Fan Fiction

Rain Ghosts by Dustin Geeraert

Part I - The Grey Gates30 April 2004, 9:49 PM

"After the armies of the Province were finally broken at Covenant, the survivors scattered among the Free Cities of the North, taking their arms with them..."

I came here to escape. I have never been the one to take initiative or deal with problems while they're still manageable; I am a caring person but I know I'm not a responsible one. At some point a time ago, I lost control of my life, and the only way I can deal with being overwhelmed is to retreat.

So I am here - the rain-fortress at the utmost ends of the earth, a place of never ending bad weather, a supposedly military outpost that no sane man would ever want. This will be the last place that the Fallen come - and come they will - because it is strategically useless. No one goes in or out of here except for the occasional convoy, and I can think of no better place to hide in the known world. Out of the way, drizzly, near-empty, and utterly desolate; a place of nothingness.

It's been a long journey here, several months from the sun-scorched plains of the Province. The plains themselves were haunting. No matter where I was: hidden cave, open camp, or sturdy garrison, I always felt as if the Fallen were dangerously close - that I would look over one more hill and see the damnable thrall marching again, again towards me. This feeling faded as the distance between Madrigal and I increased. But the woods of the Ermine were scarcely better. The sun disappeared and everything became shadowed and blue, savages and wild beasts threatening my mount at every turn.

But when I emerged, I saw neither blinding brightness nor pitch shadows. I saw everything in gray, flat, murky despair. The trail through the swamps was rough and often half-overgrown, and I lost my way several times. The countryside was and has remained unrelentingly bland; rocky in places, marshy in others, with the odd tree trying to keep a hold in the boggy ground. The colour seemed to drain as I journeyed from the sunny valleys past the stony mountains of the Cloudspine and through the dull swamps of this dreary landscape. The trees became dark and dull, the rocks melancholy, and the sky claustrophobically covered in ever-present gray clouds. It seems that there is only one season here; a cold season in which parts of the ground are stiff or frozen, and rain, sleet or snow is never far away.

My retreat has come to an end. I reached the gray gates several minutes ago, but there was no watchman in the tower to welcome me. I cannot tell what time it is, but it's dark outside. Perhaps the watchman is asleep. This place looks even more decayed than what I envisioned it to be. Stones once well-cut have been dislodged, rain has dulled any sharp lines the place may have had, and there are holes in the masonry everywhere. In some places the wooden palisade-stakes are rotting at their bottoms, and the muddy ground is full of fallen stones and stagnant puddles. The glass windows have pieces out in several places - not one I can see is intact. I continue to wait outside, knocking on the large wooden gate and listening to the sound of distant thunder.

Through the light rain and a window's broken pane, I perceive a slight movement. Scarcely a moment later the heavy wooden gate creaks open and I am admitted inside. The gateman is a thin, wretched looking creature with a half-beard and a worried look about him. He is dressed in drab, worn clothing and looks like an extension of the building - a true product of his environment. He introduces himself as Dranor, and in his meek way inquires how far lost I am that I arrived at the doorstep of this forgotten fortress.

I tell him I have been stationed here for an unknown period of time, and that this was done at my request. He looks at me curiously, and looks down at the soaked mud-stone ground and mutters in a low tone "Oh."

Without another word he grasps my horse's bridle and leads me into the front courtyard. The design of this place, I see, is irregular - probably before the days of standardized fortress designs and well-famed masons. Possibly, it was even built upon the site of an older fortress built by a different and more ancient people. I inquire.

Dranor says "This place's been here for s'long as anyone c'n r'member. I don't know when twas built, gotta say long ago though... as y'can see, it hasn't been kep't in good r'pair..."

He ties up my horse in the stable, shoves some moldy food at it, and leads me up a flight of stairs of questionable stability and into a small room with a small, broken window on one wall opposite the door. The modest furnishing consists of a single worn bed and a woven matt on the floor. He bids me good night and tells me to see a man named Erik sometime tomorrow. There doesn't seem to be much of a schedule around here. As the thunder still rumbles, far off, I drift from gray consciousness to the blackness of sleep, drowning in memories...

Part II - Two Dreams4 May 2004, 8:22 AM


Fire falling, a black burning spectre off a bridge.

