Chapter Thirty

on April 30, 2010 in Evermist

© 2010, Patrick Hester.  All Rights Reserved

Chapter Thirty

The sound of wagon wheels on stone could be heard long before Elias actually saw the wagon itself.  The horses became visible first; a team of four whites gleaming in the midday sun.  They wore harnesses of red leather and pulled a coach painted bright red – even the Coachman wore red from head to toe.  Two flags flew on poles above the coach, whipping in the wind – one red and black and one gray and black.  He had no idea what they meant and couldn’t remember ever seeing them before; Paerleon’s flag was a black tower against a red and white checkerboard.

Jaycn rode beside the wagon yet apart, surrounded by four riders all in black.  They wore helms of black with great big plumes that fluttered and swayed and masks that covered their faces.  Long black coats covered them to their high boots of polished black leather.  Twin sword hilts could be seen over their shoulders and they each carried two rifles just as Jaycn did.  Looking back to the Coachman, he noticed that he or she was also masked.  Each mask appeared to be a sculpted face; the Coachman wore a smile, the Black Rider’s an angry snarl.

Klen stepped passed him, causing him to jump as he made his way to the coach just coming to a stop.  Klen waited patiently for the Coachman to come down and set the steps in place.  Jaycn hopped from his horse and tossed the reins to the hostler – the men on horseback flanking him stayed mounted, each moving to positions where they faced the squad but were between all but Klen and the coach, their angry masks slowly scanning the soldiers.  Eli shared a quick glance with Narut, who shrugged.

“The Elites,” Jaycen said softly as he came to stand next to Eli.  “Advice – don’t stare at him.”

“Who?”

The door to the coach opened and a tiny little man stepped out and down the stairs.  Klen bowed to him and started saying something Elias couldn’t make out.  The man seemed to ignore him, waddling by Klen and towards the plant.  He waddled on short, stubby legs, hunched over, his upper torso parallel to the ground and his knuckles dragging on too long arms.  He wore the same red color that the coach was painted, all in odd-fitting robes that looked like silk or some other kind of shimmering cloth right up to the tall, conical hat that covered his head and neck.  His skin was pale as the snow, his eyes rimmed with black circles – but there was no color within, they were completely white and separated by a long, bulbous nose.

“ThisistheGreen, yesss?” he said in a hissing voice as he stood above the plant.  “Tsktsktsk, HetriesohHetries, yesyesyesyesYOU!”

Elias jumped as a bony finger shot in his direction.  The little man-creature, for that’s how Eli thought of him now, wasn’t even looking at him.  His eyes were fixed on the sprig growing from the rock of the Wall.

“Me?” Elias squeaked.

“DidyoubetouchingGreenwhenfindingyoudidit, yes?”

“Touch it?  No!  No one has touched it,” Elias answered.

“NobetouchingoftheGreenfindingwhendoit, understandingitisohyes, understandingwatchnow,” said the man-creature.

“Eyes inward!” Klen ordered, and everyone turned.  “Elias!  The Engineer told you to watch so watch.”

Elias nodded and turned back to where the Engineer had taken what looked like a glowrod out from the coach.  He’d seen the Sheriffs using them in Valles before, but they’d always been white rods about the length of a forearm whereas this one was blood red and about half the size.  The Sheriffs used them to stun law breakers – all they had to do was point it in the direction of the person, the rod glowed briefly and they just fell, like a puppet with their strings cut.

As the Engineer pointed the red glowrod, a line of light shot out and the plant turned to dust.  Changing the angle of the glowrod, he directed the light at the crack in the Wall and the trees began to stir beyond the fog, creaking and rustling loud enough for everyone to hear.  The line of light from the rod ceased and Elias could see that the crack was gone, the stone healed and yet the trees still rustled.

“Crackissealedtreesforwatchhournow,” the Engineer said to Klen, then he turned his white gaze to Eli.  “Learnmustyouforfuture, yes?” he whispered.  A quick, chopped cackle and a shake of his head and he returned to his wagon.  The Coachman turned it slowly, the wheels creaking on the stone.  The four black riders fell in like an honor guard and they headed back the way they had come.  Eli stared after him until they disappeared into the mist.

“Right!” Klen shouted.  “The Trees’ll be uppity for a while so everyone keep your eyes open and watch for anything at all!”

Eli retook his spot next to Narut, who leaned over and whispered, “What did he do?  I didn’t hear anything.”

“He used a rod – like a glowrod only red, and it turned the plant to dust and sealed the crack.  I-” he hesitated.  “I think it was Magic.”

