Excerpt, Pt. 2: Ascent  

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Here's the rest of the fantasy section:

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A handful of armored men stood waiting anxiously as Beghaval and Rava descended the rocky path. “We advance,” Rava said, looking pleased. The slave-soldiers looked between themselves, and then back at Beghaval.

“What of Volapharis’s account?” one of them asked. “What of the shapelings? Did you see any of them?”

Beghaval shook his head. “Only trees, and a handful of foragers. There is no threat that I could see.” A twinge of guilt tugged at his gut as he lied to his men. It did not pass unnoticed.

“And what of what you could not see?” The man who had asked it was Gashatta, a grizzled old veteran Second who had probably seen more battles than Beghaval had seen summers. The old man grinned, but his eyes, which were as hard as flint, warned Beghaval not to patronize him with reassuring platitudes.

“Brothers, I see you are far too keen for my feeble wit. I saw only a few of the Shiel, but there can be no doubt that the shapelings anticipate our approach. They know how vital this pass is. Unfocused and undisciplined they may be, but they cannot mistake our intention. Five-Davit is integral to the Shiel, and they will protect it with everything in their arsenal.” He shrugged and cocked his head to the side, trying to ease the ache between his shoulder blades. “The Geisper will certainly be upon us when we enter the wood.”

The men all flinched at the mere mention of their hated foe. Beghaval noticed that one of them made a sign with his fingers. He was called Avoyal, younger than the others, with the ruddy skin and sun-bleached hair of a surfacer; likely a first-generation thrall, clinging to the savage religion of his native land. Beghaval cuffed the man smartly on the back of the head. “No superstitious nonsense, now. It plays into the hands of the shapelings, lets them twist your mind. Place your faith in the Ancestors, and they will honor you.” The man looked guiltily at the others, all of whom now looked at him with open contempt.

“Forgive me, brothers,” he muttered. They nodded, but more than one man spit on the ground in disgust.

“To the work,” Beghaval said. He opened one of his pouches and removed a handful of faint mustard mushrooms with elongated knobbly hoods. The men gathered around him - Rava behind them all, a look of disgust contorting his normally handsome features - and each held their hands open to receive a mushroom from their Third. Each, as he received his mushroom, replied with a nod, “to the work.”

“Keep these until you feel the shapelings in the air,” Beghaval reminded them. He turned to Rava and held out a mushroom. The Radakai snarled at him, baring his sharp pearly teeth. Beghaval’s face remained dispassionate, set like that of a statue. His unblinking eyes did not leave Rava’s until the beast, with an exaggerated show of reluctance, plucked it from the man’s fingers and rolled it around in his palm.

“Only when you feel them, I tell you, my brothers,” Beghaval repeated. “And you will feel them. I have not the words to describe it to you, but you will know it when they come.” He looked at their faces, one by one. Each of them had visible scars; some were missing eyes or ears. They were hard men, and each had faced their share of terrors on the battlefield. Yet, to Beghaval’s knowledge, none of them had ever before faced the Geisper. Had Volapharis truly seen them amidst the trees? She had always proven reliable before. If they were there, what could he say of it? The thrallmasters had their orders, and Beghaval had sworn to obey. They had all sworn. Besides, there was little warning that could be given which could adequately prepare them to face the shapelings. As it was, rumor would likely pass through the columns like disease. The tales of what the sentry had seen would be blown out of all proportion. Perhaps the troops would be all the more anxious for it, their imaginations creating phantasms out of every snapping twig and falling leaf in that accursed tangle of trees.

Better they imagine the nightmares their minds could conjure. Beghaval knew the Geisper would be worse.

