The Battle Ward
Neil Q. Green
Another trebuchet strike against the walls. The room rang like bell. Dust fell from somewhere and settled on my neck. The accumulated grit from the day’s bombardment chaffed and I missed, yet again, the ability to move my arms. The surgeons I could see ran from bed to bed, most looking almost as haggard as my comrades, my brothers, suffering from battle wounds.
As the crash from the strike faded all the hellish sounds nearby came back to full volume. The surgeons’ feet scuffed the floor at the same note they chanted spells, trying to fix with pure magic what injuries the dark ones had caused. Those unhealable, like myself, they comforted with soothing whispers. The answering moans from my brothers made a discordant answer, refusing to be comforted. And there were the screams. Screams of battle hardened men losing their limbs to some surgeon’s saw and, faintly in the corner, the unmistakable sound of a mind giving way. That inescapable chuckling. We were damned. That’s all there was to it. I knew it. I couldn’t speak it but I knew it, and I knew everyone else did too.
“This is when you see the true difference in men.” I thought. “When hell itself literally came to court, how did you handle it?”
I listened as the bombardment slowed. Night was coming. Nothing could stop it. Nothing could stop the coming wave of monsters. Our mage’s spells and sigils barely turned the daemons eyes now as they had at first. Their dark magic now grown in power to overcome all our sacred rites. The burden now fell on our knights, and the outer curtain wall was now breached. Those godforsaken trebuchets opening the way for their monstrous night crawlers. The same trebuchets that took control of my body away from me without releasing me from this world. And soon they would release the onslaught and gain the foundations. Foundations laid over a thousand years ago with spells cast by all five of the High Mages to contain the very Daemon Lords of those which now besieged us.
It came soon, the sound that heralded our doom. I had seen their monstrous horn from the ramparts the first night. Its twisted form convoluted into such a shape that only God or Hell could have formed it. And there was nothing of God in that army. Its sound was so low as to barely be counted a note. A sound that crept along your skin oozing hot chills, revulsion, and an awareness that something foul beyond human experience lurked in wait.
It called to them. What our captains called ‘the Hounds,’ though there was little canine about them save for the set of their teeth. They emerged from the foul mist called up by the horn. The mists clung to them as they moved, and the stench of it was of thousands of rotting bodies befouled by utter evil. Their faces were covered in putrid remnants of skin which was rotted through in areas to show gangrenous flesh or bones beneath. Their bodies were covered in the same manner, but built in such distorted forms that some of us wondered if they hadn’t pieced themselves together from random carcasses as they made war. Indeed, many had more than four limbs and some had so many that they more tumbled than ran at the walls.
But now the walls were gone. And, tumble or run, the foundations were exposed. I heard their charge now as it advanced, felt the vibrations as the horde drew nearer. Soon the cries of the battlefield mingled with the chorus of misery in our little ward.
The mad melody came closer as the night drew on. First with a call of the curtain wall being breached and then, to our credit much longer than I had dreamt but still shorter than I had hoped, a new call.
“The Keep is breached! Fall back to the foundations!”
The room around me fell mostly silent at that point save for a few souls so far gone in agony as to be unaware of anything around them, and the one mad chuckler. But in all it seemed utter silence. We all held our breath, hoping against hope that somehow the tide would be turned back and these abominations would recede into the past forever.
But the battle raged on. The sounds of steel on bone and tearing flesh crescendoed and, though I was sure there were more and more wounded, fewer and fewer were brought into the ward until no newcomers arrived.
The night wore on and long hours after midnight the sounds changed. There was less sound of steel in the chaos now and more of claw. Less of screams for there were fewer mouths to utter them. And then a new sound that sent my heart racing. Steps in the corridor where there had been none in so long. Uneven steps. Shuffling steps. And then a face in the doorway. A human face as empty as any shell ever found.
“The foundations are breached,” he whispered, but I’m certain everyone heard. I don’t know how long the intervening time was, some fraction of a second or several minutes, but it seemed all too sudden that his face was pulled back into the hallway with a short and muffled scream. I wished I could move.
And then something else crept into the doorway preceded by tendrils of mist. Something with hunger in its’ eyes. Something so foul and decrepit looking that I couldn’t help but wonder how it managed to move. Its eyes were joined soon by others as foul and loathsome. Then they began shambling toward us. Despite the direness of the situation, as they shambled toward us I couldn’t help but see the comedy in their movement. And I chuckled.