Narut whistled softly.  “If it can turn a plant to dust, why not just make a big one and turn it on the Trees?”

Elias shook his head.  He had absolutely no idea.

* * *

Seven weeks and four instances of saplings and cracks in the Wall of varying sizes and Elias was looking forward to his cot in Deisarch Dain and a week’s worth of sleep that didn’t involve snow, ice and a bed of cold stone.  Of course, there was no guarantee he’d get that week’s worth of sleep, but he could still dream about it.  They’d made it exactly one quarter the length of the Wall, then turned around to head back.  In just a few days, he would be in that cot.

The day had dawned with a light snow falling, and that light snow had turned heavy by midmorning.  With just a few hours left til sundown, he could barely see beyond his horse’s head, so he was taking it slow and easy, riding point with his scarf covering the lower half of his face and the brim of his hat pulled low.  Snow lay heavy on his shoulders, his hat and his horse – he had quickly grown very tired of snow.

The clip-clop of his horse’s hooves echoed as he passed through the last Tower on the last leg to Deisarch Dain.  For a moment, he imagined he could feel the white eyes of an Engineer upon him, but he knew that was only his imagination.  He did take a moment to brush some of the snow from himself and his horse before passing out the other end of the tunnel that bored straight through the Tower.  The snow kept falling and it didn’t take long before he was covered again.

Shivering, he tried to keep his eyes focused on his task – he was the point scout today, after all.  If there were a way to see a speck of green in all this white, he didn’t know it, but still he tried.  He wasn’t far beyond the Tower when he thought he heard something, so he reined his horse in so he could listen closer.  Cocking his head to the side, he concentrated but whatever it was, it didn’t repeat while he waited, patting his horse on the neck softly.

*whump*

His rifle slid out of its holster at the sound, like something hitting the Wall.  He wasn’t sure if the bit of black he saw on the Wall ahead was real or not because it vanished again in the white of all the snow coming down.  The steady clip-clop of a horse announced the arrival of Jaycn, who slipped up beside him, a rifle in his hands and ready.

“What is it?”

“Heard something,” Elias whispered.  “Thought maybe I saw something too…  Just there…” he pointed with his rifle dead ahead on the wall.

*whump*

“Dammit!”  Jaycn whistled loudly, giving the signal for the rest of the squad to ride up double time.  Even as he turned to whistle, Elias saw the black again – something coming straight at them at a dead run – something sleek and fast.

His rifle came up and he let the breath he’d been holding slowly leak out as he sighted down the barrel and squeezed the trigger, his rifle sounding louder than he remembered it from his training.  He stood in the saddle now, his hand bringing the lever down to fire again and again.  With the third shot, Jaycn’s rifle joined his.  He would have sworn that his first and second shots were right on the money, but whatever was running towards them didn’t even flinch.  With the third shot, it stumbled.  As he and Jaycn fired repeatedly, it finally staggered and fell.

“Reload!” Jaycn shouted.

Elias nodded, reloading as Jaycn pulled his second rifle out.  It had all happened so fast, he hadn’t even realized he’d fired all twelve shots.

*whump-whump*

Elias looked up to see two more black shapes in the snow.  The rest of the squad was coming up behind them when the Wall itself rocked and he was thrown from his horse as it bucked.  A sound like thunder surrounded him for a moment, and he thought a huge storm had hit with lightening striking down on them.  When he managed to get back on his feet, half the wall in front of them was gone and two, giant black cats were leaping the gap.

He’d been thrown from his horse but he kept hold of his rifle.  He brought it up now, firing a dozen shots into the first cat, sending it sprawling back beyond the Wall while the second one landed on a screaming, riderless horse and began ripping it to shreds.  Quickly, he reloaded.  He tried not to think about the fact that the cats were at least as large as a horse.

The squad was in disarray, with more than half the men sprawled on the stone and the other half trying to rein in horses gone wild with fear.  The cat leapt from the now dead horse, catching a rider and dragging him and his mount to the stone while both screamed.  Again, Elias fired until his weapon was empty, but the cat didn’t go down so much as just look at him, mouth bloody and nearly grinning at him.

He tried to reload as the cat slowly stalked towards him, but he knew it would not be fast enough.  Just as he was about to drop the rifle and pull his sword, a series of shots rang out and the cat staggered, falling as a final shot ripped through its skull with a spray of gray matter and brown he took as blood.

“Grab that supply horse, we may need the pitch – someone start that fire!” Sergent Klen shouted, then turned to Elias and tossed him something.  “Wrap that wound.  Can you see all right?”

