I stepped down from the stairs into the lobby. The doorway was no longer blocked by trolls, their sludgy remains coated the cobbled outside. They must have been hit by the falling fragments.
“Sir are you in there?” A male voice called from the street. It sounded familiar
I hurried through the doorway to be greeted by a very relieved looking mage. I had a collection of names floating around my head but I couldn’t match one to the face.
“You are alive sir, thank the heart. We worried that you might have run into more than you could handle. Commander Telsan sent me to find you once the battle was over.”
“Is anyone hurt?”
“We lost Jedas.” He stopped talking for a moment, the loss was very fresh, but he blinked and focused. “Everyone is fine, a bit scuffed up but all in all we came out of it with acceptable losses.” There was a bitter twist to the words, which I ignored. The man had a right to mourn the loss of his friend and teammate and I wasn’t going to take that away from him.
“And the invasion?”
“The monsters are gone. Mainly dead. They fell apart not that long ago. We have fortified the headquarters. We even had a few civilians join us. Not that many were hurt. It’s common to get monster attacks here. So they were prepared. They can fight, far better than we can honestly. They didn’t touch magic at all. They don’t talk all that much though.”
“Let’s get back to headquarters then, I need to see where we are at.”
We walked through the smoking streets, passing corpses and body parts, all monster parts.
“Can we get some people collecting the parts? I know the alchemists will want access to all of it.”
“Yes sir. Commander Telsan mentioned the same. An operation is being planned for in the morning. Everyone needs rest first and foremost.”
“Of course.” I walked next to the attentive mage, he was older than I was by a good decade but he didn’t seem to have lost his youthful attitude.
“Was it as bad as it looked?”
“Yes sir, it was. I’ve never seen the like. We fought hard to stand still. Niven is treating everyone he can. It was close. I don’t know what happened; the monsters just seemed to lose interest. The glowing bits in the sky fell like rain. They screamed. It was horrifying sir.”
“Well it’s over for now. Don’t worry too much about it. We need to get the city back into shape.”
“That may be easier than expected. The civilians are very talented, no men though. It seems to be a city of women.”
That made sense if what Lessor said was true, that all men served in the king’s guard. Why had we never heard of them though?
We stepped over rubble from the broken streets and around the surprisingly intact buildings. The smell of smoke filled the night air mixed with other less pleasant scents. A strange silence pressed down on us, smothering any desire for further conversation.
This section of the city had seen hard fighting. The walls of surrounding buildings were scarred and torn. I didn’t look with my other senses. I didn’t want to see what they could show me.
The headquarters wasn’t far away. I could see it. The platform I had raised was largely intact although a chunk had been crumpled at the front, forming a ramp.
Alice leant against the front of the platform, her bow strung but resting on her shoulder. A clay pipe sat between her lips, the sweet bluish smoke of burning tobacco wreathed her face. She nodded to me; a small smile twisted her lips as she removed the pipe.
“Mage boy, good to see you again. Your boys can put up a fight, but they were outnumbered so me and mine lent a hand. It is our home after all, can’t have the new guys showing us up. Just a few stragglers left, we can handle them. It’s good to know we aren’t alone anymore.”
“Anytime. It’s our job. You are ours now.”
“Nope. You are ours. That’s how it works isn’t it?”
I laughed. “Yeah pretty much. Thanks for the help.”
“It’s our home. It’s what we do. The guard will be home in the morning. They missed the fun but their recent contract is up.”
“We will need to get in touch with them.”
“Of course. I doubt you could keep them from your door. You have done us a service. I dread to think what would have happened if you hadn’t been here to keep the monsters off us.”
“Oddly enough, no. There were a few injuries and we have some people that haven’t shown up yet. But one of your men is setting up healing. We are good. You look done in. Check on your men. We will be in touch.” She put the pipe back between her lips and sauntered off into the night.
“Strange woman,” I commented.
“Yes sir. They showed up in the nick of time. Our position was breached, we had moments at best before being overwhelmed, then there they were.
I said nothing just made my way up the broken platform. The doors to headquarters stood open, golden light spilling out. It looked welcoming after what felt like a long night. Telsan and Lysan stood watching for anything else. I received a nod from Telsan and a grin from Lysan
“Anything to report?”
