Black Flood: A Tale of the Trolloc Wars [Complete]

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halfhand
Posts: 103
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

Re: Black Flood: A Tale of the Trolloc Wars

Post by halfhand » Sat Oct 10, 2020 10:24 am

Chapter Twenty-Nine: First Day

Manetheren city disappeared in the veil of rain. The tall spires and victorious towers became faint shadows until they too fell away from vision. The night's bloody events too were washed away by the steady downpour.

General Diest Arcanum looked forward and resumed his walk through the ankle-deep mud, already feeling the wetness seeping into his boots. He would have very much preferred to be riding at that point. But he'd also have preferred that the catapults arrived at the front on time, so he gritted his teeth and slogged on towards Captain Blake of the leading team.

"Captain! I'm going back to check on the cargo. For now, the fleet is at your disposal. On arrival, get all the teams set up." He yelled over the rain.

"Acknowledged." Blake gave a short nod, the water flowing around his visor, "Good luck."

Arcanum gave a thumbs up, and circled around the train of catapults, heading back to check on the status of the Special Armaments.

"Everything checks out?" He asked as soon as he saw Tirium.

"It took all of your influence and mine to get the Marshall General to release the iron we needed." Tirium patted the load on the nearby cart. "He doesn't seem too fond of you. If this plan of yours doesn't work out, we're in hot water."

"Aye, a Trolloc's pot." Arcanum replied dryly, "Did you get him to relinquish the other?"

"Yes, we got them all bunched and stacked ready back at the South Gate. After we unload the rods, we'll need to make several trips with these horses to transport them here. But from the looks of this weather, we're not going to be able to use them for a while."

"Alright, the front's near. I can trust you to distribute these?" Arcanum motioned forward to the affirmative. He quickly outdistanced the wagons to arrive at the catapults' dock zone. Prefabricated platforms were already in place, to give the cats elevation in the otherwise flat plain. Arcanum shook out his newest watch-glass and took his first peek of the battle. The river Tarendrelle stood between the two forces, swollen to almost double its size by the constant rain. Tendrils of Trollocs extended from the main body, attempting to ford the river, but most were swept away downriver.

"Map here!" Arcanum called out. This was as good a vantage point as any to command. Two soldiers hurried up with the makeshift post, staking the stand into the ground. A cured canvas relief of the battlefield was nailed securely onto the board. Arcanum ran his fingers over the smooth map, then procured two oil-soaked torches to provide sputtering light.

"Message podium up, sir!" Someone shouted to Arcanum. Arcanum raised a hand, signaling for a test flare. The signaler on top circled his fingers in acknowledgement, and raised his torch. It flickered under the assault of the rain, but it should be able to be seen by all the cat teams

"Sir, how goes the front?" Captain Blake yelled from atop one of the catapult platforms.

"Stalemate. This storm they cooked up is actually working against them." Brief flashes of fire and explosion sprinkled through the watch-glass.

"The river is overflowing and they can't do anything until their storm lets up. Although the Dreadlords are taking a number on our men. How soon can we start firing back?"

"Right now! But we have no vision, so we'll need some ranges."

"Five waves of naphtha at maximum range then work your way to dry ordinance. Remember, better to overshoot than undershoot." Arcanum replied, waving to the message platform.

The signaler unfurled his torch again, raising it high in the air. Sparks of fire waved in reply, and there was a hum of catapults firing simultaneously. Glowing red missiles arched across the air, wavering in visibility through the rain. They curved almost beyond the horizon, slamming down to create a massive arch of fire, heedless of the waterlogged land.

"By Caldazar, these are beautiful engines." Arcanum watched the second wave flare across the sky. And a third. But this one was drowned out by the flash of blinding lightning.

A platform collapsed in fire, sparks dying on the smoldering heap of burnt timber and flesh. In a never-ending chain, lightning lashed the battlefield, burning a swathe of ashes across the landscape. But the men of Thunder Legion were disciplined and their shots never hesitated.

"What's going on, General?" Blake suddenly called.

Arcanum turned to see engineers climbing aboard the platforms. "Lightning rods. Solid iron tip and center, and twice the height of a man. If the Dreadlords intend to strike with lightning, then we will give them something to strike, in place of ourselves."

The rods were mounted and grounded quickly with chain anchors, and throughout the battlefield, similar contraptions were affixed to soak the Dreadlords' ire. Assuming that the Dreadlords did not have complete mastery over the storm, especially over such a large area.

"Metal attracts lightning, then? Fire!"

"Yes, at least from personal experience." Arcanum could see the tall spikes rising across all the battlefront, like the back of a bristling spinerat.

"Cut range! Then why are we wearing steel helmets?" Blake shouted.

"Your sharp wit is wasted on us, captain!" Arcanum saw a messenger riding towards him. "Yes?"

"The Trollocs are landing bridges across the river. The Marshall General wants you to take them out." The messenger steadied his panicking horse as another lightning crackled down near, coursing down one of the rods in the vicinity.

"That's too risky!" Arcanum replied, "Half of our misses would hit our own men."

"Then don't miss. The Dreadlords are raking through our front lines. If the Trollocs get a beachhead, we might not be able to stop their advance. This river is the only thing we've got! You know what you need to do!" The messenger saluted, and spurred his horse onwards.

Arcanum did not return the salute, "Blake, you see those bridges he was talking about?"

"Barely. Looks nasty. It's going to be tough shots."

"You think you can hit them?"

Blake replied with the firing crack of his catapult. Arcanum watched its descent, slamming squarely into one the dark log-bridges milling with Trollocs. It split its spine and the advancing Trollocs were dragged into the watery depths.

Other skilled catapult teams followed suit, raining boulders into the river, snapping wood and bones alike, sending geysers of water nearly twenty feet into the air. However, one unlucky –and to Arcanum, inevitable- shot missed its target range, bowling into the soldiers guarding the bank, killing half a dozen before they even realized they were dead. Arcanum grimaced, closing his eyes. Trollocs in front and catapults in the back. The foot soldiers' lives hung on the balance of a knife edge.

For a second Arcanum thought no one had seen it. Then, the catapults all became silent.

"Your posts, gentlemen!" Arcanum screamed, "They did their duties. You will too!"

There was a dangerous silence that even drowned out the crash of thunder. Arcanum breathed into the mist, holding his breath. Come on. This is not the time. Do not force this.

There was a single crack of a catapult. Another missile ascended, and the rest fired their acquiescence. Arcanum sighed as the staccato barking of catapults filled the air once more.

"Thank you, Blake." Arcanum spoke into the rain.

"Wasn't me." Was the curt and barking reply.

Arcanum turned his face upwards, letting the cool rain tap against his skin. Was the storm letting? The fierce storm had subsided to a hard drizzle, although the darkness still remained. He could see faint stars through the sheets of water. How fast the day has gone. The drizzle slowed to a gentle mist, before the storm clouds passed them lazily towards the west. The rumble of thunder was still ominous but distant.

"General!" Tirium appeared beside him, the torch in his hand lighting a face wet and brimming with exertion.

"Is everything prepared for our show?" Arcanum greeted him.

"There have been some minor setbacks. Dampness issues, but I think ninety-eight percent are in working condition. An excellent yield, given the conditions."

"Good, I have a feeling. Be prepared to give the signal." Arcanum stared across the field of battle. Like fireflies, torches were lit against the approach of night, blooming until the entire riverbank ran with ember lights. Beyond the river, there were no torches, only crawling and seething darkness. "They are planning something. I do not know how long before the river falls to a fordable level, but I do know they have something planned. It's a waiting game. Until the river lowers, we can only simply gaze across the black sea and fear the weight of numbers closing on us. How did the lightning rod dispersal go?"

"We managed to seed most of the ranks. They took a heavy beating from lightning strikes already. So in other words, a complete success." Tirium peered down at the General's Map. "How recent is this?"

Before Arcanum could reply, he felt the soil shifting almost imperceptibly beneath his feet. Like a feeling of change of altitude felt deep inside the guts but almost unrealized by the eyes. He grabbed on to the wooden stand for balance, "You feel that?"

"Yeah, feels like the ground is changing shape, like something is under us." Tirium answered, "Something big."

At those words, images coalesced in Arcanum's minds, images of the ground belching forth worm-creatures like those they had fought at Thakan'dar. Images of their flanks crushed beneath the heel of earth demons. There was a stir in the legions, as each felt the rumbling of the ground, each imagining and remembering the possibilities.

"The river!" Arcanum shouted, as he stared through his water-glass. "It's the river. Something's happening there!" Right before his eyes, the river quivered in black sloshes, circling in a rippling maelstrom of froth and spray. A line appeared across the center of the river, a chasm that sunk below, pulling and draining the water down. "By Caldazar, they're forcing the water underneath!"

As soon as the water began its descent, the entire Horde front stormed into the water, heedless of the violent suction that had appeared. They splashed across fierce knee-high water, and slammed into the first fortification. The battle had been met in earnest.

The men were taken by surprise. First the river had seemed crazed and possessed, and now the Shadowspawn were on them, striking from the darkness into the sphere of their torches. The lines bulged and broke, as soldiers retreated back behind fieldworks and fieldworks. They could not be stopped, breaking and spilling over men and steel like the flood they had passed. Arcanum could only stare across as the torchlights were extinguished by the wave of blackness. This was night. This was not their element. They had to make it their element or be broken.

"Tirium, how soon can you start them?" The lines were buckling and torches were falling dead by the droves.

"Now." The engineer nodded grimly, an Arbalest in hand. He dipped the bolt head in the torch until the steel point glowed orange, and raised it toward the sky. The bolt traced a gold-red path up into the sky, burning into ambers until it faded from the vision.

Arcanum stared after it, into the dark water-logged sky, staring and waiting. Below them, the battle was joined between night and day, and the light was diminishing. Then from the horizon came a white shooting star that was no star at all. It streaked above the battleground, appearing to float there before its fire was extinguished.

"The tracer." Tirium whispered. "It is a good sign."

Five more glowing embers followed the first, their trails slicing glowing wounds through the darkness. Then they exploded in a glittering shower that for one moment lit the sky and earth. One thunderclap. Arcanum sensed the ponderous pause. Men and beasts turned their faces skyward at the brilliant gems.

Then came the torrent of fire. The sky was split asunder by the white trails that assumed from the horizon. Light and sound bloomed into being, cinders descending like the boughs of a million-tendriled weeping willow. Four thousand tons of fireworks shrieked into the sky, enough to light the battlefield with a second sun. The black frothing river became a shimmering white glow.

Five Fire Blossoms sowed the sky as Thunder Howlers shook the fiber of every being, leaving vibrations scoring through Arcanum's nerves. There were Blue Lances, Angel Flares, Silver Skates, Droomalongs, Daggerfall, Sky Python, and even a Red Heart.

The explosion of the fireworks drummed a steady beat into their eardrums, a pulsating that stirred the blood and awakened the thousands of chemicals flowing through the bloodstream, charging the heart. This was the Feastday, their days of days. This was their element again, light and sound and fire, and the rippling sea of torches solidified and expanded outwards.

The Trolloc ranks fell immediately into panic and then rout under the assault. For Trollocs had never seen a fireworks show, and it must have seemed that the heaven was on fire, the embers appearing to fall right onto their very heads. They were blinded by the searing light, their cloak of safety torn away by the Engineering Corps' devastating attack.

If the world was a stage, then this battle was the centerpiece. Arcanum had been an avid fan of the theater in his youth, with a box seat in the Coratheren Philharmonics, but this spread before him was the drama that could never be matched. At first glance, the lightshow of the sky might be seen as the production, but it was only the orchestra in the deep of the pits, its music and vibrance only to serve the true tragedy and comedy. For below, men fought and died, their lives intermittent torches that burned ever so small and insignificant, but together made a stand so vast that it was a field of blaze. It was a terrible song and a terrible dance, but Arcanum was trapped in the stage, his eyes frozen to the choreography. This was what it was to be a god, to watch the rise and fall of mortals, the passion trapped and unleashed, the magnitude of infinity.

That was their stage. This was their orchestra. Arcanum let the wash of life sweep over him. Let the Great Alliance watch the skies and wonder at the maelstrom that centered over Manetheren. Let the world see that they are completely alive. Let them see that they would not go gently into that good night. No, for in that play, the finale yet waits.

halfhand
Posts: 103
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

Re: Black Flood: A Tale of the Trolloc Wars

Post by halfhand » Sun Oct 11, 2020 1:36 pm

Chapter Thirty: Second Day

The sun's appearance across the eastern horizon did not see a halt or even a reduction in the fighting. Though the Trollocs had been pushed back across the river in the night's events, they had not given up, especially not when they had a bottomless source of bodies to draw from. And now, another sally surged into the front lines, a giant pseudopod extending from the amorphous Horde.

But the legionnaires did not draw back and absorb the hit, but braced and readied a wall of pikes. The Shadowspawn collided into the waiting spikes, driven on by their own bloodlust and their comrades. Tension rippled through the pike men as they stood their ground against the mounting pressure. It seemed for a moment the Trollocs would burst through, but with fast discipline, the soldiers held firm. Then down came the pikes and up the normal gladius, slicing heavily into the halted Trollocs.

"Enter the heavy cavalry." Cathon watched as the corps of armored horsemen stiffened with Heart Guards cut a swathe through between the sortie and the main body, severing the arm of the Horde. The trapped and separated Trollocs were quickly destroyed by focus fire.

"Now repeat ten thousand times." The general chuckled humorlessly to himself. He rubbed at the General's Map with black Marking Oil. He would have killed for a map like this in the North. It was a commander's dreams. Terrain contours and engineers' legacy of precise surveying. He marked off more battalion changes with oil, making a few notes on shatter points—areas of weakness that could fracture entire formations under heavy pressure.

"General!" Nathen tossed a leather pouch of the latest troop movements down beside the Map stand. "I have some news. The King has called a temporary ceasefire."

"What, why?" Cathon fumbled for his watch-glass, "That's insanity. We'd only be standing still as we got hacked to pieces."

"They have shown the white flag for talks." By the way Nathen stressed ‘they’, Cathon knew who he was talking about. "The King needs you and the other Marshall-Generals in his tent to await their representative."

The Horde indeed seemed to have drawn back reluctantly, and the Legions did not press at them. A small group of mounted creatures – humans! -- detached itself from the main Horde, riding boldly across the river, a flash of white raised at the fore. No arrows rose to greet them, and the men of Manetheren parted quickly before the envoys. One peek through the watch-glass told Cathon all he needed to know.

"I'll be back! See that any deceit on their part does not go unpunished." Cathon grimly proclaimed, then mounted his waiting horse with growing displeasure. He issued a few last orders to the line captains and set off at a canter towards the King's Headquarters. It was located near the front of the stationed men, against the expressed disapproval of the generals. But Aemon was adamant and there it stood, a low-hanging canvas framework with a simple banner of Caldazar staked in front.

Cathon handed off the reins of his horse and strolled up to the Heart Guards that patrolled its perimeter. They did not move to stop him, so he ducked his head under the tent flap and entered.

It was a soldier's tent –although larger than most—but still austere in design and utilitarian in purpose. There were no lavish tapestries or silk carpets. The walls were stabled instead in maps and pieces of parchments. There was a table in the middle, with one oil lamp propped in the center. The pile of papers that usually covered the table was now piled in a corner. King Aemon was conferring quietly with Generals Cysil and Donahin when he looked up to Cathon's approach.

"He has not arrived yet. Have a seat." Aemon motioned, and he obeyed, pulling up to the table. "Check your sword."

"I hardly think it is wise, my King." Cathon protested, eyeing the sheathed weapons placed squarely on the table.

"Check your sword." Aemon simply repeated. Cathon sighed, removed his sword and set it with the others.

The tent flap shifted softly, heralding a moment of tension. But a woman's face peered in, followed by a woman's body. Cathon sighed. It was only Airena. Certainly as an Advisor –their only Tar Valon Advisor and the only check against him- she would be in attendance. He had not seen her for some time, for she was often pulled thin across the battlefield. But, he could not but feel that she had been avoiding him. They locked gaze for a second as she entered, but she shifted her eyes away and avoided returning his glances. She took a seat by Cysil, right across from Cathon. She did not have her customary knitting with her today. She checked no weapons. For she was a weapon in herself. But was she weapon enough for the meeting?

There was the noise of men and horses outside. A tendril of cold air slithered in through the tent's opening, swirling across the closed space. A man ducked in gracefully, his eyes shifting to adjust to the light. He was a tall man with smooth dark hair pulled behind in a warrior's tail. His eyes were a commander's eyes, dark pools that could see what was there and what could be used. He was a man that cannot be called anything less than handsome and charismatic.

Cathon could not prevent the reaction he felt. His mouth drew back in, and his teeth were clenched tight in preventing himself from launching himself violently at the beast that had entered.

"Hello, gentlemen. Mind if I take a seat?" The man opened his mouth to reveal straight, white teeth. Perfect white teeth that clicked together like the sound of a steel trap closing on its prey. Taking the silence as an affirmative, the Dark One's emissary took his seat, his eyes appearing to wink.

"It is like a meeting of old friends, is it not?" He smiled, his eyes roaming across them. He met Cathon's hatred with a look of amusement, and he lounged back as if it was his own tent, and they were the visitors. "Congratulations, Generals. Your astuteness and flexibility astounds me. Quite a magnificent display yesterday, I do confess. But then, again, what is the blood of Manetheren but that? I admit that I take a little pride in the fight you're putting up against the inevitable. Lord of Manetheren to fellow Lords, of course." He gave his sly wink.

"You are nothing of Manetheren, Vanigan." Cathon slammed the table with a fist, nearly upsetting the lamp. But he became silent at a look from Aemon.

"Ah, Lawe, is this the way you treat the one who taught you all you know?" Piotor Vanigan leaned forward as if divulging a valuable secret,

"Perhaps a little too well."

"What is it you are here to say?" Aemon interrupted.

"You have fought well. But good leaders know when to cut their losses. My terms are simple. If you will yield to me, one who was once a First Lord of Manetheren, your land and people will be spared, and the armies of my Master will be withdrawn from your soil. Your people can live in peace and harmony. As long as they raise no hand against the standard of Ba'alzamon. " His words were smooth and mesmerizing.

"A fair bargain." Cathon interjected, "If we were willing to sell our soul. Like you."

The look on Vanigan's face was almost hurt. "Perhaps if circumstances were different, Lawe, our places would be switched. I did not sell my soul. I give my loyalty freely to those whom I serve."

"You cannot expect us to actually accept your offer." Aemon pronounced, "You know we would never accept such. Anything less than unconditional surrender from you."

"I understand." His eyes narrowed. "But remember that I gave you a choice. Something that I was denied. You created me and think of me as a monster. But I gave you the opportunity to choose."

