Chapter 2 - Soldiers of Darkness
Soldiers of Darkness
Far out in the distance, a crown at its apex that stretched over a mile in all directions as it struck the thick clouds high above it, stood an enormous swirling and twisting pillar of intense red and yellow flames.
The tower of fire burned so bright, it swept over the opaque darkness that had fallen over the land, and people standing on the castle wall, stone faces and pale, could at last gaze down at the village below them.
Hundreds of shadows, cast by the rose-colored light of the curling fire suspended above, had taken over their village. Growing and shrinking in pace with the swirling tower of fire, the shadows cast an eerie image of uncanny, shapeless creatures wandering its streets.
Gwendolyn recalls eyeing the people standing on the castle wall as they turned their sights once more to the pillar of fire. The light from the massive fire, flicking on and off their faces, formed a bleak portrait of the fear gnawing away at what little spirit they had left. Forced to flee their homes, they stood pressed against one another with their children at their side, staring up at death.
Yet, the biggest threat to the people of Mada came not from the spiraling pillar of fire, but in the disastrous event taking place below it.
Along the rim of the massive chasm that gave life to the enigmatic flames, red-hot fiery brimstone and melted rock, heaving out like a dense clump of bubbling oil, gathered to form a fast moving stream of searing molten rock.
Moving fast across the forest the dense forest, the streams of molten rock transform everything they touch into a mound of smoldering black ashes and stripped vast areas of the forest leading toward the castle of all its trees and shrubberies.
Houses and cabins in the direct paths of these deadly currents of fire, or even close to them, burned to the ground fast as their dried-out wooden frames burst into flames from the extreme heat of the inferno raging around them.
Trapped in a storm of raging fire and smoke, the screams of people living in these wooden shelters charged the night with the unforgettable haunting sounds of their deaths as they underwent the horror of being burned alive.
As people were dying, the roaring blaze continued to move at high pace toward the castle. The Sisters of Sorcery gave thoughts to putting out the fire by calling on a spell that would bring about an excessive rainfall, but with the sky on fire, such a spell was impossible.
The only means the Sorceresses could see to stop the fire was to place a spell on the waters of the nearby rivers and streams.
Raising the water high enough to shower down on the intense fire, the Sisters extinguished most of the fire, but despite their endeavor to prevent the fire from spreading, much of the forest continued to burn.
After a time, no one in the castle could see much of what was taking place. An impenetrable veil of black and pale smoke had swallowed up the Village, obscuring it. But the faint, hollow cries of people still scrambling to escape the destructive flames--and those trapped inside it--said much of what was transpiring behind the wall of smoke and fire.
As the fire continued to advance, many in the castle succumbed to despair, for they saw no hope of stopping the massive fires from consuming all of Mada.
Then, something remarkable happened; as if snuffed out by the supreme hand of a divine being, the hellish tower of flames vanished in a rush of bright light.
Even the rivers of hot, melted rock, flowing towards the castle came to an abrupt stop four or five hundred yards into the Village. And as molten rock cooled and solidified, they fracture and rupture into a dark cloud of dust that faded into the blackness of the scorched ground.
If not for the scores of smoldering scorched and brittle trees, the hills of black cinder, and the dense layer of smoke wrapped across the land, the great fire having ever existed might have been in doubt.
All at once, from somewhere atop the castle walls, there arose a disturbing loud cry, "Look, there!"
All eyes pivoted towards the forest, and there, where once stood the mighty column of flame, rising out like an enormous dome in the haze of all the dense gray smoke, they caught sight of a pale, crimson glow.
Disquieted over the chance of what she feared the most had come to pass, the Sorceress Queen, Amadora, called five of her "Overseers of the Peace" to the throne room.
Task with protecting the innocent, the Overseers--since the time of their formation a half century or more ago, had yet to come across an adversary they could not overcome. Their weapons and fighting skills, along with their ability to carry out small feats of magic, were legendary.
Gwendolyn's father was once an Overseer himself until Queen Amadora pulled him from their ranks to serve as the head of her army.
The Sorceress Queen, suspecting the terror behind the attack on her Kingdom, ordered the five Overseers to ride out and confirm her suspicion.