“Not really sir, I’m assuming that Mage Densk filled you in?”
“He did. One man lost. I’m sorry it came to this.
“Hazard of the job sir. He knew going in, we all did. We have Niven giving healing to all that have injuries. Very light all in all. Your man won’t come off the roof.”
“I’ll go up and have a word with him.”
“Very good sir. What did you do when you ran off?”
“I can’t say.”
“Understood. Whatever you did seems to have worked. We wouldn’t be here now if the monsters hadn’t broken.”
“Not enough.” I said softly.
“What was that?”
“It doesn’t matter. Just keep alert. I think the worst is over for now, but it pays to keep an eye out.”
“Go teach your grandmother to suck eggs sir. I know my job. You get some rest. We still have to get this city functioning again but that can wait until tomorrow. Lysar, I can handle this. Take him to his room; make sure he gets some peace. I think tomorrow is going to be hectic enough.”
Lysar nodded and headed for the stairs.” Well don’t just stand there, come on.”
I followed him not really sure what else I should be doing.
“Did you find your wizard?”
“I don’t think I should talk about it.”
“Don’t worry about it. We all know the council isn’t as pure and innocent as they make out. If they had hands here then something important happened. They used your oath against you?”
“How did you know?”
“It’s written all over you. Back when the noble were in charge, we saw it a million times. No one here is going to judge you. We have all been there. It doesn’t get any more pleasant but we know how it feels.”
“How do you handle it? I couldn’t fight, I could barely think.”
“You just get on with it. You know it’s not you, right?”
“Yes but it was…”
“Yeah, don’t think on it. There is nothing good down that path.”
We walked up the stairs in silence.
At the door to my room Lysan turned to me.” Tristan you are a good man, too young for this sort of thing but a good man. Don’t let whatever happened tarnish you. A lot more than you know rests on you. Make the world better. We will help but our past is always there.”
“Thank you Lysan.”
“Don’t thank me. I’ve done you no favours by telling you this. Get some rest.” Lysar headed back to the stairs leaving me standing alone in the door of my room.
I sat on the edge of the bed and started to unbuckle my sword holster. The night had been long, and I was more than ready for bed. Each buckle undid easily enough the soft leather sliding through the buckles. I pulled the now free scabbard into my lap and drew my sword. The stone blade glittered, the wizard blood long since absorbed into the stone. It looked less like stone and more like glass now. The white was fading in places leaving behind dizzying patterns like winters frost. The sigils swam like fish through the semi-transparent blade. I was too tired to make sense of it but this blade was becoming more that it had started. I guess we all do. We grow. We change. Every event leaves a mark that transforms us, some for good, some for bad, and some for neither. We can all become more or less, than we were. It was up to us to do our best whatever may come of it. This sword was born in a dark moment of my life but it had stood by me. It felt comfortable in my hand now, weather that was Vesic’s gift or not, I had made my peace with it. I would carry this sword. It was a part of me now.
I lay down on my bed, the naked sword in hand. I was ready for what tomorrow would bring. A sword may not be that useful for healing a city but having it in hand comforted me. I sank into sleep upon closing my eyes. For me there was no more fighting, no more waiting, no more anything.
“Tristan, its morning. Time for work,” Brendon greeted me as I opened my eyes. I sat up, noticing my sword was still in my hands. I laid it over my lap then looked back to Brendon. He passed me a cup of water, which I raised to my lips and drank before speaking.
“How long have you been there?” I asked.
“Not long, you were stirring a while ago, so I went to fetch you a drink. Now, time to get cracking. We have lots to do today.”
“Nothing is planned as far as I know.”
“Telsan is downstairs with his team waiting on you. Alice dropped by.”
I turned my head to look out the grimy window, there wasn’t much visible but the shape of the early morning sun was clear. Sitting in bed all day wasn’t an option. Brendon was staring at me.
“What happened out there?”
“I don’t think I should say.”
“Vesic came back last night; all is right with this place now. Or at least will be in short order.”