"You created yourself." Cathon exclaimed. "All your crimes and betrayals."

"You forced me on that path with your bitter persecution. And why? Because I can Channel? The way I was born. Do you strip the titles and deeds of the blind or exile the crippled? You fear those who have power, who could wield it beyond what you could comprehend. Your damned hypocrites!" He spat the last word.

"You will leave now. This meeting is completed." Aemon ignored the outburst.

"So be it. Death you have chosen. Death I will grant." Vanigan stood, a storm growing in his eyes, his visage twisted. He waved his hand, and a hurricane wind poured into the tent, scattering papers and buffeting the seated generals. The tent was ripped instantly from its lines, shredded to pieces and scattered into the sky. His voice exploded like a rush of air, "Know that you are utterly alone in this pathetic stand. No Covenant army readies to your aid. Your Tar Valon whore has played you to your doom."

Cathon sprang for his blade, catching the hilt. Vanigan stabbed down with blinding speed and an obsidian dagger trapped the general's arm to the desk by the sleeve. "Oops, I seem to have forgotten to check my weapon."

Then the Dreadlord turned into the circle of Ashenderai spear points. He opened his lips in a sneer, "Oh please." He pushed aside the two spears at his throat and strolled casually to his waiting horse. The Heart Guard's spears followed his exit until he leaped onto his pure white steed. He stared back then he and his men rode away.

"Don't touch the dagger." Airena warned, but Cathon did anyways, tapping carefully at the hilt with a finger. His hand flinched back at the pain coursing up the through his arm like a lance of lightning. He twisted a handkerchief around the hilt and plucked up it by the corner. It was a one-piece dagger with hilt and blade forged of the same lightless material. There was a small red etch on the blade, a small red hand. He slid it onto his belt. "I'll be sure to return to this."

"He is just as I remembered." Aemon sighed warily, "But I expected it."

"He's unraveled." Cysil stood up, "He needs a quick end here. We held him for too long, and he has never had patience. Perhaps he is afraid of what could happen to his army if he is still trapped here in two days."

"He denied the Covenant Army." Cathon re-belted his sword.

"Bluff." Aemon stared into the distance. No one cared to think of the alternative. Aes Sedai cannot lie. An Aes Sedai's promise is reality.

Cathon watched Airena depart, then murmured his own dismissal, hurrying after her.

"We need to talk." He said as he caught up.

"So that was him. The infamous Piotor Vanigan." She halted and turned to him.

"The Traitor, yes." Cathon studied her eyes for a flicker of any emotion. "A First Lord of Manetheren. My teacher and one of Manetheren's greatest heroes. Now High Dreadlord and our greatest shame."

"In his mind lies madness of the Taint. But in madness truth. I touched his mind. He is an angry man, obsessed with past wrongs." She sighed. "He is arrogant and casts no shields. I know what he knows. And perhaps that's what he wanted."

"That's good. You can tell me all he has planned. We can—"

"Madness poisons and so can the truth. Both have the power to kill. We digress. You are not here to talk about Vanigan. Or His Master."

"You said you wanted time to think."

"Yes, and my mind is now clear on what I must do, of which we both know. There is no future down that path. We are very much the same, General. We have our walls. We cannot live without them. I will not pretend that there is nothing between us. But, I trust in your pragmatism. Anything else?" Airena crossed her arms.

It was all Cathon could do to utter, "As my Lady wills."

She stared hard at him for a long minute, then a soft smile graced her lips. Perhaps with a trace of relief, as if the entire matter was solved.
But it was not. As she turned to leave, Cathon stood pondering whether to pursue the subject. But, he felt a firm grasp on his shoulder. It was Warder, watching her departing back.

"Let it lie. Just my advice." The stoic man spoke more words than Cathon had ever heard him utter before. Cathon studied the shadow within the helmet that was Warder. Who was this man that stood ever in Airena's shadows? What has he learned and seen of the inner mettle of the woman that held his heart in a lock. The voice and demeanor was familiar, utterly familiar. And spoke now to the general like a known acquaintance.

"Who are you?"

Warder was silent, then he lifted the helmet from his head. It was the face of the King, down to the eyes that always shined in thought and knowledge. But his countenance was clearly older and the hair was grayed.

"Aemon?" Cathon mouthed in astonishment, before he realized his error.

"No." The helmet came down once more. "But he bears my name."

"Prince Caar?" Cathon whispered incredulously. The legendary figure of Manetheren’s recent history. Beloved father to King Aemon Al'Caar. Abdicated the high seat for true love. But he was supposed to be dead. Slain in Mafal Dadaranell by Rhea. Everyone knew the Ballad of Caar One-Hand. This was impossible. The dead can not rise from their graves.

The late Caar tapped his left gauntlet. It made a hollow sound; there was no hand within. "The tale is not for you, Lawe Cathon. Never speak again of that name or title. I have paid a harsh price for existence. None must know I live and am here. Especially not my son. You and he are the only one who may recognize me, though you were but babes when you saw me last. Aemon already suspects me, even when I am armored as such."

"Why are you here—my Lord. Why are you her warder?"

"Her warder died in the north to my hands, and my penitence was to take his place. My story is over; yours is not. I have only my final debts to repay. Listen to her, Lawe. She is a Foreteller, rarest of the rarest of Aes Sedai, able to view flashes of the great Pattern of Ages. You have heard her foretellings, though you may not have believed it to be so. I am here because she knew I was to come and she broke the curse that kept me away. She knows my past, my future, and my destiny. Greater Forces have been working towards this moment for a very long time, and I am just as much a pawn as you. She can see much, but you cannot press her. The slightest change will destroy what she has worked long for. And I am here for the fate I must meet and to touch my soil once more. You are still to find yours.

"I have abdicated the throne and its trappings, but I ask you to heed my command. Let this matter with Airena die now. She and you have futures uncrossed. Learn your lesson from my tragedy. Will you lose everything for love? Do your job and she will do hers. And perhaps all will not be for naught." Then Caar was gone with a flutter of his borrowed color-shifting cloak, leaving the general silenced.
Last edited by halfhand on Sun Oct 18, 2020 2:21 pm, edited 1 time in total.

halfhand
Posts: 103
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

Re: Black Flood: A Tale of the Trolloc Wars

Post by halfhand » Sun Oct 11, 2020 4:17 pm

Chapter Thirty-One: Third Day

Stef woke up with a splitting headache, stumbling to his bare feet and shaking away the daze. He eyed the unfamiliar surrounding in confusion, and tried to piece together the events of last night, but couldn't pierce the haze. He touched the red linens he had cast away and the soft lacy pillow. His eyes lit upon the only other piece of furniture in the chamber, a dark mahogany bureau. He padded over and found his clothes and cloak neatly folded on its surface. There was a small clay vase with the slightly wilting Gilded Crowns that he had picked the other day. There was a small palm-sized mirror framed in bronze. And then there was a stack of folded yellow-edged letters bound in a faded blue ribbon, and weighted with a small medal. With a finger, Stef traced the cold iron contour of the Carmine Cross. It was only issued posthumously.

The door opened and Zira entered with a small tray, containing a small tin cup and a moist cloth. She swept her gaze from the empty bed to his location by the bureau.

"I did not expect you to wake so soon." She set her tray on the edge of the bed. "When they released you last night, you could barely walk on your own feet. Unacceptable given your condition."

"But it was necessary." Stef slipped on his shirt, wincing slightly at the spark of pain in his nerves. "I was the only survivor. Or so they told me. I was the only witness. And, by default, the only remaining suspect."

"Do you remember what they asked you last night? Did they do anything to you?"

Stef closed his eyes, and felt images slowly washing through his mind like sand in a sieve. They were disjointed memories blending together in his poison-addled mind. He remembered struggling to speak and make his voice heard, questions asked but which he could not answer. At first, he had struggled whether to reveal Tayren's identity. Tayren still had family in Manetheren—the discovery of his betrayal would ruin his mother and sister. But he must've told them, or else they would not have let him free.

As Stef sat down on the bed to pull up his trousers, Zira offered him the cup she had brought, "My own mix. It'll help you flush the toxin from your system."

He inhaled the soft floral steam and took a sip. It was slightly bitter but it opened his lungs and warmth slowly seeped through his body. He downed the cup, mumbling "Could use a shot of ale."

"One'd think you would learn a lesson already from last night." Zira replied disapprovingly.

"I guess I'm just a slow learner." Stef sat down on the bed beside Zira. "You know I have to go."

Zira did not reply. Stef sighed and motioned at the dresser, "Who was he? You said I reminded you of someone."

"He was my brother. Confident and proud, the perfect defender of nationalism." Zira bit her lips. "When the call came for volunteers, he immediately replied. He was in T’Caar Company. The Lost Company. Yes, I see you recognize the name. They were the ones that the bastard Vanigan led into the Forest of Death. One thousand men dead because of the unfounded loyalty in their cause and leader." She was as bitter as Stef had ever seen her, and her words poured forth in a ragged pattern. "Oh, I know what he would say. 'I am a soldier and death is my calling'. I've heard your soldier's creed. I've heard him repeat it to me as I have heard you. You two are so damn alike. You would've liked each other." Her words were sobs, and she buried her face in his shoulders. He held her there, and she grew quiet. The warm pressure of her cheek and body against him felt right, and her hair smelled faintly of dry lavender. And there they stayed for a moment frozen in time.

Finally she raised her head and sighed, "You're going to go." It was not a question.

He removed his mother's ring from his neck and slipped it into her hands. "I'll be back. Hold this for me. When we have won, I will return."

"Just stay for a little bit." She pleaded, as she melted needfully into his arms. He acquiesced.

It was late afternoon when he found a ride out towards the front. Walking through the mud and sheet of rain, his gear slung over his shoulder, he had come upon a convoy of loaded horse-drawn wagons at the foregate. A wagoneer, glancing at his uniform, shouted, "Need a lift, son?"

Nodding, Stef took a seat on the back of the wagon, pushing his waterlogged cloak to the side, his back leaning against the canvas-tied cargo. He made a fold in the canvas to block some of the rain from his head, and watched as the city of Manetheren dwindled. He did not think about what he was leaving. He did not think about where he was going. He did not think about the father’s sacrifice and the grief he should be feeling. He did not think about Zira’s wet tears and his smoldering longing. He did not think. Thinking would only reduce him to a shambling mess.

The trip was uneventful. The rain continued unabated, and occasionally, the farrier enlisted Stef’s aid in pushing the cart out of particularly deep mud holes. The cart finally eased to a stop at a point of hectic activity, where carts dumped their containers and immediately turned around.
After reporting to the controller pit and a thirty minute hike, Stef slid down the muddy incline to his squad's staging area. Muddy faces turned to watch his arrival. This was the moment of truth. Stef read their looks. Some relief, some skepticism, but mostly indecision. There was no doubt that they had been apprised of at least basic details of the night with likely a heaping dose of gossip or half-truths.

"Good to have you back, sarge." Cordin ended the awkward silence. There were grunts and mumbles in reply, and claps on his back. There was no doubt there were some reservations, but for all purposes, he was a soldier returning back into the fold, with nothing changed.

He dove back into his original life with vigor, pouring all of his attention to the constant forays of the Horde. There were Trollocs to kill, and after that, more Trollocs to kill. It was almost a relief to be occupied by the desperate mundane. He only had to think about what he had to do, and not about what the future held. The future be damned. Thinking about what could be could get a man killed.

Two days and two nights he passed such in the embankment. Three days they had to hold until the reinforcement arrived, and those three days Stef faithfully held. It was thus that Stef greeted the third day, leaning warily against the mud embankment. He stared across the fieldworks, hastily patched every hour. There is nothing like seeing the end of the marathon or poetically, the rainbow after the storm and hail. The smell of success, the belief that in the end, the struggles were all worth it.

There was an aura of eerie silence, save the wet splash of the Tarendrelle lapping rhythmically against the bank. Stef slept lightly to its soothing lullaby, closing his eyes more than being in actual restful sleep. But he knew the drill. Sleep was a valuable commodity, to be stolen in shifts and minutes. And right now was as good a time as any. The forays across the river had been dwindling, tapering off after the ceasefire the previous day. Stef had seen their emissaries arriving across the river, a man riding a pure white stallion leading the small human envoy, shaking foam off and trotting confidently through the hostile soldiers as if he belonged there. Though Stef had never seen that man before, he knew he hated him. But, there was a quiet peace that stirred gently in the ceasefire, until the emissaries stormed through the ranks and across the river in a fury, and sparking forth the battle once more, unabated through the night.

Stef shifted in his uncomfortable position, feeling the soreness of his cramped muscles in each movement. He peered across the softly steaming water, but there was only darkness. A slowly twisting darkness like a black pit of poisonous serpents. There would be a battle this day. The largest battle perhaps of the Trolloc Wars. There would be no alternative, no turning back. They had to crush the Horde quickly with the promised reinforcements from the White Tower. The hammer of the Covenant and the anvil of Manetheren. But, Stef certainly didn't look forward to it. Battles were won and bought, and there was only one currency. The only currency accepted universally.

He dug a half-eaten ration piece from his pouch – his last – and chewed carefully on the stale hardtack. The lingering effects of the poison still lingered in his systems, and his gums and teeth were more tender than usual. There was a slight tremor in his hand and a subtle stiffness in his joints.

The supply sergeant passed, dropping the provisions of the day, and finally tossing him a large crossbow-like piece, the arbalest. Stef examined the item, and then proffered it to the man Hawk, known for his piercing nose and the self-proclaimed archery expert of the squad.

"Can you handle an arbie, birdie?"

"I reckon so. About time they passed these toys out to the real men."

Stef just nodded, fingering the scavenged shield strapped to his mutilated arm and the daggers on his belt. He knew what was coming. He could hear the bugle calls and the ponderous hoofbeats. He made his way to each soldier, nudging the sleepers awake with his feet. But, most were wide awake. They were prepared and waiting. It was the third day.

A banner crested from the west, followed by a second, and a third. The highest was the Red Hand, the second was fire-winged Caldazar, and the third was Aemon's Wolfhead. Missing was the Shield of the Covenant. If all went as planned, they would soon be seeing the Rainbow Shield waving from the east.

The bannered group weaved through the narrow gap-paths in the fieldworks on their way to the river. They passed only a few yards from where Stef and his squad stood watching. In front were four harsh-faced Heart Guards, ashenderai cocked stiffly over their shoulder, their blazing eyes skimming across the milling soldiers. Three horsemen, drawn from each of the three grand-legions, carried the tall banners, lances and swords locked in their carriages.

Then came the man who was King. Accoutered in a full burnished steel armor, he rode proudly on his black chain-donninged charger. The Red Hand grazed his cloak and mantle, but his face was bare, and his hair bound today in a warrior's knot. His steeled hands rested calmly on ebony Alcride's reins. Sanction slept in its scabbard, its charmed hilt seemed to wink from the base of Aemon's belt. The King's steady gaze met the eyes of his subjects and his eyes were sad and brooding, knowing that many of those standing now will be dead at the end of the day and was seeking a way out. Stef had seen Aemon a few times in battle the past days. He was a king who loved peace, but a king taught to war. To his left rode the Marshall General Cathon in sign of deference.

Behind them followed six young women clad in simple white riding dresses on auburn mares. Upon the center of their garb was a simple red rose and each wore a scarlet glove on the left hand. They did not wear any obvious weapons and did not seem to serve any overt purpose. Stef did not recognize them at first, but their sigil eventually jogged his memory. He had seen them mostly in the company of Queen Eldrene, but did not understand why her handmaidens now accompanied the King. Twenty more Heart Guards brought up the flank.

They came to a stop before the river, the Heart Guards fanned out in front of the King, as if to protect him from the soldiers. The handmaidens stood behind the King, as if creating a shield between him and the river. Aemon touched something silvery on his chest and then Sanction, seemingly nodding to himself. There was silence. Even the catapults had stopped.

"Hear me." Arcanum began in an oddly muted voice, but somehow Stef could hear the words as if the King's lips were right near his ears. From the attention among all the soldiery, the same applied to all. He wouldn't be surprised to learn that all the Grand-Legions could hear clearly every single word that came from their King.

"Hear me, men of Manetheren. You know what is to come. I know what is to come. Before I left our city, the Queen asked me to relay a message to you men, and I will keep that promise."

He paused. "To the Husbands. To the sons and the fathers. To the brothers. To those who leave their homes to protect them. To those who are forced to war to keep the peace. We know your sacrifices. We know the price. Though we are never glad nor do we fully face the choices, we understand and we wait."

A massive hail of rocks began to slam into the opposite shore pounding at the opposition. It did not seem possible that the artillery could continue such a bombardment, but they succeeded. Stef knew instinctively its purpose. To drive any Trolloc from the waterfront to make landing successful. King Aemon continued unabated and undisturbed by the rain of rocks tearing asunder the opposite shore, his soft purposeful voice cutting through the din like a sharp knife.

"I could sing of valor or speak of glory and honor, but there are bards and minstrels in the world enough for purple prose, and we have fed you words enough to last you lifetimes. No, instead, I will do what none before me have done.

"I apologize. We apologize. You have given up everything, from birth to death for the sword, for the simple reward that should by birthright belong to you. I apologize for all the cruelties of fate and men subjected upon you, and hope that all hear in this letter my sincerity. I am so sorry. For the duties and responsibilities forced upon you. For the lack of choice we have given you. We sit upon the balancing point, the teetering edge between forces greater than we can comprehend. You should not be here. None of you belong here. For this I apologize. And apologies are empty without amends.

"Hear this all, hear this well. You are dismissed from the service of Manetheren. Bondsmen and liegemen, I have released you from your word and promise. Henceforth, you are all free. So speak I, the Queen of Manetheren, and through the voice of the High King. None of you are tied here to the approaching battle, and can leave if you desire. Without shame and without guilt. I give you your choice and your own destiny. Serve and lead yourself. I am only sad that this has come too late, but it has come nonetheless. For a late apology is still an apology.

"We are sorry. We are truly sorry. Forgive us.

"From the wives. From the daughters and the mothers. From the sisters and the widows. From Eldrene."

Aemon closed the letter, "Such is the word of Ellisende. And her words are…mine."

Stef blinked, closing his slack mouth. He had heard the words of the King, but in his mind's eyes, he saw the voice of Eldrene, Zira, and even his mother. He kneeled, wondering why the words had stirred powerful emotions within him. His eyes blurred. He had not cried when his father had departed in his youth. He had not cried when his mother was laid to rest. He had not cried when he had lost his arm and hand. But, now he felt tears clutching at the edge of his lids. A simple apology had unraveled a closed trove of resentment that he had not even realized he had nurtured.

