Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Stories from the front

“Flesh is weak.” Those three words defined his world. Growing up in the wilds of the Khadoran frontier, Nicodemus had always thought his father’s periodic utterances meant that physical weakness should be guarded against. Frontier life was hard. Only the strong survived. Only the strong could harvest a living from the unforgiving North.

Then they left the kardic lands for the dubious safety of the protectorate. Freedom from persecution. Freedom to follow Menoth’s teachings. Of course the day was oppressively hot while the nights dropped below freezing. The desert ground gave even less back to farmers than the Khadoran countryside. It seemed like every other day he heard his father muttering his mantra. He asked him once what he meant.

“We are weak son. Everybody has their price. Everybody has their limit. Some day you’ll understand—Menoth willing. It’s something to remember.”

“But Dah, I don’t understand. What do you mean?”

“It’s not something I can teach son. It’s something you have to learn yourself. Some things you can learn from listening. Some things you can learn by doing. Things like this, you learn by surviving. This is a special truth Nicodemus. Not like what the priests tell you. It’s something you and Menoth have to work out together.”

He nodded and went on doing what needed to be done. But in the back of his head he always wondered what his father meant. Now he knew. The prime minister had been weak. He betrayed his country to the enemy. The captain, night and hero, had abandoned the gray wolves. Demetrius was leading the company out of the city. Each had their reasons. Each chose to run rather than fight—weak in deed. He didn’t like leaving thousands of people to their deaths—but he understood. Everyone had their limits. He didn’t like leaving this city for the Khadoran military to take by trickery—playing at peace while never intending to deal in good faith. Paladins were supposed to stand against the darkness. They were supposed to hold the wall. Instead he was walking away. He didn’t have time to organize a defense of the city. Maybe with days to work with something could have been done. But not now. Not with thousands of regular troops advancing under cover of bombardment.

Already he could see the panic spreading. There a merchant with so many goods that he would be lucky to make it to the near gate. There a family wandering from corner to corner, trying to figure out which way lay safety. It wasn’t a full panic yet, but the beginnings were evident to anyone with an eye for such things.

Well, there was something he could do about that. Striding down the road with sword drawn, he began calling to citizens. He used the short direct tones one uses with children and animals. He collected a group. People sought safety in numbers. It would make them easier to direct—if not control. Parents had to lay down family antiques generations old. Merchants had to abandoned fripperies and fobs. They couldn’t take anything that they couldn’t carry for miles. By the time the rest of the company arrived he had the beginnings of an evacuation forming.

Walking down the road with the company at his back, Nicodemus felt at peace for the first time in a long while. His spell of protection covered him in a soft blanket of familiar energy. The arcane plates within his armor hummed at the edge of thought providing a soothing music to his magical senses. Someday he and Demetrius would encounter a conflict that his morals wouldn’t let him avoid, but for now Nicodemus was in his element. He was standing—the wall that would protect these people.

There was no way to avoid the Khadoran patrol. They advanced from an alley—calm, sure, professional with rifles raised. If it had just been a few winter guardsmen things might have gone differently. But then the lumbering shape of a heavy warjack exited the alley’s mouth. Light reflected off its armored bulk. Nicodemus was normally a quiet man—slow to anger, quiet of speech, and careful in action; but the sight of the armored behemoth ponderously striding toward the civilians set something off deep inside him. War was brutal. But this was…the city didn’t even have a proper guards force. Nicodemus knew what Khadoran armies did to cities. It was the stuff of nightmares. It had driven the Lieutenant from the Ironfangs. It should have driven the prime minister to broker a treaty of some kind. Now these people were going to…no, no they weren’t.

Nicodemus vaguely noticed his fellow mercenaries spreading out wielding magic and steel, bullet and blade. There was no stopping to negotiate. Everybody knew what the stakes were. The Khadorans were assaulted by a barrage of magic and lead. They blasted back—adopting a skirmish line. Nicodemus was almost crushed as the company’s lone warjack drove forward and struck the enemy jack with a blow that made the ground shake and dust fall from nearby buildings.

Bullets bounced off his armor without affect. Light infantry was no match for a paladin of the wall in arcane armor. With deliberate steps he sheathed his sword and advanced on the enemy jack. The sword wasn’t going to be enough. He needed freedom of movement, freedom to focus. He let the rage coalesce around his fist in a glowing nimbus. Flesh might be weak, but so was steel. He raised a gauntlet and gestured at the jack while it was recovering its balance. The bolt of energy picked the multi-ton construct up off the ground—slamming it through the air to fall on its back with an earth shattering boom. These people were getting out of the city if he had to carve a path for them through the Khadoran army. They wanted war, they would get war.

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