Sabledrake Magazine

November, 2004

 

 

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     From the Pits of Hell

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     CTF 2187: End of an Era

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From the Pits of Hell

Copyright © 2004 Adam Janus


     Garelgar Janlyn dragged his broad bladed knife slowly across his stubbled pate, the dry, rasping scrape sounded loud in the pre-dawn stillness.

He ignored the annoyed look shot in his direction from the black robed and armored warrior priest, from the temple of the mythical demon hunter, Beordin, and continued shaving. According to the priest, known as Keldrid Thunderhand, from the order of the wolves of Beordin, he was bending his mind and will earthward, reading, feeling and interpreting the ripples and waves in the earths living fabric.

"Witch hunters!" Spat Amir Sotho, the short, but very broad, muscular man standing on Garelgar's left. His slanted eyes, dark skin and intricate tribal tattoos bespoke his far eastern heritage. Tying his long black hair, which was shaved on the sides, into the traditional topknot of his people, Amir continued complaining. "The troops're gettin' restless Gar, chasin' ghosts and rumors."

"You saw the writ from the king, Amir; we are to extend every courtesy to the priests of Beordin," scolded Garelgar, "and you gotta admit, it's kinda weird out here. We haven't seen a living thing for days, and damn it's hot for late autumn!" He turned away from the kneeling priest as his outriders galloped toward him, hooves thundering in the eerie silence.

Dawn was fast approaching, and thunder rumbled in the west. The distant storm clouds were ugly and had the greenish tint that usually promised hellacious weather.

Garelgar tightened his belt and habitually checked the straps and fasteners on his worn chain link and plate armor. For twenty years he had commanded the winter patrol on the southern border of Reban and the wastelands to the south, keeping the roads from the silver mines clear from outlaws and marauding bands of orcs, and providing law in a lawless land.

Like himself and Amir, about half of his hundred and fifty man company were mercenaries, from all parts of the world, working away the winter in the patrols, before being relieved by Rebanian military in early spring. They then collected their earnings and scattered. Most returned in the fall to re-sell their swords to the border patrol.

One month ago Keldrid Thunderhand and his fifty wolves of Beordin had rode into the garrison, with orders from the king. A silver caravan from the mines had been attacked, the lone survivor – bloody, badly burned and thoroughly mad – had ranted of demons before dying.

The border patrol and the warrior priests had found the waylaid caravan, but the silver had not been stolen. Instead it had burned, burned so hot that rivers of crude ore ran from the ruined wagons, down hill, like lava from a volcano.

Also in the ashes, they found the remains of the caravan workers and their escort. It appeared as if they had been ripped limb from limb before being consumed by the flames. Most mysterious of all, was there were no discernable tracks leading to, or from the scene.

"Why would outlaws melt the silver, and not steal it?" Garelgar asked Amir, not for the first time. "And what, besides dragon fire coulda melted all that metal?"

"Wizard's spell gone bad maybe," the easterner replied. "We're like as not looking at an outlaw band that's gone an employed some half crazy mage outa Ghan, went nuts from sniffin all that sulphur from them volcanoes. For all we know, the reavers' scorched bones were among those we found. Hell, it coulda even been sanctioned by Ghan!"

Garelgar guessed Amir's speculation could be right. There had been border disputes between Reban and Ghan for centuries, and Ghan's volcanic western regions were infamous for spawning half mad, darkly ambitious sorcerers. Demons had not walked the earth for thousands of years, since the Great War, but even out here, in the wilds of Rebans's south western border, rumors of strange happenings all over the continent reached the mercenary captains ears.

Walking toward the approaching outriders, Garelgar noticed the tension in their demeanors, and instantly got flutters in his gut. Keldrid Thunderhand must have noticed something also, as he joined the captain and Amir, anticipation etched on his lined face.

A large man dismounted and removed his helmet, revealing long white hair that still retained some of its former yellow, framing a scarred, weather beaten face and the hard blue eyes of a man from north. He walked toward the trio with an obvious limp.

"We found sumthin', Cap," the large man said, eyeing Keldrid warily, not wanting to reveal his information in front of the priest until commanded to do so.

"Spit it out, Norge," Garelgar said impatiently. "The priests of Beordin are here to aid us, the quicker we get this over with, the better."

Norge noticeably relaxed; the big Norseman had been torn between his loyalty to his company, and his loyalty to his god. Beordin was worshiped mostly in the northern climes, but this far south, the followers of the demon hunting legend turned god, were viewed as fanatics and zealots.

