Two Samples from Salvation Earth.
1 Expedition North
The first shimmering of light was creeping over the ridge; the warriors were relaxed but ready in a tight gully. There was still a shadow over the town. Arran tapped Razzan. They could just make out men gathering in the town centre.
“Looks like a patrol or bigger. We had better wait until they are well clear of the town. It looks like Elven’s right, this could be good fortune for us,” whispered Arran. “Let’s get back and warn the others. It looks like the whole garrison is leaving.”
“That is the only road in and out. The town is in a hollow and surrounded on three sides by cliffs,” said Elven, pointing. “Like I said they go out on maneuvers once a week. They will be gone all day.”
Arran made his way back to the solders, which were under cover of a shallow cliff. He noted that they were very much on edge and did not look much rested. “Bunch of rabble,” he muttered. “I hope we don’t have to depend on them too much.” There were two more columns further back with the barrows between them. Arran told Captain Hendra of the delay and that when ordered, to lead his men to the top of the ridge, but out of sight and watch the town. One third of the captain’s men were to go in with the warriors. The barrows would follow. Hendra was not to enter town with his main force, unless he saw the flag lowered. That would be the signal for attack, if it were needed, but he was to hold fast otherwise.
The tension could be felt hanging in the air. Arran made his way back to his men. The dawn raid postponed, the warriors settled down to wait, taking advantage of the rest. It was not long before they made their way up and along the ridge, just in time to see the troop march out of town.
“You were right, Arran,” remarked Razzan. “Looks like the whole garrison, this will be easy.”
“Too easy. I wonder where they are going.” The two men looked down, the sun now licking the rooftops; high cliffs on three sides surrounded the town still in shadow with this one narrow pass out of it. “If we get it wrong, we are in a hell of a trap.”
“They aren’t coming back for some time I’ll wager, they are off somewhere, leaving the spoils to us,” said Razzan
“Elven, you stay with Captain Hendra. Keep a sharp lookout for their return and give me plenty of warning.”
As soon as the enemy were well out of sight, the warriors swept down into the town, with the aim of spreading out through the streets and holding every main junction, preventing any remaining garrison from reforming. The bulk of the people left there were still in bed. Arran, Razzan and Jarrad made for the main square. They saw the butcher’s shop with human limbs hanging in the window. This disturbed even the warriors. It would undoubtedly scare the soldiers. The resistance did not show until the soldiers disturbed everyone with their noisy charge. The warriors were in position to deal with it. The soldiers went on to break open the grain stores and loot everything they could carry until they saw the butchers. The first of the barrows rattled over the ridge and the main force concealed itself on the top.
The town was now well secure, and Arran could set about organizing the raid. He set two soldiers at the flag mast. The main force might not be needed and would remain under cover unless the flag was lowered, thus the town would look normal should the barbarians return. Then they could be fought on both sides.
Satisfied that everything was under control, Arran began to take notice of the huge temple in the main square. How clean and well repaired it was, unlike the rest of the town, which did not amount to much more than heaps of rock and stone strewn with rotting garbage. He had never seen or smelt such a foul place, and yet right in the centre was this clean and tidy temple of obvious importance. Its style was different to the rest of the town. It had tall, slender spires that gave it a kind of grace unlike its surroundings. He and Razzan walked towards it. They heard swordplay from an outhouse of the temple. Two soldiers fell out of the door with their guts hanging out, doubled up and fell to the ground still. They were followed by three large figures in black hooded cloaks brandishing broadswords, hewing down six more soldiers before the rest fell back as they, without a break in their stride, marched over to the centre of the square without fear, as if nothing on earth could touch them. They were large men who moved with the grace and speed of ones trained in the arts. They were very large, bigger than Arran, but not mutants, and they had very refined features the likes of which Arran had not seen before.
“Temporal priests I should say,” Arran whispered to Razzan. “Let’s see what they are made of.” Arran walked toward the priests, drew his blade and gave the bow of respect. He had not even straitened when one of the priests leaped forward swinging a blow at Arran’s chest. Arran arched his body back as the blade swept under his chin. His opponent, expecting to strike his quarry, was carried forward by his own momentum, a red blade thrusting out of his back. Arran sidestepped and pulled his blade out before the body hit the ground. The other two looked at each other and both leaped towards Arran, who again sidestepped left, putting one opponent in front of the other. Deflecting a thrusting blade with his own, again leading his rival off balance, Arran drew back his blade slashing the man’s chest. He jumped back again and jabbed the now shaken man under the ribs. The second combatant, no longer a threat, ducked behind the first to avoid Razzan’s thrust and leaving himself no room to manoeuvre. Arran went left again under the wounded man’s poor guard and ran through the surprised second man, while Razzan hacked the first man’s head off. There was a murmur echo round the square from the soldiers now crowding into it, at once stunned by their leader’s ability, but in wonder of their enemy.
