Moments #4

Introduction

The following short story is part of the Moments series. It is set in Weissland eighteen years and eight months before the White War. It features Nathaniel Drakkon in a battle to save a Weissland town. It is directly preceeded by Moments #3: Will I Live Forever?

Undeath and Glory

The shouts and cries rang through the streets of the town of Durender, mixed with the clang of steel and the twang of bowstrings. Nathaniel Drakkon ran from the healer’s building towards the barricades. Seeing a gap in the second barricade he hopped over it nimbly and moved towards the front line.

Several zombies were trying to clamber over the barricade to create a beachhead. Nathaniel raised his arming sword and deftly lopped off the head of the nearest zombie as it leant over the top of the waist-height barricade. Nathaniel said to the men nearby “Hold them, don’t give them an inch.” Another zombie loomed up at him, arm grasping at him instinctively, and a hollow look in its milky eyes. Nathaniel reared back and slashed at the thing which had once been a man. The sword cut the zombie’s chest and shoulder, making it stumble backwards, but failing to kill. Zombies, like most undead were not skilled opponents but were resilient to damage, feeling no pain and thus they were difficult to destroy. Cut off an arm, and they would shamble on regardless. The real targets were the head, the neck, and the heart. That was how many undead needed to be destroyed.

The zombie attacked again, emitting a low mournful groan. Nathaniel had wondered once or twice if zombies and skeletons and other lowly forms of undead remembered their past life. He had wondered if on some instinctive level they realised what they were doing was wrong, even if they could not resist their necromantic masters’ will. Suffice it to say when he faced his first zombie years ago he had quickly put such notions aside and hacked the foul-smelling thing to pieces. As the mage raised his weapon to ward off the zombie one of the militia brought a wood axe down on the creature’s head, splitting it like a melon. Nathaniel said sidelong to the militiaman “Thanks. That was a solid hit.”

The man replied “Just like chopping wood.”

Nathaniel laughed “Ha-ha, that’s the spirit.” He thrust with his sword, plunging the steel weapon through the eye socket of the next zombie to come within reach. Destroying the brain was the best way to stop zombies; it left the necromantic energy with no way to control the body so the magic dissipated. He pulled his sword free and surveyed the scene. The first barricade was holding, although the undead had caused some damage. The barricade was sagging in several places and they had taken losses. The undead force consisted mostly of zombies with a small number of skeletons. Or at least that’s what they’ve sent at us so far, he thought. I bloody hope they don’t have anything better.

Broken from his thoughts, Nathaniel saw a part of the line on the far left which was weakening. At least two soldiers lay dead there and the militia were struggling. Hefting his sword the Weissland mage rushed to help stem the tide. As soon as he reached the faltering position he clashed blades with a skeleton, parrying before slicing the thing off at the torso. One of the militia was dragged over the barricade by several zombies. There was nothing anyone could do before the man was bit and gouged, screaming as he died. Nathaniel split the forehead of one zombie, drew back his sword and then stabbed it into another while a soldier hacked through much of its neck with his blade. The fighting was bloody and fierce as the undead tried to overwhelm the tired defenders.

The archers on the rooftops at the edge of town were doing good work. There were six soldiers armed with crossbows, and several militiamen had been given a crash course in the use of the crossbows to allow more of the more experienced soldiers to man the barricades. There were also over a score of militia armed with sturdy hunting bows. They fired into the mass of undead before the barricade, their shots finding their mark. It was not difficult to hit something in a tightly packed knot of undead, but more difficult to hit something vital. The archers did an admirable job, accounting for at least two dozen zombies and five skeletons. The undead attack had been blunted, but not broken, at least not yet.

Nathaniel stabbed his sword into a zombie’s neck, grimacing in the torchlight as he realised the zombie wore the tattered remains of armour and the livery of Weissland. He did not have the time for remorse or guilt, or even the time to check on the rest of the barricade. Nathaniel Drakkon hacked at another zombie, but it raised its arm and instead of taking its head off, his sword bit deep into the zombie’s shoulder. He slid his sword free quickly and brought it down in a heavy stroke, cleaving through the front right of its head, spilling blood, gore and brains through the wound in its skull as it slumped to the ground. Almost as one, the undead abandoned the assault, shambling and shuffling away. The troops gave a few parting wounds, felling a few of the slower zombies before turning back to wait for the next attack.

