|ESC: The Fallen
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|Author:||Davariel [ Sun Jan 11, 2015 6:32 am ]|
|Post subject:||ESC: The Fallen|
Well, after some hours of feverish writing I managed to cook up an eleventh-hour entry for this contest!
A few things to note:
- The narrative's a bit fragmented by design. Just relax, and enjoy it for what it is.
- There are quite a few characters, and I realise they'll be complete strangers. There's backstory on a couple in my painting log, but don't worry too much about who exactly everyone is, it's not really that important.
- This does not have a happy ending. You have been warned...
The earth was dusty and dead where the remnants of the elves stood.
At the centre of the line Jaerith shifted in his ithilmar plate, ignoring the stifling heat. Far above their heads the morning’s plain gray sky had become twisted and cruel, a broiling darkness that mocked their defiance. Even the ground seemed to have taken the side of Chaos, for it was nothing more than a mess of blasted dirt and cracked, broken ground that would not bleed.
Jaerith looked up at the great banner he held in one hand as it began to stir. The blue Phoenix of Tor Nayel had been still and lifeless all day, for there was not so much as a breath of wind in the air. Until now, that was. Now, the Frostheart Phoenix that had been Jaerith’s friend for so many years began to flap its wings one last time.
He knew what it meant. The unspeakable stillness was going, and there, at the horizon... a line of dust, growing, moving.
“They’re here,” Jaerith muttered.
At his side the blacksmith Melir snorted in contempt. “They certainly kept us waiting.”
In another time and another place, Jaerith might have rebuked the elf for his presumption. Melir had always had a headstrong streak, and a certain disregard for propriety. But that didn’t matter anymore; like so much else it was only a memory made bitter by the knowledge it would never be again.
Jaerith turned away from the rising dust and looked to the ranks of archers standing at his back, waiting. He gave a nod to an elf holding a horn. First one note rang out, then another, until all the line was alive with music, Asur and Druchii instruments alike warning that the foe had arrived.
Satisfied, Jaerith returned his gaze to the horizon. The dust clouds were billowing higher, and at their base a line of black and brown was growing larger. A thrumming was pulsing through the air, the force of their enemies’ march shaking the ground itself. The host of Chaos was vast beyond count; the reports of both Ellyrian Reavers and Dark Riders had agreed on that. They could not hope to win.
The cry came from a figure in black armour and red cloth, moving towards them with a whole regiment of spearelves at his back.
“Druchii,” Jaerith whispered. His jaw clenched at the sight. “You are not wanted here.”
The elf drew closer, and Jaerith saw that his face was worn and lined, his hair iron grey. “Want has no bearing in it, Asur,” he growled. “I am commanded here by the grace of the Eternity King. Great Malekith has bid me reinforce your lines.”
“You are not wanted here,” Jaerith repeated. His sword was half out of its sheath before he even realised what he was doing.
The Druchii smiled, a weary smile that betrayed how little he cared for his fate. “Gods, you Asur are all the same. I have spent a thousand years fighting your kind, and your pride is always your undoing.” He laughed, a brittle sound like the rattling of bones. “The line is weak here. And our King does not look kindly upon weakness.”
Jaerith was trembling with barely controlled rage as he stepped forward to look the Druchii in the eye. “A thousand years of war, you say? I cannot argue. I have spent only two hating your kind... and in that time I have known more hate than any of your wretched kin. I warn you, leave, or there shall be blood.”
“Enough!” Melir’s tone did not invite argument. “You know he’s right. Tor Nayel has no spears, Jaerith, only archers. If they reach our ranks it shall be a slaughter. We need them to hold the line.”
Jaerith’s hand was still wrapped around his sword. He knew the blacksmith was right, and he hated it. Caelia, please forgive me.
The Druchii gave a satisfied grunt and marched off into his elves, waving commands all the while. “All right, you lot, form up and lock shields! This is our last stand, and I say that we shall not give these Chaos scum one inch! And if any elf so much as thinks of throwing down his spear and running, I’ll rip out his entrails and feed them to Slaanesh myself!”