--

The river of soldiers bent and flowed toward the forest, kicking up towering columns of dust as they crossed the plain. As they marched, the sunlight faded, obscured by the snow-laden steel grey clouds that hung overhead. Beghaval kept his eyes fixed on the treeline as he swayed in the saddle of his loper. As the army approached, more clouds slowly but inexorably rolled down the mountainsides into the forests, patches and roils of thick, silent fog weaving between the trees. Beghaval studied their shapes as they shifted, trying to detect a blatant sign of malevolence in them - a face, a pair of eyes, a toothy leer - but he could not convince himself that anything was there other than descending cloud. Not for the first time did he wonder whether the Shiel had mastered some sorcery to draw the clouds to them, but in all his campaigns, none of the shapelings’ thralls had ever shown sign of knowing any such occult disciplines. Only hoary traditions of mystic initiations, meaningless incantations paired with sleight-of-hand and warnings of punishment at the hands of dead spirits. Little more than Avoyal’s superstitious gestures. The Shiel were an uncivilized people, like any other they had faced. They would die on Utta-forged iron as surely as the others.

The loper’s long ears rose, cupping forward as his neck craned upward. Beghaval leaned forward, following the direction of the creature’s stare in an attempt to locate what had startled him. He felt a tremor in the loper’s neck as the animal began to draw up mucous in anticipation. It warbled with the sound of it, reminding him of Rava’s growl - a comparison his Second would surely have found deeply insulting. Beghaval became aware of the buzzing of the insects in this scrubby plain, to the sides of the marching thralls, each bush and shrub screeching with the sounds of scores of them. He began to feel as though he were treading his way through a beekeeper‘s apiary, and he found himself wanting to choose his loper’s steps more cautiously. Pinpricks of sweat began to tingle on his scalp and on the back of his neck. There were few birds in this field that he could see, but their whistles and calls became raspy and coarse. Each trill gravely marked the passage of seconds, each chirp heralding the arrival of something terrible, some imminent, awful weight.

Beghaval glanced at the men marching on either side of him. They looked about themselves with anxiety plain on their faces. One of them began to swat at the back of his neck, though the man wore a hooded coif that covered it completely. Beghaval called out to the standard-bearers in front of him, “Sound the horns! Shields aloft!” The man bearing their column’s banner looked at him suddenly, as if he’d been terrified by Beghaval’s order. The man next to him fared little better, visibly trembling and looking about wildly, but he lifted his horn to his trembling lips and gave wind to a long, urgent peal.

Beghaval opened his gloved hand and looked at the mushroom he had been clutching. The mustard color was vivid, and he could see every pore in every bump and wart on the hood with fascinating clarity. He shook his head violently and jammed the mushroom into his mouth, biting down into the spongy hood and rubbery stem with a growing panic. He chewed it as he scanned the treeline again. There was no sign of their enemy, no indication of anything but the overgrown foliage and the lazily drifting fog. He trusted that his Seconds had the presence of mind to obey his earlier warning, and he drew his mace from the loop on his belt.

The taste of the mushroom was like tin on his tongue, filling his mouth with a thoroughly unpleasant aftertaste that lingered as if something had died in his mouth. He swallowed hard, willing the foul substance to stay down, and then allowed himself to scan the plain again. From the corner of his eye, he detected movement - a shuddering in the air, something like a large, dark bubble throbbing into the sky ahead of the army. He turned to face it, but it vanished in his direct gaze. Nonetheless, he heard men to the fore and left crying out, their yells rising in pitch to a panicked howl, and suddenly two dozen of them fell back simultaneously as if thrown to the ground by some tremendous gust of wind. Men to the right of him suddenly fled from one of their own, who now grasped at his helmet, flinging it to the ground and clawing at his scalp and ears. Another soldier, his eyes wide and foam at the corners of his mouth, grabbed at him in desperation, crying, “Save us! Save me! Ride from here, master!“ Beghaval kicked him to the ground, regretting the action but hoping that the blow would bring the man to his senses. His loper reared up, its ears erect and twitching rhythmically and its mucous gurgling in its throat. Beghaval ground his teeth together and jabbed his heels into the loper’s sides, urging him onward. “To the wood! Forward, all, forward,” he cried, swinging his mace in loops over his head. He looked to the left flanks of the hexipal and saw Rava, looking about himself wildly and roaring at things Beghaval did not see, could no longer see. “Rava! Rava!”