“If they are all like that, we have not a chance,” one was heard to cry.
Razzan turned to him and said, “Fool, they were of their elite, the force that marched out of here were rabble. You see how easily we dealt with their elite. Get back to your work or I’ll send you into the next world now.” The man scurried off like a rat. Arran and Razzan looked at each other. They were both visibly shaken. They had never encountered any one as good as themselves before. “I wonder how many more they are?” whispered Razzan.
“We had better deal with the ones here before the garrison gets back and hope this is the extent of their number. Call Jarrad, Argot and the others, time we explored the temple.”
The temple entrance was unobstructed apart from a large slab of polished rock standing nineteen hands in front of it. The men walked over and stood either side of it. The huge black slab did not hinder their way in, but it cut off the light to the interior. Arran smelt the odour smell of extinguished candles. Inside was total darkness. “The priests would be used to the dark. If we go in now, they will cut us down.”
“I’ll get some torches, a brand each,” said Jarrad, already dashing off.
Arran and Razzan both closed their eyes, slowed their heartbeat and listened for movement inside. Arran flipped a pebble in on the path he intended to take. From its echo, he reasoned there was no obstacle in his way. Argot kept his eyes fixed on the entrance ready for any sign of movement. Jarrad was soon back, gave one brand to Razzan, and said “Ready”.
Arran said, “Go.”
Jarrad sprinted across the doorway throwing the torches high into the temple as he did, followed immediately by Arran who took two steps in and dived headlong to the left, still with eyes shut. He rolled over twice, slid into a pillar, stood up and opened his eyes. Someone had already extinguished the brands. Arran could see quite well in the low light and make out rows of pillars and pews. But he could detect no sound or movement. Stealthily, he made his way along behind the pillars until he was near the altar, blade in hand. Whoever was in here would have recovered their night vision by now after the brands had temporarily blinded them. They may not have seen him make his way here. He finished counting to fifty and looked away from the door. Suddenly, the darkness was shattered by blazing light as Razzan, Jarrad, Argot and Gem entered blade in one hand, blazing torch held high in the other. Keeping his eyes low and away from the light, Arran looked around and saw three black figures standing in front of the altar. Sensing movement from behind, he turned to see three more by a pillar he had passed a little way back. The figures were about to jump out on the others as they passed. When they drew level, Arran ran at the priests’ rear screaming, forcing them to jump forward into the warriors’ reach whilst trying to turn to fend off what was behind them. They neither had the room or position to fight as they wished.
Arran leaped over the last pew cleaving one priest as he landed. The figure sank to its knees making bubbling noises. The other two, trapped between fearsome opponents, fared no better. More light was being brought in now by the braver of the soldiers. Arran looked around. Everything was built from gleaming bright marble, looking at once brand new and very skillfully made, but the style looked somehow thousands of years old. He did not like this place. His attention returned to the priests at the altar. they had spread out, being used to single combat and did not wish to be caught in such a display of teamwork as they had just witnessed. This mattered not to Arran; they would stay in-group and tackle the priests one at a time. That would make their task easier.
As they advanced down the aisle, the priests, realising, reformed but remained too close to the altar, restricting their room for maneuver. The six met with a mighty clash of steel. Arran moved round to the left to turn the first priest away from Razzan, who could distract him with the odd blow between his own opponents, giving Arran an opening to finish him. But Razzan had met his match. He deflected a blow to his head and tried to slip in a thrust at the first priest when his opponent, making a lightning recovery, swung his blade round and took off Razzan’s hand. Arran took advantage of his man’s distraction and ran him through, but could do no more than watch Razzan, now defenseless, step back only to have the priest jump forward with remarkable speed and push his blade into Razzan’s stomach. Arran was there in an instance and hacked off the priest’s head before he could pull his blade out. He fell on Razzan, twisting the blade and pushing it in further as they fell to the floor amidst Razzan’s cries of agony. Arran turned on the third priest in a fury and hacked at him relentlessly, until the man went down. It was the first time Arran had lost his temper in a fight.
“I must control myself or I will be defeated,” he thought. Arran turned to see Jarrad cradling Razzan’s limp form. Jarrad looked up and shook his head. Arran felt his bitterness increase again.