"None are bound fourth to our task. Your choice is your own, free men of Manetheren. If this is not your choice, leave without shame or fear, for the choice is yours." Aemon's words were now his own. "But if you will stay, then you will earn my eternal gratitude. The Rose of the Sun has given to you your birthright to choose."

Stef heard Zira's voice in his mind's eye, pleading for him to leave with her. And he could now. Duty had been freed from his shoulders, and the Queen had given him closure. He could return to the city, lift a surprised Zira into his arms, and carry her away from here. Into a future. Two children and a puppy. A farm and a garden filled with gilded crowns. And a sword rusting over the mantle, never to be used. It was his choice to make.

Stef stumbled and kneeled in the mud, and dug his sword tip into the soft earth before him. And as if in communion, other soldiers fell in place.

"I am a free man of Manetheren, and I make this choice of my own will." His voice came fast and furious, digging into the wind like a hatchet, to blend with thousands of whispers into a roar. "To the Last Defense of Manetheren will I stand, and in my hand stands the sword. I wear Manetheren on my back, and I will defend her glory to my last breath. From the blood of Arad to the blood that flows within me, I am a soldier and death is my calling."

"Stand forth then, sons of Manetheren, upon your own feet," King Aemon replied.

Stef rose, and felt the familiar weight upon his shoulders. And all around him, the rest stood in union. The thunder of catapults scattered to a silence, leaving the opposite shore immersed in a dark dust cloud akin to the mouth of Thakan'dar.

"Let us fight then. For Manetheren." The King tucked the letter into his saddle. He turned his horse, and the Heart Guard split around him. He drew the legendary greatsword Sanction, and charged into the brackish river.

"Carai an Manetheren! Carai an Ellisende!" The words came into Stef’s mouth and he sprang forward. Men skidded down the slope, into the frothing water. King Aemon cut through the river as the wedge-point, the Heart-Guard easily keeping with his steed. Behind rode the Queen's Handmaidens and the Generals, and then the flood of Three Grand-Legions of men now madly in love with their queen.

Stef forded hard through the water, but the footing was slippery. The waterbed was piled with layers of Trolloc corpses that had expired over the two days, and their bloated bodies trapped his boots at every step. The dark brackish water seeped into his clothes, sucking noisily into his boots. Then, they reached hard traction, and they were upon the shore in a sweep.

Stef pulled his blade and clambered up the dusty incline. Debris from the bombardment crunched under his feet. A hairy arm broke free from a pile of wreckage, closing around the sergeant's ankle. With a smooth motion, Stef sliced down with his sword and the monstrous hand fell free. They broke through the choking dust into the waiting ranks of braced Trollocs.

Aemon was the first into the shadowspawn, his greatsword cutting down droves of grotesque defenders with each swing, until they fell back away from his fury. The Heart Guard rained death at his flank, their deadly skills and Ashenderai's long range kept back any attacks on his flanks. The handmaidens rode through the holes in the defense, still unarmed. The mixed cavalry and infantry charged was not far behind.

“Footmen prepare to pass cavalry forward! Los Valdar Cuebiyari! Forward! For the Honor of Caldazar! Caldazar!” The command came for Stef’s infantry squad to press past the Heart Guards.

"Together now. Pick your targets." Stef yelled to his squad, and he braced his sword with his handless arm, aiming for a goat-faced Trolloc directly in front. He ducked under its scythe, and jammed his sword into its chest. He locked his shoulder with the Trolloc's abdomen, leveraged his body, and heaved with all his strength. The Trolloc toppled back, smothering the swings of its comrades behind him. Stef clambered over the fallen Trolloc, and slashed into the unprepared shadowspawn behind him. His squad slammed through beside him and began to carve their path into its heart.

Stef’s breaths came in exhausted gasps and his arm strained from the stress of impacts. But, his eyes were clear and no tension ran boiling through his nerves. He was calmer than he had ever been. He was no longer fighting because he was supposed to. He was fighting because he chose to.

They fought onto the ruins of what once must have been a bustling town at the outskirts of greater Manetheren. The cobblestone avenues where merchants and hawkers shouted and mothers shopped for bargains were now covered with struggling men and beasts. The houses where generations had dwelled were gutted and belched forth slew of enemies.

A sudden shadow sparked Stef’s instincts, and he ducked aside, narrowly dodging a huge slab of marble, slamming into the ranks. He rolled, his sword gripped tight in hand, and immediately focused on the rooftop of what must have been the mayor's residence. Another projectile departed from the roof, drilling into the ranks.

"With me." Stef waved his sword. He cut his way towards the building, meeting the guarding Trolloc with a blow to the face from his shield, snapping its head back, and following with a sword to the exposed throat.. "Breach and secure." He motioned, and switched his sword for a dagger. Two soldiers kicked in the door, sending the waiting Trolloc stumbling back from the force. Stef sent his dagger through and into the throat of the shadowspawn. The door guards were in first, and then the rest of the squad streamed through, with Stef at the back, a second dagger in hand.

"Stairs." In a wedge formation, they sliced through the milling Trollocs, towards the circular stairway halfway down the hall. A hulking beast blocked the way, an ugly spiked mace gripped in its massive grip. Stef wasted no time placing his dagger between its red-flamed eyes. The beast toppled backwards, its massive bulk decimating the railing and the already fire-gutted foundation. The stairway crashed in a cloud of dust and debris.

The squad formed around the opening, keeping the Trollocs back. Stef bent his knee, and began to boost soldiers up through the hole. As the men began to disappear into the ceiling, the Trollocs became more bold, until four soldiers remained, fighting embittered.

"Now!" A voice came from above.

Stef jumped, lifting his arms up, and feeling support from above, as he was pulled up. A lunging Trolloc was greeted with a sharp kick to the chin. Then he was through the hole and into the second floor. Only a few Trolloc bodies littered the floor. Apparently, the shadowspawn were not as concentrated on the second floor.

"Quick, to the roof before they use the other stairs." Stef led the way, eyes scanning from side to side. He still had one dagger left, and the squad was in good shape. When they came within sight of the stairs, they found it guarded by a Trolloc sentinel. Before it could raise alarm, it was silenced by Stef’s last dagger in his throat. Stef motioned them to a stop around the staircase, and retrieved his dagger and crept up towards the roof. He peeked through, scanned quickly, and ducked back down.

Stef pointed at the ceiling three times with three fingers. Then he was through, blade bared, his squad close behind. Three lightly armored onager crews were blasting away from the rooftop, oblivious to the silent death from below. Stef came behind the closest Trolloc and slashed its throat with a jerk. Around him were more silent thumps, as the rest of the squad did their work.

"Guard the stairs." Stef pointed to three soldiers and then turned to Hawk. "Can you get them to work?"

"Not with an untrained crew." He replied.

Stef leaned over the roof. The battle was still fierce in the road, with the Band making headway with the Horde's artillery silenced. He pointed towards the three onagers, "Then we need to d-."

"Fade!" A doorguard called.

"Not this again." Stef stared at the doorway. The three guards fell back in the face of the leading Halfman. One soldier was too slow or too exhausted, and a blow that should've been glancing became fatal. A second soldier found his aim true, stabbing solidly into the Fade's chest, but was flung away to slide nearly off the ceiling, clutching the edge. The third retreated hastily back.

The Halfman charged forward, but jerked to the side, a long Arbalest bolt through the chest trapping him to the side of a chimney. Three more bolts pinned the fade's arm and legs to the wall. Stef did not hesitate, moving forward upon the temporarily disabled Fade. He cut away the Fade's armed hand and plucked up the gleaming black sword. It was like touching pure grease. Stef could feel dark malevolence seeping into his skin, and tossed the sword away from the spawn's reach. The Fade writhed and gnashed, then fell silent where it was trapped. But it was still much alive, its eyes following Stef with pure venom. The sergeant tossed the sword aside with disgust and re-wielded his own clean steel.

"Good shot, Hawk." Stef commanded, "We've got us a prisoner, boys."

"Company approaching." The last doorguard called, "Red cloaks. Looks like we took the building."

"Leave the Fade to them. We have more rooftops to clear." Stef leaped from the edge of the roof, landing on the top of another infested rooftop, populated by the rare Trolloc archers. His squad followed suit, and they cut down the unprepared archers with ease.

The roof shivered underneath their feet, nearly tumbling Stef off the edge.

"What the bloody ashes was that?" Stef was answered by the boom of a fireball burning through the street, plowing a blackened furrow behind it, bowling aside men.

Cordin pointed to one of the few intact towers in the town. "It came from there. Top floor."

"Hawk. How many bolts left in the arbie?"

"One."

"Make it count."

"I'm on it. " Hawk unlimbered his arbalest, and propped it against his arm and shoulder. A second fireball spewed from the tower, spraying down upon the battle on human and Trolloc alike.

The ground shivered, and Stef sprung around to see Trollocs landing from another roof adjacent to theirs. His squad immediately reacted, diving into the newly arrived shadowspawn.

"Keep them off Hawk." Stef shouted, intercepting a Trolloc's advance.

"I think he spotted me." Hawk groaned. A heavy explosion rocked the building as a firewall sprayed off its wall, barely missing the roof.

"Shoot now!" Stef slammed the Trolloc in his face with his hilt, and kicked him off the edge. He crouched to dodge the lunge of a second one, and flipped it off after its brethren. He glanced around to see the flash of a fireball burning towards him. He dove, grabbing Hawk, and they tumbled away under a ledge. He felt the crisp of flames just barely missing his back in mid-air.

"I got him." Hawk exclaimed as he picked himself up, obviously to his near-miss. "One down, six to go."

The fireball had left a trail of embers, but the squad were mostly intact, and mopping up the rest of the Trolloc. Below them, the Band was forcing through the streets, house by house. There was a boom of onagers firing into the Trolloc ranks as crews began working the captured machines, which should last them until the Thunderlord could ferry his catapults across the river.

"They knew we would come today. No Trolloc would have prepared these plans and onagers on rooftops." Stef scanned the battle.

"Reinforcements." Hawk called, drawing the sergeant's attention to soldiers appearing from around the corner of the stairwell. "We've got this all cleared!" He called to the approaching red cloaks.

Stef opened his mouth to greet them, when he felt uneasiness at their approach, at their carry. Then, their leader raised his bow, and its arrow took Hawk through the throat.

The next arrow skipped through the spot Stef was standing, but the sergeant had already dodged to a roll. Arrows streamed across the rooftop, taking a quarter of Stef’s squad down. Then the assailants drew swords—Manetheren gladius—and smashed into the surprised defenders.

Stef raised his blade in time to ward away the first onslaught. The attacker was unquestionably a man. He looked, dressed, and fought like a soldier of the Band of Red Hand, and his eyes stared back with sentience.

"Why are you doing this?" Stef pressed, staring into those intelligent eyes, desperately seeking answers. "Why are you fighting us?"

There was no hate or bloodlust in the man's eyes, as there would have been for a Trolloc. Instead there was the grim determination of a soldier. From close up in melee, Stef saw that the man's accoutrement was not entirely identical to his. Upon his cloak was the Red Hand, but within rested a black flame as if it was scorched there.

Stef was forced back by the man's ferocity. He could not kill the man. Not simply because he wasn't trained for the task, but that his mind wouldn't let him. Stef was a soldier—killing humans was anathema. But as he was slowly pushed towards the edge, his sense of survival over-ruled his conscience. He blocked an ill-prepared thrust, and slashed at the arm to disable him. But his assailant stumbled at the last second, and the sword sunk through the chest.

"No!" Stef stared at the sword in the man's chest. He had not meant to kill him. The man collapsed, slipping from the blade. His eyes still stared back, then his lips moved, and spoke.

"We have returned." His accent was unmistakably one that belonged to Manetheren. Then he died.

Stef stared confusedly at the rooftop. Around him were the fallen of Manetheren, where brothers had slain brothers. But why? His squad had won, but only half were still standing. The rest had fallen in surprise and shock.

"Sir, what happened here?" Cordin asked, his shoulders shaking as he stared down at his own man he was forced to kill.

Stef kneeled, staring at the face of the man he had murdered. He was about the same age as Stef, and showed the same ravages of war. It was like gazing into a mirror, or perhaps the future. His hand touched the cloak, his fingers running across the Red Hand and the Black Flame, then to the lapel. A tiny sigil rested there unique to every company of the Band. Stef recognized it.

"T’Caar Company." Stef uttered. Like its namesake, T’Caar Company had been ingrained into the lore and legacy of Manetheren, and its tragedy in the same grain as its namesake. "Apparently, they were not lost in the Forest of Death after all."

"What are you saying, sir?"

Stef could not tell whether to cry or laugh. "He was the one who led them into the Forest of Death. We had thought he had betrayed the company into a trap. But we never found the bodies." He gestured at the bodies littering the rooftop. "But the dead walk once more. They went willingly with him."

"Who?"

"Vanigan. Piotor Vanigan the traitor. And the Lost Company has returned with him." Stef shook his head, and turned the body, seeking for what he knew must be there. He pulled the cloak from the corpse, and turned it to the inside. A soldier always wrote his name upon the inside fold, so he could be identified if his body was too mutilated by battle or spawn.

It was there in bold black blood-ink. Sandric Coutir it spelt in chicken scrawl, but there was no doubt to what it read. No doubt to what Stef had just done. The sergeant leaned over, heaving the emptiness of his stomach. He had eaten little in days, and what came forth burnt his throat and left his eyes stinging. He crawled to the edge of the rooftop where he stared helplessly at the disarray in the Band.

The Lost Company were unleashed upon the soldiers of Manetheren, and had virtually destroyed the front lines in their attack. They had flooded the rooftops and their arrows were stitching death through the ranks. It was difficult now to tell who was friend and foe.

"We're being eviscerated down there." Stef whispered to himself. He crawled back to the body, staring into its familiar eyes and finally closed them.

"Sir, we need to do something." Cordin called. He raced towards the edge.

"No, you'll die!" Stef’s blurry eyes followed the soldiers' jump down into the battle. He stumbled to his feet. "Cordin!" The sergeant's hand found his sword, and he leaped down after the young recruit.

He landed in a knot of Vanigan's soldiers, hitting the ground hard but with no injury. He flashed his sword through the midst of red, felling traitors after another. He was like a man possessed, his swords raining death among the men. His sword breezed through the soft flesh. It was not like the flesh of a Trolloc, hard and unyielding. Men were weaker, kept alive only by a thin shell. But each man he slayed drew pain in his own mind, leaving a lasting psychic scar.

He struck drunkenly at another soldier, who blocked his blow, and shouted, "It's me! Sarge, it's me!"

Stef shook his head, and stared into Cordin's eyes. Then he felt hands seizing his shoulders, and shaking him slightly. He glanced around at the familiar faces of his squad who had followed. He blinked his eyes, "I'm alright. Let me go. Let me go, damnit."

He tore away, and glanced at the dead men at his feet. At the dead men all around.

"We have to get back." Cordin said, "Sarge, you fought like a demon. But we can't hold here much longer."

"I was a demon." Agony seized his lips. "But you're right." T’Caar Company had shattered their momentum, and now the Trollocs were forcing the disheveled soldiers back.

"Where is the forsaken Covenant!" Stef screamed. "Where is bloody Tar Valon!"

The call came. The Trollocs boiled down upon the men, tearing across the ranks like a fever. There was no stopping them. Those who stood their ground were broken. Stef waved his squad back, and they fought for their lives. They were pushed back harder and faster, and they lost ground ten-fold faster than they had gained them.

"Help the King!" Someone shouted in desperation. Stef stared at the tornado of blades storming across what once had been a marketplace. King Aemon was surrounded by no less than five fades and two Dreadlords, and a thick ring of Trollocs. The surviving Heart Guards fought desperately against their enclosement, their ashenderai striking down shadowspawn with each blurred motion. But their already few numbers were whittling down faster and faster. Fire and blue lightning crackled over the King's forces, but scattered harmlessly away as if skipping over a shield. Then fire exploded from the hands of the Handmaidens at Aemon's side, flaring across a Dreadlord, and setting him aflame.

"Those women! They're channelers!" Stef gasped.

"But they're not enough." Cordin answered, "We must help!"

A Heart Guard fell to the blade of the Fade. And a second. Then, the ring of Heart Guards broke to the pressure of the pack of Myrddraal. And the Trolloc Horde rushed in.

"To the King now!" Stef hacked his way towards the marketplace, but the resistance was tough and the movement slow.

With the defensive ring broken, the King faced an onslaught on all side. The Queen's Handmaidens blazed with cold lightning but they were struggling hard against the last Dreadlord. The King was the sole focus of the Fades and Trollocs, but he would not go easy. Sanction howled through the air, but not even the legendary greatsword could stop the inevitable. A fade plunged his blade through the Alcride's maned neck, and Aemon plunged away from sight.

"No!" Stef fought with desperation. Fire blazed and crackled over the market place from the direction of the approaching Aes Sedai Airena, but the Trollocs did not shy away from her weaves, their eyes only thirsting for the royal target that was almost theirs. At the other end, General Cathon cut his way towards the beleaguered King at the head of a squad of Heart Guard cavalry. But, both were bogged down in heavy resistance. Time was running out.

From nowhere, an armored figure surfaced, cleaving through shadowspawn. The color-shifting cloak distorted his shape, and he moved like a wraith, breaking through shadowspawn like they were not there. The man called Warder cut past two Fades beside him, taking a glancing blow to his helmet. His helmet shifted and fell away, revealing the face of…Aemon? No, the face was older, but the resemblance was uncanny.

Then King Aemon resurfaced, his own helmet lost but his sword still in hand. He stared at his likeness in the Warder, uttering words lost in the din of battle. Then, his rescuer seized the King's shoulder and shoved him towards his approaching men, shouting "You must leave!" as Stef finally burst upon the scene.

The man called Warder and who looked like the King was surrounded by the Fades, and his swings stalled for time, covering for Aemon’s retreat. But even with his power and speed, he was no match to so many, and he was swallowed by the darkness, still fighting.

Aemon stood unmoving as if in shock, until Heart Guards grabbed his arms and pulled him deeper into his reinforcing soldiers. Stef stood at his flanks, warding away blows by the enraged Trollocs.

"Retreat." Aemon finally spoke, his voice distant and choked in emotions. "We have lost too much today. The Covenant has abandoned us. We will retreat!"

Hacking away, the Band backed away, leaving thousands upon thousands of their own dead behind. It was a fight for survival now, and they were losing.
Last edited by halfhand on Sun Oct 18, 2020 2:21 pm, edited 1 time in total.

halfhand
Posts: 103
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Re: Black Flood: A Tale of the Trolloc Wars

Post by halfhand » Wed Oct 14, 2020 4:16 pm

Chapter Thirty-Two: Fifth Day

"Five days." Arcanum breathed out in a sigh. His keen eyes scanned the horizon for a sign. Any sign that any reinforcing army would appear. But they did not. They were two days late, if they were coming at all. Manetheren could not hold on without them. The men were wearing out and the cats were running out of feed. The Horde was noticeably smaller than it was at its arrival, but it would last them plenty to the Band's grave.