Elias blinked, then realized that his face was warm.  Reaching up a tentative hand, he winced at the cut above his eye where he’d hit the wall.  His glove came away bloody, so he took the bandage and quickly wrapped the wound.

“We’ll have to get the Engineers to fix this,” Klen said as he surveyed the gap in the wall.  “Haven’t seen it this bad since-”

Elias looked up as Klen was cut off, watching in horror as a branch shot up and ripped into the Wall where he stood, tearing chunks out that tumbled away as Klen himself fell.

The next few moments were pure chaos.

* * *

Narut appeared with a clay pot in his hand, throwing it for all he was worth at the tree.  It shattered and flared, flames quickly licking up and down the branches.  Another and Elias saw that there was a tiny flame in the top.  When it shattered, more fire flared and the tree flailed and smashed at the Wall.  More clay pots flew from Militia and where they struck, fire spattered like raindrops.

The tree did not have a face the way it had in his nightmare, no gaping maw of wooden fangs, but he still imagined that he heard it screaming as the fires danced across its skin.

“More cats!” someone shouted, and Elias brought his rifle back up.  Sure enough, there were about a dozen cats on the wall just across from the damaged area.  He was sighting down the barrel, trying to make his shots count instead of blindly emptying his gun at them, when he saw something that made him blink.  Wiping at his eyes, he tried again.  He counted a dozen cats on the other side of the gap, but one of them…  One had a rider.

His first thought was to take out that rider, but the cats began to attack, and the rider vanished in the blanket of snow, so he shifted easily enough, coming down on one knee and bringing his rifle to bear on them.  He focused on the cats alone, ignoring the chaos with the tree and the men screaming and dying around him.  A deep breath and suddenly, everything else melted away.

He squeezed the trigger, watching as a cat’s head flared brown and the animal fell.  The lever came down and he waited for his next shot, still holding his breath as the first of them leapt up to cross the gap.  He took it mid-flight, the impact knocking it back enough that it missed this side of the gap and went tumbling down the Wall.

He was about to take out another when he saw the rider again.  He tried to get it in his sights but the winds moaned and the snow flared and it disappeared in a blanket of white.  He shifted quickly enough and took out another cat.

“ELI!”

The branch that hit him was covered in flames.  He could feel the heat as it slapped him and threw him back a dozen feet.  Some part of him tried to roll with it, but he felt something snap in his leg as he hit the stone and half rolled half tumbled – his rifle slipping from his hands and skidding across the ice and out of reach.

There were more trees at the Wall now, impossibly tall and moving faster than they had any right to move, ripping and rending at the stone as he crawled to where his rifle lay.  Grunting, he used it to get into a sitting position where he could shoot again.  The cats were leaping across the chasm in the stone, ripping through the men as easily as the trees were ripping through the Wall and he had to do something – the breach was nearly through to the other side now and there were few squad members left to stop them.

His mind raced to the rider again, and he closed an eye to sight down the barrel, trying to find it.  He couldn’t even remember how many shots he had left, if he had any at all, but still he had to try.  One breath, then another, eye scanning through the snow, looking for any sign of the rider, men screaming, horses screaming, stone cracking, crashing with a sound like thunder on the ground far below.  He didn’t know why it had to be the rider he shot, but something inside screamed that it was the right thing to do, so he did his best to ignore everything else and search.

A cat slinked in to kill a soldier trapped beneath his screaming, wounded horse, and Eli couldn’t let it happen so he squeezed off a single round and watched the massive creature crumple.  More stones were being ripped from the Wall and he stared into the snow again, watching, searching for that speck of black he’d seen before, the one he knew was a rider that had to be taken out.  His leg had ached at first, but now he felt nothing there, nothing at all as if it were not even a part of him anymore.  The cold was seeping into him as it never had before, and his eyes began to water.

Then he saw it, the rider; no more than a shadow on the back of a cat larger than the others.  Elias squeezed the trigger, the rifle cracking like thunder.  He brought the lever down even as the rider staggered and the trees truly did scream, and the cats screamed – the very forest he had not yet seen, screamed.  The sound was deafening and it ripped through him, through all of them.  It shook the island.

Branches lashed out in a rage now, whipping him into the air and hitting him so hard that he flew head over heels into the Tower wall.  The last thing he heard before darkness took him was a sickening crunch.

One Response to “Chapter Thirty”

  1. Clifton Hill says:

    Ok. Yep. That was good… *salivating for more*

    Love the engineers, and even the portrayal in text of how they speak. Nice.

Leave a Reply to Clifton Hill