Nathaniel took a step back, produced a thick cloth from his robes and tried his best to clear the worst of the gore off of his arming sword. He called out “You know this by now people. Wounded moved to the back, burn the dead, check for weapons and ammunition, reserve, swap with the front line.”

He put the cloth on the pyre, it was too filthy to use again. The defenders moved about, doing what was required of them. A soldier caught his arm and said “Sir, we lost eleven men in that assault. I don’t think we can last until morning for the reinforcements to arrive. Should we abandon the town?”

Nathaniel was slightly taken aback. He said “What’s your name soldier?”

The young man replied “Zeis, sir.”

Nathaniel said “Zeis, you are right. We can’t hold until the morning, not if the assaults keep up this frequency. But I’ll be dead and cold before I leave this town when the battle is not over. To try and flee now with the women and children would be pointless; we’d never get far enough.”

Zeis pleaded “But sir…”

Nathaniel raised his voice, hoping to rally their flagging spirits “But nothing, we are not going to run away. This is not a last stand. The sun has not yet risen on the day that a Drakkon gives up on a fight, especially one he can win. I’m going out there.” He turned and pointed his sword in the direction of the retreating undead. Nathaniel continued “I’m going out there and I’m going to kill those two necromancers. I am going to end this for good. I want four volunteers to take a walk with me, the rest of you stay here and wait. When they are dead I’ll send a signal into the sky, one you’ll all see. Now I’m going to go pick a fight, who’s with me?” There was a cheer from many dry throats, strained by battle. But the cheer was resounding enough.

Nathaniel sheathed his sword and picked up his staff. He climbed over the barricade, took a torch from where it stood near the barricade and began to pick his way through the piles of undead. They had only been able to burn their own dead and some of the undead from each attack, there just was not enough time to clear and burn the majority of the undead. He looked back and saw his four volunteers following him, making their way from the barricade towards him. There was the militiaman with the axe, Zeis and another soldier armed with spear and shield, and another militiaman wielding a sword.

The five men gradually made their way across the mound of bodies until they reached clear ground. Nathaniel was thankful that the south edge of Durender was a flat area of hard ground; it would have been much more difficult to traverse in uneven or muddy ground. As they walked over the clear ground, using Nathaniel’s torch to light the way, he said “What are your names?”

The militiaman with the axe replied “Geoff, Geoff Carver.”

The second militiaman said “I’m Gil Tarune, a bowyer by trade.”

The second soldier spoke “Olesat Krelir, sir. Most call me Ollie.”

Nathaniel nodded “Very well gentlemen, let’s see if we can finish this.” Quietly Nathaniel spoke a few words, raising his magical defences and building a magical barrier around the others. Regardless of what happened these necromancers would struggle to kill the volunteers with magic.

Ahead, he could hear the sounds of the retreating undead. They would have to follow their enemies to find their masters. Of course it was dangerous, the necromancers would be using magic to control their horde, and if they sensed the Weisslanders approaching they would lose the element of surprise and face the full force of the undead. The thought of being clawed and ripped apart to death kept Nathaniel alert. It had also ranked amongst his worst nightmares of recent years. In his relatively short career he had fought virtually every foe imaginable, from assassins to orcs and from undead to werewolves. Well, there was only one werewolf, he thought, but one’s enough of those buggers.

The group moved on, silence clinging to them like a shroud. None dared to make any noise which could bring the undead down upon their heads, the fighting would start soon enough. Nathaniel held the torch in his left hand, and gripped his staff tightly in his right.

The undead began to head down to the lower ground, loose pebbles tumbling down the incline in their wake. Nathaniel motioned for the others to slow down. Nathaniel passed the torch to Carver before placing a finger to his lips to signal quiet to the four other men. Nathaniel crept towards the edge of the ridge. Slowly the mage knelt down to one knee and looked out over the terrain. The undead were shambling across the gravel and rubble towards an area locally known as the “three lords”. There were three standing stones in a triangular formation, ten or eleven metres apart. In the centre of the area there was a roughly slab-shaped stone buried in the ground. It rose about half a foot in height. The undead were moving towards the standing stones and Nathaniel could see why. Standing on the slab were the two necromancers, arms stretching to the heavens, a sickly green corona of energy played about the figures. It was like a miasma, a cloud of death, calling the zombies and skeletons back to their masters’ sides. It was difficult to tell in this light, but Nathaniel guessed that there were perhaps one or two hundred undead. Still, a dozen could stop his strike force if things went ill. There had to be a way to thin the undead’s numbers. There is, he thought dryly, just kill the necromancers, he intoned. But we can’t kill the necromancers because of the undead. I should have brought a catapult, but we can’t have everything. After all this isn’t some sort of over the top heroic fiction where everything conveniently falls into place.