"Sir, trouble approaching." Captain Blake shouted.

Arcanum had already seen it, an ugly spot of black that was slicing through men like scythe on ripe wheat. He instantly knew what it was before he focused on it with his newest watchglass.

"Arclites." Arcanum replied, "And it appears they're driving for us."

Arcanum had fought his share of Arclites before. Trollocs armored to the point of impossibility with thick plates of iron and black steel. Their shape was instantly recognizable in their skull-like helmets ridged with spikes. Their entire armor was a continuous piece of weapon, with spikes and blades gouging at every angle. With the mass and speed of a giant Trolloc marauder driving them, nothing but an Aes Sedai or a full sixteen-row Saferi Phalanx could stop their charge. Just a dozen was enough to tear a company into bloody pieces without a halt in their steps. What was charging numbered in the dozens of fists. Charging through the entire body of the Band like it didn't exist towards Arcanum's Legion, to put his engines and its crews to death.

There were curses of raw fear among the crews as they noticed the roiling spikes of death thundering towards them.

"Sir, shall we dig our graves now or after?"

"No, wait! Arbies, NOW!" Arcanum shouted hoarsely, "Staggered rows."

There was a rush towards the arbalest stocks that bordered almost on panic. Arcanum seized one of the machines, and spun towards the oncoming Arclites. Catapults fell silent as their crews kneeled and loaded their arbalests as fast as humanly possible, steadying them with their shoulders.

"Hold your fire until you have a clear shot!" Arcanum shouted, his own arbalest resting on his tense shoulders. He listened to the screams of men caught in the path of the spike-armored death, and swallowed hard. Then these mobile fortresses burst within range, their black armor dripping with visceral fluids of their victims, immediately homing on to the catapults and their crews. Each bore a wicked spiked mace in one hand and a torch in the other—for the catapults.

"FIRE ONE!" The first wave sliced through the air, cracking through inch-thick armor. Armored Trollocs dropped in a line, but were quickly replaced by more behind them.

"FIRE TWO!" Arcanum fired himself, feeling the arbalest kicking hard into his shoulder. His bolt smashed straight into its target, cracking its fire-hardened iron breastplate in half, and drilling the Arclite through the heart.

The first wave had finished reloaded, and a third stream of thick bolts dropped the closest arclites. Never before had arclites gone down so fast, but they were still too many and they were too fast.

"UP SWORDS!" Arcanum drew his sword and found himself facing the massive incarnation of men's worst nightmare. He raised his ineffective sword up at the down-swing of the Arclite, and prepared for the heavy blow that would end his life.

An axe smashed through the Arclite's iron-skull helmet, sending the beast sprawling with half his head gone. All around Thunder Legion, Arclites fell to rains of massive blows that cracked through their armor, and shattered their momentum. The armored Trollocs were now being pushed back by the Legion's unlikely rescuer.

"Ogiers!" Arcanum gasped. All around, the massive creatures were storming the Arclites in a vicious rage that the general had never even suspected they possessed. He immediately recognized them as the refugee group he saw by Manetheren palace. He now understood the hate and fury they were now commanding. The Ogier's greatest love was their Groves, and it had been snatched away into ashes. The survivors of the Manetheren grove were now fighting heedless of their own harm, consumed by boiling anger. Wearing ill-fitted and scavenged armor, the giants shrugged off blows that would have crippled a man, and grappled with shadowspawn that would have made any human army run in terror. But Ogiers were mortal like men, and even their righteous rage did not make them invincible. They begin dropping to the arclites withering strikes.

Then there was a sudden rush of men all around Arcanum, and the air was lit up by a heavy shower of arrows, drumming against the Arclite's armor. Although most broke harmlessly against the heavy steel, eventually some found weak spots, and the bomined withering fire and pressure from the Ogiers began to take its toll on the Arclites. All around, soldiers flowed past, cloaked in blue and gold cloaks. With both reinforcements of men and Ogier and the main body of the Band trapping the Arclites, the Trollocs were soon fighting for their lives, and then fighting nothing but dirt.

"Who?" Arcanum stared around in bewilderment. "The Covenant?"

"Commodore Disol at your pleasure, general!" A horseman trotted forth, baring forth a short slender man, wearing leather armor slightly too big on him, "We are the proud men of the combined van of the Civilian Arms of Coratheren and the Reservists of Northern Manetheren."
Arcanum's mood was quenched as he glanced at the reinforcement. Reservists. Farm tots and old men. Perhaps a thousand men. Maybe two. A drop in the ocean.

"What were you before they made Commodore?"

"I was...a bookkeeper, sir." Disol licked his lips nervously. "We rallied when we heard Jara'Copan had fallen and Manetheren was under siege. We thought we were too late, until we saw the fireworks some nights ago. We crossed through the Marena line, which was empty, and forded across from there."

"You came from the north?" Arcanum perked up to this news. "Did you see any sign of an army? Maybe they needed to detour through the north. A Covenant army in the hundreds of thousands? You must have!"

"No, sir. We rallied through most of the villages in northeast Manetheren. An army that size we could not have missed. General, we are the last fighting men of Manetheren. There are no more to be wrung. I'm a bookkeeper and they made me commodore. Because I read some books on fighting." Disol frowned, "But we are here to fight. All of these men are good men. You won't find them lacking in mettle. We aren't afraid to die."

"So they aren't, Commodore the Bookkeeper." Arcanum sighed. "We welcome you, and you will be sorely needed." He shook hands with the scholarly man, and provided him directions to Aemon's tent.

Commodore Disol paused as he turned to leave, “General, but as we speak of the possibility of reinforcements, I did receive a cryptic report right before we set off a week prior… I don’t know how to credit it. A short letter from Jaramide. ‘Ignoring T.V. Coming fast as we can, but 1 month march. N.B.’ Perhaps you can make better sense of it.” He bowed and departed with his men.

Arcanum frowned. N.B. would have to be General Nonoc Bashere of the Jaramide Partisans. One month of hard march away might as well be forever away, but it may be a sign of other closer responses to their distress call. Arcanum brightened briefly with hope but furrowed his brow once more. But why would Nonoc ignore Tar Valon if the Aes Sedai were in charge of their reinforcements? He felt a deep sinking pit in his stomach.

Shaking away worrisome thoughts, he turned to his line captain. "We will need to move the cats again, Blake. We are too close to the front. Or I should say the front's getting too close to us. We got lucky that time."

"Aye, sir, it'll be one hour until we are fully operational again."

"So be it. If you need me before then, I will be in the Pit." There was nothing to do here until the catapults could be set up again, and there were answers that needed to be answered.

The Pit was on the far fringe within the largest tent in the Band surrounded by a chain picket. Two guards stood at attention at the entrance. Glancing at Arcanum's sigil, they nodded to him and allowed him passage, "Careful, General, with the prisoners."

The general nodded, and ducked within the confines of the tent. Two lanterns guttered their light upon a narrow table, filled with sharp instruments. There were only two prisoners, each bound to heavy solid bars embedded deep into the earth. The first was a man, and he was simply shackled arms and feet. The second was something less than a man, almost completely covered by thick chains.

Arcanum passed the imprisoned Fade, and stood in front of the man, one of the traitors -- a soldier of the Lost Company. The man looked up at Arcanum's approach with black eyes hidden in thick shadows.

"You here to torture me, general?" The man croaked from cracked lips. His shirt was tattered and his red cloak hung ragged like a noose. His face, though darkened by sweat and blood, would not be amiss from the face of a native of Jara'Copan, with his angular nose and cheeks.

"Were you there at Shanaine?" Arcanum peered into those dark orbs. "Were you there when the walls collapsed upon the women and children, crushing their soft flesh and bones, buried alive in a slow death of starvation and pain? Did you kill your friends and family that held arm in Jara'Copan?"

"It is war, general. At least I am man enough to take life with my hands, and not cower behind instruments that deal in far death. It is simple for you to give the command to kill. I have to face the choice every day. As I have spoken to those who came before you, I gave my oath to my potentate, and I will continue in that oath."

"To that whoreson Vanigan?" Arcanum growled.

"You do not know anything, do you?" The prisoner spat on the ground, "You and your pretentious ideals, you damned hypocrite. Nothing more I despise than a hypocrite, and I'll take pleasure in your destruction."

"I am a hypocrite when you betrayed your own kind?"

"My own kind?" The man laughed and coughed at the same time, "I am with my own kind. And it's not yours. You would put my kind to death and send us into eternal shame. Have you not realized yet? Each and every one of T’Caar Company has the Spark. Vanigan detected the seed in each and every one of us, and secretly handpicked us for his own company. When he faked our death, he rescued us from the hanging blade of your prejudice."

Arcanum reeled back and found his sword in hand. Male Channelers? Every one?

"Yes, learn to fear, coward. Learn to fear our return."

Arcanum reached forth, and snatched away the man's cloak, tearing it from his shoulders. The prisoner hissed, "You have no right! No authority over me."

"With the command of a Second Lord of Manetheren and the authority of the Hierarchy, I strip you of your cloak and your word. Your honor is worth ashes, and your cloak too. You are discharged forever from the bonds of the Legions of Manetheren. And may Caldazar forgive your soul." Arcanum raised the cloak over a lantern, letting the tongues of flame lick up through its tattered surface, until it was a piece of glowing flame. He cast the cloak to the ground, where it crumbled to ashes and smoke, to the sneer of the prisoner.

The prisoner shook his head, lowering his eyes, "My allegiance is greater than a cloak. My Master is far greater than your paltry king."
"Vanigan? He is but a stain in the world."

NO. The prisoner’s eyes rose, burning with ethereal flames and his voice a roar that shuddered through Arcanum's mind like a thunderboom. ME.

The General drew his sword, its tip instantly perched before the man's throat. "Who are you?" He whispered.

WHO ARE YOU TO QUESTION ME, WORM? The flames quivered sharply. HEAR ME AND TREMBLE. I AM BA'ALZAMON. LET MY VOICE BE THE HERALD OF YOUR END.

"Allies rally to our banner every day, and we shall hold your troops till they rot into dust. Until the end of time. When the White Tower arrive-" Arcanum screamed back against the force of the voice in his mind.

The possessed man roared, MY VASSALS. THE WHITE TOWER BELONGS TO ME. THEY WILL RAISE NO HAND AGAINST ME. SEE AND KNOW YOUR BETRAYERS.

Brilliant visions coursed through Arcanum's minds, burning hot against his brain. Flickering pictures of Aes Sedai one after another kneeling before him scoured through his eyes, until one last image stays focused for the longest moment. A woman with the Amyrlin's seven-colored stole bent her knee, and swore her soul’s allegiance. Then, the visions shattered and pierced his mind like shards of glass.

Arcanum locked his eyes closed, but the images still flashed burned red on the insides of his lids. Pain echoed through his skull, and he quailed before the voice of Ba'alzamon.

YOUR CAUSE IS LOST. YOU SHOULD HAVE FINISHED THE JOB AT SHAYOL GHUL. DESPAIR. AND DIE.

The chain around the man shivered, then began to split and crack under the strength of superhuman strength. Without hesitation, Arcanum buried his sword in the man's throat, and the fire of Ba'alzamon vanished from the possessed prisoner's eyes, leaving but startlement, gasping silently, then dying softly.

Arcanum felt like a hammer had knocked the air from his lungs, and he stumbled backwards. He crashed into the table, tumbling all its items onto the floor and upsetting the lanterns on the ground. Chains rattled beneath his feet, and he turned to gape at the empty prison that had once housed the halfman, the chains now lying loose upon the floor.

He stumbled out of the tent, almost running into Nathen Austern.

"What happened here?" The adjutant exclaimed, and Arcanum saw the two guards lying prone on the ground, their eyes burned out.

"The Fade. It's out. We're betrayed." Arcanum breathed, staring down at the horrors sketched on the guard's faces. "What are you doing here?"

"The Marshall-General sent me to check on the prisoners. There is chaos in the ranks. Donahin was murdered in his sleep, and men are disappearing in the night. Did you just say-Who betrayed us?"

"Tar Valon." He felt the heat at the back and heard the tent crackle up into flames. "Tar Valon has doomed us."

halfhand
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Re: Black Flood: A Tale of the Trolloc Wars

Post by halfhand » Sat Oct 17, 2020 8:51 pm

Chapter Thirty-Three: Ninth Day

The King's tent was surrounded by a ring of grim Heart Guards, hunting eyes following General Lawe Cathon's arrival, but did not move to stop him. Within the Guards was an inner ring of white-gowned Handmaidens whom Cathon had now recognized as channelers trained by the Queen, resting as in meditation. Their eyes opened when he passed them, displaying eyes as cold as the Heart Guards. Security has increased greatly, since Donahin was murdered in his tent while under full guard. The closest Handmaiden glanced up at him, searching brown eyes staring in concentration, and then a look of surprise.

"How do you do that?" She uttered in startlement.

"Do what?" Cathon answered.

"The One Power. It does not touch you."

The general's eyes flickered down to his medallion for a second, and walked past her without answering.

He stooped through the tent’s entryway, and found two more Heart Guards beside the entrance with another Handmaiden. This time, the Guards crossed their ashenderai to block his entrance, but the voice of the King beckoned them to stand down.

"Marshall-General Cysil is dead, my Lord. Vanigan has halted his attacks and has begun shifting his positions. He is making sure that no one escapes his final assault." Cathon studied the walls of the tent. There were marks and tears around from Vanigan's tantrum, but in whole it was salvaged. The table and the maps were gone. The figure of the King sat cross-legged on the floor of the table, almost in complete darkness.

Aemon looked up, his eyes hollow and his face lined with trouble. Cathon took a seat across him on the floor, "My King, I have consolidated the survivors of the three Grand-Legions into one. We have but twenty thousand standing men after the terrible losses withdrawing back across the Tarendrelle."

Aemon only sighed.

"The men need you." Cathon continued on. "You have stayed closeted for far too long. I feel your immense loss of Prince Caar. But you have mourned for your father long enough. They need to see you with them. Or else they will lose hope. They will falter." Cathon peered into the King's eyes. "What did he say to you when he saved you?"

"You knew it was him, didn't you?" Aemon rumbled, "And I guess, I suspected. When my father first came into my presence even inside that Warder armor, I felt the familiarity in his stance and his carriage. I once hated him, you know, when I was young. I hated how he left. I hated the responsibility that he had left a boy too young to understand its weight. But, in the years when I felt the crown on my head, that child’s hate was lost, and I found understanding, of a sort. When I was told of his death in Aramaelle, I resolved to let his memories lay in peace. But he never left my mind and I could always feel his presence in every one of my decisions as a King. So when I saw his face alive again, it seemed he stepped out of my memories barely changed or aged.

“I thought it was all over, Lawe, when I fell in that Square and was swallowed by the force of Darkness. I lost faith and let all hope flee. I just gave up, lying on that blood-soaked cobblestone, waiting for the final blow. But when Caar reappeared, as a specter from the pale of death, he pulled me out of that deep pit of despair. He reminded me of a king’s duty that does not get discharged even by death. I will not disgrace his memory and sacrifice with despair again. Enough said, you want to know what he said to me before he died? He apologized. He told me he was sorry."

"And did you accept his apology?"

"Lawe, I did not realize I even wanted an apology from a dead man. But I did and it gave peace for the both of us. But, you are right, Law. I have spent too much time in contemplation. I had to be reminded of that by Eldrene. I know what we must do."

"Eldrene was here?"

"She spoke to me through her Handmaidens. She can communicate to them through their dreams."

"Convenient."

"We must retreat back to the city."

Cathon raised his brows. "Sir, that would put the people in danger."

"Eldrene has been evacuating people from the day we left Manetheren."

"You knew? She knew?"

Aemon gestured at the women at his door, "Leave me for a moment."

The Heart Guards stared at Cathon's sword, perhaps wondering if he was enough to defend the king. Or maybe if the First Lord was a threat himself. But, they obeyed and left the tent, along with the Handmaiden.

"Lawe. I'm going to tell you some things because I know you will be able to handle it."

The King leaned forward. "The stakes in this war are greater than you suspect."

"Greater than our very existence?" Cathon was incredulous.

"There are few times in the Tapestry of Ages when the threads become so raveled they come together at a point. A knot, if you will. No, this isn't Tarmon Gai'don, nor is it the end of an Age. It is simply a balance point, teetering upon the edge of a sword. Listen. Two of the greatest armies of the Trolloc Wars. Ba'alzamon himself looks on. The Timari’al’Caldazar once more adorn the mantle of great generals. And three of the greatest Seers are concentrated here, manifesting prophecies to reality.

"Your Airena Sedai is a Foreteller, Lawe, arguably the strongest of the Seers. But, she is matched by Eldrene, a Dreamer of no lesser skill."

"Who is the third?"

"Vanigan." Aemon proclaimed the name Cathon had been expecting. "He is the Dark Prophet. From the moment he drank from the flames of Shayol Ghul under the cloak of Ba’alzamon, he saw for a shattered moment through the eyes of the Dark One, into the past, present, and future. Lawe, many paths of destiny extend from this, some towards unspeakable evil towards which Vanigan and his Master drives.

"I did not myself expect this, Lawe. I did not know that we would be in our current situation, until the Queen told me last night through her avatars. I suspect for reasons beyond my comprehension or my control."

"So if the evacuation began immediately, Eldrene knew that Tar Valon would break their promise." Cathon's voice was deadpan. “The rumors are true. We have been betrayed.”

"Yes, Eldrene has confirmed this. Tetsuan the Amyrlin Seat has stolen our reinforcements, and the few allies that broke her orders are too far. And if you speak to Airena, she will likely acknowledge it now."

"And they decided to hold back this." Cathon clenched his jaw. Aes Sedai games.

The King shrugged, "I know no more than that. I suspect that you are not satisfied with these answers, but you must get them from your Advisor, if she wills. Go then, I have sent for her already. One last thing. Airena must leave. That was the last instruction Eldrene left. The Aes Sedai must leave. I suspect she will listen only to you, Lawe. You have always been better with women than me. So, go. I will prepare for our retreat."
Cathon stood up, his mind swimming, and he found that he had difficulty breathing. He bowed silently to Aemon and exited the tent, almost running into the Yellow Sister. Airena had a goldfinch resting on her wrist and she let it take wing when she saw the General’s approach.

"Walk with me." Cathon beckoned to her, and she fell into steps beside him. They walked through the mud that had formed from a hard cold rain the night before.

“Lawe, I wish I could have told you about Caar’s identity. ” Airena spoke softly, “But I could not...”

