Posts made in February, 2014
“Watch Commander Garret, please come in.”
Finally. He’d been cooling his heels outside the Council chambers for nearly an hour, while the mountains burned and their idyllic valley crumbled. The dawning day had unveiled a billowing white cloud, approaching along the ground and suggesting their problems were far from over.
Garret let himself be ushered into the room, where there was a chair at a small empty table, facing the entire council. Looking up at them no less. He didn’t spare it another glance.
Councillor Krebb cleared his throat. “Have a seat, commander.”
Garret clasped his hands behind his back and took a breath. “I prefer to stand.”
Another councillor spoke up, apparently trying to defuse the tension. “This isn’t an ambush, Commander. We’re simply trying to establish the best course for our community.”
“While it burns.” Garret winced as soon as he heard himself, but he wouldn’t take the words back.
Krebb cleared his throat again. “Commander, please summarize the conditions outside the Wall for us.”
“The conditions are, there aren’t burning mountains falling on our heads. The conditions are, everyone who leaves returns alive!”
“Commander! I realize you have suffered a… Personal… tragedy. But your community needs you. You are the senior surviving officer of the Watch.” Garret sucked in a breath at that — the cataclysm must have ravaged their ranks. Yesterday there were three men between Garret and General Yorke.
Krebb carried on. “This council needs your wisdom, not your wit. Now I understand you lost a patrol shortly before the… Incident.”
“That’s a damn euphemism!” Two of them, actually. His wife and child dead, and it was just an Incident? He shook himself back to the present. “We did ‘lose’ a patrol. I shot Lieutenant Braham myself.”
There were two sharp gasps from the council table, but Krebb knew the score. “Explain, Commander.”
“You know as well as I do. We send our patrols into the wasteland. If we’re lucky, they return. If we’re not lucky, the wasteland poisons them, and then they return.”
Krebb let the others take it from there. “But surely… surely they can be healed?”
“Braham had a third eye on his forehead. His sergeant wasn’t carrying his weapon, because his tentacles couldn’t get a grip. Their scout ran back on all fours. Once they’ve been shrouded, there’s no going back.”
“But they’re still our people!”
“You’d like to think that. But I’ve looked them in the eye — nothing but madness.” Garret paused a moment, wondering whether to continue. The councillors were shaking their heads, so he pressed on. “Once we took a man back in. Doc said if the priests couldn’t heal him, we’d amputate. They gave it their best.”
“The next morning, that soldier ate his dog. Once they’re shrouded they’re gone, and you’d best believe it.”
The councillors recoiled from his words, babbling among themselves so fast he couldn’t keep up. Garret saw the slightest trace of a smile cross Krebb’s face, and suddenly he knew why he had been summoned.
“Listen. All of you. Listen.” His parade-ground voice cut through the squabbling. “It doesn’t matter to you. You’ll never have to face it. Yes, the wasteland preys on men. Individual men. Most of our patrols are safe, because they stay in a group. We train them not to split up. A man might last hours. A patrol can last days. When we leave this valley, we’ll be in such a large pack, it’ll take months before you feel the effect.”
Krebb cut this line of discussion short. “Thank you Commander, that will be all.” He made some kind of gesture with his finger, and the doors opened behind Garret.
“Do you hear me? You’ll be safe! It’ll only be us–”
“Thank you Commander, that will be all!” It turned out Krebb had a commanding voice too. Garret felt hands on his arms as the Council Guard reached him.
“–the Watch, dying for you as usual.”
* * *
Garret left the council chamber in despair. The stars — gone, the mountains — demolished, and now a chalky cloud advancing toward the valley, stretching from dirt to sky. If they stayed much longer, there would be a footsoldier commanding the Watch, and then nobody at all.
The moment he walked out of the building, Claire tore away from the rest and launched into his arms, just like the good old days. Her wide eyes gazed into his, expectantly. “Are we going, daddy?”
He looked up, searching for the words. How do you tell your daughter that you’re all going to die?
That’s when he noticed the crowd. It must have been more than half of the survivors. Also looking at him expectantly, waiting for an answer, waiting for someone to lead. Krebb had made a critical error.
“General?” Magistrate Zed had survived, and nobody corrected him this time.
Garret boosted his parade-ground void to the max. “Friends. Last night, our world shattered. Today, we look to the future.” An explosion of rock in the background punctuated his words. “What was our refuge once, today holds nothing but ruin. I will not stay in this valley to die. Don’t you accept that fate either.” They were hanging on his every word, but they needed more. He grasped for something to offer… and then he had it.
“But we’re not just going to flee. Yes, we leave our old lives behind — that choice is made for us. Now is the time to find our new lives. Pack what you can, bring your friends, bring your families. At midday, we depart from the Wall. The Watch will protect you, as it always has. Long enough to find our new home. Long enough to reach Sitriph.”