A fiery shadow, outlined against the gray sky, a blazing darkness falling forever.

Falling impossibly far, descending quickly, clearly, necessarily, into the plunging abyss.

The end, oblivion, stands in wait, like one of the great Eastern deaths the comet brought.

The crack of ice as the body hits. Fire and ice, the way life began. And the dark woods thunder and the black winds howl indifferently, and the red flame dies in the freezing shadows beneath the bridge as my life ends.

I awaken, and in that half-sleep realize that I have been dreaming. I always dream that, the fiery death. The truth of it I do not know. Perhaps the dream is just a product of the many defeats I have seen. I have not slept long. The sun is down most of the time in this region, but the minute hints of dawn, the small pale glow to the east, are inching their way across the ragged terrain and graying the window's panes from their former blackness. Restless like always, I stand up and stagger my way outside into the chilly night-morning, a sort of in-between time. Strange things are rumoured to happen at times and places that escape definition.

It is then that I look across the ruinous ramparts of the barbican and see the same movement in the same window as before. This time I catch glimpse of a human form before the curtain is shoved back over the window. This makes me wonder what sort of people inhabit this place - did they request it, as I did? Are they hiding from something or someone? Or were they just placed here and eventually succumbed to the melancholy and atmosphere of resignation? Cowards, those who despair, or those who simply don't care?

I walk down the rough wooden steps and onto the muddy ground. I wander to the fortress doors, push one open, and step outside, looking out of the broken stone archway onto the stagnant pools and withered trees of the watery brown-gray landscape. The woods wind their way around the boulders and ponds, as if the rows of individual trees are only the seeking roots of a larger, more ambitious tree.

The graying dawn becomes almost white at the horizon's tip, and first light reaches the fortress (if it is fair to call it that). There is a soft breeze up, which sways slightly the less-dense areas of tree and bush, but it is a stronger movement than this one amongst the trees that draws my attention.

Someone appears to be winding their way through the wounded trees, sliding with the deliberation of fever. The air is sound-starved, and I can distinctly hear a series of continuous, liquid footsteps.

A particular pair of trees ahead parts and stepping between them, willowy, is an extraordinary creature. A girl who at the same time seems completely out of place and yet shares the despairing, rain-drowned look of the gateman; who looks ethereal in the gray light. I judge her to be two or three years my junior, though what connection she has with the fortress or why she should be in the woods at this hour, I have no idea.

Peering through the feeble light, I try to catch more of her specifics. Her hair is long and black, and coils around her like the roots of a tree. She is pale like a spectre, but at the same time, seemingly full of strange life. Her movements are careful but graceful; she seems completely in her environment. Unaware yet of me, she continues to wind her way through the mud-choked plain in front of the fortress, hair stirring in the slight breeze.

I cannot help but continue to stare at her. This girl is a singularly beautiful creature. No sooner has this thought entered my mind than I notice a strange sound, a quiet sound, almost like sobbing. But the morning's stillness hangs heavily in the air, and I cannot be sure. By the time I realize she is crying she is very near the gates. She does not look up. She still hasn't seen me, it seems.

I don't wish to startle her, but that is exactly what happens. I try to speak in a voice not too loud, without an edge, and say "Are you alright?"

This does not work as she is already quite close by and she looks up quickly and violently, her eyes stained, and sucks in air deeply. She stares for a second, and before I can say anything the wooden door behind me creaks open loudly and the gateman appears. He puts his arm on her back and moves her inside, where she seems to disappear, and the gateman reappears beside me. He looks at me.

Before I can even say anything, he says "Never mind her."

I open my mouth as if to speak, but I say nothing, and after a moment I only wander back up to my quarters in the hopes of sleeping some before the sun comes fully up...

Part III - The Ramparts19 May 2004, 5:23 AM

The next day I awaken much later than is usual; I attribute this to my restless night and so many weeks on the road. I'm stiff and sore despite getting an amount of rest almost ridiculous compared to my guarded, fear-haunted nights in the bog on the way here.

I clammer down the rickety stairs and then into the open square, still touched by light rain. Out here there seems to be little activity going on, despite the fact that the time is approaching midday. The weather, of course, is overcast - I don't think the sun ever appears here - and the day has a misty, uncertain feel to it.

