(C) 2023 Kyrinn S. Eis All Rights Reserved
Anthony walked through the killing ground halls, through connected chambers, and into a larder known to him. There, he obtained what he could carry, and pointed the rest out to those he passed on his way back. Lord Marche returned to his troops with vittles and wine, shared some of the meal, and with his sergeants and corporals shared the most current intelligence and objectives, how best to utilise their mobility while mounted, and his recommendations for foot manoeuvres. He sent them off after they sang or joked among themselves.
Marche looked for someone who knew the way to Dame Sabit, or Ynnella. With the lull in fighting, he had hoped to see Dinah and ...Carthy. Then he heard the clash of steel, and he moved to the only steed, a Terravian, unsaddled. Marche quickly looped the rein and was off. He hadn't travelled far before resistance was met: Summons Guard had ambushed his troops and forced a rubble-fall to hem them in. His mount, unburdened, was able to skitter along in the light debris spill and enter the fray behind the enemy's rear element, and catch them unawares. With Ready Appeal unsheathed, the two guardsman were cut down before the others had time to react, this threw their advantage. Marche's troops were able to rally and put forth concerted effort, still mounted, and with Lord Marche aspin and adash over the fallen Summons-guard, the tide was rapidly turned against the defenders. Marche kicked-up one of the fallen swords: preternaturally sharp, but non-magicked -- could had come from a botfac on any number of Terran worlds, much less the galaxy of alien holdings. He held it aloft.
"These are not ghost blades such a mine, take them up as they fall, for they are sharp and strong metal." Many of them did so, a few did not, and he said nothing, but did meet their gaze to signal his acceptance of their choice, whatever they drew from that. Some of those looked stronger, surer for the choice, others, less certain; one dropped his and took up a fallen blade and sheath and then looked confident. Fighting in the collapsed tunnels was worse than those encounters at the Summons, as unimaginable as that seemed. When friendly forces were spotted, Marche drove them together and their strength was made greater than the sum of its parts. Time and again, although wounded, Appeal was his banner and those who saw it either fled at the rise of its adherents or joined with a red pride which saw even the dying smile for the glory. Each frontier on the subterranean battlefield of corridors, grand chambers, store rooms turned bunkers, all this was assuaged, the fighting diminished, erased as the Dragons' forces faltered with supply or retreat lines cut off. Fatigue claimed many and their collapse in armour was ameliorated by fresh troops, mercenaries and commoners from the Outlier Commons and even the Nine Cities meant that only those deepest set pockets of resistance could hope to hold out. Then the portal opened and in poured monstrous things which tore through those rear-guard of the Dame's forces charged with its oversight; the front shifted far ahead of the key objective.
Sabit grew furious, Ynnella did all that she could to keep her Dame from madness.
[S] "We are losing, may have already lost, the portal, Anthony!"
With that dispatch still fresh in mind, Lord Marche called to his forces.
"We must return, not in retreat, to the inner reaches, to the portal. Already the enemy have retaken it, and fresh troops come our way. We must take and hold it; our numbers are too large to press through the mazelike corridors, I will show your leaders how to encircle from all avenues; I know these slitheways from the initial assault, trust in them." His plan depicted in victory's dusky colours was etched in the leaders' minds, and Marche made haste to the site on foot through the interstitial passages of the servants' access, too narrow for even a Terravian. Fresh dead of unknown foreign troops worried him, but he flew over their bodies with gulped breath and heart apound. When his last shortcut was reached, he emerged to the rank odour of unwholesome flesh, like a mass of wounded afester in a single ward. He emerged into the twisting corridor to find the dead, all the dead, friend and foe, clamber and crawl with a dark grey half-life and mock hunger which defined a phobia long thought extinct; zombies shuddered and ambled, pulled themselves up along the walls at their perception of his presence; all the while, the air fouled and he began to choke. Each stroke of sunset felled a limb or head, but the mass was like one body scattered, it moved without light of reason, and when decapitated, the arms and legs moved towards him still. This was the most horrific experience in his life, not for the morbid nature of the terrain of things acrawl, but for what it presaged for the troops who followed behind, and as to what sort of resources Qetav had access whilst still she controlled the portal. Marche hacked his way through as able, threw thin things off, was covered in the grey ooze which seemed to crawl up his form towards his head. Between strokes, he now had to clear the stuff from himself, and all the while as he eyed the doorway, he waited for more to come