"Yes sir. About a mile, mile and a half northeast of the road, in a shallow valley, we found a burnt out piece a ground, a big piece, about fifty feet across." Norge swallowed, as if considering if he should continue or not. Garelgar thought he saw a hint of fear in the Norseman's eyes.

"Burnt how?" asked Keldrid. "Like a forest fire or campfire that got out of control? Or does it appear to be a controlled burn, like someone did it on purpose, and contained it?"

"I ain't never seen nuthin' like it sir," the Norseman replied. "There's trees and brush on the outskirts of the area, that don't show any sign of damage, like there wasn't a raging fire two feet away from 'em! And there are dead things in the circle, deer, a couple a hares, a fox. They ain't burnt, just dead, and our horses won't go near it, it's the damndest thing, Cap!"

"Thank you, Norge. Return to the sight and secure the outskirts. Amir!" Garelgar turned to the easterner, who was making faces at the priests of Beordin, drawing laughter from some of the onlooking soldiers. "Gather your trackers and accompany Norge and the outriders to secure the area. We will join you as soon as camp is broken. I want to know everything that has approached or left the area in question, even if it's a single rabid raccoon."

"Yes sir!" Amir replied, and hastened about camp, eager to break the monotony of the uneventful, previous month. Besides being Garelgar's second in command, the stocky easterner was also in charge of stealthy reconnaissance, and intelligence gathering.

The trackers were comprised mostly of young, Rebanian military scouts, looking to hone their skills. If any living creature left even the lightest track, or slightest spore, Amir's trackers would find it.

"We should leave the horses here, Captain," advised Keldrid Thunderhand, keeping his voice respectfully low. "Spooked mounts could be a detriment."

The warrior priest looked Garelgar in the eye, and the mercenary captain noticed for the first time the Nordic resemblance he bore to Norge, especially the piercing blue eyes. Although Norge's hair was the yellow common to the men from north of the Graode mountains, and Keldrid's graying hair was the black of those from northern Brynhalla, just south of the Graode Mountain range.

"And what do you think we'll find out there?" asked Garelgar. "What's gonna spook experienced war horses?"

The priest's eye's narrowed fiercely and he took a step closer so as not to be overheard.

"Demons, Captain Janlyn, demons. You said yourself, it seems strange out here, and you're right, there are dark forces at work. I can feel the evil portent in the air, as if the earth is tensing for something. This is the calm before the storm, Captain, and I fear it's about to hit us full force."

Something about the surety of Keldrid's tone, and the gleam in his steel blue eyes sent an icy chill up the hardened soldier's spine.


***

 

Garelgar's soldiers scouted the tree line on either side of the broad, hard packed road, flanking the priests of Beordin, protecting them from any earthly foes, allowing Keldrid's wolves to concentrate on what they called disturbances of nature, disturbances they were sure would be caused by un-earthly forces.

The mercenary captain admired the priests' discipline as the orderly column turned east, off the main road, onto a trail marked only by wagon ruts. The brush obscuring the path had been hacked away by Norge and his outriders. On either side of the leaf-littered trail, the trees grew thicker, and overhung the trail in places, before widening a short ways up.

"Smugglers' road," commented Garelgar, walking in front of the column with Keldrid Thunderhand. "Probably branches off a hundred times, most of em leadin' nowhere."

This led credence to Amir's theory that they were dealing with bandits, who had perhaps fallen in with a renegade battle mage, or crazed wizard. But Keldrid's warning of supernatural foes nagged at the back of Garelgar's brain.

Thunder still rumbled in the west, moving closer, making the humid air seem thick, and adding to the tension that seemed to hang all around them. As the road sloped upward, they paused briefly to study a fork in the road. Garelgar was about to comment on the lack of insects, which should have been plaguing their every step, when they all felt a hot wind crest the hill before them, and wash over them like a thick wave. It smelled like burning, putrefied corpses.

But it was Keldrid Thunderhand, who recognized it for what it was.

"What the Hell…" Garelgar's question was cut off by Keldrid's answer.

"A tear in the earth's fabric!" the priest yelled above the wind, as his Wolves of Beordin nervously drew their slender, slightly curved swords. "It's a rift between earth's material plane of existence and another, dark, foul plane!"

Keldrid strode among his wolves, reassuring the warrior priests with his confident demeanor, as Garelgar's flanking scouts began to filter in, Amir among them, his usual devil may care attitude replaced by the hardened professionalism of an experienced fighter. Before the easterner could give any reports, the thundering of hooves reached their ears from beyond the brow of the hill.

"Must be the outriders!" commented Amir as the horses crested the hill from the east,.

Most were riderless, large eyes wide and rolling with terror as they ran at breakneck speed out of the valley, scattering the assembled scouts and priests. A couple were dragging their hapless riders behind them.