“Nothing is right; this city is just the beginning. It will sweep out from here, building slowly until it finally hits.”
“What will? Vesic wouldn’t say either.”
“The waves are coming back.”
“They have never been gone, just not as bad as they were.”
“No. it’s starting all over again.”
“So why are we still here? If the waves are back like they were before, this city should have been wiped off the face of the earth.”
“I don’t know Brendon. I really wish I did, but this is beyond anything I’ve ever been taught.” I stood, catching my scabbard as I rose.
Brendon took the offered cup back, a frown on his face.
“I would tell you more but it’s not just you, Vesic may have helped me but I don’t know his motives for being here. I’m leery about handing out information like this. You understand it’s nothing personal?”
“Of course I do Tristan, I wish you would tell me but I do understand why you won’t.”
“Thank you. Let’s go face the day then, shall we?” I finished buckling on my scabbard, its harness felt oddly natural already.
Brendon nodded and let the way down to the main hall.
The scene before me was frantic. Men darting around in all directions, centred on Telsan, who was seated at the desk, giving orders.
I walked over to him, my shadow falling over him; it was a lot brighter in here now that it was relatively clean.
“Tristan, good to see you are well.” he smiled up at me briefly, before his expression turned darker. “We lost one man. Light all in all but still a loss. As you can see, the team are working flat out bringing this place up to code. Most of the enchantments are ready to go. Once here is done we will be going out into the city to collect monster parts, well the bits that didn’t dissolve. We have made room for them downstairs with a stasis charm to hold them until the support staff gets here. Magic is fully functional again. We haven’t had any incidents. The whispering has stopped. What that means for us in the long term, I don’t know but it is making the reclamation of the city easier. Your girl dropped by not long ago, no idea why. She just loitered around the front, then left.”
“Yes sir.” His grin came back with his words. “She saved our asses last night, I doubt she did that for us, you have the looks in the group.”
“Thank you very much, moving on. How are we progressing on-?”
“Sirs you will want to see this,” Lysan interrupted as he ran up to us, “Sorry to interrupt but it’s important.”
Telsan and I just looked at him, but he didn’t back down or retract his statement.
“Very well. What would you have us see?”
“Just out the front sirs. You need to see it with your own eyes.”
Almost as one we turned, matching expressions of curiosity mixed with mild confusion on our faces.
Lysan pressed a hand against the door, which opened slowly on its own, then stepped aside, letting us pass.
The early morning sun shone down through thin wispy clouds on to the site of last night’s battle. Most of the damage around us had been swept away while I’d slept. Our mages were not idle, although all five of them were now standing in the doorway.
In the street were people, not just people but solders: hard men and a few women, thousands of them. Each bearing weapons and armour, mainly leather armour, but a few larger men stood out covered in glittering glass like plate. They stood motionless, not a breath or a rustle, there was no clink of metal nor murmur of talk. They stood all looking at me.
I heard someone move behind me, but I didn’t turn. I was too caught up in the moment
As one they sunk to their knees, the air pressed down on me as I watched them.
“Our father’s oaths were given and repaid in kind. We serve our king still. What would you have us do?” The man closest to us called out. His armour moved like water over him, flickers of light and shadow chased each other through it like fish in a stream, unseen currents.
“Do your duty,” boomed Vesic’s voice just behind me as he stepped forward.
“My lord our duty is to you, it is what you say. Tell us, we have been without guidance for so long.”
“Bring peace to this land. This man here.” I felt a hand touch my shoulder. “Is a good man, serve him as you would me. Once peace has come, I shall call your oaths served. Is this agreeable to you?”
“What of our families here? They need us for trade. The land here is broken my lord. It can’t support us.”
“The land is whole for now. Tristan and his men will do all they can to make sure Nelar is productive. You are needed.”
“We serve.” The words felt forced out of him, but there was a hint of comfort in them. As if he knew what the answer would be and accepted his lot.
The thickening of the air continued through the whole exchange, a tightening, like the start of a storm.
I raised my gaze up to the sky. Nothing had changed.
Stray wisps of light danced in the space behind my eyes, my othersense pushing for me to look. I didn’t need to as if felt the familiar tugging inside my head. The oath, but I hadn’t bound myself with another. It wasn’t mine. Vesic’s and the army’s had shifted binding me with their service.
