Part Two - Darkness
The snow fell thick and heavy, dirty and grey from the prolific quantities of ash it contained. Karnus trudged slowly through the blasted landscape, labouring his way towards his destination. He had set out from Eriadna several hours ago, but it was taking him longer than expected to reach the town of Alpharyn, the last destination of his missing scouting party.
The weary wizard stopped to clear his throat, and found himself in the middle of coughing fit that bent him almost double. “Damned ash,” thought Karnus as he straightened up and went on his way.
Alpharyn itself was in truth little more than a village. Karnus had grown up amongst the bustling city of Specularum which, while not exactly glamorous, had at least been populous. He was constantly amused at the Glantrian notion of a large population centre – he had seen hamlets and homesteads back in Karameikos that could dwarf Glantrian ‘towns’…
But now the small town was laid out before him, nestled in the midst of low hills that had sheltered it from the blast of the impact, though they had done little to diminish the effect of the earthquakes. Karnus could see that most of the buildings in the western half of town were still intact – it looked as if the town hall still stood, along with several houses. Another hacking cough overtook the wizard, and he decided to get down into the town as soon as possible.
Walking down the hill, Karnus shortly found himself in the middle of Alpharyn. A long crack had opened through the town, which seemed to explain the unequal distribution of the devastation – the eastern half of the town had been thrown upward several meters, crushing the buildings in that area, while the western half seemed to have been spared much of the damage.
Karnus looked around at his surroundings. Through the swirling ash and snow he could make out some people moving around outside the large town hall, their heads swathed in rags to guard against the cloying air. Karnus moved to stop one of the people, who recoiled from him and pointed at the door to the hall before wandering off.
Shrugging, Karnus turned to the door and pushed it open, finding a heavy rug draped over the opening. He pushed his way past the carpet and cautiously moved into the ramshackle building. What had once been a well furnished town hall was now transformed into a clean, makeshift hospital, cots laid out in neat rows. Heavy cloth curtains hung over every window and door, attempting to keep the pervasive dust out of the interior.
Karnus was amazed. For the first time since he had arrived it seemed that the locals had organised an effective response to the catastrophe. Here and there men and women moved amongst the cots, tending to the wounded and comforting the sick.
As Karnus moved further into the hospital his eyes scanned the arrayed infirm before him. Some were suffering from grievous wounds, their bodies shattered from the earthquakes. Others were pale and fevered, coughing and vomiting in earnest. Karnus’s eyes lingered on one unfortunate woman, her skull all but shattered, she lay staring at the ceiling and breathing heavily. Karnus gave her a few more hours before she slipped away…
Karnus breathed the cleaner air deeply; triggering a spasm of coughing that attracted the attention of one of the nurses. She looked up at the bedraggled wizard and moved towards him with a smile on her face. She was a good looking woman, perhaps a little older than his own age (though looking younger than he did). Her handsome features were formed into a pleasant smile as she approached him, and then contorted into a frown as Karnus coughed once again. She gestured to two of the other nurses as she drew near.
“Welcome, stranger,” she said in heavily accented Glantrian. Karnus furrowed his brow in thought for a moment before replying in Darokinian; “my thanks, good lady.”
The woman looked pleasantly surprised that Karnus had recognised her accent, and she switched to Darokinian to reply; “will you take a seat, perhaps some water or food?” She gestured towards a nearby cot, but Karnus shook his head.
“No milady, though I will take the water. I am come from Eriadna, looking for some men that I sent to find more survivors. They were lead by a man called Ryndathilar…?”
“You are Perdissium?”
Karnus narrowed his eyes, “that’s right. Karnus Perdissium, at your,” he interrupted himself with a cough, “ahem, disposal.”
“Your men came through here, but they did not tarry. They told us about your group of survivors but insisted on heading further westwards.”
“Why would they do that?”
“One of the men claimed to have family in a village not far to the west. Though it fills me with sadness I fear the worst for his kin, however…”
“And they have not returned?”
“No. That was several days ago. We could not spare the people to go look for them when they did not return.”
“Thank you,” said Karnus, quaffing the last of his water and immediately regretting it as the coughing returned. Once he finished spluttering he turned back to the concerned nurse. “I will head out after them, but first I would speak with your leader.”
“I suppose I speak for these souls, as much as any other.”
“Good. I want you to take these people to Eriadna. There are more people there who can help them, and we’re making preparations to leave the area.”
“Most of these people cannot be moved – we must tend to their wounds first.”
Karnus looked at the woman with a sharp expression. He lowered his voice and said “you know as well as I that most of these people will not survive. It’s a miracle they’ve made it this far. I’m all for saving who we can, but you need to prioritise – the most badly wounded will have to be left behind.”
“Nobody will be left behind, Master Perdissium.” The woman drew herself up to her full height, which was about as tall as Karnus, “your plan to leave is valid, but I require a few more days to stabilise my patients. Once that is done I’ll gladly join your group in Eriadna, but not until then.”