Nathaniel turned to the others who waited nervously further back. He motioned them forward. As they reached him, Nathaniel took the torch from Carver and scrubbed it out on the stony ground. The flame would let the enemy see them more than its light would benefit their approach. The light of the late night sky was providing enough to guide them now. Nathaniel said quietly “This is it. We go down the slope and move as quickly as we can. I’ll try to clear us a path, be ready to move through. I’ll engage the necromancers; you keep the undead off my back, understood?”

Zeis said “Yes sir.” The others nodded in agreement.

Nathaniel turned and stood slowly, his sword unsheathed and held in his right hand, his staff in his left. He said “Let’s move.” The mage, clad in a black robe with a hood, strode confidently down the slope. As he reached the foot of the slope Nathaniel broke into a jog, hearing his footfalls crunch on the stony ground. When the group was about thirty feet from the standing stones and the milling undead, Nathaniel raised his obsidian staff and spoke in a hushed tone. Completing the spell a huge sheet of flame leapt up from the ground ahead of him and travelled in a line towards the undead. Dozens of zombies were incinerated instantly, becoming no more than ash. Others caught on the edge were set ablaze, swaying and flailing slowly as the foul creatures moaned and growled pitifully.

A clear path was made and as Nathaniel continued his sprint he cast another spell knocking as many of the flaming zombies into their comrades to spread the fire and chaos as much as possible. He ran through the five foot gap towards the slab and the two shocked necromancers. He could hear the four men following him. Raising his sword he slashed down a zombie in his path and leapt towards the centre. Taking up a high stance with the arming sword he charged shouting “For Weissland!”

They had managed to take the undead and their masters by complete surprise, perhaps because of the utter insanity of a small number assaulting a tireless foe superior in numbers. But it would not last; even now the zombies were beginning to shamble towards the men menacingly. One of the necromancers lashed out at Nathaniel with dark tendrils of necromantic energy. The black tendrils were tinged with a purplish glow like the colour of bruised flesh. Nathaniel’s magical shielding flashed blue with each impact, but it held firm.

Nathaniel crossed blades with the first necromancer, the arming sword, straight Weissland steel, while the necromancer held an ancient-looking sword of iron. The sounds of battle were at his back, but the mage blocked it out and focussed on his foe. Moment followed nerve-wracking moment as the two men sized each other up and prepared to fight to the death.

The necromancer spoke, his voice thick with venom “This is futile, you can’t win. The undead will succeed eventually; it is as inevitable as the rising tide or the changing of the seasons.”

Nathaniel tapped his sword lightly either side of his enemy’s weapon playfully to signal his readiness and said “Oh yes, I’m just a short-lived mayfly futilely fighting against the dying of the light. The ugly faces change but the rhetoric never differs, it’s always variations on the same theme.”

The necromancer smiled, showing stained teeth “So blasé and jaded. I was once like you. But you’ll learn.”

Nathaniel Drakkon’s face hardened, his jaw set and his eyes harsh. He said through gritted teeth “You were never like me, or you wouldn’t have become a despicable curse on all life. And your kind will never learn.” He lunged forward quickly but the necromancer was just barely able to block and the fight began in earnest.