But before sending them off, she informed them of the risks they take going out on such a mission. The Queen also told them that, had it not been for the dire urgency of the matter, she would never think of sending them out to what may well be their deaths.
The ranking Overseers--a tall, vigorous man with a fiery red bird on his chest plate, pounded his fist against his chests, and with pride, pointed out to the Queen of their pledge to carry out her every order, no matter the danger or cost.
Amadora bowed her head in gratitude, and then called for the ranking Overseer to approach her, and stepping forward, he stood arm's length away from her.
The Queen stared into the eyes of the Overseer for a for several seconds before summing forth a young servant girl to her side.
The servant girl approached Amadora with a small, silver box held in both hands.
Standing three feet away and left of the Queen was Gwendolyn. Her head lurched to the right, and her eyes narrowed as the servant girl bowed and held out the box for the Queen to open.
The box had mystic writing engraved all around it in gold lettering and along with incantation symbols. Gwendolyn did not recognize all the writing or the symbols on the box, but the few she knew was enough to tell her the spells were there to keep whatever was inside from getting out.
The Sorceress Queen open the box, gazed down at its contain for a moment with a concerned look in her eyes, then taking hold of it with both hands, pulled out a long, silver necklace with a small, spherical-triangle shape, silver amulet attached to its end.
Gwendolyn came close to letting out a loud gasp as the Queen Amadora held up the amulet for all to see, for at the center of the amulet was a strange eye that moved about as if it was examining everyone and thing in the room.
Gwendolyn knew then why the needed to seal the box with so many spells; it contained the eye of K'nosh, the evil Wizard who, almost three centuries ago, used black magic to gain control of the Council of Wizards.
Gwendolyn had learned of K'nosh treachery during her one of her studies. From what she remembered, K'nosh plucked out his right eye, placed on the amulet, and after casting an evil spell on it, used the eye to manipulate the other Wizards into doing his bidding.
But the Council discovered K'nosh's evil plot and foiled the malicious Wizard plans.
K'nosh was sentenced to die by the Council, but his power proved to be so great, nothing they tried would kill the evil wizard.
So the Council imprisoned K'nosh somewhere deep inside a mountain, where he could never hope to escape, and no one would ever find him.
As for K'nosh's amulet with the evil eye, the Wizards placed it inside the silver box, which no one has seen ever again until that moment.
The Sorceress Queen reached out, placed the necklace around the Overseer's neck, and then held the amulet in her hand.
With great sadness in her heart, Amadora tells the Overseer, "Through this, I will see all you see. But be warned! The eye in the amulet is a thing of immense evil. It possesses the potential for poisoning men's minds with perverse and deceitful thoughts that--if brought out, will lead you to a fatal ending. Do not stare at it for long, or it will take hold of your thoughts."
Queen Amadora then let go of the amulet, stepped back, turned about, and with her head sunk midway low, walked toward her throne.
She climbed the six broad steps leading up to the chair, but stopped short of sitting on it when she reached the top.
Her face frozen in a state of bewilderment, Amadora stood before the empty chair and gazed at it as if she lacked the worthiness to place herself on it, then spun about.
An expression on her face that could shatter a large stone; she gazed at the Overseer who followed her every movement with extreme interest.
Her head held high, body straight and rigid; Queen Amadora peered into the eyes of each of the men as she spoke. "You have all served me well, and have never failed me in all I asked," she said with gratification for their services to her. "That is why I selected each of you for this task."
Amadora held back from speaking for an instant to reflect on the Overseers pass deeds, but moreover, to give her time to clear her throat.
"It grieves me I cannot grant you a charm to aid you. But without knowing what we are up against, other than my blessings for a swift and safe return, I can offer you nothing."
An Overseer called "Ur'zo, the strong," a two-hundred pound, red-bearded man with several notches on the hilt of his sword for every evil troll and monster he had killed, struck his fist against his chest plate. He then proclaimed, in a hearty voice, "It is more than adequate, My Queen."
His fellow Overseers were quick to strike their fist against their chest plates in solidarity that indeed it was enough.