“Charming,” Melir remarked.
Jaerith ignored him. Instead he made his way through the archers to the rear of the formation and stood the Phoenix Banner on the highest point of ground. The horns were blowing again, heralding both the beginning and the end. Again Jaerith looked up at the great standard, his old friend. Some things stayed the same, even on the brink of doom. A strange impulse passed through him and he gripped the long wood haft with both hands, lowering the banner to acknowledge the rule of the Phoenix King.
At first Jaerith was alone, nothing but a curiosity of the past. Then the nearby Asur standards took heed and dipped their own banners. The movement spread through the elven line until even the Druchii and Asrai followed suit, and every banner they had left was held low in respect.
Yes, Jaerith thought. Let them come. We shall do our ancestors proud.
The elven line stood arrayed in a subtle crescent, while across the blasted plain their innumerable foe waited without order or formation. Hordes of daemons clawed the ground alongside hulking, black armoured warriors, while the sky was filled with the wings of countless dark beasts. The legions of Chaos did not move to attack. They only waited, facing down the elves as more and more warriors poured forth, each step of claw and hoof and armoured boot a promise of bloody death.
Bravelar was disquiet as he watched their enemies mass. The noble of Eataine had never felt more out of place. He was standing with the elves of Avelorn at the center of the elven line, but his thoughts kept returning to the elves of Tor Nayel down somewhere on the flanks. I should not be here, he thought again. I don’t belong with these uppity warrior maids and their fancy flaming bows.
The only reason Bravelar was there at all was that the Everqueen herself had requested it, after the leaders had drawn up their war plans. Any other elf he might have given a carefree laugh and a blunt refusal. But the Everqueen... it was not an honour he could refuse. The best archer we have left, to command the best bows we have, she had said.
“There was nothing to be done,” he said aloud.
“Are you trying to convince me, or yourself?”
Bravelar glanced sideways, looking over the Handmaiden Siaraine with his languid, half closed eyes. The Avelorn maid had been sore wounded back on Ulthuan, and a ragged red scar slithered up the side of her neck to caress her ear. She was too thin, and pale, her eyes hollow. Her eyes were the part of her Bravelar liked the least. Not because they were not pretty, but because they were pits of despair. When he looked her in the eyes he felt afraid, because he knew she was right, and there was no hope left.
Still, Bravelar had never once given into despair before, and he had no inclination to start now. So he simply smiled his roguish smile and laughed.
“I doubt either of us needs convincing.”
Siaraine looked away as a chorus of drums began to beat across the field. The warriors of Chaos began to stamp their feet in time with the drums until the whole world shook with every beat. The pace increased and the drums, the shudders came faster and faster until it was a constant earthquake.
Then without warning the field was silent.
“Now they’ll come,” Siaraine said, her voice a ghostly breath. “They’ve called for the favour of their Gods, and now they’ll come.”
Even as she spoke a rumble of thunder split the sky, the sound almost like a laugh, mocking the defiance of the elves. There was a flash of distant lightning and the clouds turned pale for a second, before it was gone and the sky was a mass of purple and black once more. And with that, a great cry went up from all the men, daemons and beasts in the legion of Chaos, and they began their charge.
“Then let us stop them,” Bravelar decided.
Siaraine shook her head as she readied her bow of magical fire. “You don’t understand. With their chieftains before them and their Gods behind, there is nothing these warriors do not fear.”
Bravelar grinned. “They’ve never met me.”
Lazily he pulled one of his Osprey fletched arrows from his quiver and drew it back until the bowstring was taut. In one swift, fluid motion he lifted it high and loosed with barely a glance at his target, and then the armoured behemoth at the fore of the Chaos host fell screaming from his horse, Bravelar’s arrow buried in his eye. The signal given, the maids of Avelorn sent a rain of blue fire over the field.
The battle was begun.
Prince Vorelion hated the waiting the most.