“It was his decision to make. I do not hold that against you, my Lady.”

"Something else is troubling you." Airena probed, revealing nothing.

Cathon simply nodded. Around him, he could see the glances of the men towards him, but especially towards the Aes Sedai. Fierce glances brimming with hate. Braver soldiers spat out insults. It was general consensus that the White Tower had betrayed the people of Manetheren, and Airena was an Aes Sedai. There was great rage in the camp focused on her now. She pretended not to notice this, but it was obvious that she had become accustomed to this.

"Tower whore." A soldier snapped, approaching her, but Cathon blocked him with his arm and sent him stumbling back. Cathon’s grim warning stare kept the rest at a distance. They moved on unaccosted, although if looks could kill, the Aes Sedai would have died a thousand times over.

"Why did you not tell me about Tar Valon." Cathon finally asked, turning his attention back to the Aes Sedai.

"We each have a part to play, Lawe. Nothing can change that, not even fallible precognition. Just because I can glimpse into the Pattern does not mean that I know all the decisions to make. So I'll be blunt. The White Tower is no longer united. An eighth Ajah has formed, up to the highest stoles, with influences to the Amyrlin Seat itself, dedicated to the Dark One. The Black Ajah. They are strong, for they have been allowed to foster and grow. In the many lines of the future, they are not stopped, and the White Tower becomes in all essence a second Shayol Ghul. Beyond that there is no hope. All paths from then on lead to the victory of the Dark One. Not even the Dragon Reborn and his Prophecy could stand against such a weight.

"But their betrayal of Manetheren is perhaps their biggest folly of arrogance. They have moved too fast. Once the world has seen the Tower betray their greatest ally, there will be a Purge. The eight ajah will not be destroyed—their roots are too strong- but it will be crippled enough."

Cathon finally found words. "You are betraying us for politics?"

"I am not betraying you, general." Airena's words hardened. "Vanigan betrayed you when he joined the Shadow. The White Tower betrayed you when they stole your reinforcements. I have fought with you, general. Bled and sweat and cried for you. Have you not noticed that I am the only Aes Sedai that remain? I will fight to my death for Manetheren. For you."

"You knew about Tar Valon's lies." Cathon hissed.

"And what could I have done about it? Men fight because they have hope. Would you have them stare despair in the eyes on the first day? You would not have even this army you have now. Arad's Blood will take only so much despair. Manetheren would have fallen. At least now, the Queen has had the time to evacuate the city. Cities can be rebuilt, while blood can be renewed from a single brave seed. And now the soldiers know about the betrayal, they are angry. They are furious. They would fight to the last man with righteous and deserved anger.

"Vanigan would tear through the Pattern to shape it his way. But his way is wrong, and he will ultimately fail. We have worked long and hard, putting subtle actions into motion, that taken together, can affect an indomitable influence. If you will be angry with me, I will accept it along with the hatred that spews from your men now."

Cathon took a breath. "You would sacrifice a nation for an untested future."

Airena stared back. "Let me ask you a question. A hypothetical. Who would you save? One man or a hundred?"

"Hypotheticals are horse fodder, Airena, and you know it. Who's the man and who's the hundred?"

"Who would you choose to save, for instance then, the Band of Red Hand or one person of your choosing?"

Cathon was silent for a moment. To answer in the latter would be treason. But he replied anyways, "You."

"You jest." She saw that his face was completely serious, and closed her eyes, "Then I have failed."

She bit her bottom lips, then whispered, "General, do not let me be your weakness. This is all my mistake, and I blame myself." She began to mutter to herself. "I did not see it. How could I? I cannot see my own future. But, Eldrene must have. Why did she let it go so far."

"Airena—"

"Lawe, in the future, you will be given a choice. This I have foreseen. A choice of your mind and your heart. A choice of sacrifice that only you can make. You must make the right decision. I dare not say any more before my weakness and closeness to you compromises the vision."
Cathon absorbed this. He had never seen Airena so unraveled. Never in his long years with her had he seen her composure slip so much. Except for the one intimate moment in the Ways.

"You must leave." Cathon murmured.

"What?" Anger burned in her eyes. "Don't try to protect me, Lawe. Don't disgrace what I have toiled for. My place is here at your side. For better or for worse."

"It's not that." But, it was just that, Cathon realized, but he pushed that aside. "That was Eldrene's message."

She looked unconvinced. "Why?"

"Look, face reality here." Cathon did not want her here. He could see the blazing glares from the men burning into the Aes Sedai's head. "Every single soldier here wants you dead. With the exception of me and the King. We need every man fighting, not aiming for your death. Now, you wanted your White Tower purged and your grand mapped future. Then, you better get the news out there. You had best tell the world what we have done here. And to see that what we do does not go unforgotten."

"I can't just abandon my charge—"

"You're not abandoning anything. Finish what you start. Sometimes dying is the easy way out. Tell me that you will leave. Now."

She looked forlornly at his face and leaned her face closer until they were almost touching. "I'm sorry. I can't leave you,” She whispered almost pleadingly. Cathon struggled to remain firm, trying to ignore the warmths of her breaths and the scent of lemon balm and lavender so close to his face. He closed his eyes and squared his resolve.

"I'm sorry too." He forced the words out. His sword left his sheath and flashed an inch away from her uncovered neck. Her green eyes flashed wide. He raised his voice so that all that were watching could hear him. "This witch is hereby banished from the camp and will be escorted out. If she returns-- kill her."

There was some applause but were instantly silenced by Cathon's glare. He stared into Airena's eyes and held his breath. Please do not do anything stupid, Airena.

The surprise in her eyes slowly faded into hurt and finally into the practiced gaze of an Aes Sedai. She pursed her lips as if defying him to strike through her bared throat. Cathon's hand was shaking and he hoped she didn't see it.

"Nathen," Cathon called to his aide who had been trailing them for some time, "Come here."

The adjutant faithfully stepped forward until Cathon pulled him close with his free hand. He whispered into Nathen's ears, "You are my most trusted. Escort her out of Manetheren into safety. You know the passages here well. Put your life before hers. Get any supplies you need from the quartermaster. Anyone that stop you will answer to me."

"Yes, sir. With my life, sir." Nathen Austern nodded.

Cathon sheathed his sword and gestured towards Airena. "Your services are no longer required, my Lady. Good-bye." Each uttered word felt like a dagger into his own chest.

Before Nathen could escort her away, she pulled away from the Adjutant, and gripped Cathon's cloak. There was a rustle in the soldiers around, and readied bows creaked as their strings tightened, but Cathon waved them off. She hissed into the general's ears, "Don't do anything stupid. You have a path to live. I will wait for you."

And then Nathen led the Aes Sedai away. She turned her head one last time to stare at Cathon before she disappeared. That was the last time he ever saw her.

He arrived back at his tent after a long lonely walk. When he opened the flap, a small bird that had accidentally been trapped inside fluttered out past his head. As he sat on his cot, he saw a yellow knit square left on the blanket. He touched it and felt the woven pattern that he had seen Airena knitting before. It was finally finished. He picked it up and gazed at the stitching of two red eagles weaving in flight as before the Battle of the Burning Rivers.

There was a small note left underneath the square. He felt his chest tighten as he read the Aes Sedai’s flowing script.

“Always looks to the skies. Hope never dies.”

She knew.

He clutched the square tightly in his hand as if to wring out any shred of warmths left by her hands. It still smelled of her.

And he sat alone in that small world of lemon balm and lavender until it was time to bravely face the gray world again.
Last edited by halfhand on Sun Oct 18, 2020 2:22 pm, edited 1 time in total.

halfhand
Posts: 103
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Re: Black Flood: A Tale of the Trolloc Wars

Post by halfhand » Sat Oct 17, 2020 9:40 pm

Chapter Thirty-Four: Sergeant Stef Reimos

His name was Stef Reimos, a sergeant in the Grand-Legion of Manetheren, officially serving in commission for one year, but serving in capacity for ten. In those years, he had fought and he had retreated. This was a time for the latter.

They retreated—fled—across the plains towards the city of Manetheren. The Band of the Red Hand was battered and mutilated, running hard like a beaten dog. Behind them, they left thousands of their wounded and dying.

The Horde let them flee, harrying the retreating men but did not press them hard. It was a game to them now, for it was a matter of time before the thorn in the Dark One's side was crushed. Utterly crushed below the heel of Ba'alzamon, as all those who dare to stand against the inevitable.

At last the legion came against the walls of Manetheren, and there made rest and preparations for a last stand.

In sight of the glimmering white towers, Stef found some comfort, but not much. His squad was devastated. The only man left in the squad that had come with him into the North was the tyro Cordin, though no longer a tyro. Survivors of dead companies and squads united into new patchwork companies and squads, like some sort of creatures stitched out of body parts found in the cemetery.

Stef was the nominal leader of the new squad, but he was no longer the only sergeant. There was Sarge Keenan Dorik, who hailed from the now defunct 2nd Light Infantry, a bearded man of Stef’s age, and an able swordsman who had been in the North for twelve rugged years. The third sergeant was Teslyk Lod, a short man scarred by frostbite, sullen and dour, from the absorbed Grand-Legion of Jara'Copan. Then there was Qid Icas, a squirrely man with eagle eyes and “Flounder” Casoc, the largest of the bunch who now had only one eye. The last was Casar Rores with his scavenged Arbalest and of course, Cordin Brogan, the tyro that had managed to survive by sheer luck and tenacious will.

It was a bad situation, and everyone knew it. They were positioned before the East Gate, with no cover and no backup. Twenty thousand survivors against perhaps two-hundred thousand. This was now a holding war. They would be fighting for time, for the last refugees to depart the city. There were no more citizens of Manetheren, only refugees. And they would fight exposed to draw the Dark Army to them, instead of allowing the Shadowspawn to circle around to feast on the fleeing refugees.

Stef and his squad were bulking the middle, the heart of the army. Exactly the place where the Horde would be concentrating their strength as well. Every single soldier knew that the center must hold.

The Trollocs rimmed the horizon, just out of catapult range. It was a sight that continued to cause Stef to shiver. He could feel the weight of their numbers pressing on them. It was psychological. Their commanders were trying to shake the men with the anticipation and dread. Then those damned drums began. Like the heartbeat of a massive monster, the rumble rolled over the men, shaking the ground, and vibrating the walls behind them. The drums hummed on until Stef’s ear drums were prepared to burst. The fight would begin soon. About time.

'Who's in charge here?" A horseman shouted.

Stef raised his hand, and the horseman approached him. "We need guards for the last refugees. We need volunteers now. Skilled ones, if possible. Surgeons, farmers, trackers, the like."

Instantly, Stef immediately hated that man. Here he was perfectly fine with his life completely planned out, and this messenger threw him a loop. Now, he remembered. Zira. Here was his chance to drop the death-walk to the gallows and take up on her offer. Why did she have such a draw on him? He and she had only met but weeks. He taught her the sword, and she taught him to live again. And here he was struggling. He could do it. Turn to the messenger and say I'm your man, give a sad farewell to his squad, and hike out of that Light forsaken place. No one would begrudge him. They would do the same, right?

"Cordin." Stef clenched his fists, a fake smile glued to his face. "Get up here. It's your lucky day."

The look on the young man's face was startlement, but soon a look of relief crept onto his face, before a look of guilt washed it away. "Sir, I don't know—"

"One man isn't going to mean anything now." Stef grunted through clenched teeth. He wanted to slap the kid across the face or strangle him. Take it before I change my mind. Before I get the courage. "Go on." Those last words left a bitter taste in Stef’s mouth.

"Sir! It's been an honor."

It was an impulse, but so strong, that Stef could not resist. He stopped Cordin with a bark, "Wait—wait a moment. I need a favor."

"Sir."

"I need you to give something to a friend of mine."

"The nurse, sir? Zira?"

"Who told you that?" His voice cracked, but he stifled it. "Never mind. Take this." Stef pulled off his cloak.

"Sir, I can't. I thought you said—"

"Give this to her." Stef shoved the cloak into his hands. "You know that I would die before I gave this up. And so does she. I don't want her to wait for me."

"At the medic camp?"

"Ain't no medics here, kid. They've packed up, because there's no healing tonight. She'll be with the refugees. Waiting to the last minute, if I know her damn well."

Cordin must have realized the serious situation, and seemed to be mustering the courage to dig his grave with them, but Stef cut him off, "They need you more than us. Hurry."

Stef watched him leave, and for a brief moment, imagined that their places were switched. And, then he was pulled back upon the mundane earth, and his mind weighed heavy. He silenced the regret and self-hatred, sealed it away in the darkest recesses of his mind. He could still sense it clawing at his mind and heart, but he could bear it. He could bear it enough.

And so his squad lost one. It would not be their last one lost. Not by a long shot.

Stef stared across the great divide at the gathering shadowspawn. He let calmness sink through his muscles. He had been here before. But never had they ever met such a sheer number difference. But, it was only numbers. Numbers were for the accountants and bean dockers. He was a soldier. Just do his work. That is all.

Stef took a deep breath and began his ritual. It was a ritual to clean the mind and prepare the body, but he could not stop shaking. He glanced around at the small group to find all eyes on him. The King and the generals will not be giving fancy speeches today. His squad will be looking at him. He ignored the tremors as best he could and cleared his throat

"Okay, squad. You all know the truth. There's no walking out today." As he talked, he went through his ritual, his eyes checking and double-checking and triple-checking his equipment.

One shortsword sheathed. A steel gladius. His mainstay.

"That's fine. We've got a lot of Trollocs out there. We've got a lot of darkfriends out there as well. Lots of bastards that want our head. But, this isn't about them."

On his right arm, above his stump, he bore a small dense shield, to which he tightened the straps.

"We got knocked to the ground and kicked in the teeth by the witches in Tar Valon. We rode when they called, and they're leaving us like animals for the butcher. But, this ain't about them either."

His eyes roamed his belt. There was one quarter-filled waterskin. He drank the rest of his flat water and cast the empty skin onto the ground. He would no longer need it, and it would just be useless weight.

The more he talked, the faster words poured out in a biting viciousness. "This is about us. This is about the squad. Cut open our veins and you'll find the reddest blood there is. That's what matters, not what some harlot or traitor did. Damn them."

"Damn them." Keenan echoed.

Two daggers hung on his belt. He left those alone.

He raised his voice. "We're Band of the bloody Red Hand. We're soldiers of the mountain. We're no Aes Sedai meat. They kick us in the teeth, and we'll kick them right back in the bloody codpiece."

He removed one mud-smeared hand-shovel and tossed it with the waterskin. He opened his oilskin pouch. Inside was his letter of pension and two cash notes that weren't worth the paper they were scribbled on. He threw that on the ground as well. He unclipped his blanket roll and freed his ad hoc medic kit. Everything he threw on the ground with hard force and a grimace on the face.

"They know not what they have unleashed. Show them no mercy."

"NO MERCY!" The men replied grimly.

"Give them no quarter." Stef bared his teeth.

"NO QUARTER!" They replied.

"We are soldiers of the Band of Red Hand, and this is our calling."

Each man weighed the words, their eyes nodding to Stef. Emotions burned through the air in waves. Each was a dead man, but there is nothing on this world more dangerous than such a man with nothing to lose and have suffered the worst. Tragedy, not comedy, makes the hero.

Stef’s thin leather armor was tight, and his weight was gone. Just him, his weapons and his squad. He drew one dagger, smelled the oiled steel of the blade, and stared at the discarded pile in front of him. He felt lighter and freer. The ritual was done. The men were ready.

There was a hum of sudden silence that flew across the plains, so that each soldier could hear the beat of their own heart. And, then the charge--the final charge.

He was prepared. His mind was now clear and focused. But what no one could ever prepare for were the Dreadlords. Ear-rending explosions chained through the ranks. Where men stood were now replaced with smoke, shrapnels, and parts that once belonged to men. He was never prepared for it, but he weathered it like he was conditioned. He gritted his teeth and tried to close his mind against the heat and shockwaves that ripped against him, and tried to steady his attention at the approaching Trollocs.

They came at a hard roar. Deadly and fluid, the black flood coursed across the hills up towards their positions. Most of them came up the main road, but more just clambered across the rocky incline. The Band of the Red Hand had the advantage of height, but the Shadowspawn had the advantage of momentum. And the men aimed to break that momentum.

Boulders began to tumble down in an avalanche that broke through the Trolloc lines, crushing those that were caught in their paths, leaving brief streaks of emptiness that were quickly filled.

They were past the barrage of boulders and upon the first line, where the Trollocs suddenly halted. The first shadowspawn fell into the disguised pits, smashing down and blocking those behind them. Stef threw his dagger hard against the Trolloc trapped before him. It was a good shot. The blade vibrated from the Trolloc's skull as the beast collapsed.

But this only slowed down the Trollocs. Barely. They climbed over their trapped brethren and stormed the Band's lines through the deluge of arrows. There were no more tricks up the sleeves. The battle was in the soldiers' hands now.

Stef yanked his sword out and his eyes shifted into their acquirement mode. The generals had their grand strategies, but Stef and every soldier in the pits were trained and bred hard for the gritty tactics. Every single soldier here had fought in multiple engagements and survived them—not an easy task by any measure. A Trolloc is more than a match for a raw soldier. But the only raw soldiers in the Band were long dead.

Stef extended his vision around his squad's sphere. Whatever was outside the sphere was not his problem. Another squad would pick it up.
Three Trollocs charged into the sphere. In that instant, his eyes locked onto them, and his mind immediately appraised them in a second. The first Trolloc had a badly fitting chainmail that only crouched around its chest. The second was steel armored in all but his head. And the last wore only a large metal plate lashed crudely to his chest. His mind filtered through his stream of consciousness, plucking out the essentials of survival in matters of seconds.

What ran through the Trollocs' mind was simply instinct and bloodlust to kill. That had some advantages. It made them savage and fierce and nearly impervious to pain. But, against battle-tested squads that could read their weakness in a moment, they could not compensate.

Stef flashed two straight fingers. The squad flowed into action. It was a new operating procedure, but each component was battle-tested. Teslyk and Flounder took the point, both were capable and strong enough to take the first hits and block for the squad. That left Stef and Keenan with the dirty work of the strikers. They were agile and the best at the blade; they would be doing the killing. Last were Qid and Casar as flank, whose jobs were to defend the squad’s back. A simple procedure, but deadly.

The three Trollocs did not know what hit them. Flounder met two Trollocs with his large frame and sword. Teslyk feinted towards the third, and kept its attention on himself. Then, the strikers blew in. Stef gutted his first, with a hard jab through the spawn's stomach, slicing easily through the iron mail. Teslyk had dispatched his targets with ease, a sword through a head and another through the back.

They were fast and efficient. But they were nowhere near done.

