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Library: The Word of Shifting

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Author: cannedheat
Date:Dec 8 2006


Chapter one


The rain fell. It fell hard, like small stones pelting over and over upon us,
upon the tarps of our supply carts and the thin roofs of our makeshift
enclosures. Like it had all these long hard weeks of our campaign, if you
could even call it that. More like a grueling attempt to hold ground against a
foe we could not ever hope to vanquish. I laugh now to think of it. We were
all so young and naive, to think that our conflict mattered. To think that we
could win against the odds. But that was before everything changed. 


I spat and called a curse upon Draen-Dalar for the trials he visited upon me.
I strode the length of the northeastern trench, slogging through mud that
tried to suck me down, like some cursed Druid pit. I cast my eyes balefully
upon the ranks of the enlisted men and noncomissioned officers. "Look sharp,
you Ancona lads. This everlasting grime is no excuse for those brand new
breastplates to be anything less than polished." Had to keep up the pretense
for the men. I couldn't let them see the despair that had already begun to
sink into my soul. 


I was third regiment commander, special Beastmaster division. The mounted
cavalry against these damned Orc Samurai, if you wanted to call us that. In
the first week, when we'd still been on the offensive, my men and I had cut
sharp swaths through vast lines of orc foot soldiers, fire spewing from the
mouths of our mounts and the sweet scent of burnt goblin in the morning air.
Since we'd dug in though, there were no gallant mounted raids against the
enemy. My elder chimera Loki, usually a fearsome but well-groomed beast, was
now as muddy and dejected as anything else. Truthfully it made him look
scarier than hell: even I was a bit afraid, and I had tamed him as a
hatchling. 


Too busy ruminating, I had lost track of my original intent: food. I sludged
the rest of the way down the trench to the mess tent, where a good old friend
of mine was pitching in for the war effort. "Hail,  Greythorn. Whatever you're
cooking smells like heaven itself." The big man with the gigantic hands and
the long gray hair tied behind his head clapped me on the shoulder.


"Well met, Commander, and draw yourself some of this soup. It's not much, but
even in this pile of filth I can pull a few tricks of flavor." He handed me a
bowl of generous size and I gladly dipped out the soup from the massive
tureen. It went down easy and stuck to my ribs, thick with meat and spices.
"Baby drake, unless I miss my guess, eh Greythorn? I'd say it tastes like ice
drake, if I knew my tastebuds didn't deceive me." No way you'd ever find an
ice drake this far south, and the Pub of the Iron Wind had long since
exhausted its supply of exotic fare in the war effort. 


"Fire drake, but young and tender. Helps to cook it all day, of course. Some
of the Ancona boys in the southwestern trench took one down early this
morning: seems it was unfortunate enough to pop right up on the battlefield."
He chuckled in his deep bass voice. Friends like Greythorn made you remember
the point of all this conflict. He'd give his life for any of these young
soldiers, no matter what their alignment, without thought to his own safety.
Greythorn was even known to feed the errant drow from the scrap bin in the
alley behind his pub. I myself had always been suspicious of those beggars,
but I had grown up with the prejudice and was aware of my condition. 


Rilynt'tar. That ancient city to the east, the reason we fought this bloody
war. Ever since the Orcs showed their presence in the woods southwest of the
city we all knew it was only a matter of time. Our division of the defense was
arrayed along the western front of the Orc territory, charged with defending
the castle of Noran and nearby Ancona Manor.  Intelligence relay lines had
failed us two weeks ago, broken by the strange weather and the orcish raiding
parties. Rumors had suggested that Rilynt'tar might be accessible from
underneath, and in that case it even now might be in the hands of the enemy. 


On the eastern horizon glared the glow of something that struck fear into the
hearts of all the men in this army, and myself among them. A massive volcano
that blocked our view of distant Rilynt'tar. We had felt the rumblings in the
earth weeks ago, and now it lit the world under the stormclouds with an evil
red glow. How close was it to the city? We had no way of knowing. Was molten
rock from the volcano even now consuming the houses of our loved ones far
afield? And did it strike fear into the orcs the same way it did us, or did
they take it as an evil omen aiding their dreams of conquest? Only questions
and no answers, down here in the trench. 