I approach a man I have not seen before who is working in a smithy. I inform him that I am the new soldier here, and ask him where I might find Erik.

I am guided through the muddy fortress-town to an open avenue, in which dark streaks of dirt and water draw together and lead to a soiled and grayish ramp, itself terminating at the door of a building of stone and rotting stucco - the place which I am told serves as the home of Erik, foremost among the fortress's leaders.

At this point I thank the smith and he departs down the soggy pathway back to his occupation. I knock several times on the old wood door, and before long a man appears in the doorway and asks my business.

This is Erik. He tells me this after I explain to him my stationing here for possibly ever. He is tall and well-filled, and though gray and unshaven like the rest of the people I have seen, he carries himself with a bit of pride which is probably what sets him apart from the other inhabitants of this oubliette.

From the look of him and the weapons, plan papers, and war-focused volumes I see as I enter his dwelling, I can tell that Erik is the acknowledged military leader of the outpost. I take some comfort in the fact that when this place comes under attack, his competence and skill will make for a formidable defense, despite the torn flags and worn structures. A brown, sturdy table serves as centerpoint to his stony room, and sitting around it are two men, presumably other leaders. Erik and I both fall into two of several chairs placed haphazardly around the table, while the other two look on.

He asks if I have a specialty of military significance, or any skills that places me above an average soldier. "Everything you'd expect of a captain, as well as some experience as a craftsman," I tell him.

"And you served in the armies of the Province.."

"In the south, Covenant, Tyr, and Madrigal..." I inform him.

"Madrigal." He states the word, flat, empty. The whole room feels the despair that word brings.

"You were there." One of the other two, a red-bearded tall man, looks at me.

"I saw." Stillness fills the air. "It was... horrible."

Silence still reigns in the room, to the point where the light drizzle of rain outside, forever wearing the world down, is audible.

"Right," says the tall man, grabbing his companion by the shoulder as they both rise. "We were just discussing strategy..." and with a nod to Erik "We'll continue this tonight."

Both men step to the door, into the dull daylight, and are gone.

Erik continues: "You can take up a position of Captain among our third band of warriors."

"Already?" I am rather surprised by this. I straighten, and say "Thank you, sir."

Rather than responding, Erik pauses, silent for a moment, and then looks up. "Can I ask you something?"

"What?" I say.

"Why did you ask to be placed here... here of all places?"

I don't know what I'm supposed to say to that.

He continues. "If you wanted out of danger and yet a soldier's pay; well, then you're a scoundrel, and the gods know there are better places for that than here; Garrisons full of such schemers..."

I observe him.

"You don't look like such a man... but why?"

I say simply "This is the ends of the earth, is it not? Some men cannot live elsewhere."

"A drifter, eh? I know the type. You look like this place had its effect on you long before you came here... not two days here and already you look as if you belong..."

"I needed to leave..." I don't know what there is to say about my life beyond that.

"I see," says Erik.

This seems to be the end of our conversation.

I turn and find my way out of the battered room, pushing the creaky door back into place behind me and stepping down into the muddy streets. What's there to do now? I wonder. Despite this place being itself, I still have the urge to make a thorough exploration of the perimeter, and I still expect that at some point, the fortress's current guardians will appoint someone to do it for me. But apparently this is not a priority. I wonder what is a priority around here. Probably nothing.

I wander down, through the alleyways, until I reach one of the outer walls, gray and bleak. I follow this wall, its rough textural stone and soggy base, until I come to a rampart. The soldier standing there seems in little hurry to move out of my way, though he offers nothing by way of resistance or even question. He simply nudges vacantly out of the way and once I have begun my ascent, stoops back into position, leaning on the rail. I wonder what thoughts run through the mind of a man like that as the rain falls down in front of him.

I step further up the rampart and find myself in a series of walkways, inexplicably constructed and now decaying. Ramps open to me on left and right, while windows occupy the outer wall and parapets line the inner wall. Running down the wall, every hundred meters or so, square towers are perched, the cold breezes winding through their windows and ruinous walls. I look back down onto the gray-brown scene beneath me. People stand and stare, the mud, the houses, the rain; it is all one. I imagine what would happen if I leaped off. Perhaps I would break some bones, perhaps even death. It is quite a ways down, but the mud looks deep in several places. I recall avoiding those when I was walking beneath. Nothing moves down there, nothing except the rain.