“Get him out of here.” The men carried Razzan out into the square.
“I want his body taken home and buried.”
“Arran, that’s not custom. It’s a waste of time and resources,” said Argot.
“I know. I’m sorry. Let this town be his funeral pyre then. Come, let us explore the temple.”
They walked back and into the temple.
“They can never beat us, they are just barbarians. The high priests number few, the rest are untrained. We will train the baron’s men into a real army.”
“The smoke from the funeral pyre will be seen for miles,” said Jarrad, “and raise the alarm.”
“I don’t care, he was my best friend. I hate these people, let them come.”
Arran was just approaching camp when he noticed another shooting star streak over the town. Again it seemed to slow and drop just beyond town. There were too many lights in the sky of late, not natural. Stowing his chest under a barrow, he set of for the far side of town. There was no sign of lights in the hills now. He made his way through the dark smelly streets, which had been evacuated now but not fired yet. He thought it seemed spooky and unnaturally quiet. Near to the far edge of town he heard screams and stopped. A chill came over him. They did not sound very nice. Then there were people running across the end of the street. Must be a work party. He ran down a side ally, through a sparse vegetable patch, over a wall and dropped down behind a fence. He was overlooking a square right on the edge of town where it was more open than the tight streets he had just come through. There were bodies laying around, and his eyes nearly popped out when he saw the two giants clad in black with smooth featureless helms. They must have stood a full head over him. Then one of the Barons patrols entered the square. A captain and two others drew their blades, raised their shields and advanced.
“Who are you and what is your business?” Asked the captain not getting any nearer than he had to.
“You are of authority here?” Said one of the black giants. “We are looking for someone. Perhaps you can help us. He is using an unusually powerful new weapon that I am sure you would be aware of.”
“I know nothing of strange weapons.”
“We know it is here. Do not protect it. You cannot resist us.”
“You enter our city without invitation and threaten us. You must leave immediately. I order it so.”
“Your orders and authority mean nothing to us. We move as we please. You must give us the information we want or suffer the consequences.”
“Leave us strangers. We cannot bargain with invaders.”
One of the black figures pointed at the captain, a red flash left a smoking hole in his shield. He showed no sign of impact, but just crumpled to the ground, revealing another smoking hole in his chest. The others shrank back. Arran jumped so much that he pushed the fence down. The black figure turned and pointed at him, he dived to the ground as the wall behind him howled and showered him with sparks and splinters. Without a pause he jumped up and bounded over the wall, which howled again behind him. Pausing a second to regain control, he ran for his life back through town and did not stop until he reached his tent.
Nadine came out of the tent “Whatever has happened to you?”
Arran was too out of breath to speak for a moment.
“I have never seen you so winded.”
The others began to appear.
“What is wrong?” Asked Malone.
“We have, I think, just had a visit from the gods.”
At that moment there was the rumble of distant thunder and a light faded up into the night sky. They all looked at each other.
“What the?” Remarked Vargen, running up.
Everybody was out of their tents now and all throwing questions at Arran, who told them what he had seen.
“Wow,” said Elven, “I wish I had been there.”
“What might this weapon be then Arran?” Asked Jarrad. “You don’t think…”
“I am trying not to think anything at the moment.
“Well, I have heard lots of rumours about the gods,” said Harrad “But I have never actually met anyone that has seen them. Till now.”
“They were not gods” put in Arran there was something very human about them, despite the size.”
“Oh yea,” cut in Tarrak “What about the thunderbolt then?”
“I don’t know, some sort of wizardry. I dare say Zeb could conjure up something like that.”
“Not something that would go straight through a shield and your body.”
“Well, I don’t believe they are gods. And we can’t let this delay us we leave for the Com first light.”
Arran and Jarrad stood in silence as everyone went back to their tents.
“This weapon, I can only think of one strange new weapon in these lands.”
“Yes, you’re right Jarrad. It must be very important to someone. After centuries hidden, I use it for an hour and the ‘Gods’ appear. Spooky wouldn’t you say. It must truly be a weapon of the gods. We will need this weapon in the coming battles. But I must be careful how I use it.”
“Is it wise to use it at all?”
“Possibly not. But I will take the chance. We had better get some sleep, I want an early start in the morning.”
