Tales of the Ailendar, Volume 1: The Mother’s Dirge – Part 1

The drinking song reached its final chorus. As Haron’s veins flooded with wild cheer, she opened her throat and belted out the well-worn tune, raising her tankard alongside the other sohntar of her watch. Their mugs clanked against each other and spilled liquor over the rim of the garrison battlements. As the final notes faded away, sputtering laughter filtered up from below, and Haron peered over the ramparts to locate its source.

“Mother’s blessings pour from above!” a guard that had been passing beneath the impromptu celebration declared. He ran a blazing hand across his dripping breastplate and licked his fingers clean. “My thanks to her most worthy servants. That’s powerful stuff!”

“Is that Targ I hear?” Haron called down.

“Aye, corporal. Does Kratus’s Company celebrate the beginning of a new watch?”

“Nay, the end of one.” She drained the last of her brew and belched a dainty plume of flame, to the open laughter of her compatriots. Their chuckles quickly dissipated as she gripped her war hammer and gave them a faux glare, but their grins remained in place.

“Best put away that fine drink before the garrison commander sniffs it out and confiscates it for his own enjoyment,” Targ cautioned.

“He’s welcome to as much as he wants!” Haron shouted back. Clapping a hand against the watch-commander’s pauldron sent a wave of sparks dancing through the air. “Kratus here makes it from the sap of the lavablooms that grow around the lake, and there’s no shortage of them!”

Targ chortled. “Liquor from fire? What glorious creations will our kingdom’s noble soldiers come up with next?”

“Solutions to half the world’s problems if they leave us guarding unused passages between two mighty kingdoms with nary a threat in sight,” Haron replied, which earned wry chuckles from her fellows.

The next watchcrew arrived on the battlements, and the dregs of Kratus’s latest brew were left in their care. Haron good-naturedly jostled her way to the head of the group as they made their way down the stairs toward their quarters, telling bawdy jokes and brandishing weapons at each other whenever anyone feigned insult.

For a sohntar, theirs was hardly an exciting or glamorous existence, manning a garrison halfway between the Earth and Fire kingdoms, but Haron had spent the whole of her short career at Daka Outpost and couldn’t imagine any other place in the world feeling like home. While she’d heard stories of great battles and a terrible cataclysm when one of the gods was cast down into the depths, the world that she’d been raised in was one of peace, and had been for over two-hundred years.

A horn’s broad, echoing call brought an abrupt end to all conversation. Haron shared a tense glance with her fellows, and, as one, they dashed back to the battlements. The horn sounded again, an extended blast that grew louder as she listened. Used to gauging the timing of echoes in the vast network of tunnels, she knew the sound was coming from deeper within the Fire Kingdom, heading toward the garrison’s main gate. When a third blast sounded, the active watch-commander shouted for the gates to be opened. Every soldier knew the horn was a signal of impending danger, and Haron’s squad broke up to man their positions. Haron left the ramparts, bounding down the stairs three at a time with her war hammer tight in her grip. She joined the gate defenders streaming into the central courtyard and held her breath as she peered into the brilliant torchlight across the causeway beyond.

A ragged group of fiery warriors appeared from the main tunnel at a run. Haron spotted several earth sohntar among their numbers as they streamed through the open gate. Makrosh, the garrison commander, shoved his way through the crowd of soldiers to approach the newcomers. “What news, Commander Khan? Were you attacked?” he demanded.

“Routed,” an earth sohntar wearing a commander’s sash rasped. His armor was smeared with black vileness. “Get your men out of Daka now. They’re coming.”

Makrosh’s fiery face went dark. “The abominations from the shadows? But their territory is on the other side of the kingdom. Hundreds of miles from here.”

“Not anymore. The Fire Kingdom has fallen. The capitol at Karnos was consumed by a wave of living shadow, and the abominations have hunted down everything else from border to border.” The earth commander gazed at his panting soldiers. “We’re all that’s left of Rortak Outpost. They’ve been on our trail for almost two days… hordes of them. They’ll be on us in minutes.” Haron saw her commander’s jaws clench, his eyes roving around the courtyard, but the earth sohntar grabbed his arm. “You don’t have the men to hold here, Makrosh. Trust me.”

“I do trust you, Khan.” Makrosh raised his voice to a shout that carried across the entire courtyard. “Evacuate the outpost! Prepare to collapse the tunnels behind us. We must get word to Karata of our enemy’s approach at all costs.”

Evacuate the outpost… The thought had difficulty penetrating Haron’s mind. Surrender the outpost to walking nightmares conjured from the depths of the world? Her training held back the protestations on her lips, but she followed the shouted commands to assemble in the armory as if in a daze, still trying to grasp the reality of what was occurring to her home.

