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Those Who Remain

Of Armor and Bone- Chapter Seven

The early afternoon sun had melted the low fog away, and the light wind had pushed many of the remaining clouds out of the sky. The horse under Terren’s reins huffed and snorted loudly with each elongated stride. The animal’s nostrils flared wide following every breath, letting out clouds of condensation that quickly disappeared behind them. The sides of his shins pattered against it’s sides that fluttered with the pumping of the animal’s heart.

Out of his peripheral vision, Terren could spot the other riders attempting to keep pace. Ahead on the road laid the last ridge before crossing into the Sing Valley. The hot sun hitting his back stung the skin of his neck. Below his collar, he could feel the sweat starting to pool and soak into the cloak. The rhythmic jostling of the horse below him played against his exhaustion and he struggled to keep his eyes open.

Kiaren collapsed on the ground with a huff. For the first time that morning, she could feel the cold air arouse the hairs on her bare arms. She attempted to cover up her shiver with a sharp breath. Her legs ached and her toes had gone mostly numb in the cold. With a heavy blink, she caught Shiloh glancing her way before turning back to his work. After another breath, she pushed herself back to her feet.
Shiloh continued to toss up mounds of dirt on the smoldering ashes with the spade. The commander stumbled his way, hefting an open jug of water on her back. “Ma’am,” he said, looking up at Kiaren’s smudged, dirty face. “You may rest now. Please, keep your strength.”

“I’m fine.” Kiaren shrugged and sloshed more of the water upon the side of the building. “If we allow more smoke to escape from here, we may continue to draw more undue attention,” she sighed. “We don’t want Xiandol to think we take such an attack lightly.”
Shiloh pursed his lips and peered up at the sky between the space in the roofs overhead. The gray smoke had dissipated into a dull cloud that hung low in the blue winter sky. “If you wish to show them that to the best of your ability, do it with a clear head and rested body.” He declared.

The the top of the hillside, Terren yanked his horse to a stop. In cool, light breeze, he caught the scent of smoke on the air. The other riders slowed to a halt beside him. The following guard lifted his hand in the air to signal the others following to stop. Terren’s eyes studied the horizon.

“Is something the matter, Sir?” Thomas prodded him.

“You smell the smoke, solider?” Terren asked. The mountain range dominated the horizon. The faint white peaks pierced the air, but the settlement lay hidden beyond the tall trees.

“The air seems a bit thick with it, yeah?” Thomas nodded slowly.

“It’s not like the smell from a campfire.” Terren said with clenched teeth. “I fear what we will find upon arrival.” With a quick couple of taps with his heels, the horse reared up to turn back in course. Terren leaned into the slope as the group took off.

Kiaren rubbed the damp cloth up the sides of her face. The water was frigid, but the moisture felt soothing against her dry skin and lips. She peered down at her boots that were caked with a combination of mud, flecks of grey ash, and blood. The survivors that had been forced out of the burning buildings were huddled at the barracks grounds, huddled around the fire. Some of the men and women stared at the flamed blank-faced. The sudden rumbling of the ground beneath Kiaren’s feet caused her to shoot up from the ground in surprise. She quickly turned to look back at the mountain, then out at the valley.

Others had noticed the rumbling, and had stood to look for the source. The bright sun had long passed overhead, and Kiaren could now see out in the direction of Tulefore to the east. A cloud of dust had risen up along the road. She began to slog towards the gate of the settlement as the cloud approached.

Terren spotted the sight of the black and burnt blocks of the town. The horse continued to rush forward at a strained speed, but as he spotted the figure at the gate, he urged the animal to a slower pace. He finally skidded to a halt just in front of the outer walls and jumped off to greet the commander waiting for him.

“Kiaren… sister,” he wavered and approached her. Kiaren locked eyes with him as he cupped her hands. “What has happened here?”

“We were attacked.” Kiaren declared coldly. She quickly pulled her hands away as the remaining men came to a stop behind Terren’s horse. “It was a surprise to everyone, in the dead of night. We had our pants down and backs turned.”

“Just as his Highness guessed.” Terren spat. “When we met with the King early this morning, he warned us of the possibility. It just happened… so quickly.” The Lieutenant said as he looked around the destruction and the survivors scattered around. “How is this possible?”

“It is something I would wish to speak with you in private about.” Kiaren uttered quietly.

“Is there really time for that, sister?” Terren rebutted indignantly. “If Xiandol was able to organize such an attack from the shadows, it speaks to how soft we’ve become. We must bolster immediately! Get more troops from the city!”

Kiaren grabbed Terren by the front of his cloak and pulled him in close. “This was no ordinary attack,” She whispered menacingly.“The men say it was demons. Have those who came with you stand guard. We have to discuss the possibility of certain situations.”