The Radakai Second finally turned to face his Third. Beghaval was uncertain whether it was battle-lust that he saw in his eyes, or fear. He cursed the beast loudly, but his words were lost in the din of frightened and screaming soldiers. Rava had not eaten the mushroom. Beghaval swung his mace over his head once more, and pointed it toward the wood. Rava nodded curtly, then looked at the troops in his column. The Radakai commanded the hexipal’s only fully-mounted column, though he himself was fast enough on land to match their speed. Rava’s roar was an unmistakable rallying cry to his Firsts, and they attempted to rein in their lopers to follow his lead. His upper torso leaned forward, and as he clutched his spear, pointing it forward, he took off like an arrow, his leonine legs a blur, pumping back and forth to carry him at terrific speed. His Firsts followed suit, lowering their lances and forming a wedge behind him.

Beghaval allowed them to take the lead, and he rode swiftly to the fore of his column. The standard bearer and herald fell in behind him, marking his location amidst the churning crowd of Firsts. Most of them ran, some stumbling, some rolling on the ground, bedeviled by something Beghaval could not see. He himself began to notice the edges of his vision throbbing. The locations of each and every one of his men were now obvious to him, and he could see where his lines were most vulnerable to attack. He began to call out as he rode, pointing to the holes where stragglers had been separated from the hexipal and ordering men to gather their enchanted brothers and sisters. It never failed to be the case that many Firsts, untested by the strains of battle, would break and flee when first confronted by opposition, but Beghaval knew that the job of the Seconds was to make the Firsts fear them more than the enemy. He trusted that they had done their duty just as he would do his.

Soon the Seconds had regained some control over their scattered columns, and the entire mob worked its way toward the forest at double speed. Beghaval’s vision was now razor sharp, and the sheer amount of detail flashing past him threatened every second to overwhelm him, yet somehow, he willed himself to remain focused. He had been trained for this, at least - every man who consumed the quavalat had been forced to become accustomed to their effects. It was a matter of willpower, not allowing oneself to become distracted by the incredible clarity that would come…and being able to resist the aftereffects. But that was a worry for later, after the dead could be counted. Beghaval saw that his army was running, and so he turned his full attention to the foggy forests that they now began to enter.

Once surrounded by the green, the low branches catching at their armor, the needles slippery beneath their boots, the slave-soldiers slowed their pace. The fog lay thick about them, and before long many lost sight of their comrades in it. Cries could be heard from every direction, and to Beghaval’s alarm, he also heard the sound of twanging bowstrings. Something shot past his face; he felt the wind of it though he saw nothing. His troops swung their swords and axes and clubs wildly, and many seemed genuinely to be fighting with the air itself. These pantomime battles carried on all around him, yet the only sound Beghaval could hear apart from his men’s anguished and terrified screams were the snapping of twigs, the rustling of leaves in the stiff breeze, and the awful arrows, cutting through the air and seeking warm blood.

“Cease fighting!” Beghaval commanded those within earshot, “these monsters are not your foes! Do not fight them! They cannot harm you! Your foes are men, like yourselves, hiding in the underbrush! Flush them out!” He repeated his order several times before the soldiers heard him and, with great reluctance, stood with their shields aloft, breathing heavily, and flinching every few seconds at their own private phantasms.

This entry was posted on Friday, May 11, 2007 at Friday, May 11, 2007 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

2 comments

Anonymous  

Feedback:
This Sci-fi\fantasy junkie was definitely getting into the story...

Kham

2:36 PM

Okay, so Beth and I were chatting about your story earlier this week, and it dawned on me part of the reason it has such an "expert" sci-fi feel to it... To me, it is very reminscent of Frank Herbert in that you have established a whole vocabulary for your world, complete with military terms, species/race names, etc. that clearly have both direct meanings as well as emotional/social connotations to the characters, but you're not giving little asides to explain to the reader, but rather trusting that the reader is intelligent enough to figure it out. That fascinated me to no end in the "Dune" series, whether it took a few sentences, a few chapters, or even a few whole books to fully describe the meaning those terms encapsulate. :o)

7:30 PM

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