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A New Twist to an Old Adversary - Chapter 5by Geoff Gander
"Magda, come quickly!", shouted the woman to her errant child. "A storm is fast approaching, and we must all take shelter!" A loud boom cracked across the sky, as if to accentuate her last words.
"Coming, mother!", shouted the little girl, her braids bouncing as she skipped across the field, her hands filled with a bouquet of the season's first wildflowers. Safely over the threshold of the small farmhouse, the girl turned to her mother.
"Are the sky giants fighting again?"
"Yes, my sweet, the sky giants are having an argument. We will remain indoors until they have settled their squabbles. Now go to the pot and get yourself some stew; it looks like they will be having a long fight this time, and we will have a bad storm because of it."
As Magda padded to the kitchen, Galina peered into the evening sky, far above. Another crack of thunder echoed across the valley in which they lived, and she winced involuntarily at the thought of what must be going on, high in the mountains to the north. So it had always been, since her people settled in these valleys in the shadow of the Cruth Mountains. It did not happen often, the last time being almost thirty years previous, but when the clouds descended from the mountaintops, and piercing thunder echoed across the valley, all knew that the sky giants - for that must surely be the source of such violence - were fighting amongst themselves. Though little more than noise reached the valley floor and its inhabitants, there were times when the unwary were found dead in the storm's aftermath.
With a shiver, Galina withdrew into the house, and firmly bolted the door. The entire family was inside now, and, Immortals willing, they would remain safe. All that could be done now was to hope....and to wait.
Far, far above the valley, nestled amongst the highest peaks of the Cruth Mountains, rose a twin-towered citadel of black stone. The Sanctuary, it was named by the inhabitants, and for almost thirty years it had remained at peace, its denizens going about their business and living their lives - until now.
Surrounding the citadel on all sides was a great swarm, making no noise save that of the dull whirring of its members' wings. One would easily mistake it for an insect swarm at a distance, but a closer inspection would show any observer that the creatures flying in a frenzied cloud were anything but normal insects. The man-sized beings flew in graceful arcs on their insectoid wings, their tentacled appendages bearing vicious bladed weapons, and imposing lances studded with softly-glowing green stones.
One of them levelled its lance at the citadel, and pressed some of the stones. An instant later, a great, crackling ray of light burst from the lance's tip, streaking like a darting viper towards the citadel's nearest wall. With a tremendous boom that echoed downwards into the valley, the beam struck the wall, gouging out great chunks of stone, as cracks issued outwards from it in a web of destruction.
Seconds later, the citadel's inhabitants issued from the citadel's numerous portals, streaming outwards to engage the foe. Attacker and defender were of one race, but in intentions and mindset, they were worlds apart.
High up in the citadel, in a large chamber overlooking the battle scene below, three such creatures conferred.
"The battle does not go well, First One," said the most junior of the occupants in a buzzing voice.
"Acknowledged, Third Scribe, but under the circumstances it was deemed most prudent to engage the foe outside of the confines of the Sanctuary. There always remains the possibility of withdrawing to more defensible positions at a later time, where the forces of Blackhold may be hemmed in by the layout of our home."
"The Third Scribe speaks rightly, oh First One," intoned the third creature, "but your argument carries conclusions of consequence. Our mathematicians have already computed the probability of holding off our enemy, given current troop levels. It is not favourable to our interests; we have perhaps another hour, to use local time measurements.
"May I recommend a strategic withdrawal to the lower levels of the Sanctuary?"
"You may prepare for such an eventuality, Armsmaster", intoned the First One, "I perceive, however, a great risk to our work in this region of the continent. You are both no doubt aware of the level of our observational activities concerning the hominid nations existing below us. We have reason to believe that our enemies' Masters are becoming resurgent once more. They must be stopped at all costs."
"Your are correct in your assumption, First One," responded the Third Scribe. "We are aware of the peril. Those From Beyond must not be allowed to gain a greater position in this region of the continent. Our scouts report two other citadels have combined forces with Blackhold to strengthen their position in the region, thus making ours untenable in consequence."
"Correct," buzzed the First One, "Though you must remember that we possess resources unknown to our foes. I speak of the artifacts we uncovered not long after our arrival on this world. Though we do not know their origin, we have estimated their potency in resisting and destroying the corrupting influence of Those Who Watch From Beyond. Those artifacts must be safeguarded at all costs.