When the Host of the Eternity King had arrayed for battle, the famed Dragon Princes of Caledor had taken up a position behind the main line, waiting. Horses and elves in full armour alike, with shields ready and lances held high, all just waiting. It was intolerable. That the remainder of the host had been waiting nearly as long was no consolation at all; now, with the other elves drowning in the din of battle, the pride of Caledor remained simply waiting.
It had been Imrik’s idea. The Crown Prince of Caledor had devised a feint, to leave the unarmoured Asrai Glade Guard exposed and so lure the forces of Chaos in. When they came, the Asrai would part and the Dragon Princes would sweep through, crushing the enemy with sword and lance.
That had been the plan, but the Asrai seemed to have forgotten their role, and the Caledorians had no way to join the fight. There was nothing Vorelion could do but stare at leaf shaped cloaks.
“This is intolerable!” Vorelion exclaimed for the ninth time. “All the slow Eataine summers could not be more unbearable!”
To his right Celyn Lightblade, first among the ten Dragon Princes who had gone to Tor Nayel, shifted in the saddle.
“I think I should prefer a slow, quiet summer to this,” he commented.
Vorelion’s face was stony. “A slow, quiet summer in which we fade from this world year by year? No. No, I would rather a swift and glorious death in battle.”
“There’s little glorious about this,” Celyn replied. “Look. Listen. This is a slaughter, a million swords against a handful.”
Vorelion began to feel the seeds of worry spreading roots through his stomach. He had known Celyn all his life, first as Captain of the Guard when he and his brother Davariel were boys running through the halls of Caledor, later as a friend and fellow warrior. That he should be so grim and fatalistic fanned the flames of Vorelion’s nerves tenfold. The young Prince was under no pretensions. He knew he was riding to his death. All he wanted now was not to die alone.
“Celyn… when we ride… will you be beside me?”
“To the death.”
Vorelion smiled. Ahead, the Glade Guard were beginning to part. He lifted his lance high, the burgeoning winds turning its pennant to a blaze of blue. He tugged on the reins of his horse, and came before the arrayed Knights of Caledor.
“Sons of Caledor!” He shouted. “Our time is upon us. The Asrai make way, and the servants of Chaos stand ready to receive our charge. Let us give them death, and a red tomorrow!” Vorelion thrust his lance high into the air. “They say that these are the End Times, and that this battle shall be the final victory of the Ruinous Powers. I say that they do not know the strength of Caledor! It may be that we die this day, but if we do then I say the memory of our courage shall haunt the Dark Gods until the end of their days! SONS OF CALEDOR! ARE YOU WITH ME?”
A colossal roar went up from the Dragon Princes, mightier even than the bellow of a true dragon, and they charged forward to meet oblivion.
Tarielle felt near to death. How long had she been fighting? She did not know, not anymore. She moved half on instinct, whispering the spells of power and summoning the flames of the phoenix to immolate a group of rushing marauders. Around her there was only madness. Formations, regiments, all were gone, replaced by a brutal struggle to survive another second against the neverending onslaught of Chaos.
At first the line had held. Spear walls, storms of blades and lines of axes had met the enemy, cutting them down without mercy. At first the discipline and training of the elves had held, but the brutal fury of their foes had slowly begun to exact a toll of blood. It had only grown worse as the battle ground onwards. Tarielle did not know how long they had been fighting, but she was sure it must have been hours. They might have been fighting half the night for all she knew.
Tarielle felt strangely lonely as she weaved her spells and fought for her life. Every other time she had been in battle, it had been at the side of the Archmage Sedryel. With her mentor’s calm reassurance and awesome power to watch over her, nothing seemed quite so frightening. Even when the walls of Tor Nayel had fallen and the Druchii had sacked the city Sedryel had protected her, had saved her.
It had been two months since the Archmage had died, but still the wound felt raw. Even his death had been spent to give life to others, preventing a host of the Aestyrion from massacring them. Sometimes Tarielle thought it would have been better if she had died at Sedryel’s side. She was a poor replacement, and she knew it; even now her anger and her pain bled into her spells, making them volatile and dangerous.