Now the rush was on. Instead of three, they met five. And when they laid those five down, there were ten. And then it was no longer clumps, but a continuous stream that poured against their efficient little squad.

Stef struggled to maintain his footing among the corpses sprawled around him. Sweat dripped hard from his face, running into his eyes. His mind thumped with the flood of data, so rapid and intricate that his conscious mind could not sort them fast enough. Around him, he could feel the squad moving still in tandem, but slowly falling apart. There were becoming too many targets for the points, too many targets for the strikers, and especially too many targets for the flanks.

Explosions ripped Stef from the ground, sending him sprawling. He felt a lace of pain through his shoulder as he rolled across the blade of a fallen axe, leaving a crescent of bright blood. He struggled to a stand, as he coughed through the thick smoke that enveloped the area. Sounds came at a soft roar, and he tried to shake the ringing from his head. He had lost his sword somewhere, but he drew his last dagger.

Trollocs appeared in the smoke, whipping and dissipating the smoke around them, eyes glowing white in the particulate cloud. Stef snapped his dagger at the closest one, but he was rattled by the explosion, and the knife skittered off its chainmail tunic. The Trolloc flashed its fangs and pounced.

His desperate seeking hand stumbled over a staff-like object and he pulled and swung it hard reflexively. An axehead flashed over his head and the staff-end whirled hard against the Trolloc's neck, halting it just barely in its tracks. Stef kept the halberd spinning in its momentum, skirting it low through the beast's legs, and upending the Trolloc to the dirt.

He spun the halberd to its correct end, and thrust the axehead towards the second Trolloc. Stef smashed the nose of the wolfheaded beast with the axehead. The Trolloc shook its head of the blood and lunged. Its flight was shortened suddenly by the halberd's blade tapping it hard through its skull. It fell, and brought the trapped halberd with it. Stef let go his weapon and scrambled away from the pour of Trollocs.

Around him, reinforcements from the reserves flowed in to plug the hole. Armored pikemen ran by Stef, their pikes jabbing fast against the charging Trollocs.

"Sergeant!" It was Qid with two scavenged pikes in hand. He tossed Stef a pike, and waved towards the front.

Stef held the heavy pike in his one good hand, and followed the reserves into the fray. A line of bristling points met the Trollocs' hard charges, digging hard through armor and flesh. Stef lowered his pike and grounded the back-end against the mud. A Trolloc smashed against the tip, pushed forward by its comrades behind him. Stef gritted his teeth and braced himself and the other soldiers in front of him. The two lines held each other at a grinding standstill.

But the Trollocs were building in mass and momentum, and the pikemen were beginning to slide back in the mud. Stef leaned hard against his pike until he was almost horizontal, but they gave ground against the inhuman muscle of the shadowspawns.

"The center must hold." Stef growled through his clenched teeth. Sweat chiseled trails across his face. "The center must hold."

The line buckled and trembled. Men threw themselves behind the pikemen, pressing hard against their larger opponents. Stef’s boots slipped in the mud, and he caught himself on one knee.

"The center cannot fall!" A captain screamed hard.

There was a rush of metal and mud somewhere to the right. The line had broken hard. Then another collapse to the left. Stef felt the critical point. The center was fracturing beyond the point of no return. They could no longer sustain themselves as a body.

Fissures and cracks broke through, but the soldiers did not disintegrate. Instead of shattering into individual men, they broke apart into smaller clusters.

The line before Stef curled inwards, until they were just a bubble of soldiers in the way of the flood of shadowspawn bodies. Pikes lowered until they were a circle of spears that must have resembled a puffed-up spikerat.

Stef twisted his pike until the spear edge was horizontal, then jabbed at the blurred bodies of rushing Trollocs. A hard thrust in, and smooth extraction with little twisting. Pike-points cracked all around him in a disharmonic wave. Then the Trollocs were purposefully throwing themselves on the pikes, dragging the weapons down with the weight. The circle shrank on itself with each fallen man, pulling closer at each round of bitter exchange.

More detonations rend the earth, tossing Trollocs and humans alike through the air. Stef found himself lying on the ground once more with sharp rocks and fragments showering on his body.

A hand gripped his and pulled him up, and a familiar voice said, "Stef."

He stared up in shock at the new arrival, "Zira, what are you doing here?" The barely contained roar of boxed emotions flooded from its prison, threatening to wash away his mind with it. The nurse stood defiantly in the smoke, cheeks glowing red, her white dress made her glow like a divine savior fallen from the firmaments.

"Same reason you are." She shoved a bundle of red into his arms. It was his cloak, wrapped around a sword. All around him, women dove into the fray with vigor, swords and makeshift weapons in hand. Zira's own hand clenched around a sword in the way he had shown her.

"We're lost, get out!" Stef croaked, but was silenced by a hard kiss on his lips and the clip of his cloak wrapping around his neck.

"The refugees need more time. We have to give it to them. Don't stand there." She left him and charged towards the nearest Trolloc. Stef raced after her, his mind struggling to comprehend the change of fate.

The last of the squads were shattered and scattered, but the Band of Red Hand continued to resist hard. The charge of the women had slowed down the Horde's rush with an undue viciousness.

Stef had taught Zira the sword, and it was reflected in her poise and form. But, she had her own flavor. Where Stef was fast, she was nimble, and where she lacked in his force, she made up in a graceful lethality. And her elegance in dealing death blew his breath away. She had slain two Trollocs before he found himself at her side. And for a moment, it was like their spars. Both knew each others' moves so intimately, so beyond the scope of even a dedicated squad. They fought with one mind, clearing through Trollocs with simple but deadly efficiency. For the two, it was a dance so old and practiced. Trollocs dropped around them, but all that mattered was the preservation of each other.

But they could not go forever. They knew that before they began. Exhaustion ate through their muscles and devoured their strength. The ferocity of the women was blunted by the heavy weight of the opponents. Though they did not lack in courage, they had few experience fighting, and Trollocs had no problem striking them down.

But where Trollocs tread against two people, they fell. One was a young man older than his age, left by battle and sacrifice with one arm, but who still fought like ten whole men. To his side stood a woman that was born a healer, who had sworn to preserve life above all else, but now a deadly harvester of souls. In another time and in another world, they would have staked a cottage somewhere by the sea, growing old together. But in this time and this world, they lived out their lives here, burning like candles bright in passion and heat. But always in this world and the next, the hottest candles burn out the fastest.

A club smashed onto Stef’s left shoulder with a crack, shattering his bones and sending him reeling onto one knee. The pain was a spiderweb of ice that blinded his eyes with a red flash. He rolled out of the way of the next hit, the pain bursting in pulses that kept him completely disoriented.

Zira stood above his fallen body, her sword the only barrier in the rush of Trollocs. A flash of black was suddenly upon them, a shadow of a shadow. The eyeless horseman met Zira in a brace of swords, arms moving in fatal grace and striking with cold malice. His sword blazed against hers, as Trollocs pressed at their backs. From the ground, Zira looked so fragile, her skinny arms against the indomitable force of the silent killer. Even in the battle, her white dress bore not a single mark, so that she seemed to glow with a radiance. But, she was the only white in the black storm, and he was now the only red. They were alone in an army of thousands, lost in a maelstrom of enemies.

It could be said that it would end before it even began. Where the flesh found that it could not keep up with the will. It was a small error, a tiny stumble in the dance. A block that was too slow, and a sword that was too quick. Zira stared down at the blood blooming across her chest. Stef was on his feet, charging the Fade, completely unarmed but utterly unafraid, his eyes burning. He was flung back like a child by arm that felt like stone, crashing through Trollocs, and rolling to a hard stop on the rocky ground. He simply laid there waiting, eyes staring at the sky. He would never forget the colors of the sky, for they were the same hue as Zira's eyes. He felt the bite of burning icicles and the sky fade away.

halfhand
Posts: 103
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

Re: Black Flood: A Tale of the Trolloc Wars

Post by halfhand » Sat Oct 17, 2020 10:01 pm

Chapter Thirty-Five: Lieutenant-General Diest Arcanum

"The center has fallen!" Someone shouted.

Arcanum had plenty of choice words for that. But the spotter was right. The entire center van of the Band was buried under a wave of shadowspawn. Resistance was broken, and the outer vans were nearly gone as well.

"Blake, get the cats circled up!" Arcanum shouted, wiping sweat from his face. Like the rest of the soldiers perched by the catapults, he was stripped to the waist and nearly melting with sweat. Men all heaved catapults away into a circle of fortification in a near panic. And for a good reason. In less than five minutes, they would be swarmed by an endless tide of enemies.

The only calm person in the ring coolly eyed the distance, and in her soft, commanding voice, the Queen's Handmaiden called out, "Dreadlord. Raise…Turn to the right…There. You may fire when ready, General." It was as if ice flowed through her veins and misted out every time she spoke. She reminded him of an Aes Sedai, except treachery was not mixed with the ice. Personally trained by Eldrene from childhood, these Maidens held only loyalty to Realm and Queen. They were Eldrene’s secret check against Tar Valon treachery.

Arcanum snapped the firing brace on the new ballista and the bolt hewed through the air to disappear somewhere in the thickness that was pouring towards them. But, he knew the aim would be true, and a Dreadlord would be snapped from his horse by a deadly ten-feet spike. The Handmaiden's guide using the One Power was never wrong, and she had already steered the death of five fades and two Dreadlords. But, there was no more time to waste on the ballista.

Arcanum leaped towards the nearest catapult and heaved with the men to close the last open gap in their makeshift wall. He shook the sweat from his hair and shouted, "Commodore, how long?"

The commodore of the attached company replied back immediately, "Now! Get your men back!"

Arcanum waved his men away as the Bookkeeper Commdore led his men to the defense at the circled catapults. The general and the cat crews quickly delved into the stash of newly engineered Arbalests Mark Two. Lighter and easier to handle, they still packed a comparable stopping power and range. With the last of the engineering corps, they bunched the naphtha barrels into the middle.

Trollocs broke upon the catapults, clambering over to be pushed back by Disol's men. Arcanum immediately gave the signal to the Handmaiden, and she stretched out both arms. Instantly, the catapults burst into flames, carving a fiery barricade around the men. The Trollocs still perched on the catapults crisped aflame.

Arcanum lit his last torch on the wall of flames and placed the torch on a pole in the center of the naphtha-barrel hill. "If we fall, you know your duty!"

He stared around at the men in the burning circle. His bare-chested crews perched on the makeshift fortress with cocked Ardeuces. Captain Leis Nosi and his engineers were likewise armed with the last products of their intellects. And finally, Commodore Disol led his group of ragtag volunteers mixed with Thunder Legion's last footmen. It was the very picture of a last stand.

"How long will it burn, Nosi?" Arcanum asked, snapping on his armor and donned his cloak. If he would go, he would go with dignity.

"Less than an hour." The engineer clutched his ardeuce so hard that his knuckles were white.

Trollocs still rushed through the gaps between burning catapults, but none could break through Disol's ring. And with the straight-eyed cat crews handling their newest weapon, no Trolloc stepped one foot through the barricade before being stopped cold by a bolt.

Then the ring of fire spilled inwards, figures leaping through the flames or rolling under the catapults. Bolts tore into the ground, kicking up sand. Some hit their target, but these creatures were far wilier than Trollocs. They were humans. Soldiers that once called themselves part of the Band of Red Hand. The Lost Company.

Tossing away the burning cloaks used to shield themselves, they dodged through the hail of fatal bolts and engaged close Disol's men.

It was like a hawk tearing into a pigeon. Oh, the pigeon was brave and it had a beak and talons that could tear, but the fight was clearly not in its favor. Given a year—or even a month- in the Band, Disol's reservists could have been molded into something that could be feared. But, now, with barely one day of fighting experience, they were hopelessly outmatched and dissolved almost instantly at the first moment of engagement. The commodore was one of the first to fall—one traitor ducked below the bookeeper’s sword and casually stabbed him through the chest in one motion.

"FIRE THROUGH THE SCREEN!" Arcanum commanded. Bolts scattered through the ring of men while the Lost Company was still occupied by the fledgling resistance of Disol's volunteers. Some of the traitors fell to the hail as well as some of the volunteers, but not enough, and the screen disintegrated. Arcanum's footmen lasted longer, but they were not enough to keep the enemy from charging the center.

The Handmaiden met them with arms stretched. Darkfriends flew into the air, grasped in invisible arms of air. Two men burst spontaneously into flames, rolling flailing onto the earth. But the soldiers were too quick to respond.

"No!" Arcanum shouted, as a crossbow buried itself into the handmaiden's torso, its point stabbed through the back. The pure white dress soaked with blood. She raised her gloved-hand to her wound, but she did not scream or fall. Instead, the soldiers trapped in the air were suddenly flung shrieking into the sky. Another man was engulfed in ravenous fire. Arrows crossed the air, stitching through the channeler. Under the relentless barrage, she finally fell silently.

Arcanum dropped his ardeuce and quickdrew his sword, but many of his men were not as fast and died with close-arms sheathed. Lost Company swarmed across the engineers and crews with deadly speed, almost as easily as with the reservists.

Lieutenant-General Arcanum was a different matter. Though he preferred the catapult, he still possessed most of the sword skills of a Lord of Manetheren. He was a wily commander and he knew the capabilities of the soldiers. He saw instantly that there would be no win from this, but he could still make them pay a bitter price. The traitors' styles were nearly identical to their brethrens, swarming their prey in squads like a pack of steel-fanged wolves. Arcanum knew that he could not fight any one-on-one, unless he wanted to be stabbed in the back. There would be no clean fighting today.

Arcanum swept his broadsword around him, keeping the squads at bay, ducking through naph barrels to break up his assailants. Clay vessels smashed all around him, and shimmering dark liquid sprayed everywhere.

Two men jumped onto barrels, slashing down at Arcanum's head, while three more came at him from behind. Arcanum ducked and rolled, feeling shards of clay and gravel dig into his shoulders. His upswing took one through the arm, but quickly swept around to ward off his back. He never spent more than one stroke on any one fighter, instead weaving through the squad with his larger blade and longer range driving them back.

They were faster and better equipped for melee. Well, almost. Arcanum still had his cloak, while they had lost theirs in the fire. The tough fabric in the hands of a seasoned soldier or general can turn the tide in a battle. Arcanum tugged his cloak with his left hand, exaggerating and feinting his motion. Blades slashed through cloth and air, and then Arcanum twisted the strong cloth to trap an extended sword and snatched it free. He deflected some close strikes, pulled his cloak free and threw it at the nearest combatants to obscure their vision and buy him some time.

He bumped into the familiar person of Captain Blake. A quick look passed between the two, and they stood back-to-back against the Lost Company under the burning sun. A ring of cloakless traitors surrounded them. Arcanum breathed hard, his lungs burning. He glanced down at the fallen body of Engineer Nosi, his weapon clenched in his dead hands.

"Not one step back, Captain."

"Quite right, General. Quite right." Blake agreed.

The Lost Company gathered around the last two men, swords held confidently in hand. They stood hard over the corpses of brothers and brothers alike, crunching over the shards of clay floating in the puddles of naphtha. The burning catapults flickered behind them.

"We got a lord here." A soldier wearing the stripes of a commodore spoke with a metropolitan Manetheren clip. Soot stained his face, but his eyes met Arcanum's cooly. "First Lord Vanigan wants him. The other is game."

Arcanum automatically ducked as a blur skimmed by him, but the gasp behind him spoke of the true target. Clutching at the arrow in his throat, Blake tumbled back in the coil of death. Silent rage burned through like acid through Arcanum’s veins and he tugged free the captain's sword from his slack hands, with a grim salute to Blake's still open eyes.

The traitors charged in one, converging on the general with breathtaking speed, and Arcanum turned with a broadsword in each hand. Swords hammered against his, but he hewed across them as if they were not there, depositing their bodies almost a yard away. He felt gashes of cold cutting against his skin, but they were like bee pricks in his trance. The opposite, unfortunately, was not true for the men of Lost Company.

There were too many, even for the Thunder Lord. They swarmed all around him, in a pulse waving of swords, striking at any uncovered flesh. Scores of hits ate through his arms, culminating in a severed tendon that forced him to give up a sword to the torso of one assailant. With his remaining sword, he carved a circle around him, keeping them at a standstill. He would fall eventually, but he would leave a heavy mark.

They must have realized the same, for the swarm retreated from him. An arrow cut through the air, stabbing into his knees with an agonizing white flash of pain. A second arrow slashed into Arcanum's shoulder, piercing his armor and grinding against his bone. Arcanum swayed in the wind, sword unwavering. With his fist, he snapped through the shafts in the arrows, leaving the arrowheads embedded in his flesh.

Once more, the commodore strolled forward. "That was the last warning, general. Come or die."

The Thunder Lord gazed at the ash-darkened faces of the Lost Company surrounding him. There was no way out except surrender or death. Here he stood alone upon the wreckage of clay and barrels, the pool of naphtha spreading across the circle, mixing with the blood of the fallen. Smoke stuck heavily to the air and the acrid smell of witches' brew stung the general's nose. Blood leaked in rivulets around his arms and canvassed from his face. But just as much dripped from his sword.

He glanced beside him, and smiled. It was a terrible grin.

"Not one step back." Arcanum threw the sword into the traitor commodore's chest. Before the rest of the foes could react, he pulled the burning torch from its stand. "Not one."

He let it fall.

halfhand
Posts: 103
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

Re: Black Flood: A Tale of the Trolloc Wars

Post by halfhand » Sun Oct 18, 2020 2:07 pm

Chapter Thirty-Six: Marshall General Lawe Cathon

Somewhere, a massive explosion belched a tower of flames and a column of thick, black smoke into the air. Even at a distance, its shockwaves rippled through Cathon’s bones, until he had to take a knee to keep from toppling. But at its dying boom, the General turned his attention back to the last remnant of what once was the proud Band of Red Hand. Rallying to King Aemon's wolf banner before the East Gate, they were the last of the greatest standing army of the Covenant. All other traces of the sons of Manetheren were wiped away by the Trollocs swamping the skeleton forces at the crumpled Gates.

Aemon was the only force that stood between the survivors and utter rout. Flanked by his remaining contingent of Heart Guards and Handmaidens, his presence grounded his men around him. He was the last of the chain of command. The line captains were all dead or lost in chaos, and the only commands still obeyed were the ones issued forth from the King's mouth.

"Hold them! Rally for the stand!" His voice was utterly without trepidation, and his greatsword Sanction raised as if to draw all eyes on him. Indeed, all manners of beasts roared towards him, but all broke before the King’s rally.

Cathon fought at Aemon’s side, the standard of the Red Hand gripped hard in his off-hand, where he had picked from the fallen bannerman. Men poured around them in a torrent, a knot of desperate resistance in the flagging Band.