I make my way one ramp up further and onto the highest walkway, where through the parapets I am able to get a glimpse of the surrounding terrain. Now, the countryside around here is hardly a surprise; black, wizened trees, gray mud, pale, broken stones, and in the hazy distance, the bluish forms of faraway mountains. I can see many places an enemy could hide; but there are no enemies here. Not yet, anyway - but one day there will be.

The air is colder up here, and off in the overcast distance I can see a shimmering light that must represent the cloud-filtered sun. The taste in my mouth is bitter. I begin to walk down the rampart, mechanically following it with the vague intent of walking full around the fortress.

Passing between parapets, I imagine the inevitable: a time, though I do not know when, in which men will brace themselves against these stone barriers and then step into the clear to blast arrows, stones, and anything else remotely harmful at the sea of corpses that will be bear up against these gates and pile itself, blackening out the sky with its vile, dark essence. The unstoppable, all-engulfing darkness brought by the Thrall and their awful masters.

I continue to climb. The irregular fortress seems like it once may have been formidable: but then that applies to so many things. Gray and black stone jutting out into the sprawling mud-mire, sharpened stakes streaked with yellow and black stabbing the sky and pointing outwards: this is a hostile place, hostile and desolate.

Damp staircases lead me at strange angles to higher towers, manned by the occasional archer or lone, brooding scout. Some turn to look at me as I pass. Others do not move at all, as listless as the Thrall they will have to fight. I pass through higher ruined turrets, rugged and angular.

Finally, through an opening in an imposing dark square tower, I round a corner and step over the bleak wooden bridge to the Tower, the highest point of the rain-fortress. Once inside I slowly scramble up the broken stairwell, dragging myself up through the darkness. Drops of water fall on me from above, while the wind howls and dull light throws itself through the holes between loose bricks.

Finally I reach the uppermost aperture, and emerge again into gray light beneath the brooding clouds, upon the shimmering stones, slick with rainwater. This is the furthest up I've been in a long time. I can see in every direction, for once in somewhere not claustrophobic in this land of twisted trees, stony mountains and mysterious ruins.

I look to the East, and can see from the muddy plains of the marsh all the way into the blue-gray distance where the Cloudspine rises, immaculate. West the bogs rise into taller trees, and the black-blue Ermine flows in, grasping at the swamps. North, shadows fall as the mud becomes more desolate; everything dies out slowly and the land itself terminates at the black, tortured banks of the North Sea.

I look South last, for it is a direction I have cause to fear. But I see nothing, nothing but bleak bogs and plains, and the weathered path I followed here, tracing the Cloudspine parallel as it fades into the distance, gray with falling water. All around me is the open air: nothingness. Beneath me, the tortured earth, awaiting its final rape at the hands of the fallen. Supporting me, the ruinous, rain-wracked structures of men, built ages ago in different times. Inside me, the despair of having seen the Fallen and their work firsthand.

There is nothing more to be seen up here. I stumble back down the stairs and out onto the open ramparts.

Part IV: In The Tavern5 July 2004, 9:22 PM

"How did things come to this?" I ask as a way of initiating conversation with the red-bearded man from Erik's room.

He turns from his mug, eyes bleary with intoxication, and grunts "We are not sages, soldier, and know none who are. Death is a mystery as much as life."

His companion, perhaps less drunk, comments "Historians and chroniclers have recorded the events, and thus it is easy to follow the chain and see how things did come to this... but the greater question is why."

I signal the man behind the tavern counter, a large fellow with dull eyes and thick whiskers, to bring me something strong.

Reifnir and Rurik introduce themselves to me as Erik's immediate subordinates, Reifnir being the red-haired man while Rurik is the name of the shorter, more stable fellow. "Like everything else," says Reifnir, "It is the gods."

Draining his cup and staring into its bleak emptiness, he continues "I have never known much of the true workings of the world, but to me it seems safe to say that we have been completely, utterly forsaken."