The Queen nodded several times. "Go then," she commanded in a resilient voice, her head held high. "Find me the villain behind this attack. But know I have called on the spirits of the great First Lords of Magic, to watch over each of you and protect you from harm."
The Overseers bowed their heads, turned around, and then left the Queen's throne room.
Soon after, Queen Amadora return to her private chamber, and glaring out her window, watched as the Overseers, undaunted by thoughts of death, rode into the dark forest.
Standing quiet behind Queen Amadora, looking sad and distress, was Gwendolyn.
The look on the Queen's face troubled Gwendolyn. The Queen appeared dishearten, lost in thought, and would not take her eyes off the Overseers even after they had vanished behind the cover of the smoke-filled night.
Gwendolyn strolled over to Amadora and stood by her side, but the Queen did not notice her.
She joined the Queen for a while in peering into the dark, and then, turned her head and gazed at Amadora.
The Queen's chin hung low, near to her chest, her lips turned downward, and she had a dim look in her eyes that brought forth lines to brows folded at the center. Gwendolyn struggled to read the Queen's thoughts by interpreting the look on her face, but she could not.
"Is all well with you, My Queen?"
Wiping her hands in a circular motion, Amadora looked toward the main chamber.
"I should attend to our visitors. I must make them aware of the situation."
Gwendolyn, a grim expression on her face, drew nearer to the Sorceress Queen.
"They already know, My Queen. All one has to do is look out any window to see what is happening."
Queen Amadora, half-dazed, turned and placed a gentle hand on Gwendolyn's face, and with a fragmented smile and a kind, earnest tone, she said, "I am... sorry, my Darling."
"Regarding what, My Queen?"
"Your birthday celebration; it has been ruined."
Gwendolyn stared into Amadora emerald-green eyes. They once sparkle with the light of life, but no longer. All Gwendolyn could detect in them at the moment was a blend of turmoil and desolation that eclipsed the Queen's beauty. It broke Gwendolyn's heart to see Queen Amadora suffer the discomfort of self-doubt.
She threw her arms around Amadora and leaned her head against the Queen's shoulder.
"There will be others," a downcast Gwendolyn whispered into the Queen's ears. "There will always be others."
Some time later, the Overseers approached an area closed to the curious red glow. The darkness and billow of smoke from burnt trees made it difficult for them to see much except a large, hazy, bright red light some distance away that looked like a giant dome.
The Overseers looked at each other for a moment, and without saying a word, descended from their horses.
Drawing their long swords, and staying low, the Overseers, moving in silence along a path of charred trees, and a ground covered with a thick coat of black ash, made their way toward the strange light.
Turning often to look back, it was easy for the lead Overseer to judge his men's reluctance to move forward. Each man had a look of uncertainty on his face. Yet without a word from him, they continued to go on toward the red glow, which grew larger as they came closer to it.
When the Overseers arrived at the mysterious light, sinking low and hiding behind a cluster of burnt trees, they peered out at the red light in front of them.
The Overseers grew pale to see the light came from a hole in the ground half the size of the castle grounds. But what they saw coming out of the hole was more disturbing and horrifying and proved the Queen Amadora to be correct in her suspicion.
Rising out from the depths of the large pit were thousands of demons and monstrous beasts of all shapes and sizes.
It was a remarkable, and yet, terrifying sight to behold. The Overseers could just hold themselves from running off in fear.
Green, scaled bodies, with slanted and inflated eyes; broad snouts, and large fangs projecting from the lower portion of their mouths, these demons were the most formidable creatures the Overseers had ever laid eyes on.
So they thought, until they cast their eyes on the second wave of these embodiments of evil.
Stepping out from the abyss on their rear legs, they raised from the pit by the hundreds, were huge, dark red demons.
Standing at some eight to ten feet tall, these enormous creatures had ram-like horns on the sides of their heads the sizes of an elephant's tusk, and features that resembled both man and bull.
Their large muscles, bulging from their colossal bodies, stretched and swelled from their arms and chest as they used their large hands to hoist themselves out from the pit. And their powerful legs made a tremendous thump as their hoofed feet drop hard onto the surface of a realm denied to them by the gods ever to touch on.