A hand yanked Cathon back. The General spun his sword hard, but the man ducked and raised his hand in peace. It was the Royal Vizier, Ilak Didam. Who should be protecting Eldrene.

"You shouldn't be here!" Cathon shouted over the roar of battle. "Where's the queen!"

"YOU MUST COME WITH ME!" Ilak shouted back.

"The King--"

"He is the only thing keeping the hammer from falling. Eldrene is going to attempt something foolhardy! I have no time to explain."

With that, the Vizier dragged Cathon from the boil of battle, "Come. She will not listen to me. But she may listen to you."

They drew away, slipping through the soldiers, and past the fierce fighting within the Inner Gate. A squad of mounted soldiers appeared, leading two unmounted horses. They formed a perimeter around the two as they mounted.

"Heed me." The Vizier called as they broke away from the fighting into the city, four soldiers trailing their flanks. "She is going to try something that will endanger everyone and herself. I cannot convince her, and by her right, I cannot stop her. I should not even be talking to you about this. But, you must convince her off this quest of hers. The Queen is the Sword of Manetheren—as long as the sword remains whole, Manetheren cannot fall. You must convince her to leave now with the last refugees."

"I do not understand."

"You do not have to. But, you do not want her to stay here in the city when it falls either."

Cathon kicked his horse, and they galloped hard through the cobblestone thoroughfare. He passed by houses where generations upon generations dwelled, but now were dark and empty. Furniture and belongings littered the ground, where they proved too heavy for the fleeing families and their wagons and animals. No matter how fast or far they rode, the din of battle followed them, the whispers of weapons and shields rolled leisurely down the abandoned road.

They galloped across Kae Boulevard, once the most majestic street of the modern world. Glamorous stores and the height of fashion, it now hung in bitter disarray. But, his eyes only found the rising towers and garrets of the Manetheren Palace. Ilak stopped his horse on the lawn, and dismounted with surprising gracefulness. Cathon stopped his horse within the gaping gates, and leaped off, his sword instantly in hand.
The general kicked open the palatial entrance doors with no hesitation. The massive halls were as empty as the city, the echoes of his boots thundering through the massive vaulted archways. Ilak took the lead, rushing through the resounding halls deep into its heart. The Vizier suddenly skidded to a stop in a high-vaulted atrium and pressed his hand against a large closed door. Cathon remembered it as the entryway to the staircase of one of the many palatial spires.

"She is not here yet. She will be with the last evacuation caravan at the West Gate, but she will turn her attention here soon. Find her and stop her before it's too late."

"And you?"

"I will faithfully perform my last duties as Vizier." Didam motioned the four soldiers beside him. "I will protect that which she seeks from falling into the hands of the Traitor to my last breath. Caldazar speed your horse."

Cathon dashed out, leaping over banisters. Time was against him now. Aemon’s plan was to slowly draw the Shadow into the city, block by block, keeping their attention on him. It won’t be long before the battle draws towards the Palace. He whistled as he skidded out the gate, and leaped on his approaching horse. Sweat sheened through the stallion's manes, but he drove it hard.

He cut across the palatial lawn, leaping over hedges, and galloping hard towards the west. The curve of the West Gate twisted into view, along with the last refugees moving hurriedly through it. The sight of Queen Eldrene was unmistakable, her brilliant golden hair was instantly recognizable from the distance, and her familiar voice of command drifted towards Cathon as he neared.

"Hurry! We will not hold much longer." The queen picked up a little girl and handed her to her mother sitting at the back of a packed wagon.

"Eldrene!" Cathon called.

She turned and stared at him in consternation, "What are you doing here, Lawe?"

"I'm to be your escort." Cathon neared her. He pointed at the receding wagons. "Come, we need to go."

"No, I can't." She frowned. "Ilak asked you, didn't he? Typical. There's something I need to do. And I will not leave without Aemon. I feel him fighting desperately."

"No, Eldrene." Cathon leaped down. "We're leaving. Aemon has made his decision. Manetheren cannot lose the both of you. Get on the horse."

She watched him carefully, sighing and pressing her hand over the steed's forehead. "Of course. I understand."

Cathon's guard suddenly rose. She gave in too easy. He knew her too well. "My Queen…"

She jumped up on the horse, nudged the horse to lumber away.

"Come on, we must—ELDRENE!" Cathon reached for the suddenly cantering horse, managing to snag onto the back of the saddle. He was dragged through the cobblestone, until he managed to grab hold with his other hand.

"Sorry, Lawe. But I have to do this." Eldrene kept the horse galloping deeper into the city.

With a grunt, Cathon pulled himself up to an unwieldy perch at the back of the saddle, and reached to seize the reins.

"Let me explain. Please." Her words whipped past his ears.

"Talk fast." The General finally relented. She had earned at least that much.

"Don't get too comfortable back there…Thank you. I need to get to the Palace."

"The place would be over-run back now." They leaped over an overturned wagon, blocking the road.

"I do not have time to explain but one. On top of Sappron Tower is the most powerful sa'angreal that we possess. If I could reach it, I could delay the Horde long enough for everyone to escape. Even Aemon."

The Sappron Tower. Cathon has not been up there often. But in the face of an invasion it seemed to be ludicrous. There was only one way in. One had to climb the Europo Tower, cross a long, open walkway to a five-inch thick Cuendillar-plated door that was locked, wherein one person in all of Manetheren had the key. The only times Cathon was up in the towers, he could not see what justified such security. Some ornate chairs sat in a circle around a glass table. The only notable parts of the room were the portraits of all the Queens of Manetheren on the walls of the room, and a single sheathed sword hanging between the portraits of Ieca and Sirsi. It dawned on him.

"The sword. Like Callandar?"

"You would be surprised how many things were made in pairs."

"This is crazy. I cannot allow you to do this. Ilak knew you would—"

"Have you ever been in love, Lawe?"

"I loved you once. You might remember." But Cathon was also keenly conscious of the yellow knit pattern folded inside his breast pocket.

She stiffened in his grip, "Draw your sword now."

"What?" His sword cleared his sheath just in time to cut down a lunging Trolloc. Shadowspawn now dotted the streets, looting what had been left behind. Seeing the riders, they immediately converged on their position. Cathon dissuaded them of their pursuits permanently with a deft hand.
They broke through upon the main road, and instantly Trollocs clogged the road thick in battle with the last survivors, rallying around the figure of Aemon before the great Pool of Reflections at the steps of the Palace. Directly above were the towers of Sappron and Europo, the walkway fifty stories above the fighting men.

"Hold the reins on course. I need my hands free." Eldrene commanded, freeing both hands. Cathon snatched up the reins with his free hand, his arm crooked tight around her waist. The queen had sent them barreling on a straight course towards the Palace, except for a hundred Trollocs that blocked the way, turning towards the noise of the galloping horse.

He brought his sword to bear to a cavalier's charge. A futile gesture considering the numbers turning to meet them.

Eldrene circled her hands, and the air before them seemed to twist and thicken with a crackle. A wall-like construct of bluish hue formed before their horse. Her hands pushed forward, and the translucent wall lumbered ahead with unbelievable speed. It smashed through the Trollocs, crushing any who stood in the way, and sending the rest tumbling back. It chewed a path for the horse, which leaped over broken bodies.

The King's voice suddenly shouted across the courtyard, "Eldrene! No!"

"The window!" Eldrene ignored the shout. "There are too many at the gates."

They charged through the disappearing blue shield, cut down the last of the Trollocs in the way. Cathon braced himself and Eldrene and gave a hard yank on the reign. The stallion leaped above the embankment, its hooves smashing through the glass. Shards flew in a spray, and they landed hard. The horse stumbled on its landing, upending Cathon and Eldrene.

He rolled across the marble floor, glass crunching beneath his weight. He twisted to his feet, seeing Eldrene already beside him. The Hall of Triumph was in disarray, the murals and statuettes shattered. The ground was littered with debris and shattered chandeliers. The looting Trollocs had already turned their attention on the two. Behind them, Trollocs were smashing through the glasses to follow.

"Move!" Eldrene shouted, her hands flew apart. Trollocs smashed into walls as if they were toys, accompanied by the splintering cracks of wood and bones. Through the gap Eldrene raced, one hand lifting up her dress, nimbly avoiding the scattered debris. Cathon followed immediately behind her, swinging at any Trollocs bearing too close.

The marble hallway broke way into the large Atrium Forsa, fortunately empty of any shadowspawn. Elderen turned towards the Trollocs charging from the hallway, and brought the entire ceiling down on their heads with a single gesture. A thick cloud of dust and mortar filled the atrium.
Cathon was already at the now forced open entrance of the Europa Stairway, where the Vizier and his guards had been posted. The door was clogged with red-cloaked bodies, and he climbed over with increasing alarm. He glanced up at the long circular stairway, and called out, "I don’t see anything."

Eldrene was instantly behind him, her eyes sweeping up across the stairwell. "They're here."

"My queen…I had hoped you would not…" A soft murmur called. Eldrene kneeled down towards a body easily distinguishable among the red-cloaked bodies. It was the Vizier, Ilak Didam, blood seeping from his mouth and wounds across his chest. The Vizier turned a baleful eye towards Cathon and back to Eldrene. "The key…" He reached next to him, sliding a thin tile from the floor, and unsteadily pulled out a single silver key from its hiding spot.

"You have done well, my friend." Her voice cracked with emotions. She had her back to Cathon, but he could tell she was shaking. The Vizier was her tutor and a confidante from her childhood, and had stood by her side longer than even Aemon.

Cathon grimaced, but placed a hand on her shoulder, "We must go."

When she stood up, Ilak's eyes were closed and the key-and-chain was wrapped tightly around her fist. Her eyes were slightly red, but a mask had set over her face once more.

She turned to face Cathon grimly. “I asked you if you have been in love. Because I do what I do for love. The love of my husband. The love of my country. The love of those dying outside. If you did feel love, you know why I do this even if it means the loss of everything. Many of the worst mistakes in the world have been made in its name, but so have the greatest triumphs. So you have a choice, General. You can help me and I cannot do this without you. Or else be prepared to drag me unconscious out of the city.” She reached her hand to him. Her eyes glowed with pure intensity with a gravity that seemed to suck Cathon in. Ta’veren.

And in that moment, he felt that he stood before a bottomless chasm and she had asked him to make the jump of faith. He felt the earnest words of Airena Sedai still tugging at his mind. His strategic mind knew that there was no retreat past this stairway now deep in enemy control. It would take a miracle of a dice’s throw for the Queen’s plan to succeed. But if there was a chance, no matter how slim…

Iro dovienya nesodhin soende. Luck carry us through.” The moment he took the Queen’s hand, he could have sworn he could feel the Great Pattern wrapping around him like a caress of destiny. There was no turning back.

They glided up the finely crafted stairs, their footsteps echoing up through the curved tower. Cathon suddenly reached and grabbed Eldrene, pulling her back as an arrow stabbed into the wall ahead. More arrows etched through the air, but none hit close.

Cathon crouched and peered up, searching for the assailants. He could only catch flashes of red in the shadows of the dimly lit stairway. "Lost Company. You think Vanigan…"

"No. He's not here yet." Eldrene replied. "Not yet. His men are delaying us. Quiet. And close your eyes."

Cathon immediately reacted, turning away as a column of brilliant light flashed through the center of the stairwell. Even with closed eyes, he could feel the light searing through his eyelids. Then it was gone, and there was a cloud of black dots in his eyes. Eldrene pulled on his shoulder and they were dashing up the stairs once more. No more arrows flew down.

As they ascended they passed huddled men, their eyes burned out. Hearing their footsteps, the blinded men lunged out, but were instantly dispatched by the general's merciless sword. Red-cloaked traitors smashed through the banisters, their screams bouncing erratically off the vaulted walls as they fell.

They came upon the final landing, with Eldrene taking the lead. An open door led towards the bridge that spanned Europa and Sappron.
Just as they approached the doorway, a flash of explosion shivered the walls. Eldrene pushed Cathon aside and dashed through. The general immediately recovered and followed two steps after.

A single Dreadlord stood on the bridge, his cloak rippling through the air. Not Vanigan, but one of his Lieutenants. Fire lanced through the air, but they unraveled into nothingness inches before meeting the smooth skin of Eldrene. Ominous blue rings coalesced around Eldrene, but she simply moved her hands, smashing them into crystalline motes that hung for a second in the air. Her reputation as one of the most powerful Aes Sedai of the ages did little justice to her overwhelming strength in person.

She never stopped moving, one hand reaching out. The Dreadlord was yanked into the air like a ragdoll, his eyes suddenly displaying fear. Cathon felt the anger rippling from Eldrene and was prepared for what she did.

Seized as if in giant arms, the Dreadlord gave a shrilling scream, then he was no longer one piece. Cathon felt chills running up his spines, but a look from Eldrene silenced him instantly. There was only terrifying fury in her face.

Cathon looked down from the heights at the last rally of Manetheren. Directly below he could see the circle of red amongst the masses of black that clogged the squares and streets of the city.

"Lawe, we must do this." Eldrene bit her bottom lips, "You must hold them. Trust me. We will survive this."

And then she was dashing across the bridge towards the opposite tower. Using the silver key, she opened the door, and she turned to give him a look, "He is coming." The doors slammed closed behind her, leaving the Marshall General standing alone over the heights, swaying in the winds.

Cathon gazed across the walkway, his steps slowly bringing him towards the middle. He glanced down at a shred of black cloth caught on the rough stone, dancing in the wind as if seeking escape. The wind wrapped around him, sending his cloaks flaring from his neck. He glanced down at the beleaguered men fighting in the Pool of Reflections. The last of the Band of Red Hand. The once clear pool was clouded by growing blood. He glanced up at the Sappron Tower, towards the spherical dome, wondering.

There was suddenly a hum in the air, a vibration that Cathon felt in his mind. Whatever Eldrene was doing, it was beginning. The tower itself appeared to glow faintly.

It was also drawing attention. Not a full minute after, a Trolloc appeared in the doorway. It hesitated for a moment at the walkway, but charged Cathon. The General killed him with a single blow, sending him plummeting off the edge.

"Akeros di se'gar." He quoted the beginning passage of the Akrosian Cycle. So guards Akeros. The greatest warrior of history was not Jearom the Lord of Blades, nor was it Biruk the Wielder. It was Akeros, who had bested both Jearom and Biruk. For Akeros is the gatekeeper of the veil of death. The last foe for every mortal warrior and he never loses. The Reaper himself.

"Akeros di se'gar." He repeated, as more Trollocs took the bridge against him, falling upon him in a never-ending flood. But he was Death incarnate and he cast them down from the heights, until Trollocs were falling from the sky like a thin hail. He briefly wondered what the defenders below would think of that.

Then it began. Pillars of brilliant, clear light cracked through the ground all around the square, instantly incinerating Trollocs within their area. Rocks and debris fountained up to almost the height of the bridge. But the gaps left by these devastations were almost instantly filled by more Trollocs rushing into the city.

A fade took the bridge against him, its ebony sword snaking towards him. Cathon blocked thrice, took its hand off, and sent it clawing off the side.

Plumes of light began to multiply across the city, leaving trails of shredded bodies wherever it ascended. Buildings shattered into dust and Trollocs to bone.

There was a pause on the bridge. No more spawns exited the doorway, but the general did not stand easy. He simply gazed down at the dwindling circle of men, watching as it crumpled, soldier by soldier.

A motion at the door drew his attention. It was a familiar man.

"Nathen! Why are you doing here?" Cathon lowered his sword, as his adjutant approached in a staggered manner. "Where is Airena? WHAT HAPPENED!"

"Sir. General, I'm sorry." Austern walked towards the general in an awkward manner. He held his temple as if he was suffering a terrible headache. "I am terribly sorry."

The adjutant lunged, a hidden dagger flashing. Cathon twisted, and felt the cold of steel cutting into his sides. Pain flashed through the back of his head, but he backhanded Nathen hard. He followed with a smash to the face, throwing the adjutant off the walkway, where Nathen barely clung to the edge with his fingers.

"Why?" Cathon groaned as he pulled the dagger from his side and tossed it spinning away. Was there something on the blade? He was feeling dizzy. "WHY?"

Nathen lost his grip, but Cathon grabbed his arm.

"Please!" Nathen pleaded.

Cathon looked down at the dangling adjutant, feeling the sting of the pulsing wound. This was the man that had saved his life more times than he could count. The man that he had trusted more intimately than even himself. He was supposed to protect Airena.

Cathon let him drop. The parting cry was that of anguish.

"Well done." A smooth baritone voice flowed from the opposite side. Cathon did not need to look up to know it belonged to one Piotor Vanigan. The Traitor of Manetheren. The Right Hand of the Adversary.

There he stood, inky cloak twirling dramatically in the breeze, face utterly unperturbed by the explosions shaking the city.

"You can not pass, Dreadlord." Cathon stood, Nathen’s scream still echoing in his mind.

"Lawe…" Vanigan gave him a sad smile. "Stand down, for I do not want to hurt you."

Cathon raised his sword in reply.

"I am not an unreasonable man, Lawe." Vanigan called. "You were the only one who voted in my defense at the Circle of Judgment. I owe you for that."

"Look where that got us." Cathon gestured at the Trollocs swarming through the city, and the pillars of white fire cutting through them.

Vanigan gazed up at the glowing sphere of Sappron Tower. "I have your Aes Sedai. Your adjutant brought her right to my steps."

Cathon clamped his teeth shut. Impossible! He has to be bluffing.

"Stand aside, and you and your little witch can pass safely. This is as lenient as I will be."

The Marshall-General paused. Vanigan was good at lying, but he was even better at the truth. The latter was always infinitely more appealing. Vanigan was a traitor, but he was fiercely protective of his perceived honor. He would kill a person at a whim, but if he had owed him money, he would stick his dues in the corpse's pocket.

"DECIDE!" Vanigan shouted, his voice slicing through the din of explosions.

"I choose Manetheren." Cathon bowed his head in a calmness that shielded his internal fury and anguish.

"YIELD!"

"No." A fireball instantly punctuated Cathon's reply, washing across the bridge in a wave of heat. Then, it twisted and imploded into a tiny stream of fire that flowed into the fox-head medallion on the General's chest. A chill soaked through his shirt.

Vanigan's eyes burned with hate. "That won't save you." A darkly gloved hand reached into a pouch and tossed three glimmering items across the bridge. Three foxheads on shattered chains stared up at Cathon. Every one of them was etched with blood.

Vanigan raised his blade, a Lord's Sword that could be a twin to Cathon's. Both swords were of the finest steel breed, folded and smithed to only Manetheren perfection. Both were given as the final mark of a First Lord, the final reward for passing of the Lord's Trials. Only two men in the history of the nation had passed the Trials with perfection—two of them stood facing each other upon the windy bridge. There were no marks upon either swords—no heron marks nor sigils of honor—for the sword itself was proof enough of their caliber.