At the name of the legendary Stronghold of the West, the crowd exploded in support and applause. Council be damned, they would survive this after all.Read More
Garret just scowled as he climbed past Magistrate Zed on the first terrace. He wasn’t sure whether he was scowling at the double-shift he was just coming off, the man in a position of some authority who still couldn’t tell a Watch Commander from a General, or the foothills of Mount Sheld that were the price for his view. His scowl lasted as he climbed past five more terraces, and only softened when he reached his door. Home.
“Claire?” he called. “Anelise?” Claire squealed as she flew in from their terrace like a shot from a longbow. She leapt off a stool with outstretched arms and all the confidence in the world.
“Oof,” he grunted as he caught her, staggering a little under the weight. “You’re getting a little big for that, kiddo.”
“Daddy,” she scolded.
“Sorry. Good altitude, but if you’re going to tackle an ogre,” he pointed at himself to emphasize his advice, “aim for the gut rather than the chest.”
Anelise came in from the back room, holding the baby and smiling at their game. “I don’t think she was trying to tackle the ogre — I think she was just trying to leave her mark!” And it had worked — his surcoat was streaked with fresh dirt.
In a flash, Claire was headed back for the terrace. Grinning happily, and likely off to find the rest of the mud while she could still see anything at all.
Garret’s smile faded quickly as she left. He sat down with a sigh.
Anelise frowned. “Sorry, baby. Bad day on the Wall?”
He glanced toward the terrace reflexively. Their home on the base of Mount Sheld usually afforded a spectacular view, both of Mount Gard across the valley, and the wasteland out over the Wall. It was late, though, and the scenery had faded from sight. He looked down and sighed. “The worst. We lost another patrol.”
He looked up sharply. “Exactly.”
She handed him the baby, and began to work at the knots in his shoulders. There was only one thing worse than burying your own men, and that was when you had to kill them first.
“It can’t go on. You tell them it can’t go on! Just stop the patrols!”
Garret snorted. “That’s right, because they’ll listen to a Watch Commander. And the wasteland — it’ll just take care of itself.”
Her hands stopped. He relented. “I’m sorry. It’s just…”
A shriek from outside saved him from trying to find the words. “Daddy! Daddeee! The Stars!”
He shook his head and growled again, his frustration finding another target. “Have those kids been taunting her again? Night of No Stars and all that?”
“Shhh… You sit. I’ll check on her.” Anelise took the baby back, and headed for the terrace. A small rumble shook the ground. Garret just put his head in his hands, back on the Wall in his mind. Taking the shot. His own men. Once the wasteland had a grip, there was nothing else to do.
“Garret?” His head snapped back up as he registered the fear in her voice. “Garret!” Now it was desperation. He ran for the terrace, a hundred thoughts flashing through his mind.
Claire was pointing in awe, Anelise in terror. “Look at the stars…”
Another rumble shook the mountain, bigger this time. And Garret watched the stars — falling from the sky, melting into a stream, the stream pouring into Mount Gard. He took a step back. Anelise took two.
When the first stars hit, the top of Mount Gard exploded into fire, worse than a volcano. Stars flying up, stars flying down, his mind told him unnecessarily. Another rumble, and then the ground bucked, throwing him down. When he looked up, he was facing backward, Mount Sheld barely visible past the terrace above. Another funnel of stars. And another ring of fire. The top of Mount Sheld was already gone.
Analise screamed and ran for the back room, carrying the baby. He reached out for her, but Claire, still on her feet, wrapped him in an iron grip.
The ground bucked again, rock struck his temple, the world went red, and then black.
* * *
“Daddy. Daddy!” Garret felt fists pounding his chest. He opened an eye, and his head exploded in pain.
Claire was sitting on his belly, dirty and bleeding, forcing him awake. Another tremor shook them, but gentler this time, only enough to kick up the dust until they coughed.
He tried to clear his head. “We’ve got to get–” but the words died in his mouth. The upper terraces had collapsed, and what used to be his home was only an impenetrable mass of rubble. Half of their own terrace was gone, fallen down into the living space below. In one stroke, his family was shattered.
Claire’s eyes were wide. “Daddy they’re gone.” She stared at him for a beat. “I think we have to go too.”
He stared back in astonishment. “Yeah, kiddo, we have to go.” He cupped her face with his hand for a moment, the only moment he could spare. Then: “Help me up.”
She rolled off to the side, and he began to move. One leg was stuck under a rock, but another tremor knocked it free. Limping, he took her hand. “Out now, away, before the rest falls.”
Backlit by the falling stars and the fires that used to be peaks, they climbed slowly over the side of what used to be a terrace. Then, stripped of their home, their mountains, and their family, they headed for the Wall.Read More