First light saw Arran, Nadine, Jordan and Vargen fed and on their way. They met Captain Onaska and fifty soldiers with half the barrows of grain. After a brief greeting, they set off South. The road was busier than normal. Most people were fleeing south, taking as many of their belongings as possible. People were in a state of mild panic. Rumour was rife, like a thousand demons had already sacked Cam. Some were going north, like robbers looking for the fortunes of war. Whole villages had gone to fight for their lands. All this to and fro slowed them down somewhat, much to Arran’s annoyance. But there were no incidents on the journey and they made it in just over three days.
Hal came out to greet them as they ground into the courtyard.
“Arran. Nadine I am so glad you are OK. Come, food, rest. Tell me all, I can’t wait for the news. I have heard some. That old wizard friend of yours was snooping around here the other day.”
“What, Zeb, here.”
“Yes, he left two days ago. Come on let’s go in and catch up.
He led them into the dining hall and sat them round the table. Gave instructions for the soldiers to be billeted in the barn and for some hot food for their guests.
“So Arran, how bad is it? We have noticed more travellers than normal, outlanders crossing our borders. Things are really stirred up I would guess.”
Arran told him of their adventures and all the events from leaving him before. Hal sat there in silence shaking his head now and again.
“So Cam will be under siege soon. And if it falls we are all in trouble.”
“That’s right Hal. We must all go and help its defence. We must go back to the Com and come back with every man we have.”
“We will join you with every man we have.”
“That’s good Hall, we will need them.”
“But what of these black Gods? I have heard of them, stories of sightings in the west. Although I know of no one that has returned. And where do they fit in? They have never been seen in our lands before.”
“We don’t know. We will have to wait and see. But I would suggest avoiding them at all costs.”
“Don’t worry about that, I will. Just as I thought things were getting better. Do you know that our crops have produced a better yield every year for the past five years? I believe the land is a lot cleaner than it was. But now this. Will there never be any rest for us?”
“We will do what we have to. We are not lost yet. Things will get better have no fear. It’s just that they may have to get worse first.”
“That is good news about your harvest.” Said Jordan. “It must mean less work to feed everyone.”
“It does, it means we can spend more time on improving our conditions and have more recreational time. If we come through this, life won’t be nearly as bad as it used to be.”
“So where is Zeb going?”
“I don’t know. I told him you were in Cam but should be back soon.”
“He won’t go there. Calls it a den of thieves he does. He may go on to the Com to wait for us. Although I think he has a pretty good idea of our movements anyway. We will leave at first light; maybe we will catch him up. Come on Nad; let’s get to bed. Good night.”
They got up and walked to the stairs taking a jug of wine with them and leaving the others drinking and exchanging stories. Once they were in bed and Nadine snuggled up, entwining here body around Arran’s, she asked Arran what he thought chance he thought the house had saying that Hall had worked so hard for years to bring the estate around and how he deserved to succeed. But Arran had already drifted into sleep. Knowing that he was in a safe house, he allowed himself to go into a much-needed deep sleep for on the move he only half slept, listening out for danger. This meant he was not always as rested, as he should be. Now he was almost unawakenable. Nadine lay there with thoughts of the ape-men. She could still see its face. Tomorrow they would pass that place again. She hoped her dreams would not come back and decided to make Arran give it a wide berth. Still, she wondered what they were, besides tortured souls.
Arran was awoken by movement in the courtyard and house. The whole place seemed alive. He had never heard so much activity. Nadine was up and he could hear water being poured. He lay there and tensed every muscle in his body as hard as he could, until he tingled all over. Then he stretched every way he could.
“If that water’s hot, save me some Nad, please.”
“You can use it after I have finished.”
They found Hal in the courtyard, bade their farewells and ordered the troupe into some sort of formation. It was a clear bright morning as they marched out of the gate. Nadine remarked on how wonderful everything looked, but Arran was miles away in thought. Jordan agreed with her with a grunt.
“Well, we don’t have to be so gloomy, do we?”
The troupe consisted of more women now, going to the greater safety of the Commune.
“Arran, tomorrow will bring us close to the ape men again.”
“You would sooner we go round it?”
“I’m not sure. I think they need help more than being a threat. I think I would like to try and make contact.”
“Nadine, there was no one there.”
“They are in that small hill we camped by.”
“Please let me try.”
“OK, if it makes you happy. But we will not camp as close this time.”
The following day they came upon the little hill. It had been a dull journey and all were familiar with this route.” Arran ordered camp and was asked why stop so soon, but he ignored the question and Vargen put in for an early dinner to a round of groans. Camp was soon set up and some of the grain was made into porridge for supper. Once they were fed Arran and Jordan went with Nadine to the hill. She walked around it, stopping now and again and closed her eyes. Eventually she went up to the top of the hill and knelt. Arran followed her up. She looked like she was praying. But she was chanting something he couldn’t make out.