In unison, they detached their cloaks, letting the wind whip them from their hands. Red and black cloaks flew through the air, for a moment, twisting together in an embrace before separating and carried away into the unseen distance.

"Hie, First Lord of Manetheren." Vanigan saluted with his sword in tradition. Cathon did not reply, his blade unmoving. Vanigan's eyes flashed at the insult, and his face tightened.

The Dreadlord charged.

Vanigan did not have the speed of a Fade, nor the power of a Trolloc, but he moved like a blur of deadly liquid that was nigh unstoppable. He was not a man, but a force of nature.

Two Lord's Swords collided with a flash of blue sparks and a ringing clang that shivered through the air. They met again in a forbidden practice. Never could one Lord's Sword be drawn against another, an anathema second only to raising a hand against one's King.

Nothing mattered now to Cathon. The wound at his side was a numbness and the wind in his face was a dull whisper. He did not feel nor care about the flashing explosions of light that was smashing the Trollocs to pieces. He no longer remembered the bedraggled soldiers below, dropping one by one. He forced away the pressing fears of Airena’s fate. Only the man Vanigan mattered. Him and his sword. He was once more the avatar of Akeros.

Vanigan and Cathon were almost equal in the swords. Vanigan had earned his Lord's Sword earlier, but that slight advantage has long been overcome. The Dreadlord favored fast strikes and hard pushes, while Cathon favored gambles and feints.

To a soldier glancing up below, the battle above seemed frantic but almost insignificant. Upon the bridge, swords crossed in a whirlwind of sparks, both pressing forward and back with no gain. And both would be almost completely forgotten in the blazing light emanating from Sappron Tower.

"You are a fool, Lawe." Vanigan sliced a groove through the bridge as Cathon dodged away. "She will not leave until the King has left. And he will not leave until she has. An idiot's suicide pact."

Cathon did not reply, beating at Vanigan's defense with stoney demeanor. He would not be baited.

"I will enjoy breaking Ellisende as much as I enjoyed breaking your witch." Vanigan hissed into Cathon's face as they forced their swords together. "You have very good taste."

Cathon threw him back and hammered at his sword, but the Dreadlord deflected each hit with casual snaps of his blade.

The bridge lurched as the blazing sphere above Sappron Tower increased its tempo. The city was almost encased in a blazing pillar of blue light that began to chew through Trollocs faster than they could fill. Vanigan glanced up at the tower, worry finally setting on his face.

"Enough of this!" The Dreadlord pushed at Cathon with hard blows. And then Cathon's sword began to glow red. Heat poured instantly through the hilt, digging with pain into the general's palms. Vanigan could not channel on Cathon, but his sword was not immune. The Marshall-General held desperately to his sword as he warded off blows, but every inch of his skin and brain shouted at him to let go of the excruciating object.

Pain overloaded his system. He did not remember the molten sword flying from his hand, nor the fist slamming into his face, knocking him to the ground. But, in his fog of pain, he looked up and felt new pain slicing through his guts. Vanigan stared down with hard eyes and drew his sword up again. Cathon tried to move, but his arms were failing him. The sword came down through his chest, cutting through his lungs, and he felt blood drowning him with each ragged breath.

Vanigan cut through the chains on his Shell of Caldazar and snapped the medallion away. As soon as it left, he could feel vibrations in his head, deep resonance emanating from Sappron Tower. Vanigan raised his sword again, and his foggy state, Cathon felt time seem to slip away slowly.
And then a blast of anguish and emotions stabbed into his head. He recognized the very essence of his Queen. Vanigan himself lurched. Cathon swam against the sea of darkness, pulling at the strands of power flowing from the One Power amplified through her sa’angreal.

He saw it. He felt it. And he knew her anguish. He felt the death as if he was there. The undeniable face of Aemon finally falling hard into the waters of the Pool of Reflections. Dozens of Myrddraal flowed over him, and swords came down in a blitzkrieg of fire. Pain coursed through the bond between Aemon and Eldrene shattering their link. Fragments of red and black crackled from Sappron Tower, reflecting pure utter despair.

"NO!" Vanigan's voice was a soft murmur against the roar in Cathon's mind. The Dreadlord stumbled towards the Sappron Tower.

Cathon tugged at the cords of emotions in his mind, his burnt hand finding the shape of an obsidian dagger on his belt. An obsidian dagger that bore a tiny red hand left by Vanigan at their earlier meeting. Through the black veil of death, he grasped the black dagger. Excruciating pain stabbed through his nerve-shattered palm, pain that yanked him briefly from the cloudy embrace of unconsciousness.

He struck at the back of Vanigan, slicing into his flank, bringing the Dreadlord to his knees. Feeling the drain of blood and oxygen, he launched himself at Vanigan with a silent roar. He smashed into his nemesis, his last weight and energy carrying them both over the brink of the bridge.

As he fell, his vision darkened and his senses dulled away towards nothingness. He did not hear the shriek of Vanigan. He no longer felt the uncontrolled anguish of the Rose of the Sun. He did not notice a goldfinch in the pale sky winging desperately towards him. He was too far gone. His lungs filled with blood and shock locked his muscles.

Two falling bodies crashed into the red waters of the Pool of Reflections.

There was peace.

There was a pause.

For a single heartbeat.

The city erupted into a single pillar of white light.

halfhand
Posts: 103
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

Re: Black Flood: A Tale of the Trolloc Wars

Post by halfhand » Sun Oct 18, 2020 4:33 pm

Epilogue

It began as a simple rumble that shook the mountain road beneath their feet. Wagons swayed and creaked, with the refugees grabbed onto any support they could.

"What's going on now?" One of the women called, trying to calm her screaming baby. The rumble didn't help the feeling of despair and confusion that so permeated the fleeing citizens. No one knew where to go, just that they had to put distance between them and the city. Some said to head across the mountains into Safer, others to the abandoned fortresses at Marena's Line, but no one took charge.

"I don't know. I wish I did." Cordin replied with the only answer he truthfully knew.

The wagons were loaded with women clutching their children and old men that could not walk by themselves, along with the last belongings of their lives. One man with no legs had seized a battered lyre, and in a crackled and battered voice, was softly singing a song.

"Fire and thunder smote the field,
But the Band stood still beneath,
The air hissed with a mighty crackle,
Of steel from leather sheath."

The man's voice was no Bard’s high chant, but Cordin had to admit it had a mild calming effect on the desperate people running for their lives.
The earth began to shake as rocks drizzled down the sides of the pass. "I think we better hurry up." He shouted towards the lead wagons.
He turned to glance across the distance at the fading city, at the curious lights in the sky. At the glowing sphere that seemed to rise upon the city.

Then it was instantly gone, consumed by a burning white pillar that burned at his eyes. Then the shockwave hit, knocking the young soldier sprawling back. Screams were all around him, and rocks from the pass showered down all around them. Cordin felt at the wetness on his head and blinked at the blood on his hand.

He dizzily stood up, glancing at the overturned wagons and the screaming people. He turned to the city.

Ruin met his eyes. Black, scorched debris was all that left of the magnificent jewel of the world, the cradle of their civilization, a massive wound carved into the foot of the Misty Mountains. Then, rocks fell in a thunderous clap, burying it in a hail.

Cordin felt weak on his knees, and it wasn't from the blood loss from his scalp wound.

"Manetheren." The soldier's mouth was dry. He felt a weariness deep to his bones. He drew his sword, feeling wetness from his eyes. He breathed in the stale lines of steel then stabbed the blade into the earth. From around his shoulder, he removed his cloak, casting it about the cross of the hilt. This would have to serve.

"Carai an Manetheren." Cordin whispered. It was not a fitting funeral. Not for the men that died and the memories and dreams purged. But, it was the only funeral they could have.

A tiny yellow bird landed onto the burial marker, where it too seemed to regard the tomb of Manetheren. Perhaps a sign that even the Land seems to feel the loss. But, it would have to be the only thing to hold vigilance. There was no time for Cordin to mourn.

Cordin turned his back on the buried city. He looked at the confused directionless refugees, and decided it was time to take charge. "Come! Get those wagons up! Move on!"

The people looked up to his direction and picked up their fallen pieces. And the people broke away from the awe and terror of the sight. Heavy though their bones, they bore their weight once more, away from lives lost and shattered. And one man found a battered lyre from the rubble once more, and a soft sound drifted through the pass, until its melody too was lost.

"The Battle Lost, but the War won.
The Band died, but live e'er on.
The Shadow halted, drowned in blood,
washed away by Manetheren flood."

"The Old Blood sings of a mighty Band,
The infamous guardians of the Land.
The Dark One 'self felt the bite of the Thorn,
The bravest souls whom ever born.
Forever live those bold Red Hand! "

The Battle of Manetheren would mark one of the last major campaigns of the Trolloc Wars. The Band of the Red Hand had finally been vanquished by the Black Flood, but in Queen Eldrene’s heartbreak, had completely destroyed every single taint that stepped on her soil, tragically along with herself. At the end of the battle, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children were dead, marking the fall of the great nation of Manetheren, to follow in the wake of Jaramide, Aramaelle, Aridhol, and Coremanda. From its start at the betrayal of Barsine to its eventual end at the Battle of Maighande, the Trolloc Wars between the Second Covenant and the Shadow Horde lasted over three hundred years, leaving millions dead and the Compact of Nations shattered. Not a single nation survived the final moments of the war. Even mighty Tar Valon felt the echoes of war, as Tetsuan, the Amyrlin Seat, was deposed along with over a third of the Aes Sedai for their crimes. The survivors of Manetheren would disappear into a deep slumber, utterly lost in the great tapestry of time.

That is, until the General and the Wolf King rise once more.

halfhand
Posts: 103
Joined: Wed Aug 22, 2018 11:12 am

Re: Black Flood: A Tale of the Trolloc Wars

Post by halfhand » Sun Oct 18, 2020 4:58 pm

Appendices
Dramatis Personae
Aemon al Caar al Thorin. King of Manetheren and Warder to Queen Eldrene. His crest is the Wolfhead.
Airena Andalusa. Aes Sedai. Yellow Ajah. Advisor to Marshall-General Law Cathon.
Amarak Cysil. First Lord of Manetheren. Marshall-General. Grand-Legion of Jara-Copan-No-More. His banner is the wolf spider.
Caar al Thorin al Toren. Abdicated Prince of Manetheren. Father of Aemon. His crest is the Wolfhead. Deceased.
Cordin Brogan. Noncommissioned soldier. T’Eldrene Company.
Cydin Blake. Captain. Thunder Legion.
Diest Arcanum the “Thunder Lord”. Third Lord of Manetheren. Lieutenant General. Thunder Legion. His crest is the Thunderbolt.
Drogan Trystan. Major General, prom. Lt. General. 50th Light Infantry Banner.
Drov Borsy. Major. Chief of Engineer Corps. HQ Legion.
Eldrene ay Ellan ay Carlan. Queen of Manetheren. Aes Sedai. Blue Ajah.
Ilak Didam. Royal Vizier to King Aemon.
Jot Diadrem. Major General. True Blade Legion.
Jorj Reimos. Staff sergeant. 2nd Light Infantry Banner. Father of Stef Reimos.
Lawe Cathon. First Lord of Manetheren. Marshall-General. Grand-Legion of Manetheren, “Band of Red Hand”. His crest is the Boarhound.
Leis Nosi. Captain. Deputy Chief of the Engineer Corps.
Nathen Austern. Colonel. Adjutant to Marshall-General Lawe Cathon.
Piotor Vanigan. Dreadlord of the Black Horde. Previously First Lord of Manetheren.
Seth "Fist" Notar. Lieutenant General. Black Moon Legion.
Stef Reimos. Sergeant. T’Eldrene Company. Son of Jorj Reimos.
Stren "Bastion" Vader. Second Lord of Manetheren. Lieutenant General. First Legion.
Tayren Suturb. Soldier. T’Eldrene Company.
Toreg Donahin. First Lord of Manetheren. Marshall-General. Grand-Legion of the Manatherendrelle. His banner is the White Striped Hawk.
"Warder". Gaidin to Airena Andalusa.
Zira Coutir. Nurse. Manetheren Palace Post-Procedure Recovery.

Glossary
Aramaelle. One of the Ten Nations of the Covenant, situated in present-day Shienar, Arafel and Malkier. One of the bloodiest battlefields of the Trolloc War, devastating much of the country. Its cities include Mafal Dadaranell (capital), Anolle'sanna, Cuebiyarsande, Rhahime Naille. Its banner is the Two Herons.

Band of Red Hand. A colloquial term describing a set of military groups found in Manetheren during the time of the Trolloc Wars. The most documented is the Grand-Legion of Manetheren, under the command of a First Lord of Manetheren, Lawe Cathon. The Band ascribed to the Legion System prevalent in the times, with a grand-legion, sectioned down to: legion, banner, battle battalion, company or battery, platoon, squad, and detachment. Much of the officers were of Manetheren nobility, but war casualty often caused commoners to rise to power. The banner was the Red Hand.

Bashere, Nonoc. The commander of the Jaramide Partisans, the resistance army of the defunct Jaramide military that was destroyed at the early stages of the Trolloc Wars. He helped revolutionize many of the tactics that helped turn the tide including hit-and-run cavalry strikes. He was one of the forces that responded to Manetheren’s aid against Tar Valon’s orders, although arrived too late. He was instrumental in revival of the Jaramide Immortals who participated in the final Battle of Maighande that concluded the Trolloc Wars.

Blasted Lands. The Northern Areas controlled by the Shadow. Much of it is now known as the modern Blight, and the modern term referring to the desolate area beyond the Great Blight.

Butcher Bug. A creature of the Blasted Land. An arachnid known for its molecule-thin silk strand which will cut up anything that touches it. Now believed to be extinct. See also Stick.

Caldazar. The mythical Red Eagle of Manetheren, and a significant entity in Manethren history and culture. Also the Banner of Manetheren.

Caar One-Hand. Once a royal prince of Manetheren, he is a symbol of tragedy. He was sent on a diplomatic mission to return the rogue nation of Aridhol back to the Second Covenant. But, he was imprisoned by the corrupted King. When men was sent to rescue him, Aridhol was abandoned and the Prince was gone. Caar had escaped, but at the cost of one hand. He met his demise to his tragic love Rhea, who was possessed by the Shadow. No body was ever recovered, so his memorial in Manetheren is empty. He is the titular character in the Ballad of Caar One-Hand.

(Second) Covenant of Nations, also Compact of Ten Nations. The ten nations united after the Breaking, but whose signatories still fought among themselves. They were unified at the Trolloc Wars by the signing of the Second Covenant of Tar Valon. The banner is the Shield of the Covenant.

Day of Umbri. The date of a solar eclipse during the reign of Queen Sorella ay Marena. There was much civil unrest and war until Queen Sorella was able to unite the fragmented tribes that became Manetheren.

Getty, Dravo. Explorer of history. Much of his maps are now lost today. Disappeared into the Blasted Lands. The hero of the contemporary Jain Farstrider.

Jaramide. One of the Ten Nations of the Covenant, situated in present-day Saldaea and Arad Doman. Over-run by the Trollocs early on, they turned to partisan tactics for much of the rest of the war. Its banner is the Firedrake.

Manetheren. One of the Ten Nations of the Covenant, situated in present-day Two Rivers and Ghealdan. It holds a bitter rivalry with Safer, the most recent incident dating to Aedomon's invasion prior to the Trolloc Wars. Its major cities include Manetheren (the capital), Coratheren, Jara'copan (not the original fabled Jara'copan), and Shanaine. It was ruled by King Aemon and Queen Eldrene at its Fall. Its hierarchy is the King, First Lords, Second Lords, Third Lords, and the Lesser Lords. Its banner is the Caldazar.

Mountain of Dhorom. Named after the Sentinel Gais Dhorom, who was the architect of the Borderland Defense Accord. Now long forgotten, the mountain range is now known as the Mountains of Dhoom.

Nightstalkers. Shadowspawn of the creature that lived during the time of the Trolloc Wars. Much of the records of them were lost, but they are believed to be extinct.

Old Tongue. The prevalent language used during the Trolloc Wars, which is now used as symbols of learning and nobility. Much of Old Tongue had degenerated into the present language. For example, the Manetheren noble surname of Aemon has been dialectized into Emond, as Cathon has been dialectized into Caden or Cauthon.

Order of Black Moon. A sect of empty-handed warriors residing in Aelgar. They lived in the Monastery of Black Moon. Their leader is the Master of the Order. In the Trolloc Wars, they offered their services in training soldiers for battle. They survived the Trolloc Wars with the Monastery acting effectively as a independent city-state, until they were crushed in the Moon's Rebellion by the forces of Hawkwing's rising empire.

Phantom Blades. A shadowspawn now known as modern Greymen. They were once mortals that gave up their souls to become assassins. To their quarry, the phantom blade appears to be a normal human, which their eyes appear to slip past. The victim, no matter how alert, usually only notices after the dagger is placed through their heart.

Safer. One of the Ten Nations of the Covenant, situated in present-day Toman Head. A rival of Manetheren, which considers it a barbarian country. it employs the Phalanxes style of armies, equipped with deadly eassiras. They boast the largest sea-born navy consisting of their fearsome Saferi War Galleons. Its banner is the Coiled Serpent.

Shayol Ghul. Also known as the Black Bastion, it remains the heart of the Shadow's power, but also the Dark One's prison, said to have been trapped there by the Creator at the Beginning. However, thin cracks in the seal of his prison allows him to influence his armies and even the world.

Sorella ay Marena. Queen of Manetheren at the signing of the Compact of the Ten Nations. A powerful figure in Manetheren history, her actions and adventures in her rule had reached legendary proportion.

Steel. The secret to steel was only known to the Manetheren Legions and the Saferi Phalanxes at the beginning of the Trolloc Wars. However, the technique quickly migrated to many of the other Covenant countries, and was stolen by a Darkfriend for use by the Black Horde.

Stick. A creature of the Blasted Lands. Known for injecting its victims with powerful digestive juices, that will slowly dissolve its prey as it lives. See also Butcher Bug.

Tetsuan. The Amyrlin Seat during the Fall of Manetheren, previously a Red Ajah Sitter. She redirected Covenant reinforcements away from Manetheren in its time of need, directly resulting in its destruction. She was stripped of her position and stilled. This was believed to be a result of her jealousy of Queen Eldrene. The White Tower holds the official position that the Black Ajah does not exist and was not involved.

Three Idylls. The three spirits of Honor, Valor, and Liberty. It epitomizes the central tenets of Manetheren ideology, and have been personified in many mythology to be beautiful deities armed respectively with a shield, a sword, and a torch.

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