It did not end there; smaller, brownish demons, with warts all over their bodies, soon followed them out of the pit. Most were four to five feet in height, but they were just as hideous and dangerous as the bigger ones.
Some had spike horns the size of dagger raising from their forehead, and large claws stretching over the tips of their fingers three inches long. A few had shorter, cone-shaped horns extending from their brows, with spikes running along their spines and limbs.
At first glance, they appeared clumsy beast, their legs long and thighs short, the brutes ran about with their knees buckled as if they were grasshoppers. Yet, oddly enough, they moved about with incredible haste.
Several dashed into the woods with such speed, it was hard to believe they were ever there.
One the most deadly of these creatures had the greatest weapon of all, a tail long enough to encircle their bodies twice over, with an arrowhead tip at its end. Moving behind them as agile and tactful as a cobra rearing up to strike, they use their serpentine tails like spears to attack anyone or thing that dares come close to it.
Then, just as the Overseers though they had seen it all, like water rising above a swollen well, countless of putrid cadavers climbed out from the depth of the pit.
Dressed in various tattered armor, they slithered out from the pit carrying bizarre weapons that could slice through a man with one stroke.
The Overseers watched with awe as the army of the undead made their way to the other soulless creatures of darkness and lined up alongside them. They turned and stared at each other with raised brows as they puzzled over how it was conceivable for these hideous creatures to move about as they did, for they had no eyes, just deep, black holes where their eyes should have been.
Most notable, and burning, was the unbearable stench of rotting flesh and withered bones that followed them from the moment they left the pit, it was so intolerable, it overwhelmed the Overseers, and the greater the legions' number, the greater the stench.
The Overseers covered their noses and mouths to stop the unpleasant smell from overpowering their senses, but it was of no use. Their eyes watered, their noses burn, and their lungs expanded as they held back from taking in air reeking of death. The situation grew so insufferable, no longer able to hold back from gagging, one of the Overseers coughed.
He muffled the noise by putting his hand over his mouth, but it was too late. A small demon, alert by the sound, turned its head fast toward the noise.
The Overseers, quick to hide behind the remains of a large field of burnt brushes, glanced at the creature.
Its head slanted back, eyes roving from side to side in a cunning motion, it appeared to be listening--with its large, bat-like ears--for signs of an intrusion.
The impish-looking demon moved its head about several times in a twitching motion, but hearing nothing other than the trampling of its fellow creatures moving about, it gave out a broad hiss, exposing rows of sharp-edged teeth, and then moved on to join the others.
Feeling free to look again, the Overseers' eyes opened wide in disbelief, as they saw hundreds of towering knights, dressed in black armor, emerged from the pit.
Riding out from the fiery pit on the backs of mammoth, hideous-looking steeds that left a trail of fire as their hooves struck the ground with the crash of thunder, these armored giants moved fast to enter the ranks of the army of the dead.
The height of terror among the Overseers continued to intensify as they beheld twenty or better, winged beasts, with enormous hooked claws and jagged teeth, fly away from the pit and station themselves above the ghastly army.
But no scene was more disturbing to the Overseers than seeing the macabre army line up in battle formation along a path, carved out by the river of molten rock, leading straight toward the castle.
Back at the Castle, standing over a large crystal orb at the center of one of the many rooms in her mystic tower, the Sorceress Queen, with the aid of the mysterious eye in the amulet, had witnessed the entire event unfold.
Aware of the impending invasion, Amadora rushed to her throne room where Gwendolyn's father, the Lord Commander of her army, waited for further orders.
Bursting wide open the two large doors leading into the throne room, the Queen did not hesitate to direct her Lord Commander to make ready his men to do battle against the devastating army of abominable creatures.
Then, drawing on an enchantment, she called on her Overseers, in a voice only they could hear, to return to the castle at once.
At first, the Overseers believed themselves bewitched by the strange eye in the amulet and were reluctant to obey, but with the situation growing dire every second, they thought it best to heed the words of the mysterious voice and leave.
Mounting their horses, the Overseers made a hasty retreat to the castle, but midway there they were attacked by a multitude of creatures from the pit.