Thinking on his feet, Garelgar sent a detachment after the loose horses to rescue the dragged riders; they then quickly reformed their lines, and hastened up the hill to the rocky, pine tree lined crest.

Keldrid and Garelgar, accompanied by Amir, skidded to a halt at the rim of the shallow valley and stared down at the horrific scene below them.

They saw what appeared to be a swirling black hole of nothingness that blotted out the burnt road beyond. Norge and his remaining outriders, about twenty in all, formed a wall between the road out of the valley and the black hole, their hair and cloaks blowing behind them as they were buffeted by the hot, acrid wind blowing from the portal.

Out of the black rip in space marched a score of demons, each ten feet tall, with enormous, bat like wings folded on their backs. Their heads were simian in appearance with great, jutting tusks and goat like horns, set atop massively muscled, humanoid torsos. They were clad in blood red armor, which stood out in sharp contrast to their jet black skin. Each demon held a huge black rune sword in their clawed hands, which seemed to pulse with the heat of Hell.

Keldrid could feel the earth protest each time one of their foul, taloned feet touched the earth, scorching it, and turning it black.

Last to emerge from the nothingness was a huge, skeletal, bird like creature, which issued an unholy screech from its viciously curved beak while spreading its bony wings. Dried up and singed pieces of flesh flapped in the foul smelling wind.

Sitting between its horrid wings was a demon, larger than the rest. The demon's baboon-like head swayed on its thick neck while it surveyed the terrified humans assembled before it. It raised its bestial head and sniffed, as if savoring the musky scent of fear that hung thickly in the air.

Before Keldrid could order Garelgar to call his men back, the demons fell on Norge's faltering line of outriders with thousands of years of pent up fury, sweeping their great swords left and right, up and down, cutting through shields and armor, flesh and bone like it was linen. Heads and limbs were severed, blood gouted and souls were sent screaming to Hell with each swing and chop. The demons cried out their pleasure in guttural voices that sounded like broken glass and metal shards scraping together, drowning out the anguished screams of the dying soldiers.

Keldrid's wolves spread out on the rim of the valley, as the storm winds from the west picked up, carrying greenish black clouds filled with moisture, giving the gruesome scene in the sun splashed valley a surreal look. Surrounded by his grimfaced warrior priests, Keldrid raised his rune etched sword to the sky, calling on the earths elements to aid him in his time of need.

He then bellowed a challenge to the mounted demon below him. "I am Keldrid Thunderhand, direct descendant of Beordin Demonsbane, and this is the icy blade that smote the demon lord Zaranoth, and sent his black soul back to Hell!"

At the mention of its ancient nemesis, and the banished demon lord, the demon leader looked up from where it was feasting on the flesh of the fallen and locked gazes with the warrior priest.

"I see you recognize the names!" Keldrid continued. "Now take your abominations back to the pits of Hell! Or we will send you back!"

The mounted demon answered by snarling, then opening its mouth and vomiting a cloud of huge, Hell spawned insects resembling flies, with green eyes and oversized, flesh tearing mandibles. The sound of their buzzing wings and clacking mandibles was deafening as they winged their way up the hill.

Garelgar and his men stood, weapons drawn, and stared in helpless amazement as the cloud of insects bore down on the warrior priests.

Keldrid brought his sword back, as if signaling the advancing storm to charge, and then brought his blade down in a chopping motion. Storm winds from the west blew stronger, as if on command, Keldrid's cloak was billowing around him wildly, whipped by the cross winds, natural and unnatural.

The cloud of bugs, riding the foul wind from the portal, seemed to falter as the clean, natural air pushed them back. Keldrid then passed his sword before him, from right to left, the air seemed to ripple and crack as if frozen, surrounding and constricting the grotesque cloud, and taking on the color of hoar frost. Following the direction of the priest's blade, the now silent cloud changed direction and hurtled down the hill, solidifying like a gigantic hailstone, trailing tendrils of ice as it picked up speed.

In an attempt to dodge the frozen missile, the demon leaders bony, bird like mount flapped its horrid wings, and with speed that belied its great bulk, took to the air. But it wasn't fast enough, as the giant ice ball slammed into its hind quarters, pulverizing bone and rotting flesh, flipping the remains over, and sending the demon crashing to the ground in a shower of steaming bone fragments.

The frozen sphere continued on its course, and entered the swirling black nothingness of the portal to Hell. There was a great tearing sound, like parchment ripping slowly, then the portal began to collapse, creating a vacuum that seemed to suck all the sound from the air for a split second, before spitting it back out in the form of an explosion, showering the valley with hot coals and ash.

