Fan Fiction

6 August 2005, 2:36 AM

Penance by Frederick the Great []

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I was the first living man to see the city of Scales after Balor's defeat, and my heart leapt to my throat as its ruined walls rose in the distance. Yet the tears I expected did not flow -- for although it had been my home before the War, I no longer had the strength to weep. Nearly two decades of combat, of battles lost and comrades slain, had ravaged and desolated my heart just as the Dark had the land. My mind, too, had suffered. As I rode across the Plain, I did not miss the green fields and pastures, the wood-smoke of peasants' hearth fires, or the sound of young children running and playing on the grass. I had no memories of a time when peace reigned, when terror and bloodshed only occurred in legends and myths of an age long gone.

The last rays of the dying sun lingered on the horizon and burned on the summits of the Cloudspine as I passed through the gap that had once been the city gate. My horse's hooves kicked up clouds of grey, ashen dust from the dry soil in which no tree or grass could now grow, for it had been smitten by the curse of the undead.

My horse stumbled, and his breath rasped in his throat. I dismounted and apologized for bringing him into this parched land of death; my water had run out that morning, and no streams or rivers were to be found. He gazed at me reproachfully with his bloodshot eyes as if he guessed my intentions. I patted his flank and stroked his neck one last time, then drew my knife. Moments later blood gushed from his throat, and I drank deeply to quench my thirst. I knelt beside him and bowed my head in thanks for his faithful service.

The dust clouds swirled like phantoms given voice by the wind's incessant whisper as I made my way through the city. I crossed the square with its crumbled buildings. The charred remains of the council hall cast spear-like shadows across my path; and as the sunset faded into twilight, I stumbled across a skeleton. It was a child, probably a young boy from the school across the square -- small enough that he had been spared, mercifully, an awful resurrection as an undead thrall of The Deceiver.

In the deepening gloom I saw the entrance to the cemetery, high on a hill near the city's seaward edge. Night had fallen by the time I reached it, but the pale light of an almost-full moon revealed the gaping holes where graves had been many years ago. I gathered the dry wood of broken coffins and built a small fire at the very edge of the cliff that overlooked the Sea. I leaned back against a headstone that had escaped undisturbed, closed my eyes, and listened to the roar of the waves pounding against the rocks below.

Fyllan. That was my name in the early days of the War, before I outlived every single man who enlisted with me and I became known simply as "the old man." And I was old, by comparison. Aged thirty-nine years at the War's end, I knew of only a handful of other soldiers of the Legion who had survived since the beginning.

But back then I was Fyllan, a young man-at-arms in the Scales garrison. As the waves beat against the base of the cliff and the salty air filled my nostrils -- by the gods, it was welcome relief from the dry, acrid dust! -- my memories once again took shape.

I closed my eyes.

We marched out through the city gates amidst shouts and cheers. No one knew -- no one even guessed -- that we were facing a threat far beyond our power to comprehend, let alone defeat in a pitched battle. So we went forth to face the armies of the Dark as they crossed the Cloudspine, for we believed them to be nothing more than a band of marauders. When a lone survivor of one of our merchant caravans returned, bearing news of fell beasts and the walking dead, we laughed, assuming that they were merely barbarians from Forest Heart, cloaked in animal skins to make themselves menacing.

We crossed the Plain of Scales at a brisk march, and saw no signs of the enemy. On the day we reached the foot of the Cloudspine, we made camp in the Circle of Guard -- a half-ring of mountains south of Bagrada from which we could launch an attack on the pass itself. Night came swiftly, for it was late autumn, and our commanders deemed it best to wait for sunrise before seeking out the enemy.

I was given sentry duty for the first half of the night, and I guarded my post without hearing so much as a whisper outside the camp. Although the day had been clear, clouds drifted across the stars until they finally obscured the moon. With them came a great cold, and the wind bit through my thick cloak. I paced back and forth in a vain effort to keep warm.

My friend Crianth relieved me from sentry duty close to midnight. I returned to the main camp and took a seat by the fire with several friends. We passed around a bottle of liquor which we drank for added warmth. One by one, we drifted off to sleep.