As the tavern-man sets down my drink on the grimy table, Reifnir grabs it and drains it in one long draught, which is perhaps not surprising. He hands the man some dirty coins without a word. As the man turns to return to the counter, I say "I'd still like a drink" and give him the appropriate coinage myself. Not that money could really matter: in the current situation, the idea of economics is little more than a bad joke. When there are devils at your door, you care little for your worldly possessions. And when oblivion faces you, staring at you from all sides as the cliff allowing you to exist crumbles and you begin to fall, nothing can really matter anymore.

"I am only a simple man," I say, "and I hate this." It seems to me that something so ridiculous as this, so unreal and yet immediately solid, should at least have some explanation so that I could grasp at it as a comfort, so that I could at least know the reason why my life, everyone I have ever known, friend or foe, and everything I have ever cared for, must be destroyed by darkness. "I ask not for the tide to be turned" I continue, "For I know that that is impossible. I only want to understand."

"You'll find nothing of that kind in a thrall's axe," mutters Rurik, perhaps cynically but with good reason. "And that is all you will ever know. Your romantic fantasies about having a right to exist, having refused to die inside you, will only end when your life itself flickers out."

I understand then that Rurik has let all hope go, and in that way is yet worse than the alcoholic, despair-drenched Reifnir, who shares with me an internal rage at what has happened to our world. "We do not deserve this." I say simply in reply.

"That," Rurik stares at me with cold eyes as he responds "is irrelevant."

Another two drinks appear for Reifnir and myself, and I hope that perhaps he won't feel obliged to help himself to mine this time. Rurik does not seem particularly interested in drinking obscene amounts, being in a type of despair beyond any self-pity. His soul, it seems, is usually as empty as Reifnir's glass.

"I suppose you've been promoted," he continues. With a frozen smirk, he adds "We had an opening that's been to your apparent gain."

Through another half-glass, Reifnir adds "This man has no qualms with stating things blatantly, as they are."

"Gwyon, your direct predecessor, disappeared a week ago. Since we haven't seen any of the enemy around here at all, yet, it's fairly certain that he wandered off some dark afternoon to go drown or hang himself."

I choke a bit on my strong ale. "Why not simply wait for the Dark to do it?"

"My guess is that he was sick of putting up with this."

Reifnir, head now lolling, mutters "He had had enough."

I can't stand such self-wallowing despair on one hand and gleeful cynicism on the other. Rurik can torture someone else; Reifnir can continue to drown his sorrows. I finish my drink and step across the decaying floor towards the half-open, mud-caked door.

Part V: The Drowned Kingdom21 August 2005, 2:25 PM

Outside the door, I stand in the tavern's dull shade, hiding from the bleak, broken sky. There are only a handful of people in sight, mostly battered civilians. I wonder how they ended up in this place; old men and women staring at the thick blanket of clouds, perhaps remembering the lost light of the distant past. Time and experience in this world have worn down all humanity a quintessence of gray despair.

There is one soldier in view, one much like the ramp-guard I saw earlier. He stands there, still in the rain, leaning against a stone wall. I can't see his eyes, because his brows and helm shadow them in deep pockets of darkness: but I do not doubt that they are as expressionless as the rest of his face: set, gray, neutral. This man betrays no expression: to the best of my thought I decide that this was because he had no expression to betray: he does not care. He simply exists. I know despair: I do not know apathy.

When the Thrall come, I will once again feel desperation and hatred, not hatred directed at the mindless corpses who will surround me and destroy me or at their diabolical, unknowable masters, but at the circumstance that has placed me on this earth in this situation - and right now I can tell that this man will never know that. He will never care.

I walk up to him and ask him "You have a post to guard?" being as I am a captain, no matter the circumstance.

He does not look annoyed or even surprised, and without a movement of his unshaven jaw, replies "No."

"What are you doing here, leaning against this wall?"

"Leaning against this wall."

"What's your name, soldier?"


I stare at him for another few moments, that bleak face, then just wander away.

A few ragged blocks later, I run into Erik, who seems to be inspecting the buildings and perimeter for weak points and damaged masonry. If that's the case, he'll be outside for a long time - my casual viewing of the fortress has revealed more stone broken than intact.

"Ah, you again" he greets me.