Rortak Outpost was a good three days’ march from Daka, yet the survivors said they’d made it here in two. They’d been running. Sohntar didn’t run… not unless they had to…

“Mother’s fire claim them all!” she growled, snatching up as many supply crates as she could carry under one arm. A fierce rush of anger sent the flames of her body surging, and the metal crates turned red in her grip.

Strong fingers closed around Haron’s upper arm, and she found herself staring into Kratus’s eyes. All traces of their normal cheer were gone, replaced by a rage and sorrow she’d never seen before. “We’ll take it back someday, Haron,” he rumbled. “We’ll take it all back. I swear it.”

Forcing a neutral expression onto her face, she nodded firmly.

The soldiers filed from the outpost in clean lines, laden with spare weapons and supplies for the journey to Karata. The survivors of Rortak were placed near the front of the ranks, except for Commander Khan who remained with the other officers to oversee the evacuation. Haron turned her back on Daka and strode away from the column, fixing her gaze on the mouth of the closest exit tunnel. It was cramped and narrow, and despite the soldiers’ haste, it was too small to permit a swift exodus for so many. Commander Makrosh ordered the line to divide and led the group toward a second tunnel near the edge of the lava lake.

Minutes passed before Haron’s blazing skin crawled with a sudden dread, and she turned to look toward the causeway leading back into the Fire Kingdom. Black shadows swept across the bridge, surging around the sealed outpost, and a host of gibbering voices cast maddened echoes through the cavern. The rearmost soldiers, Commander Makrosh charging at their head, raced to join the rearguard from Commander Khan’s column and buy time for the rest of the sohntar to withdraw. Haron gazed in disgusted astonishment at the nightmarish creatures, with bodies that boasted more limbs than a lakdoth and more teeth and claws than a cave-lion. Feeling her fiery blood awake with fury, she dropped her burdens and ran toward the battle.

“Try to surround them!” Commander Khan’s deep voice rang out through the haze of snarls. “Don’t let them pass!”

A clawed arm streaked toward Haron. She struck it away with a blow from her hammer’s flattened head, grinning with satisfaction at the crunch of shattering bone and the wordless screech of pain.

So, these things can be harmed.

The body of the creature lurched forward as it tried to grab her with a different arm. She ducked under the claw, reversed the grip on her weapon and drove the thick, sharpened spike into its hide, then dragged downward to tear a steaming gash wide open. Foul entrails spilled from its shuddering flesh, but a second creature bore down on her before she could wrench her weapon free. Suddenly, an axe blade arced across the thrusting arms, and stinking ichor splashed Haron’s face. The abominable creature shrieked from dozens of mouths, writhing backward as an earth sohntar pressed forward. Stony muscles bunched and shifted as the warrior systematically sliced the creature apart.

“Got it handled now, soldier?” Commander Khan demanded.

“Yes, sir!” Haron replied, and scrambled over the bodies to reach more of the creatures.

As the battle dragged on, she detected something like a pattern to the creatures’ movements. Their numerous limbs gave them great maneuverability, but their trunk-shaped torsos were clumsy, and what legs they possessed were easily thrown off balance once she learned which angles to attack from. The eyes staring at random locations from their tortured flesh made it difficult to sneak up on them, but assaults from multiple targets at once seemed to confuse them. As she fell into a rhythm, she found that alternating between hammer blows to break limbs and impaling strikes to finish her foes proved an effective strategy.

For every creature Haron and her fellow soldiers killed, however, a dozen more surged from the tunnels to replace them. Their razor-tipped claws shredded through sohntar armor as though it were flesh, and the floors of the tunnel grew slick with orange, cooling blood and shattered stone limbs. The bodies of friend and foe alike clogged the tunnels, creating a barrier of flesh that the hordes of abominations eagerly scaled and trampled. Every sohntar scream heralded another death, because those that fell, even to a simple stumble, had no opportunity to rise again.

Haron found herself driven back to the rear of the cavern. The distant roar of tumbling rock brought a brief smile to her face. The exit tunnels were being collapsed. Hopefully that meant the horde’s advance would be stymied. Their frenzied claws might eventually dig through the cave-ins, but more likely they would only bring more of the tunnels down on them. The thought of being trapped in the cavern with an army of enemies did not frighten her, but in the back of her mind, she found herself saddened by the thought of death. There was much she had expected still to do with her young life… but if it was time for the Mother to call her home…

As if sensing the same impending mortality, the remaining fire sohntar warriors struck up an exultant requiem. Their voices rang through the cavern, and Haron joined her voice to the chorus, singing of doomed valor, unbroken spirit and eternal gratitude to the flames that had granted them life. The air above the battlefield shimmered with rising heat as the sohntars’ bodies ignited with haloes of blue flame. Weapons tempered by the never-ending heat of their fiery grips blazed, and even those who were struck down elicited screeches of pain from their shadowy foes.

Caught up in the surging passion of the moment, Haron almost missed the sharp curse.

“Earth’s mercy, there’s a third tunnel!”