The commander release him and Terren stood back up tall. “Very well then,” he hummed, defeated. His eyes scanned the camp and the groups of people strewn about outside. “Zethurus, I would have expected to see him with you. I must hope he did not perish in the attack.”

Kiaren looked around the area, realizing she had not seen the man either. “Mister Shiloh.” She called out loudly to her bodyguard. “Where is the mage?”

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Heart of Darkness

Of Armor and Bone: Chapter 6

“This is unthinkable!” Bently seethed. His raspy voice rattled through the loose-knit of forest. Around them, the early morning rays of sunlight pierced the thin canopy of mostly barren oaks. The cold wind rattled the branches above. Bently continued to pace. His feet crunched the leaves below as his gaze moved back and forth around the edge of the forest. Many meters away, the Tuleforian town smoldered.

Kensley knelt next to Mandabus’s body. He pushed the hair off his forehead as he studied the motionless set of armor that once held onto their captain. Scarborough stared out back at the forest and the plumes of smoke that had begun to rise. Continue reading “Heart of Darkness”

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Spark and Smoke

Of Armor and Bone: Chapter 4

A low fog hung over the frost bitten roofs of the town. In the low visibility, nothing beyond the first tier of terraced buildings down the hillside could be seen. The settlement was completely still and barren. Not a light could be seen in any of the windows, and no person had yet awoken to greet the day.

Kiaren sat crouched to low the ground atop the rocky outcropping higher up the mountainside. Her light breath poured out between her clenched teeth in puffs of white fog. Shiloh chattered intermittently in the cold.

Continue reading “Spark and Smoke”

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Winds of Death

Of Armor and Bone: Chapter 4

The lights of torches moved about the pathways between the corridors beyond the fences of the mining outcropping. The calls of patrolling soldiers echoed between the buildings as they searched for the sound of the yell. Just on the horizon, the sun had begun to cast an orange glow up into the sky behind the mountains.

“Damn,” Kensley muttered while rolling his shoulders. “We must have lost track of time down in the tunnels.” Continue reading “Winds of Death”

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The Emperor

Of Armor and Bone: Chapter 3

The warm glow of the sun crept over the high rooftops of Tulefore City. The red tile roofs shined bright from the morning dew that had been left behind by the dissolving morning fog. The first few shopper had begun to make their way out to the market streets to begin their shopping for the day. Along the water front, the smell of smoked fish intertwined with that of the sea. Farther down the cobbled stone embankment, the fishing ships had begun to stow their sails for the day. The tanned seamen climbed up and down the mast and rigging, grasping tight as the waves slowly rocked their boats back and forth inside the moorings. Continue reading “The Emperor”

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Death in the Air

Of Armor and Bone: Chapter 2

Far from the sanguine battlefields surrounding the foothills and rivers around the base of the Sing Mountains, the once zealous Xiandolan magi had been at work. They had sought a way to use their magic to turn the tides of battle without ever having to step foot outside the city. Forged, sharpened, and assembled under the effects of their powers, swords and armor could be created, bearing the near incomprehensible forces that the magi carried. Such equipment gave the wielder the strength to block attacks both physical and magical, able to deal them in return as well. Before enough could be produced, the call to arms from the front line arrived. The four completed sets of armor and weapon were quietly shipped with the supplies, ready to be put to use by a select team of men, those who had previously gained their renown under the title Magekiller. Continue reading “Death in the Air”

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The Sing War

Of Armor and Bone: Chapter 1

Once upon a time, atop the deserted snowy peaks of the Sing Mountains, a meteor roughly the size of a bale of hay arrived from the sky to make contact with the surface.

The impact shattered the jagged spires, lodging the mass deep within the earth. Isolated, the event could have gone completely unnoticed, were it not for the infinitesimally brief moment of the objecting emitting an immeasurable burst of pure celestial energy.

Around the continent, those even marginally attuned to the magical forces may have felt the slightest of tingles up their spine and through the cells moving single-file through the capillaries at the tips of their fingers.

Those who recognized the significance of the sensation they had just experienced immediately began to pack their bags in order to set out and find the source. Almost overnight, communities of magical folk seemed to have picked up and left their abodes behind, leaving many a town without their healers, defenders, and magicians. The headmaster of a certain school of sorcery quickly departed from his post, goading some of his teachers and misguided students into doing the same. Though the exact location wasn’t clear, the building congregation in towns on either side of the mountain range told that the hopeful adventurers were close.

By that time, however, the heavy winter snowfall had already covered the upper elevations and blocked off any of the passes that would be able to take anyone deeper into the range. Even the most powerful of magi found that they stood no chance against the unforgiving elements. Resting in wait, tensions grew as talk of what one might do should they find the source of the power first.

