PrinceCon 39 Theme Teaser #2

PrinceCon 39: Shroud of the World

“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.

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