Chapter Two


When the dawn came I felt myself being nudged awake, though in truth I had
been for quite a while. My elder chimera Loki, impatient to be fed. Never
sleep next to a chimera if you can help it: sometimes you never wake up. All
the men of my regiment had to keep close quarters with their steeds, it was
the only way to keep such beasts as drakes and chimeras in check. The mounts
were fed with fresh raw meat, and being semi intelligent creatures they never
quite forgot how much of it there was around them, if only they decided to get
it. 


When I left the roofed enclosure I knew something was wrong. No, not wrong.
But different, and I could not immediately place my mind upon it. "Stand fast,
men, there's a strange wind in the air today. Something is going to happen."
My second Lieutenant, a taciturn Duergar, saw at once what I had missed. "The
rain's halted, sir. I didn't think it would ever stop." The rain had certainly
stopped, but the ground was still soaked and the sun did not show its face. 


The only glow in the sky was that of the fearsome volcano to the east. After
continual downpour for four weeks I didn't trust my own senses, and I didn't
trust the lack of rain any more than I trusted a merchant drow. I gave the
order to have the entire regiment stand at full arms, mounted, preparing
myself for any eventuality of this strange day. If I knew anything about this
strange world, it was that anything could happen. 


I mistrusted this peace, and it was no surprise when the order came down the
trench lines echoing my own command: Full arms, summon blades, prepare
reagents, double teams stand by on the ogre pistols. Command expected an
assault from the Orcish line as soon as the ground firmed up enough to permit.
Maybe sooner, the orcs were full of bravado and foolhardy attacks were right
up their alley. 


When I look back, I think that I would have preferred to meet the orcish
assault. Many of my men would have preferred the same, for their deaths would
have been celebrated by the living, not forgotten forever on that terrible
field of pain, in those trenches of death. To die on the orcish scimitar is at
least to die valiantly. Our forces, weapons shined and sharpened and arrayed
at full attention, peered over the edges of our embankments with the dull
certainty of impending doom. But at long last it went on to nightfall, and the
attack never came. 


Chapter Three:


As the overcast sky darkened there came into the air a dreadul sense of
something about to happen. Looking to the north we saw vast flocks of bats
fleeing their caves in the highlands, streaking off toward the ocean as though
fleeing a great calamity. And then the rumbling started: a hideous, low noise
that we felt into the very core of our being. The volcano in the distance
began spewing dark ash with such violence that we could see red cracks forming
along the side of the mountain. We felt it before we saw it. A shock wave that
knocked men flat all along the embankment. Cries went out all along the trench
as the weakend walls gave way, covering men, equipment and animals with
treacherous drowning mud. All those mounted on horses in my regiment felt
their mounts panic as they lost footing, and dozens of my men were cast down
in the trampling, thrashing pit. 


I called myself to the power of my command then, and shouted out as loud as I
could. "All ranks, Retreat from the Trenchs onto solid ground! Away from the
Orcs and toward the Manor, this place gives no safety to us any more!" Those
men who were mounted on sturdier beasts I directed to aid whom they could, but
it was a losing battle. And in the horror of the moment I realized that there
were heavy impacts into the ground all around me. Lava from the Volcano! It
hit the mud in chunks and boiled it instantly, sending globs of searing sticky
soil onto the struggling ranks of men. Where were the orcs in all of this? No
time to think! 


With much shame I must now relate that we were forced to abandon many in those
fallen trenches who might still have survived, given better timing and
support. Maybe history will judge me more kindly. But I looked to the sky and
saw it roiling with evil, dark clouds, and as I looked to east I saw debris
from the volcano hurtling toward us. The panic took me just as it did every
other man who made it from the trench that day, and the retreat we made to
Ancona manor was beleaguered by treacherous ground, falling lava and the
screams of those who were left behind. It was a miracle only that brought me
that day into the enclosure of the Manor, protected for the time being by the
heavy shields of energy cast by defense mages from Silver Lake City. 