The necromancer had the slab at his back and Nathaniel hoped to trap him there, giving the mage the upper hand. They exchanged blows, a quick flurry of slashes and blocks and parries. The necromancer had some skill with a sword, although Nathaniel hated to admit it. When the necromancer tried to make a low stab for his gut, Nathaniel turned the blade aside and down, pinning it into the dirt for a few seconds. Sharply the mage kicked the vile man in the side of the knee, which made the necromancer buckle to the gravel. Nathaniel took a step back and raised his arming sword for the killing blow. Just as he was about to strike, he saw it out of the corner of his eye. The second necromancer had hurled a ball of green flame at him, green necrotic fire. The ball of flame hit him and he staggered. A second flame ball rocked him, his defences weakening. Nathaniel thought quickly and raised his staff as the third ball of sickly green flame hurtled towards him. He spoke the words, heard them spill from his lips. The flame slowed, gradually moving less and less until it hovered inches from the tip of the staff. It hovered for only a split second and then shot back towards the second necromancer at twice the speed and growing in size. But while his counter spell was powerful, he could not control the flame’s direction. The second necromancer threw himself bodily to the ground as the green flame scorched overhead, singeing his cloak, and obliterating three zombies behind him.

Nathaniel tried to turn back to the first necromancer, the man with the purple robes and matted brown hair, but a hand gripped his shoulder. Nathaniel turned and saw the zombie grabbing hold of his shoulder and pulling him closer. In a moment of shock the mage shouted “Back!” He hacked down with his sword, cleaving the forearm from the zombie. Still the undead clambered at him. Nathaniel slashed his sword at the thing’s throat, spilling black and brackish blood from the wound. Again the zombie refused to die, so Nathaniel kicked it in the chest, dropped his staff and taking a two handed stance cut the zombie’s head from its shoulders. Taking a brief second to breathe he stepped over the fallen zombie towards where the four men where supposed to be holding them back. But then it struck him like an arrow to the heart, only Carver stood, wielding his axe. The others were dead nearby, and the militiaman swung left and right, holding as many of the zombies as he could. Nathaniel could only stand and watch as one, then another, and a third zombie got inside the man’s guard and bit into his flesh. Carver shouted out in pain “Weissland!” And then he was gone, buried beneath the mass of bodies as the zombies piled in. Nathaniel heard the man’s dying word and mentally slapped himself into action. He spoke the words of a barrier spell, and a strong wind began to whip up around him, his hood and robes rippling. Then the wind formed a huge barrier in front of the undead, surrounding the standing stones and rising twenty feet in the air. The zombies were buffeted and knocked back, prevented from reaching the last living meal they craved.

Now that he had bought himself some time, Nathaniel turned back towards the first necromancer. When he turned around, the necromancer was standing there waiting. He made a clumsy attack, but it was too high, the strike leaving him exposed. Nathaniel reacted with haste, slashing his sword across the man’s stomach, spilling his guts. As the necromancer staggered passed, his sword arm beginning to droop, Nathaniel turned his sword and stabbed backwards. The steel sword went through the necromancer’s back and pierced the man’s heart. If such men truly have hearts, Nathaniel thought as he withdrew his weapon. But then he thought about what he had done, what he had seen. The time it had taken him to turn the necromancer’s spell, fend off the zombie and raise the barrier, it was too long. Why had the first necromancer not attacked him from behind? Was he waiting for me to turn and face him again? Did he wait for me out of some sort of honour? The questions raced in the mage’s mind but he dismissed them. No, he was a necromancer; there is no honour here, only vanity. A chance to kill me clean in combat himself, so he could claim the victory himself and deny his comrade the chance to do it. That is all and nothing more.

Nathaniel Drakkon turned to face the second necromancer who was getting up. Nathaniel rubbed idly at his jaw-line, scratching his beard as he waited for his enemy. He might not believe his enemy capable of honour but he would be damned if he did not show it himself. He twirled his sword in his hand once, feeling it whistle as it cut the air. He was ready. The necromancer wore a cloak and a simple tunic, both in an off-white colour. The man was shorter than Nathaniel, with a slighter build and the mage was confident he could win the fight. What was less certain was if he could finish the necromancer before the zombies started feasting on his flesh. At least a good portion of the undead were destroyed with the loss of the first necromancer. The second necromancer charged at him brandishing a mace. Nathaniel blocked the running strike with the side of his blade and knocked the man aside, casting him to the ground. Nathaniel climbed up onto the slab and said with a smirk “Looks like I have the high ground.”

The necromancer rushed forward passed the body of his fallen comrade saying “Then I’ll take it from you.” He swung two-handed at Nathaniel’s feet but Nathaniel jumped the swipe and moved further back. The necromancer climbed up onto the slab and once more the mage waited.