A daemon of Khorne drove its barbarous weapon through a Swordmaster’s chest and tossed the elf aside, coming directly for her. Just in time Tarielle remembered the right spell, and with a wave of her hand she banished the daemon. She was shaken by the encounter; she had felt the infernal heat of the daemon’s sword sweeping towards her. Another moment and it would have been too late.
Oh Isha, I’m going to die, Tarielle realised. Somehow her fate had not seemed real until that moment.
A pained roar from above broke through the desolation. Tarielle looked to the sky and saw the red dragon locked in embrace with a Greater Daemon of Khorne. Kairys. Ever since she had met him two years ago, the Dragon Mage had done nothing but cause trouble and worm his way under her skin with every word, and yet she did not think she could bear his death.
With a short breath and moment to calm herself, Tarielle closed her eyes and summoned every last shred of her power. Murmuring the words she threw a spear of blinding light into the sky, where it pierced straight through the Daemon’s chest. The monster bellowed and recoiled, giving Kairys the opening he needed; a burst of flame burned and plunged into the Daemon’s throat, and it released its grip on the dragon, banished.
The rescue had come too late. The great axe had left wounds too deep on the dragon, and Tarielle could only watch as the great wings crumpled under the weight of the air and fell to earth.
“Please, Isha, no!” Tarielle screamed as the dragon crashed into the earth, crushing bone and steel alike.
A relentless panic fuelling her, she raced forwards, forcing her way through the melee with staff and sorcery. When she reached the dragon the first thing she was that great yellow eye, sightless. Maevoth was dead. Then she saw the saddle was empty. There came another wave of panic before she saw him, trapped beneath one of the dragon’s armoured legs.
“Kairys, listen to me! Please live!”
His half-closed eyes twitched a little as she knelt beside him. He was still alive. Frantically Tarielle tried to summon the life magic, to heal his broken body, but nothing would come. There was only death, all around her. Kairys looked up at her with terror in his eyes, trying to say something, to plead with her, but no sound came. It was not until she saw the blood dripping onto his cheek that she realised why he looked so grieved. The spear had come from behind and pierced through her heart; now it withdrew, and she crumpled to the ground beside him.
“I’m sorry,” Kairys managed to whisper, but Tarielle was already dead.
Prince Davariel soared through the skies on the back of the Star Dragon Tialaena. In one hand he carried a plain sword, in the other a shield adorned with the image of the rising phoenix. When the battle had started and the dragons had flown together, Davariel had carried his ancient lance, a gift from his father when he bonded with Tialaena. The lance was broken now, lost. The heirloom that had been in his house for six thousand years had been broken in an instant.
A host of winged daemons filled the skies over the battlefield. At first the Dragonlords had flown proud together, but there were too few of them left. Their proud white banners and gleaming armour had been blotted from below by a thousand black wings, the occasional burst of bright flame the only clue to their continued existence.
Now, each rider and their dragon could do nothing but fight to survive. They were too sore beset to even dive to the ground and spread terror amongst the legions of Chaos, harried at every turn by the relentless claws and teeth of flying beasts. No more could they keep the monsters of the skies from wreaking death and destruction upon the elven host. At best they were a distraction, a challenge their bloodthirsty foes could not refuse. Other Caledorians might have been affronted by that realisation, but Davariel only accepted his fate.
He had felt it even before he knew what it was, as a sleeping knowledge somewhere deep within Tialaena’s ancient heart. Of course she had known, she who had seen the world before it was touched by Chaos. That day back in Tor Nayel when she had awoken from her long sleep, he had first suspected what was to come. When the rumours had spread to the city, bringing talk of the End Times, he had realised it fully.
Ahead the skies were heavy with lesser daemons, so thick it seemed as though a solid wall rose into the sky. Tialaena gave a snarl and let forth a stream of fire, scattering the fiends; as they swept through Davariel raised his tall shield high and slashed at any who dived to attack.