"Thus do I propose we entrust their care to our Surveyors. They have spent time among the local populace, and they are deemed most knowledgeable of their ways. In the eventuality that our efforts to defeat Blackhold fail, the artifacts must remain in the hands of those who oppose Darkness. Our Surveyors will seek out allies among the hominid cultures, and the non-aligned citadels to the north. If all is in our favour, we shall ultimately turn back the enemy."
"Your strategy is well devised, First One", said the Armsmaster, "I shall summon the Surveyors immediately."
"Do so, Armsmaster."
The battle around the Sanctuary continued relentlessly, each side inflicting untold damage upon the other. Flashes of power arced across the sky, thudding against the citadel's walls and fliers alike, shattering stone and downing warriors by the dozen. Where the lances could not be used, the combatants wielded their blades with deadly efficiency, slashing through their foes' carapaces and ending the lives of many. As the minutes dragged on, more and more fallen warriors, their lives spent, fell from the sky into the chasms and onto mountainsides below.
Though Sanctuary's defenders fought mightily, they could not hold back the torrential fury of Blackhold. Outnumbered greatly, they were forced to pull back, until energy blasts and the ringing clash of metal could be heard all through the upper levels of the citadel. No quarter was asked or given, and nothing was said save commands given to subordinates.
As the battle raged inside, a long-unused portal ground open farther down the mountainside, scattering pebbles and other debris in its wake. From deep within the Sanctuary's bowels emerged a handful of the defenders, their tentacles clutching carefully wrapped bundles.
As dull echoes of the battle rumbled from the upper levels, a few quick words were shared between them. Then, they took to the air, quickly scattering in different directions, making no noise save the dull whirring of their wings.
Hours later, a shadowy figure alighted in a small wooded glen, not far from the foothills of the Cruth Mountains, to the south. Seeing that it was alone, it glanced at the greenish-grey band of metal that encircled one of its tentacles, and willed the item's power to activate. The creature's carapace rippled and shifted, changing into a soft, pink flesh. Its limbs shifted, its posture changed, and, within a minute of willing the transformation, where there was once a vaguely insectoid creature, there now stood an unclothed human male, wearing a greenish-grey ring on his right index finger. Staggering slightly from the after-effects of the change, the man walked to a small collection of stones at the eastern end of the glen.
Straining unfamiliar muscles, he heaved the largest stone aside, revealing a small chest. Pulling open the bundle he had in his possession, he produced a small iron key, and fumbled with it for several minutes until he managed to insert it into the lock, and turn it until he heard the satisfying click. Opening the chest, he found a set of neatly-folded clothing within. Wasting no time, he removed the chest's contents and donned them awkwardly.
Later, the man stood fully dressed, after having relearned the usage of the clumsy limbs the hominids called "arms". Adjusting his boots, he uttered a quiet word of thanks to the First One for having the foresight to place such chests in secluded locations near the Sanctuary, so that the Surveyors could use them when needed. Glancing again at the ring, and listening for the faint echoes of the battle that must surely be continuing high above, he realised that he could not remain in this place for long. Searching through the bundle, he pulled out a short sword and a silver amulet. Those two items he would need the most - the first for his own defence, and second to seek out those who would be well disposed to the Sanctuary's cause. The First One did not tell him how it worked, merely that it did.
Mentally, the Surveyor reviewed the cover identity he had constructed for himself over the years. He was Athrim Meldryn, a young merchant, lately of Selenica, who dealt extensively in small shipments of new and used books. He had lost his parents at a young age to humanoid raiders, and had no other close kin. It had been more than three years since he had assumed his cover identity, and Athrim was panicked slightly by the knowledge that there were certain elements he may have forgotten. Equally untested was his proficiency with his sword.
Realising that there was little for him to do at this point, Athrim held the silver amulet, and concentrated on the fine patterns inscribed on its surface. It had been made before the coming of his race to this world, its makers unknown, but he had been told that it would guide him. He gazed at his reflection in the amulet's surface by the moonlight, and saw a strange face looking back at him. Suddenly, the amulet began to grow warm in his palm, and he felt a faint tugging, to the west.
"So, it seems the answer to my unspoken question lies to the west, into regions I have not yet visited," Athrim muttered to himself, his own voice sounding strange to him. With that, he replaced the stone on top of the now-emptied chest, gathered up his belongings, and proceeded to walk westwards.