Fan Fiction

21 August 2005, 2:25 PM

Part V: The Drowned Kingdom by Dustin Geeraert []

Read/Post Comments

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 ~