As they faced off Nathaniel said “Only one of us can walk away.” The barrier was still holding. The necromancer attacked with a snarl and both men moved, each fending off blows and strikes from the other. The necromancer smashed aside Nathaniel’s sword and almost took off his head. Nathaniel was quicker though dodging backwards. He made an attack of his own but it was blocked. The necromancer gripped his sword arm at the wrist and twisted one way then the other, managing to throw the sword away to the gravel far out of reach. As he raised the mace Nathaniel grabbed the mace handle and punched the necromancer in the face. Nathaniel tossed the mace away behind him, hearing it clang as it hit the edge of the slab. Without weapons this would be settled with fists, which suited Nathaniel fine.

He raised his guard and moved forward. The necromancer did the same. A punch was aimed at him but Nathaniel blocked it with his right arm and followed through with a left jab which connected squarely. As they circled Nathaniel could feel the barrier slowly beginning to weaken. The distraction allowed the necromancer to sweep the mage’s legs out from under him and Nathaniel crashed down onto the stone painfully, jarring his back. The necromancer quickly set about him, kicking and stamping on his legs. Nathaniel shouted angrily and kicked the man in the groin. As the necromancer wheezed and spluttered Nathaniel stood up and said “One way or another you’ve killed a lot of good men and women today, time to meet a bad one.” He punched the man in the throat and stood there menacingly.

The necromancer gasped for breath and then said with some trouble “I’m not finished yet pawn. Nobody is going to survive in Durender.” He grappled with Nathaniel and got in a few lucky hits, even trying to choke the mage but Nathaniel shrugged off the worst of it. Nathaniel took a few paces away then ran at his enemy as fast as he could. He hit the man with such an impact that both fell off the slab. Unfortunately Nathaniel crashed over the necromancer and took the worst of the landing. As both men groggily got to their feet Nathaniel had the undead to his back and behind the necromancer was the slab. The man swung, but Nathaniel was ready. He grabbed the outstretched arm, twisted under it and held it taut, close to popping the man’s shoulder out of its socket. He punched the shoulder several times before letting the necromancer go. It was clear the fight was almost over so Nathaniel grabbed the man and head-butted him violently, and as the necromancer began to buckle Nathaniel pulled him back up by the tunic. With his back to the undead horde, Nathaniel knew time was running out.

Nathaniel firmly gripped the tunic of the man and punched him twice in the face before lifting his knee into his opponent’s gut, turning and throwing the necromancer to the ground behind him. Nathaniel watched the necromancer roll from the power of the throw then try to get up on hands and knees. Nathaniel took a step into it and viciously kicked the man in the side and gut, seeing him roll away and double over into a huddle of pain. The necromancer cried out in pain, between pitiful gasps of air. Yet the black-clad mage was pitiless. He walked over to his fallen sword with laboured effort. His legs and back were stiff and sore, but he bent over and picked up the sword, dragging it up from the ground and hearing the metal scrape on stone.

Nathaniel turned and headed back to the necromancer. The man was too weak to get up, too weak to die on his feet. Nathaniel could feel the wind barrier weakening, could see the zombies pressing and forcing themselves against it. Limbs were forcing their way into the barrier, rags of cloth fluttering and whipping in the gale. Nathaniel reached the necromancer, kicked him over to his back and held him with a boot firmly planted on his shoulder. As the zombies pushed further into the barrier Nathaniel held his sword downward with both hands and raised his arms high. The necromancer vainly held his hands open-palmed in defence and his eyes went wide with terror. As the first hands broke free from the barrier Nathaniel plunged the sword into the necromancer’s chest. He leant heavily on the hilt, fumbled then found the grip, and twisted the sword, making sure the job was done. The mage staggered back and watched as the zombies came through the fallen barrier and as one collapsed to the ground dead and lifeless, the power of necromancy no longer sustaining them. Taking his sword Nathaniel Drakkon walked slowly over to the slab and slumped against it. Using the last of his magical energy he raised his arm and sent a bright starburst of magic into the night sky for all nearby to see. The town of Durender was safe, but there would always be more danger, more enemies, and more mysteries to solve. Safe, he thought grimly, such hollow sentiments. Glorious battles defending the weak and innocent. He looked around him, seeing the bodies everywhere, his eyes seeming to stick to the dead forms of the four men he had led out here. There is no glory here, only death, sacrifice, loss, and vengeance, he concluded.

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