At the first signs that the snowfall had stopped and that the cold winds had lost their edge, people began to trudge up the treacherous mountains and crags in order to find any signs of the fallen rock. Months of searching followed, but as the melting snows revealed more of the bare rock underneath, little more than bits of rubble seemed to remain on the surface. Those lacking confidence or perseverance took the long discouraging road home. Others returned home in hopes to persuade their countrymen to come and join their efforts and dig into the hard rock of the mountain and unearth the magical object.

It wasn’t long before the governing powers of several nearby provinces took notice of the search for the still mysterious yet promisingly powerful artifact. With heavy tools in hand, small legions of working men marched on the mountain, setting up townships and mining camps from which to start. Guided by their fellow wizards, they begun their digging into the hard rock of the mountainside, hoping to eventually unearth the object. As men from various other kingdoms began to descend upon them to dig their own tunnels, tensions rose.

The slow, back-breaking work took the men deeper only inches a day, while their eyes remained fixed over their shoulder to monitor the progress of the others on either side. The first blood to be spilled occurred at the happenstance meeting of two tunnels; one belonging to workers from the Kingdom of Xiandol, and the other dug by men from the Arkyan province. Mining picks, shovels, and steel buckets became their weapons, each blindly attacking at the outrage that the other was attempting to encroach on their territory. At the end, the tired men of Arkyan, exhausted and of fewer numbers, fell to the Xiandolians.

News of the event spread around the region. With each passing message, distrust for one another grew, wondering when the next conflict might arise. Kings and Governors sent out armed troops to provide protection for their workers, but as each force added to their regiments, others reacted with their own set of protections. With the growing number of people inhabiting the foothills of the Sing Mountains, more and more supplies began to come their way, supply lines stretching all the way from the far shorelines. From the huts and barracks, sturdier buildings grew, constructed from the stone that had come out of the many deepening tunnels inside the mountains. Women found their way out to the growing settlements to reunite with their husbands; eventually to grow, harvest, and cook food as well.

Inside the mines, the men dug tirelessly, feeling as if one day the might find the magical object that still eluded the masses. With each meter deeper, the mountain seemed to rumble more vigorously and more often. Cave-ins were frequent, but never enough to dissuade the fixed-eyes of the men and their tools.

Walls eventually went up around the settlements to protect the growing infrastructure, as hostility was in no short supply. Without fail, the cold unforgiving winters would bring hardship, which would lead to stealing of crops, supplies. Hunting parties would often be found traversing tentative borders in order to find game, sometimes running into enemy forces instead. As landholdings became closer and closer, attacks became bolder and fiercer, each side ready to pounce for open space.

The first of the battlemages was brought in by Tulefore, a Kingdom known for it’s rich legacy of folk with mage blood. Any attacks by a opposing force were brought to their knees by the magi’s unequaled power. Other provinces quickly hired their own forces of witches and wizards trained in magic of the destructive kind, able to harness the powers of the four elements, as well as others deemed unholy by some in the magic community.

With the introduction of such power, the body count rose quickly, and many more men were funneled in as a result in order to supply a proper defense. Many of the smaller neighboring land claims took allegiance with the bigger kingdoms for safety. At the tipping point, more men were focused on fighting than digging at the mountain, hoping that they would eventually gain the entire system of tunnels to themselves. Historians would come to dub this period of time The Sing War, with the two participating kingdoms; Xiandol and Tulefore, fighting back and forth almost endlessly.

Bounties were soon places on the heads of opposing magi- any soldier that could remove one from the battlefield would be granted great honor and a title of ‘Magekiller.’ Despite their great power, many magic found themselves being singled out and hunted down by both soldiers of sword and axe, as well as other magi. The battles ebbed and flowed for months, with both sides losing man and mage alike. On the third winter, an envoy from

Tulefore went forth to the Xiandolan forces to propose a deal. The magical folk had become dissatisfied with their role as weapons in the hands of normal men, and they wished for no more blood to be spilled by their intervention. The meeting of two magical ambassadors from either side some time later forged a lasting agreement. Such agreement stated that magi could only fulfill the role of noncombatant, furthermore declaring that any further involvment would be considered as a crime of war.

Following the pact and the forthcoming spring thaw, both sides prepared for more fighting and digging ever deeper into the mountain. Swords and other martial weapons remained at sides for some time as the men knew that fighting in the fashion that they once did would be both more arduous and less fruitful overall.

It was one winter day inside the dark, damp labyrinthine tunnels under the mountain that the magical energy suddenly disappeared. The magical folk of both sides, unable to sense the object’s power, had to assume that it had been unearthed and taken away by the opposing force. Before word could hardly return to either side’s home, fingers were being pointed back and forth, each force unsure of the other’s role in the disappearance of the energy. Armies stood, blood boiling, as they awaited the first signs of news that they could unsheathe their weapons.