Vesic squeezed my shoulder in what I think was meant as a reassuring gesture. “Look after them. I give them to you for what needs to be done. You will know when the time comes.”
“But why give them to me?” I asked softly. “I can’t command an army.”
“You are the best of men that I can find. You won’t let them be abused. They are powerful and dangerous in the wrong hands.”
“I’m young. I make mistakes.”
“We are all young once Tristan. Now go and greet your men, there is work to be done.” The friendly tone reminded me of Brendon, as if the god and man were merging, maybe that happened. I would have to ask someone, one day, but not today. Today I had gained an army, and another responsibility. The weight of it was there, not yet settled as I looked over the grim faces of these brave souls committed to my cause whatever that was.
I stepped away from my mages, the battle last night, even though I had run off, seemed to have bound them to me, forged in fire and all that, I guess. There were now my mages. It was terrifying. Didn’t I have enough to worry about already? I tried to keep all my building frustrations off my face. It wasn’t their fault. It wasn’t mine either but that had never mattered in the scheme of things.
The short walk to the spokesperson of the army felt long and tense, all eyes rested on me, the sense of a held breath. The wind didn’t move, nothing moved. It was a moment of crystalline timelessness, just waiting for what I would do.
It couldn’t last.
I met the eyes of the spokesperson, he was a large man, not much older than me by looks but that could be deceiving if he had high magic levels or used his power a lot. His eyes told me nothing, they were wary, measuring me.
“I hope to honour your service,” I said, the only words that came to mind, as I extended my hand down to him.
The moment stretched.
He finally extended his arm and griped my forearm, pulling himself up to his feet. “I hope so too. I am the leader of this guard. Vincent. We will serve as we must but you must uphold your part. This land, this city is broken. We have had to hire our services out for years to get the food for our families. How can you take us from that?”
“Telsan,” I called without looking back, knowing he was but a few steps behind me ready to intervene if anything went wrong.
“Do we have any agriculture specialists?”
“Not with us sir, we do although all have the basic skills to bring life back to this soil, it won’t grow anything they want but it will grow what is needed to survive.”
“That will do. Can we train anyone?”
“Yes sir the skill are not overly complicated, anyone with an earth awakening should be able to learn quickly enough.” Telsan’s words were delivered sharply and efficiently.
I smiled slightly as I realised why. He wants to show competence to this army.
“Good, we can start with that. Vincent, I know you have travelled hard to get here, but you missed a battle last night. The city could well have fallen. Please go, all of you,” I raised my voice to reach the far reaches of the army, there had to be more than ten thousand packed in so tight that the wide streets felt narrow. “Go home, see your families, I have no idea how long you have been gone from here but they will have missed you. We have work to do but take this time while you can.” I looked Vincent in the eye, whatever he saw in my gaze he seemed to satisfy him.
He nodded and stepped back, commands to his army already pouring from his mouth.
I turned and walked back into headquarters, the mages quickly resumed what they had been doing as my eyes fell on them. I felt quietly impressed with myself, one hurdle down, next is, oh.
“Telsan, Lysan, I need you both for a moment. Did anyone see where Vesic went to?”
“He left. Brendon came back. I think he went upstairs,” Lysar said.
“Good, one less thing to worry about right now. I need to set up communication back home. I think Nelar is ours now; we still have much to do. Don’t forget that, but now it’s just getting this place running, simple really. Telsan you have handled things like this before?”
“Yes, don’t concern yourself there sir. We are just temporary. We get it functional then others who specialise in administration will be dispatched. Communication back home will be vital, we need to inform them of what happened, well you do, and I’m attached to your command now, so it’s your responsibility.”
“I need you and the men to go out into the city, work out where you can do the most, make sure there is water, clean water and shelter, and get the fields mapped out. Teach who you must the things they need to know. Do it now, I need this building empty.”
“Tristan, what do you intend to do?” Lysan asked. His voice wavered with uncertainty.
I reached into my pouch and pulled out the Orb seed.
“I’m going to activate this.”