"Had a drink with your officers" I respond.

"Did you? An optimistic two, aren't they?"

"I left after one drink."

A pause follows, then I ask "What are you doing out here? Everyone here... it's like they're dead already."

"You're like that too, remember? I don't see you fighting hopeless battles under the southern sun."

"I just see things the way they are. I've seen more than enough of the battles of the south. But again, why inspect the fortress, why repair its weak points, why bother to defend it at all? Why delay the inevitable?"

Erik stands, listening. He looks at me through the light rain and says, "I resist them on principle."

"Well," I can only say "You're a stronger man than I, and most I've met."

Erik, though older and likely scarred by many more battles than me, represents something to me that I either lost or have never had. His active resistance and refusal to abandon this final fortress is my conviction, we do not deserve this, taken to an extreme. There is nowhere to retreat from here but the dead, infertile wilderness and then the Black Shores; like me and all others here he merely waits for doom: but a spark of spirit lives in him: he will meet that doom. Perhaps when the day comes, as I always say, never far away, I could find a similar spark in myself, and stop running for one time.

There is nothing worth obtaining in the world in the brief time we have left in it. News came this morning that the Dark had broken those armies that guarded the Stair of Grief, last and northernmost of the three passes through the great mountain range of the Cloudspine. This means that White Falls is certainly doomed, and along with it all the Free Cities of the North, and that the enemy are within mere days of our position. A convoy of horrified refugees arrived to bear to us the grim news, as if we could not have guessed by their mere appearance. I left shortly after they arrived, for I did not like to see such mass confusion and panic. Apparently, there are some among us who have just lately begun accepting the stark, utter truth of the advance of the Dark.

I have been walking the journey to the Black Shores through the dead, stunted woods in the gray rain. It has reached midday, and the muddy banks are visible ahead of me, through perhaps another hour of rocky, drenched terrain. Though I remained outwardly calm throughout the arrival of the survivors of the mountain battle, the events of this morning did indeed have an iron impact on me: forcing to the forefront of my mind the knowledge I have had all my adult life: this day, this hour, this breath, may be my last. The Dark will not wait to devour the remaining cities of the West: now they flow into the West like a devouring river, our armies drowning in an endless onslaught of infinite blackness. And behind it all, some horrible undercurrent of fate, some twisted decree of unknown gods, our guardians gone and shades at our gates. I walk to the shores because I cannot handle the bustle and confusion of fortress activity: cowards, snivelers, fools. Perhaps I have the same concerns: perhaps I do not want to die, either. The difference is that I do not bother others with useless prayers, screams or cries. I have accepted my own irrelevance.

I walk through low, twisted bushes long dead, long grasses that once may have shimmered gold but now lie dull, stepping over mud-caked rocks and black grime. Rain is scarce but I see a storm approaching in the distance. I move almost subconsciously, as my thoughts intensify I pay less attention to my surroundings. I foolishly consider the same problem that can never be solved: the one with no solution: why? Why is this happening to our world?

I remember all the lost faces, comrades, brothers, family, all gone. Some dead, some lost, some remote. Perhaps I despise the refugees because I have seen far more war than they, yet I lament it not because, due to the very extent of what I have seen, I know it is useless. Perhaps I only tell myself I despise them, and my reason for leaving the fortress for this walk to the shores of death is really only one more retreat, to the very last place a man could ever go.

Finally, the ground becomes soggy and through broken branches I see the shimmering, gray surface of the sea. The water is choppy, rough at the command of the wind. Dead wood lies all over the banks, smashed logs and dark shapes amongst the tall, soaked marsh-grass. A small clearing in the brush past a long swath of puddles appears ahead as the grass opens, and having walked all morning on little, haunted sleep, I choose it for a place of rest.

Darkness and gray swirl together in the distant ceiling of the sky. Thunder rumbles, and less audible sounds make themselves known - the low wind moving swiftly through the grass, droplets of rain, the lapping of the silver waves. The clouds move slowly, trembling with the cold of the high wind, and drift into one another through the dull air. The rain is hardly noticeable, betrayed by minute sounds only, themselves only known to the ear by the all-encompassing, surreal and mournful silence.