through. Now, just as his hope began to wane, pressed against the wall with a wave of rotted flesh and grizzled bodies ready to cover him, Anthony heard the ring of steel on bone, of shouted, screamed blood oaths, and the colourful curses of Redwellers. A lass with a meat mallet, drenched in the ooze, fought one of those that for lack of lower body was late to climb atop him and drag Marche down to doom. She smashed the thing's skull and trampled the ribs and shoulders, and then tore one away and began the process again. Anthony cried out to her, that the thick grey jelly was near her mouth's corners, but though she heard, she was driven on to reach the unknown who cried for assistance. Lord Marche was unable to move, not even collapse to the floor, encased in a mausoleum of bones, felt the stuff creep down his forehead towards his eyes and nose, creep across his head for his ears, while that flow under his chin, slow and patient, teased at his tightly drawn lips. Through all this, he saw the woman fall victim to it, and then she wiped it away. All seemed fine, and he almost relaxed, but then her eyes, her neck, everything jerked in an unnatural fashion and her hammer fell away to the soft floor and she turned on those of her former comrades behind and newly engaged with these crawlers. Anthony thought to reach out to Carthy, to Hiewqr, even to Dabil Arasoya, but before he could even think to do so, he heard an explosion nearby, towards the objective. The wall of bodies fell away from him, and as he spat the grey jelly which had made it way to his lips, he shouted warning to his troops to avoid it at all costs. Heat surged behind him, and his arm was burnt, singed, as the corridor of corners lit up in golden flame. Talons ascrabble on the bone-strewn stone floor, and another gout of flame as a dragonling's neck craned his way. Marcher ducked, but felt aerosol droplets of flame spatter his arm and shoulder, and right side overall. These miniature fires burned still, threatened to catch larger and consume cloth, leather, and his flesh. While these yet burned, the dragonling stared with terrible hunger and great annoyance in his direction, but its head was turned away and its head jerked upwards and another breath of molten gold immolated the mass of dead between him and his troops.
"Hold! Hold! There are the living here! Hold!"
The creature crunched foul skeletons underfoot and climbed higher on those it had just coated with the metal of yellow lustre. Once he saw the black crystal hand in possession of the reins, Marche knew he was saved. "Erkyel!" She rounded the corner, black crystalline scars etched her face and neck. She smiled a wry grin and with chin nod, pulled on the reins with all her might, which caused the beast to rear up and surmount the dead under its considerable bulk; while some still squirmed, the dragonling turned in place and sat for rest, its head tucked near its tail. "Lord Marche! It's good to see you alive. Your adoring fans, I see." She nodded at the many broken bodies still awrithe.
"Do we again have the Portal?"
-- "Aye, Lord. It seems the for all their many charms, the Dragonguard armour is not immune to the breath of their beasts. I have a way with feisty things. This one is but a babe in comparison to my leviathan and other ocean creatures. Have you need of the portal for the Dame's business? I heard Lom, her Spymaster, say something about 'our own supplies.'"
With those survived that could, Marcher nodded in its direction and Erkyel brought the beast to heel. His troops pressed on and he followed, with the warrior and monster behind. The necessity of patience with molten gold nearly drove Anthony mad; he injured himself in slip and fall upon its still soft surface, but righted himself with some measure of dignity and peered at the disc of a remote and inhospitable vista. Beyond the rim of he portal, at a distance of dozens of yar-- paces, Lord Marche saw shapes in the smog of a world in ruins, its sky rent, wept debris in fiery trails, while a scant breeze brought scent of death anew to his nostrils.
"Anyone here know how to close this thing?" No sound, and only worried faces answered. "Make certain the ooze has not gained -- look to yourselves and neighbours that the ichor of the dead not enter one's body; it appears to make the living like them.
"Thane Erkyel, would you be willing to--"
She stepped forward and dragged her pet along. Anthony nodded to her, and looked beyond to the hell-stained warriors he had amassed; he let his eyes linger among them, then he looked down, and through the portal. He nearly stepped through when,
"Lord Marche. Dame Sabit warns that she will seal the portal now; no need to cross over. She thanks you and your troops for their sacrifices, and asks the room and the area be secured pending any further action in this section of the Complex."
Marche looked through again, and saw more miserable things claw their broken bodies towards him; it felt as though all the life had been drained from this world, and that these things were merely motivated by something animal or vegetal which, hardier than all else, sought to preserve the bones as mute witness to the realm's demise. There was a familiar Darkness to it all. This, of all things, made him ill.