The Overseers tried escaping the vile creatures, but outnumbered by the army of monsters, the creatures charged at the men with maximum strength.
They crowded around the Overseers horses, grabbed hold of the men, and threw them to the ground.
Cut off from all means out of the area, escape was now no longer possible, so the Overseers fought back hard with all they had.
The clanging and battering sounds of swords clashing against swords, body armor, and shields travel as far off as to reach the castle walls.
The horrific screams of the Overseers as they each met their faith sparked fear in the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of Mada. They were not the cries of men dying in battle, but of men meeting a horrid death and calling out from beyond their graves.
Meanwhile, the Lord Commander giving out orders to his men in preparation for the battle to come, and the sound of men racing about to take their position, echoed throughout the castle.
As he moved from wall to wall reassuring and encouraging his men to stand fast and fight hard, he noticed the dim expression on his men's faces, and it grieved him. It said much to him about the fear and desperation they carried in their hearts for a battle not yet fought.
Men, with such thoughts in their mind, often falter during combat. They panic, run off, and their actions inspire others to do the same.
As Lord Commander of the Queen's army, Gwendolyn's father could not stand for or allow such a thing to occur during battle.
The knowledge he could rely on his men to hold up against the invaders was crucial to the fight ahead. Without that assurance, without the absolute knowledge, he could depend on each man to do his finest, the battle would be lost before it even started.
Still, he did not fault his men for feeling as they did, for even he--knowing well the futility of it all, hid behind the mask of false hope.
Only a madman or a drunken fool would allow himself to believe a small band of mortal soldiers could bear up against such a formidable army of creatures, and he was neither mad nor drunk.
Reports of the nefarious army of creatures gathering out beyond the castle walls had spread fast throughout the Kingdom and people from all over Mada, seeking protection from the infernal army, showed up at the castle gates in droves.
As the people made their way in, he stared down at them. From their roving eyes and grim expression, he could see their faith and hope for survival laid not in the cold steel blade of his soldiers', but in the mystical powers of the Sorceress Queen and those of the Sisters of Sorcery.
Time; however, was running out for those who still had not reached the safety of the castle.
The efficiency of the fortress' defenses rested on the main gates being lockdown and secured, and from the dark army's position, he could tell the assault on the castle would take place at any moment. If he does not give the order to close the gates, the creatures will overrun the castle, and everyone inside will perish.
Yet, if he gives the order to close the gates, those left outside the castle walls would have to fend for themselves against an army of hideous, cutthroat creatures, and many of these people never wielded a sword.
Gwendolyn's father thought hard on what to do, and after some reflection, lost all love for himself, for there was only one acceptable choice.
The safety and lives of people already in the castle walls depended on his tactical judgment, not his emotions. And so, knowing well that in doing so he condemned those left outside the fortress wall to their deaths, he ordered the gates closed.
As the gates were bolted shut, those left outside to face the fearsome army of the Netherworld on their own, struck their fist hard against the castle gates, crying out in frantic voices as they did, to open the gates.
But despite all their begging and pleading, the gates remained closed.
Sheer hopelessness overtook the crowd outside the castle as they began to feel no one inside the castle had any regard toward the ill fate that awaited those they left to die.
Soon, their pleas for mercy turned to cries of outrage, and they damned all inside to the worst possible fate.
But they were wrong; their calls for compassion had an immense influence on those inside the fortified walls of the castle. They dominated every corridor and chamber in the palace and afflicted many with the heavy burden of guilt and shame.
Some strive to obtain solace from feelings of guilt in the coldness of outright denial of having done anything wrong. Others placed their hands over their ears to obscure the agonizing cries of those left outside to die.
Even Gwendolyn's father, a man all-too-familiar with the ugliness of war and the undesirable choices one must arrive at to achieve victory, he, as well, suffered the strain of guilt, but there was nothing he could. The assault on the castle had begun, just as he had predicted.
From that moment on, the safety and lives of those inside the castle walls depend on keeping the gates closed, and no matter how his need to help the people left outside weighed down on him, he could not, and would not, allow the gates to be open.