I lay in the wet grass, staring at the gray sky. These may be the last moments of reflection I have. Though the events of my lifetime seem simple, I believe they are a result of something both complex and incomprehensible for a normal person. Old folk-tales I heard as a child, before I ever knew of the coming of the Dark, are full of terrors and wonders - the dead rising, communication with fallen forefathers, men changing into animals and strange races from distant lands. I gave the legends as much credence as anyone could afford: old tales certainly had some grain of truth in them. And tales of wars, and conquest and glory I thought were only a form of exaggerated history.

It was first hinted to me what war meant when I was taken by my uncle and the other men of our village to the cemetery, where we removed the remains of our ancestors and burnt them in a hastily prepared pyre, allowing the blaze to spread through the village and to our farms and fields as something unkind whispered, translucent like choking black smoke, in the air. I remember looking back at the thick, poisonous fumes and seeing horrible faces emerging from it, the tortured faces of the soulless.

When we arrived at Madrigal, exhausted and starving, we were treated very badly. "Scorched earth won't work - you don't understand," I recall a commander saying to my uncle. "We were serious about those bodies," said another.

Thinking about those times, when things were as yet - uncertain - I realize how strange the old lore really was. Myths, monsters, magic - it was not the fantastic elements that made the old tales seem so far from reality. I have seen the walking dead, and I have heard tales from huddling, wretched, crazed men in dark corners of ruined camps, stories that were great and terrible, and which I wished with all my being to dismiss, but could not. It is the fact that the old stories never seemed to give one a grasp on the true nature of the things they were telling which causes me to view them so skeptically now.

War is one such thing. In those fictions, there was conquest, ambition, glory, and battles were epic clashes of will between worthy adversaries. That is not war. War is filthy, cold, wet, bleeding. War is friends sinking into mud, drowning in disease-poisoned sinkholes and being powerless to stop it. War is bloated corpses, tortured landscapes, weary, awful faces and the stench of carrion.

And magic. In the stories magic is a benevolent force, wielded playfully by enchanters and their students, something men can grasp and control. Yet that is not magic. Magic, from what I have seen, is not a tool to be used by men but rather a force in its own right, which controls living beings rather than the reverse. Magic is Balor. I have seen what effects magic has had on our world. Corpses animated by implacable darkness. Thundering floods, ribbons of fire streaking down from the sky, solid earth melting and sickly fumes burning where once life grew. The very elements were always against us, manipulated by a vicious enemy. And our wizards? Like blind men on a frail skiff, months from shore during a great storm. Their efforts to stop the Dark have not fared any better than the common soldier's effort with sword or bow, or, if they have, I cannot imagine what it would have been like if they had not.

Occasionally, when it was late into the black, shrouded nights of my late childhood, I would hear a story that was truly frightening. The one that always shook me was about a race of terrible cannibals from the distant past, with the dark powers themselves behind them, who nearly drove humanity to extinction. When in a particularly malicious humour, my uncle would tell me that this story - entire villages of men being devoured by wolfish fiends - was based on historical fact, and that at some time in the eons of the world's history, a race that horrible had really walked the same earth as us.

I was reassured whenever I became truly frightened that such stories were simply catharsis for the morbid living in men's minds. But as I see the world around me now, I have realized the truth. It was the common story, that of enchantment and glory, that was untruth. Those were the stories people told to make themselves feel better, to shield their minds from the realities of the world. I do not know for how long my village had known about the coming of the Dark, perhaps the entirety of my childhood. In any case, the tales of glory and light were lies. Even as the East was ravaged and made into lifeless desert, I was told the tales any naive child hears. And it was the stories of horrible things, of desecration and destruction of life itself that were true. I have seen it.

The gray above swirls into black and my eyes close. I blink. I am outside, in the shimmering sunlight of the Western plains, atop a proud tower in the open air. I can see the green sea behind the city, miles away into the blue distance. Rugged brown-green terrain surrounds the stone city, and every gate is barred. I remember this still: standing there, not seventeen years old, as the messenger arrives, on a bloodied black horse hardly standing. The Gate of Storms, greatest of Madrigal's entranceways, is opened. Rabican, a figure of then-mythic importance, was the sorcerer charged with defending the city. I saw him, as he strode down the stone steps in his brown cape and helmet, ready for whatever the news should be. The messenger, exhausted, whispered something into Rabican's ear, and then collapsed, falling off of his horse onto the muddy ground. Several soldiers and townspeople, alarmed, rushed to his side and lifted him by his shoulders. His head dropped. He was dead.