Chapter Four


In the command enclosure we gathered, the remaining officers of the ruined
Rilynttar army. My lieutenant the duergar had been struck by a meteor of lava
during the retreat. His chimera lived, but now roamed feral in the woods,
wounded and pining for its master. We drew close around our leaders, such as
they were. Kastore, the duke of Margolia stood with Aladaor Grax, marquis of
ludenberg, representing Ancona manor. Prior to the war they were visiting the
manor due to some family tragedy: the orcs had changed everything. I stood
with my other commanders, among whom I ranked highest. "I tell you," said
Kastore, "That we must wait for this lava to abate and press against the orcs.
They will surely take this opportunity to overrun us forever." 


"Folly! We have lost our equipment and half of our men are wounded, dead or
dying," spoke up one of the other officers. "You would send us to our deaths
to appease your noble conscience!" He spoke heatedly, and with good reason;
all but six of his men had died in the trenches. Greythorn Firetoe clapped his
hand on the young officer's shoulder, restraining him from moving against the
Duke. "Now, lad, much may happen yet and we don't know what our course should
be." The heated conversation died suddenly, however, when we realized that
another being had stepped into the room. 


We all turned to one who had entered, the one who might give us some measure
of solace or direction. For with us was the head Irilian protector of
Rilynt'tar, from whom all of our higher commands came. None of us knew much
about him, for in the way of the very powerful he kept all thought and emotion
close about him. "Sire, I said. Direct us, for without some plan we will
surely die." The others muttered their assent, showing the level of
desperation we all felt.


The Irilian turned his gaze upon me, and what I saw there changed me forever.
It was madness, and yet more complex than that. It was the look of deep
knowledge that carries only despair. When he spoke, it was in a weary voice
that we seemed to hear inside our heads more than with our ears. "Harken to me
now, for I have spent much of my power divining the nature of these portents.
You must draw all of your remaining men into the enclosure of this compound,
and quickly, for the evil events will not abate. I say indeed, that the world
is at an End. I will prepare myself to give what help I can. Go now." He
pointed to the other men, then drew his gaze back to mine. "But you will
stay."


Chapter Five


The Irilian drew back his cloak, revealing a long ceremonial dagger. He drew
it out and mumbled words over the blade. "What I must do, none should see. And
yet I must have help  in this endeavor. Wait at the entrance to this room
until we have confirmation that all men are within the protection of the
shields, then close the door, and be ready to follow my instructions." I did
as I was told, and the confirmation quickly came...there were few men left and
most had already been inside the shelter. 


The Irilian truly frightened me as his eyes met mine. They seemed to strip
away all flesh and humanity from me, leaving my soul bare for judgement. "No,"
he said, "I do not judge you. You must take this." He handed me the ceremonial
dagger, which felt cold and clumsy in my grasp. "Commander, if I we do not do
what I have planned, then all your men will surely die.  Do you understand?" I
nodded reluctant assent to this. "Good, then listen to me..." He related the
details of what he must do, and I listened though it made me sick inside. 


When all preparations had been made, the Irilian began to work the magic he
had planned in this dire moment of need. His cloak fell to either side as he
began to chant. I could feel lines of power snap to attention throughout the
room, linking the Irilian and the power inside him to myself, the ground, the
building...all that encompassed the area inside the defensive shields. The
very tide of reality seemed to ebb and flow, and I felt a sudden separation
from the world, as though I no longer was quite attached anymore. For the
Irilian I felt no pity, he was a being of great power who had chosen this
destiny for himself. The magic that could save the men and the Manor, he had
told me, was a piece of the old lore called the Word of Shifting. Last defense
of the Irilians against any power that may come against them.


Epilogue:


As the thundering rending noise filled the room, I did the deed for which I
was born. I plunged the dagger deep into the chest of my companion, drawing
forth his blood and his life as he spoke the single worded spell. The force of
the magic could be felt throughout my entire body. The Irilian lay dying as I
felt the world change and settle around us. And as quickly as it had begun,
all lay quiet once more. I bent close to hear the dying words of that
all-powerful mage whose name I would never know. "I have brought you..all of
them...into Laenor." 



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