Karnus was taken back by the steel in her voice. The wretched souls in Eriadna had lost their spirit before he had arrived, and had accepted his authority after his speech. He realised he’d quickly grown used to having his orders obeyed. Respecting her resolve, Karnus mutely nodded his assent as the woman smiled and stepped back. “Now that that’s sorted,” she said, “you are welcome here. I am Anora Pellagi, it is a pleasure to meet you.”
Karnus shook the proffered hand, impressed by this woman’s spirit, “likewise,” he replied with a wry smile.
The two chatted for a while, as Karnus ate a small meal and Anora tended to her patients. They exchanged stories of how they had attempted to coordinate the efforts of the people. It appeared that Anora had mirrored Karnus’ own approach of inspiring the survivors to work together, though her results were if anything more impressive: She had nearly two hundred people, gathered from nearby farms as well as Alpharyn itself, though many of them were grievously wounded, and Karnus doubted they would make the trip to Eriadna, let alone the journey beyond the disaster zone.
Their final destination was another topic of conversation, and Karnus confessed to Anora that he was not sure where the people of Blackhill would be welcome; “they were already social pariahs before the meteor strike. I fear that wherever we take them they’ll be condemned to a life of destitution…”
“Surely some of the other rulers will open their realms to the refugees?”
“I hope so, but most of the survivors offer little of interest to a noble – perhaps if some of the more powerful wizards of Blackhill were around they could influence the decision, but they’re either dead, missing, or totally disinterested.” Anora suggested that Princess Carlotina of Erewan may be their best hope for succour and Karnus promised that he would consider the possibility.
The wizard found himself greatly impressed with the ability of the mundaner woman, and respectfully deferred to her judgement over her people. Later that afternoon, Karnus trudged out into the snow and dust once more, his mind preoccupied with thoughts of Anora Pellagi and her exceptional talents.
Following the directions given to him by some of the surviving locals, Karnus soon came across a shattered hamlet, which he had been told had been the homestead of Ryndathilar’s family. Breathing had become more difficult in the walk here, and Karnus leant against a shattered wall to try and recover before exploring the small ruins. As he leant wheezing against the wall he was overcome by a wracking cough, the worst he could ever remember. He dropped to his knees, unable to stand, and wheezed frantically. In his mouth he could taste blood, and he tore the rag from his face, noting that it was speckled with dark, reddish spots.
Greatly disquieted, Karnus pulled himself back to his feet, a movement accompanied by some mild dizziness. As the world swam before his eyes Karnus was sure the shadows on the wall were moving. He steadied himself and looked round for any sign of what could be casting that moving silhouette, but there was nothing to be seen. The wizard turned back to the wall to find that the shadow had gone.
Shrugging, Karnus turned and set out further into the homestead, wheezing as he went. Suddenly, without warning, he felt a chilling sensation in his left arm, and turned to see his limb gripped by a claw of darkness. Twisting and grimacing as his strength withered, Karnus looked straight into the blurred outline of a sentient shadow, its featureless visage mere inches from his own face.
In a moment of panic, the wizard swept his staff at the insubstantial figure, which recoiled as the eyes of the jackal headed weapon passed through it in a blaze of azure light. Free from the creature’s grip, Karnus staggered backwards a few paces, then noticed with horror that more shadows were detaching themselves from the walls and ground, and drifting towards him, taking on humanoid shapes as they came. Karnus counted at least fifteen of the creatures drifting towards him. Tactically he was in a vulnerable position, about to be surrounded, so he decided to exercise the better part of valour and, summoning all his remaining strength, dashed quickly towards a gap in the encircling shades.
He made it a few feet beyond the shadows before his exhausted body betrayed him, and fell heavily to the ground, tripping over the shattered landscape. Coughing from the effort, he stood, preparing to cast a spell, but before he could the sound of chanting came from nearby, and the air before Karnus suddenly shimmered and burst into flame. A Wall of Fire encircled the wizard and the partly ruined building that he now stood beside. A door in the shattered edifice sprung open and a couple of men wielding swords and dressed in dirty leather armour burst out and grabbed the unresisting Karnus, bundling him inside.
The coughing wizard was set down in the gloom within the shattered homestead, and looked around at his rescuers. Four men and a woman stood around him, their armour fashioned in the style of the Eriadna city guard. A fifth man stood to one side, his left hand stretched toward the open window, his right clutching a piece of parchment. This man was dressed in normal clothing, but fashioned into a military cut to match the armour of his companions. Karnus could see that the man was concentrating hard to maintain the Wall of Fire in the cloying atmosphere; one cough could ruin the spell, and already a visible sheen was present on his furrowed brow.
One of the guards knelt and met Karnus’ gaze. “Master Perdissium. Glad you could join us.”
Karnus recognised the man. “Captain Ryndathilar, you’re a hard man to find…”
As Karnus managed to stand up the guard captain straightened to tower over him. “I came to find you”, began Karnus, “you were gone for much longer than expected – did you find your family?”