After what seemed ages, she moaned some and slumped to the ground. Arran rushed over, quite alarmed, and picked her up. She was moaning but seemed well. He carried her back to camp and laid her on her bed.
“Is she all right?” Enquired Jordan.
Arran explained that she is often left in a state of exhaustion after a heavy trance and that she would sleep through the night now.
The next morning Nadine awoke early. “There are people down there, in the hill.”
“Come on Nad, that’s a bit farfetched.”
“No, I made contact. They need help. They have extremely powerful psychic powers but they are trapped in there.”
“How could anyone survive underground Nad? You must have been dreaming. We can’t delay, forget it.”
“We can’t just leave them.”
“I’m sorry but we must. Come on.”
They made a good start and expected to reach the Commune the next afternoon. The pace was slow because of the soldiers and barrows. Arran was getting a bit impatient when Vargen, who was trailing, came running up and announced that they were being followed. But he had no idea who it could be. Arran ordered two more rear guards to join him and wondered who could be so good that his men could not see them. Later in the day Arran was so bored he got his chest from a barrow and went off on his own, knowing he could spend a couple of hours practising and still catch up before dark. He travelled two and a half leagues before setting up the chest. Thinking that he was so far south of Cam he should not be bothered by these ‘Gods’. He pressed the red jewel and his blade leapt into his hand, taking him through a training program. Once again he underwent an hour of torturous activity.
This time he was more aware of what was happening. But it was still like a dream, vague and unclear. He was totally unable to resist the actions he was performing. He could only marvel at the speed and agility he now demonstrated. At last, he came to a stop and fell onto his back. He felt drained and it was all he could do to pull the helm off. I cannot do that too often. He thought. Whilst lying there getting his wind back looking at the sky, he thought he saw a light pass overhead. You can’t see shooting stars in the day. But it was gone in a flash, and he heard a roaring scream quite close by. Not again, is there no escape? Overriding his exhaustion, he packed the chest up, keeping an eye on the bushy hill between him and the sound. Just as he finished, he heard noises in the bushes, possibly talking. Grabbing the chest, he ran in the opposite direction and dived into the nearest bush. No sooner than he moves, a bolt of red light struck the ground where he had stood, sending a shower of soil into the air. He rolled into the bushes and kept rolling as more bolts tore through the bush above him. Swinging to his left he came to a halt and waited, not sure of what to do next, he did not have much cover left. Then several loud explosions shook the ground, followed by more shrieks and howls like all hell had opened up. After a while it went quiet. He thought that he ought to get away but wasn’t sure about breaking cover. He pulled his cloak over his head and started to crawl away. He was just thinking that with the cloaks camouflage ability he may just slip away unnoticed, when a voice said.
“You do look funny there. Where do you think you are going?”
Arran rolled over and tried to draw his blade at the same time and ended up in a tangled heap. A tall figure stood over him. A huge roar of laughter now added insult to his injury.
“You can come out now.” Said Zeb “I have dealt with them.”
“Heavens, am I glad to see you.” Arran struggled to his feet. “Wizard, I should have known it was only you all along.”
“Err um, well not entirely alone, I had some help.”
“Well must you creep about and sneak up on people?”
“I hear that you’re good at creeping about yourself.”
“Not upon friends I’m not.”
“And prey tell how I could tell friend from foe with you hiding in a bush?”
“With all the goings on over there, you expect me to stand out, where? And waive? Huh.”
“Come, we do not have much time, and we have work to do back there.”
“I’m not sure that I want to go back there.”
“And I thought you were the bravest of the brave.”
“Anyway, I have something important for you to look at.”
“We have not the time, hurry.”
“But, but this blade, it has….” Arran pulled out his blade.
“Yes of course, the weapon. If it is what I think it is, it will be very useful in the task to come.”
“Here take it.”
“NO. No I dare not touch it. It is far too powerful. My will is not as strong and incorruptible as yours. It could corrupt my own powers, and then where would we be?”
“But Zeb, surely your power and the blade’s… Who could match that?”
“Exactly young man. Do not even think it. I shall examine it at a more convenient time and place. We are in danger right now. There may be more coming, and we have a job to do before we leave here.”
They marched up the hill and into more bushes. Arran noticed two bodies; they were the all-black giants. There was still smoke wafting about and a strong smell of burning that didn’t smell quite right….