Screaming their rage and frustration, the demons charged up the hill, snarling obscenely, unholy flames burning in their fiery red eyes.

The wolves of Beordin met the demons advance, led by Keldrid Thunderhand, who engaged the demon leader in combat. Ducking under its pulsing black rune sword, Keldrid felt the hot air of its passing, as it singed his hair, and set his cloak afire. Coming out of his crouch in a spin, Keldrid brought his enchanted blade around, scoring a hit on the demon's upper thigh, hissing through black, demon flesh with a burst of steam.

Moving to his right, Keldrid side stepped the creatures return stroke, a downward chop that would have cut the smaller human in half. Before the demon could recover from the missed blow, Keldrid brought his sword up over his head, and brought the blade down with all his might on his opponent's neck, parting its deformed head from its obscene body.

Garelgar took heart in the warrior priest's bravery and success, and embarrassed at his inaction, he led his men into the fray, falling on the demons that were taking injuries from Keldrid's warrior's icy blades. The mercenary captain, sword held high, charged a demon who was standing atop a dead priest. It had torn the head from the warrior's mutilated body and was holding it up above its own up-raised, bestial head, allowing the blood and pulp to drip into its open maw, as if it was squeezing nectar from a fruit.

Garelgar brought his broadsword down on the creature's spine, between its wings and right above its hind quarters. He felt the blade bite deep into flesh and grind off bone. The hilt of his weapon grew hot, blistering his hands as boiling ichors spewed out, burning his face and arms.

With an unearthly howl, the demon turned, slapping Garelgar aside, raking through his leather and chain link armor with razor sharp claws, opening up three deep wounds on his chest.

Before the demon could finish the stricken mercenary, Amir leaped to his defense, long sword in his right hand, short blade in his left. The two blades were a blur as the small easterner weaved in and out of the demons defenses, striking and slashing at vitals with every stroke, until finding the abominations black heart, sending its twisted soul screaming back to Hell.

Garelgar's soldiers grew more confident as they realized the demons earthly incarnations could be dealt grievous wounds with material weapons, and fell on the Hell spawn in sheer overwhelming numbers.

Many men were lost before the battle ended. The blackened, steaming battlefield was littered with smoking demon parts and dead and injured humans. Of the roughly one hundred or so brave souls that participated in the battle, only fifty-one remained, thirty of which were Keldrid's priests of Beordin. Some were obviously mad from the hellish experience; most were injured, but all were shaken right down to their very souls.


***

 

In silence, the survivors, Garelgar, Amir and Keldrid among them, built a funeral pyre for their fallen comrades, while thunder boomed and lightning seared the skies.

It seemed as if the storm waited, out of respect, for the oil fed flames to consume the fallen, before the clouds opened up. Driving sheets of cool, clean rain cleansed the scorched, despoiled earth, which was the scene of the horrific battle just hours before.

As the exhausted soldiers and priests left the valley behind, Garelgar turned to Keldrid. "Is this a portent of things to come? Can we expect more? Or is it over?"

Keldrid pulled the cowl on his cloak back a little, so as to look the mercenary in the eye when he spoke. "I am not a seer, Captain Janlyn, but I can tell you we are approaching the end of an age. The delicate balance between law and evil is becoming compromised. The wards between our material plane of existence, and the fiery nether plane, put in place by the arch wizards after the Demon Wars thousands of years ago, are deteriorating. Also deteriorating are the temples of Beordin, Trinia, Illunar and all the gods of light, as well as their beliefs. While clandestine temples of dark gods such as Zaranoth, Hisseesha and Zareesha are growing bolder, attracting followers with the promise of quick wealth and power." The warrior priest sighed deeply and stopped momentarily to help Garelgar readjust the bandages wrapped around his bloody chest. "Strange things are occurring all over the world Captain, and all of us will have a roll to play in the upcoming struggle."

Keldrid pulled his cowl back down over his face as the rain picked up in intensity, and hastened forward to assist more of the injured.

None looked behind them as in the valley, swirling cross winds created a great funnel cloud, forming above, and touching down, at the spot where the demons breached earth's material plane. The tornado's tip danced and spun on the ground, seeming to erase any signs of the demons' passing.

As it reached the smoking funeral pyre, the twister raised and hovered above the site. Many ghostly forms issued from the ashes, rising into the swirling cloud. A great black mist, in the shape of a clawed hand reached up and grasped at the ghostly forms in vain.

The tornado then took on the shape of a giant war hammer and smote the hand, dissipating it.

Mother Nature took the souls of her brave children back from the pits of Hell.

 

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