It gave Davariel a strange sort of comfort to know that the blue Phoenix of Tor Nayel was with him, emblazoned on his shield. It was not that he trusted the shield to save his life; his predecessor, Aeyla’s father, had died with that shield in his hand. Knowing that part of the place where he had found his destiny was still with him made his fate seem kinder somehow.
The winged beasts and daemons were quick to retreat when Tialaena burst through. They had soon learned that to challenge one of the older, greater dragons was death, seeking alternatively to overwhelm their younger kin. Instead the Star Dragons were hounded by Daemon Princes and Greater Daemons, vicious and powerful creatures eager to devour such a mighty foe.
It was a winged Daemon Prince with a long sword that swooped in behind Tialaena as they were distracted by the hordes of lesser creatures. Davariel never saw the blow that crashed through his ornate, high saddle and into his back, crumpling armour and sending him spiralling from the saddle.
As he felt the air rush around him, he had one last thought. It was not supposed to be this way. Davariel had just long enough to realise that the feeling and the thought it had prompted were not his own before the darkness closed in.
The battlefield had grown quieter.
At first Princess Aeyla had scarcely been able to hear herself speak thanks to the cascade of clanging metal, roaring beasts and screaming elves. At first she had thought she was imagining it when the sounds began to fade. Hoped she was imagining it. But soon everything had grown quieter regardless, and then she had known.
Now there was nothing, nothing but an unspeakable eeriness. The battle had raged so long that Aeyla was sure the sun must have risen, but she could not see it. The dark clouds that had covered the sky had only grown thicker and more malevolent, claws of lightning reaching out to snatch the lives of elves, and the clouds of dust had enveloped everything until all the world was a hellish nightmare of coarse grey mist.
Aeyla was waiting a distance behind the elven lines, watching over those who were unable to fight. A few children, young and untrained, a handful of crippled elves, and her. They had considered running, trying to send them to a safer place, but everyone had agreed it was a lost cause, the best outcome a few days spent in terror. It was a mercy to stay with the others.
Aeyla had been pacing back and forth ever since the din of battle had fallen away. In her hands she held a dagger of ithilmar, a parting gift from her husband Davariel. She had never used a weapon before, not even a dagger; the closest she had ever come was a table knife. She had never been a warrior, and now there was no one left to defend her. Her father, her brother, her husband, her friends...
She shook her head and brushed a lock of honey gold hair back behind one pointed ear. Everyone else has died for me, she told herself. I can die for them. No matter how much she told herself that, she still felt so afraid. She did not want to die.
The small, frightened voice came accompanied by a tugging at her cloak. Aeyla turned to see the youngest child staring up at her with wide eyes. He could not have been more than four years old, barely more than an infant.
Aeyla knew the answer, and her heart broke. She wanted to weep, to give in to it all. But she couldn’t, so she just gave the child a smile she hoped he could not see was woven from tears.
“Hush, little one,” she said gently, taking his hand and guiding him back to where he had been sleeping. She could not say the truth. “You’ll see mama again soon.”
He blinked sleepily. “I’m frightened, Princess Aeyla.”
“Don’t be afraid. I’ll protect you.”
He smiled back at her and closed his eyes, drifting back to sleep. Aeyla was glad of that. She could not have kept up her reassuring facade another moment. Even now, she was struggling not to cry. Not wanting to wake the child, or any of the others, she went to return to her pacing.
She had not gone far when she saw him. A colossal warrior in black armour, striding out of the mists towards her with a great warhammer in his hand. She froze. Felt cold terror racing through her veins. She did not know whether to scream, to cry, or to run, and then he was but a few paces away from her.
Aeyla gripped the dagger in a trembling hand and stabbed. The black armour crumpled before the sharp ithilmar until it was buried in the warrior’s chest up to the hilt. Aeyla stared, shocked at what she had done. Then the warrior looked down, his eyes hidden behind his helm, pulled the dagger out, and tossed it aside.
She felt the warhammer lightly brush against her ear, and then she felt nothing at all.