The captain’s expression hardened and he turned away. Karnus caught the eye of one of the other guards and raised his eyebrow quizzically. The guard nodded towards the door, “he found them.”
Realisation dawned upon the wizard – it had probably only taken one or two of the shadows to steal through the shattered ruins, feeding upon Ryndathilar’s family, draining them of their strength and dooming them to an eternity as an insubstantial shade. He lowered his head and mumbled “I’m… sorry for your loss.”
Before the captain could respond, there was cry from the female guard, who was positioned near a shattered window. “They’re breaking through.”
Both Karnus and Ryndathilar snapped around. “That’s impossible,” called the captain. “I agree,” began Karnus, “they simply don’t have the power to cross such a barrier.”
“Damn your theories, wizard,” called the woman, drawing her sword, “they’re coming!” Sure enough, as Karnus watched a shadowy figure moved through the solid door and into the room. Another appeared at the far end of the ruined home.
“Impossible…” muttered Karnus, as the guardsmen drew their weapons and kicked over furniture for cover. “They shouldn’t be able to pass through matter, never mind the firewall…”
“It’s not all of them,” came the reply from the window, “just two or three that I can see. The rest are still held at bay.”
“Vathamyr,” called the captain, addressing the wizard at the far end of the room, “keep that barrier up! We can take the ones that get through.” The wizard nodded in mute assent, his brow furrowing even further.
“Captain!” A panicked call came from across the room – one of the shadows had reached a guardsman, who was backing away from the creature while futilely swiping his sword through it. Ryndathilar shot across the intervening space and swept his own sword through the shadow, which crackled with magical energy as it sliced through the creature, forcing it to recoil in horror. Unfortunately for the guards, their captain could not be everywhere at once, and a cry of pain came from an adjoining room as one of the men felt the rake of the shadow’s claws.
Karnus moved to the side of the one of the embattled guards, swiping the Staff of Hutaaka into a shadow and dizzying himself with the effort. The creature drew back from the magical weapon, allowing the wizard the time to cast a simple spell and summon three bolts of magical energy, which slammed into the shadow, annihilating it. Karnus dropped to his knees, exhausted by the effort of the spellcasting.
A whimper found its way to the fatigued wizard. He looked in its direction and saw that the young mage Vathamyr was beset by one of the shadows. As Karnus watched, unable to rise, the creature circled the mage for a moment before plunging its hand into his chest. As Vathamyr cried out in pain the Wall of Fire guttered outside the building, revealing the thronging shadows beyond, but before it could die out completely the mage regained his focus and continued sustaining the wall, rather than defending himself from his assailant.
Karnus tried to get up and felt like he was moving through treacle. The earlier wound on his arm throbbed with a cold chill, and a coughing fit overtook him as he collapsed once more to the ground. The two wizards locked eyes as the younger man died and agonising death, his body fading into shadow, his tortured face replaced by the dark, hungry visage of a shadow.
“Move!” cried the captain as he saw their last line of defence gutter to nothingness outside the building. Two of the guards grabbed Karnus by the elbows and hauled him to his feet as the captain kicked the door down and waded into the throng of shadows, swiping his sword through them and scattering them. In his wake followed Karnus supported by the female guard and one of the other men. No others emerged from the ramshackle building.
The fleeing group were beset by shadows on all side. Karnus cried out as he was clawed viciously once more, the dread touch of the shadow draining what felt like the last of his strength. His companions grunted and whimpered as the shadow’s attacks landed, but in seconds they were clear of the thronging mass of darkness, staggering onwards despite their weakness.
“Stop,” commanded Karnus in a hoarse whisper, “we’ll never make it if we try to outrun them.”
“What would you have us do?” replied Ryndathilar in desperation.
Karnus leaned heavily on the guardsman and turned to face the onrushing shadow. “This.”
The wizard stretched out a hand and spoke several words of magic, their haunting syllables weaving together in a sorcerous symphony. Blue energy coruscated around his hand, concentrating in a single bead of flame at the centre of his outstretched palm. A wracking cough shook the wizard before he could complete the spell, however, and the energy suddenly dissipated, falling to the ground at his feet in gentle, drifting motes.
“Great,” muttered the female guard as she drew her sword, determined to die with her weapon in her hand.
Karnus forced himself back to his feet, still coughing, as the hoard of shadows closed with the doomed humans. He stepped forward to face the oncoming darkness, raised his staff, and between coughs spoke a single word of magic. Instantly, a bolt of power shot from the Staff of Hutaaka’s bejewelled eyes, striking the heart of the thronging shadows and blossoming into a fiery ball of energy, illuminating the darkness and burning the shadow creatures from existence. Karnus managed to stand as the heat from the blast washed over him – he had cast the fireball so that he stood at its very edge, and for an instant he basked in its warming glow, a welcome contrast against the chill of this darkened land.
The moment passed, and the wizard sank to his knees. He felt strong hands gripping his shoulder and heard someone calling his name before everything faded to darkness.
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