 

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The Grind Before Christmas

‘Twas the night before Christmas,

And all through the house,

You know the story; even the rodentia population had a snooze and a snore.

But one young man, of 26 years old, was still pounding away at the keyboard.

Was he writing another one of his stories for the world to see?  Perhaps editing it?  Perhaps something short for his blog?  No, none of the above, because the call of online games was too great to ignore.

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Shroud

I’ve never been a fan of my appearance.  For Halloween I decided to cover myself in a sheet.  I was a ghost.

Simple– said the first lady I came across, standing at her door of a house decorated in immaculate fashion– Yes, sometimes simple is better.

So spooky– mocked the group of children, bags still limp with only a few meager treats.  With a laugh or two, they ran to the other side of the street.

On a porch sat a man, dressed as a fiend.  He feigned immobility until the moment you reached for his candy.  Sadly for him, jumping out of reflex is not in my nature.

I heard the judging voices of the mothers waiting for their little monsters to return from doorways– Isn’t he a bit tall?  Perhaps I am old.

I began to think that this whole Halloween thing was not for me.  In the cold new November air, I felt the wind pulling at my sheet.  Then with a tug, it was pulled away.

It’s a skeleton!– I heard the scream, as the people finally took notice of me.

 

 

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Adrift in the Darkness

Don’t mind me… just warming up for NaNoWriMo.

“If anything goes wrong…”  They said,  “You all know just as good as anyone what to do.  That’s why you were brought on, because you’re the best of the best.”

After the assured faces of mission control flickered off the screen, and the countdown reached its final tick, it was do or die, just as tentative as any other launch.  We all knew the risks- if something happens at this stage, there is little to do to fix things.  The purgatory zone between the Earth’s atmosphere and the outer reaches of space provide no guarantee.

When the rumbling finally died down, and the light reflecting off the surface of the Earth finally disappeared into our peripheral vision, we were allowed a chance to take a breath of the cold air of the shuttle cabin.  A quick peak outside the rear window revealed the tiny speck that was our final set of thrusterss falling back into the vast expanse of the ocean below.

“In the case we lose contact…”  Mission control chimed in once again, “we wish you all the best of luck.”

After a point, that was the only thing they could readily provide us… no amount of advice would guide our hands in dealing with problems, and warnings from our systems would have long since ruined our voyage by the time results would have reached them.

Day 20, during a quintuple check of our headings, the signal went dead.  That first day in the silence, we were happy to be free of the drone of mission control.  I wasn’t sure who was going to end up more dispirited, mission control sitting in a big room full of computer screens, or us, sitting in a tiny tube filled with them.

After two days of silence, we began our attempts to tune back in to the signal to communicate with Earth.  The blue orb of our planet had long since faded to a tiny azure speck, only visible during one quarter spin of the ship turning on its axis.  It turns out, despite our many attempts, even our best could not fix the problem alone.  It was as if there was no longer a signal to be found, no fault in our system either.

We sat silently for weeks, the faint hum of radio static constantly in the background in hopes that a signal would reach us.  I wouldn’t say that worry was on our mind, but more we wished to keep those on Earth updated.  Reaching the planet would be no more than a rehashing of our times in the simulator, but missing out on the cheering people celebrating our touch down would seem like no more than a hollow victory.

Before we knew it, the red planet came into view.  The radio was still no more than static.  Saving our sanity, we finally turned it off.  In our excess of time, we double checked, triple checked the lander and the supplies.  The planet’s gravity grabbed a hold of us, and we finally decided to take the plunge.  The pilot directed us to the surface with little more than a bump, which is what it must have felt like to everyone- not one giant leap like in the old days.

The supply drop that had been sent down for us preemptively sat just where we expected it, albeit more weathered than we would have though.  Inside, we were hopeful of what we were to get our hands on-  a standing satellite dish, to better pick up and transfer the signal, and hopefully contact Earth once again.

The familiar static returned as we honed in on something that sounded human.  Finally, a voice called out to us.

“Who is this?”

We answered hastily-  The Jonah.  We replied that we had arrived safely, and ready to report on our travels.

“The Jonah…”  The strange voice at mission control uttered breathlessly.  “You all were lost almost a decade ago.  How could you be contacting us, after all this time… after we thought you all were simply just gone… forever.”

The glances between us showed signs of apprehension, knowing very well that we had been on our ship only 8 months, and no longer.  Drawers of pouches of food sat still ready to be eaten, the boxes on the calendar checked off religiously.

“I don’t know what happened but…”  The man said, still in disbelief.  “There are others there now.  A settlement.  Go, and meet them.  If it really is you all… they will find your visit quite peculiar.  I’ll let them know you’re on your way…”