Bravelar walked alone through the battlefield, his longbow slung over his back and his short sword in one hand. Beneath his boots the ground was wet, sheeted with blood and bodies. When he took a step it squelched beneath his feet. At first he had tried to watch his step, but it was an impossible task. There was no earth left, only a veil of corpses.
Bravelar was not sure exactly how he was still alive, alone on a field of the dead. There was blood on his gauntlet, but he was not wounded. He did not know who the blood belonged to. An enemy, maybe, or even one of his comrades. Perhaps it had come from Siaraine. The vivid memory of the Handmaiden’s body being torn apart by two of a chimera’s heads came suddenly, before he blinked and it was gone.
He came to a stop at the base of a low hill and frowned. Looking out in each direction he could see only still, silent death.
“All the elves are dead,” he declared absently.
And what does that make you? A voice in his head asked. The Osprey, the best archer in Eataine. What are you now?
For a moment Bravelar paused, wondering. Then he gave a short laugh and a sad smile. “All the elves are dead, and I’m just a bird who forgot how to fly.”
The question answered, Bravelar kept walking. He did not know where he was going, if he was even going anywhere. After a while he came upon the body of a Waystalker, the Asrai’s leafy cloak wrapped around him like a funeral shroud. He did not know the elf, but the Waystalker’s quiver was nearly full and Bravelar’s was empty, so he took the arrows for his own. The arrows at his back made him feel better, but there was nothing else for him there, so he kept walking.
It did not seem to matter how far he walked, the corpses never thinned. Occasionally he would sight a slain dragon or beast of chaos, their frames almost like hills in their own right. The other bodies were more prone to change. Asur, Asrai, Druchii, they all mingled with the bodies of warriors, marauders and beasts. He did not recognise any of them.
“Khaine’s balls,” Bravelar swore as he saw a familiar banner flapping lamely in the wind.
The Phoenix Banner of Tor Nayel was still upright, which was more than could be said for the other standards Bravelar had noticed. Slumped next to the banner was an elf in a winged helmet. Jaerith. He broke into a run, clambering up the hill until he was at his friend’s side. He took in the crumpled breastplate, the bloody robes and the closed eyes in his first glance.
“Jaerith! Jaerith, it’s Bravelar! Can you hear me?”
His eyes flickered open, a spark of life in a dead land. “Bravelar?”
Bravelar sat down beside his friend. “Yes. I’m here, Jaerith.”
“I did not let the banner fall. He charged me, do... do not let the banner fall.” Jaerith’s voice was thin and weak. “I promised Nalarith.”
Bravelar blinked in confusion. Nalarith was nearly three years dead, and Jaerith had born the banner for decades. He swallowed, suddenly afraid.
“It’s alright. The banner hasn’t fallen.”
“And Caelia... what will she think of me? What... will she think of me... if...”
Jaerith was dying, Bravelar realised. His wounds were too deep. That he still lived at all was a miracle of Isha’s mercy.
“Close your eyes,” he said, coming to a decision. Jaerith obeyed without hesitation. “Do you know where we are?”
A slight shake of the head was his only reply.
“We’re on the walls back home, at Tor Nayel. It’s spring, and the flowers are blooming down in the valley. Can you see them?”
Jaerith frowned ever so slightly. “Home… I can see them. Pink, and yellow…” he coughed, and a trickle of blood ran down his chin. “White stone, and a clear blue sky...”
Bravelar's eyes turned solemn. It would not be long now.
“I can see Caelia. She’s calling to me, Bravelar.”
“Go to her,” he replied quietly, his voice filled with sadness.
“Caelia...” Jaerith said, a smile on his lips. It was the first time Bravelar had seen him smile since his wife was killed, and as he watched it slacken, he knew it would be the last.
Jaerith was gone.
For a moment Bravelar did not stir. He did not want to leave his friend, not just yet.
And so he sat beneath the banner, and wept.
|Author:||Aicanor [ Mon Jan 12, 2015 9:27 pm ]|
|Post subject:||Re: ESC: The Fallen|
Congratulations! You managed to write such a great story in your limited time.
PS: So all the elves but one will die and we can return home and watch the chaos on TV?
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