."
     "Stone," Jie gasped. "That's it." Shuddering, he rose to his feet. "If we can't kill them, bury them." The world lurched as he opened and closed his fist, using the earth to swallow up a group of the monsters. "Spread the word," he said, even as the metal virus overtook the entirety of his wounded arm. Grimacing, he continued his work, doing his best to ignore his own imminent demise.
     I ran along the battlements, finding every stone-caller I could and telling them how we could defeat this indomitable foe. The battle was going poorly and our lines were pushed to the breaking point, but once the stone-callers began to work the attack began to slow.
     Then, miraculously, it began to stop. The soul-trapped were buried. I could still sense them, trapped in the earth, struggling to claw their way to the surface. It would take them some time. But we would not be safe forever.
     Turning to face the front gate and Gao Han, I stumbled, my breath catching in my throat. The Stalwart was facing off against none other than Hehkeem, the Caller of the Warpath. Only Hehkeem was horribly changed. The vulpine leader roared in madness and rage as he swung his blade at Gao Han, only to be blocked by a layer of spirit armor. With every roar I felt the ground tremble as the soul-trapped sought to climb free from their graves and join their new leader.
     "Gao Han, move!" shouted a stone-caller. "We can't deal with him with you so close!"
     Gao Han glanced back and nodded. Spinning, he kicked the corrupted monster that was once the proud and mighty Hehkeem in the chest, knocking the beast back. Even as he did so, the Stalwart sprinted towards us, away from him.
     Hehkeem roared as the ground opened up beneath him, swallowing him whole and burying him in a shallow grave. The battle was over. I raced back to our segment of the walls and to Jie's side. The stone-caller had collapsed and was leaning against the battlements, his chest heaving with ragged breaths. He stared at his shoulder, eyes narrowed in focus.
     Then he gasped for breath, sweat breaking out on his brow, and the malignancy spread to his torso. "Stone," he whispered. "I am as stone." His eyes widened, then he shuddered again. "I won't let this take me that easily," he growled.
     "Jie," I said, "how are you doing?"
     He smiled weakly. "Terribly."
     "What if we just amputate his arm?" Jiro asked, but I shook my head.
     "It's already spread to his torso. To get it out of him would kill him just as surely as it is going to."
     "Listen," the stone-caller said, his voice weak. The malignancy had spread to his legs with lightning swiftness, and I could tell that he was spending all of his effort to keep it away from his neck. He was failing. "I don't have much time left. Wen, you said--" he gasped again, then shook his head and ground his teeth. "Soul-trapped. I... don't want to go that way."
     "No. We'll get a medic, we'll..."
     He shook his head. "There's no time. Discipline and honor, comrade."
     "I can't."
     He cried out as the metal began to snake up his neck. "If you won't, Jiro will. Jiro, quickly. If you don't strike now, my soul will be trapped in this body forever. I won't be able to join my ancestors, to protect Jinhai from beyond the grave."
     He struggled against the virus. We watched, stunned. Unsure of what to do. Jiro's hands trembled along the haft of his spear. "Jie," he said softly.
     "Mine eyes have seen the beauty of the flower of Jinhai," the stone-caller gasped.
     "And so I've sworn it to defend until the day I die.
     "I'll never leave my station," he sang, eyes clamped shut against the pain, "no matter what I spy.
     "Honor and Discipline!"
     "I'm sorry, Jie," Jiro said, and my friend struck out with his spear. By now a small crowd had gathered, and another stone-caller solemnly buried our dead comrade. Quietly, I finished the song, struggling to say the words.

     "Have you heard the mighty trumpets that never call retreat?
     Have you seen the steadfast ranks of men who'll never budge their feet?
     Answer the marshal's call, my friend, and join the great elite!
     Honor and Discipline!

     In the beauty of the mountains lies a heavenly shrine
     Honoring sacrifices just like yours and mine
     I'll give my life to guard it; my soul will stand for all time
     Honor and Discipline!"



And so ends Chapter 5. Vasir has been freed and the Sleepers are pouring over the planes while the Overseers mobilize for action. Hehkeem is corrupted. Stone-caller Jie falls, his last words a song based off of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Gao Han's force is shrinking smaller, and smaller...
Stay tuned for Chapter 6 and the conclusion!
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Offline TameRlane

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Re: The Darkest Hour, Chapter 5
« Reply #5 on: January 01, 2017, 07:03:52 PM »
Sooo goooood! ;D

Great work Ben! The rising action is really well done. Can't wait to read the rest.
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