In the distance, between the mountain peaks, a thick and vile darkness began to appear, and it seemed as if the clouds themselves trembled at Balor's wrath. The central pass to the West, Seven Gates, had been lost.

The armies of the Dark did not come to Madrigal immediately, but pursued a campaign leading up to its attack by first removing barriers to Madrigal - coastal cities that could have sent in flanking armies, military encampments on the plains, ports to cut access to supplies. I huddled with my family and fellow villagers in a miserable refugee camp set up in the filthiest area of the city for months, while every day brought more refugees to swell the ranks of the hungry and dispossessed. I volunteered for service in arms simply to get out of that hole, even though I was not of age. But the desperate armies of the West were glad for anything with two arms, and so I was brought in without delay.

Training every day was grueling, but I was allowed to roam the city in my off-hours and stand watch upon the walls, giving me the sizable advantage of knowing what the hell was going on out there, and receiving some fresh air rather than the dank, stale, sweaty thick air of the hot, grungy camp. But one day the haze of smoke reaching us from locations weeks away cut my fresh air and my insight into events ahead of others: it was plain to all that cities were being burned. And then it became concrete in my mind: I would have to defend this city against the terrible forces of the Fallen with my own arms.

The fact that I survived the first battle for Madrigal was stupendous. The fact that I survived the second battle for Madrigal was prodigal. The fact that I am still alive now there is no word for. How does one feel when one has seen thousands slain and burned before one's own eyes? When, to consider even a vague calculation, the number of people utterly destroyed and annihilated by the Dark even in the West, numbers in the tens of thousands?

In the supreme unrest of my mind, I awaken. My dream of the darkness of Madrigal fades and the overcast sky reappears through my bleary eyes. I stand on the edges of the earth. A bank of dark clouds looms closer above the water, hostile with threatening thunder. The silver, muddy sand merges silently with the dark waters, as the rain falls.

My thoughts rest on the Drowned Kingdom, lost beneath the sullen darkness of the water, somewhere away from these shores, beyond the thunderclouds and beneath the murky waves. I notice a few worn blocks of ancient stone by my feet: the ruins of what must have been a watchtower when this land was exposed: this shore, a cliff: the cold sea, a valley. Then came the elements, tireless, and loss and fate and death, and an entire land and its people were erased.

This, though long past, is very much like what is happening now, to us. We are dying, drowning, being erased. And will one day a man stand on cold shores or between mournful mountain peaks, wondering about our civilization and our lives, as he sees the long-ruined evidence of our existence? Will Madrigal leave a legacy of lonely stone, remembered by a scattered few? Or will there truly be no one left living, will Balor's success be absolute?

I receive no answer but the unsettling rumbling of dark, implacable thunder.

What could anyone say at this point? Something meant to reconcile us to our fate? Some defiant cry, as the sea of corpses closes in and we begin to drown? Or some sniveling complaint to religious entities, fellow men or the universe in general - as if anyone or anything would give a damn for us. The gods are unknowable, distant or dead. Men have done all they can and it has not sufficed. I do not pretend to have the defiant strength I see in men like Erik, those few strong ones who are never fully affected by despair yet acutely aware of reality. But I do not scream in frustration at what is happening. I do not whine and snivel in despair, like weak cowards do. Why reveal weakness, why revel in patheticness now? I have long since accepted the every-day presence of death, walking on countless feet towards me every day that I have. It is only those who have not truly seen the Dark who can believe that they personally are important and that this cannot be happening to them. Fools and cowards, bereft of strength or dignity.

I depart for the Fortress.

Confrontation haunts the trembling air. The weakly shadows of final hopes and dreams seem to fade behind me, like ghosts in the rain. The clouds cast long shadows over the land like the great gray wings of a carrion-bird. Gulls and crows glide and circle, fluttering through the fog. Every step I take is a statement: I will see the Fallen today. And I will meet my end.

~ You have reached your journey's end ~