Well after midnight, a great sense of horror awakened me -- almost as if the darkness itself were alive and smothering me with invisible hands. Beside me, my friends jerked awake with shouts and cries. We all clambered to our feat and looked wildly around. A heavy snow had fallen. The embers of the campfire glowed, but otherwise all was dark. Yet we all felt the same nameless terror clawing at our hearts, the feeling that countless eyes were watching us from the shadows. For a long moment, all was still save for the startled cries of men throughout the camp as they awoke in dread.

Then the bitter wind howled down from the mountains. Blue flames leapt from the campfire embers, bathing the entire camp in a pale light that made our fear-stricken faces appear all the more corpse-like.

At that instant, the mountains echoed with howls and yells. Harsh horn-blasts rang out from beyond the camp. Dark shapes hurtled from the shadows and fell upon us. We saw clubs, curved swords, fangs and claws only moments before we felt them.

The blue flames spread outward from the fire-pits, burning the snow and sending up a foul-smelling white smoke that rolled across the ground like a fog, blinding our eyes and searing our lungs. The fire's ghastly fire made the creatures all the more terrible to behold. Few among us had seen a ghol before; their blood-red eyes and slavering jaws caused many a man to drop his sword in terror. Even our bravest men turned and fled, only to be cut down from behind or dragged to the ground and torn to shreds. Creatures of darkness and shadow followed behind, many that I still cannot describe -- it is possible that they were only illusions created by The Deceiver -- and for the first time, too, we encountered thrall. Living corpses with grey and ragged flesh hanging from their stumbling bodies and groping arms, a deathly light deep in their empty eye-sockets, their stench nearly overpowered us even before they began to hack with their great axes.

Finally we rallied our remaining men and stood our ground, hoping beyond hope that the assault would end. My friends and I were quickly separated from the main force; one by one my comrades fell. Crianth, who had fled his sentry post, fought beside me until a ghol hewed him in two. The three of us still alive struggled to regroup with the rest at the other side of the camp. By some miracle, I alone reached the circle of no more than two dozen warriors that remained.

The battle raged throughout the night. We retreated to a defensible position where our attackers could not flank us, although they threatened to crush us by sheer numbers. We had expected a raiding party, not countless hordes, and slowly they wore us down.

Shortly before dawn, the enemy drove a wedge between us. Eight of us clambered further up the mountain, and managed to evade our pursuers among the rocks and crevasses. Those we left behind were not so fortunate, and we heard their dying screams as the sun rose over the Cloudspine.

At daybreak, we looked down from the mountainside and saw the carnage below. The bodies of our comrades lay twisted and broken, their blood staining the snow a bright red. Hideous shapes lay among them. Ghols wandered about, tearing the flesh from corpses and tossing the bones aside. We could not bear to watch, and fled further into the mountains. Some said we should make our way back to defend Scales from the imminent assault -- already we could see the column of undead beginning its march across the plain -- but, coward that I was, I argued that we would only be going to our deaths. Three of us died in the mountains, from wounds and exposure.

Weeks later, five survivors stumbled into the city of Strand. There we learned that Scales had fallen only days after the battle in the Circle of Guard. That very day I boarded a ship of volunteers setting sail for Madrigal.

In my mind, I knew that my presence at the Battle of Scales would have done nothing to prevent its fall. Had I been there, I would have died and been reborn as a thrall in The Deceiver's army. But in my heart, I condemned myself for abandoning my home in its darkest hour; and throughout the war, I fought with the hope of reclaiming Scales from the Dark.

I never succeeded. And though my efforts contributed to Balor's defeat, Scales remained in the enemy's control until the end.

When King Alric asked for volunteers to spread the word of his victory throughout the land, I begged to be sent in the direction of Scales -- not because I believed that I would find any living soul with whom to share the news, but because it was my duty.

I write this now by the light of my campfire. At dawn, I will plant the King's flag at this very spot, the highest point in the city. Then I will fall on my sword and die a traitor's death. Perhaps when my guilty blood is shed, the curse on Scales will be lifted -- and if so, perhaps some day, settlers will come from the Province to rebuild my home and make it theirs.

~ You have reached your journey's end ~