I’ll save my thoughts and analysis for a follow-up post, but here is my promised writing exercise When Nightmares Wake, a full-strength Fantasy piece.
After you have read the story, you might like to read the related author notes.
When Nightmares Wake
Great Lord Tarius’ eyelids flickered as awareness trickled back into his mind. Dulled by the stupor of sleep an awareness of danger seeped in, as though it was of no consequence.
I am awake; the magical snares have been broken the thought dawned. Weakly he rolled onto his side facing the door. Magic was bubbling inside of him; raw power brimming just below the surface and eager to be tapped. At the same time he was depleted of all but the memory of strength, the regenerative sleep taking his body to the very brink of starvation.
Tarius closed his eyes and reached out with Lifesense, trying to get a sense for who approached. His own lifeforce shone with a blue spark that throbbed strongly. The spark was large and bright from his experience with magic and the power he now contained. Lifesense didn’t penetrate walls well, so he poured magic into it – willing some of his spark’s brightness into the Lifesense. He strained, trying desperately to sense the hallway beyond… The red pulsing spark of a human without the magic seed was walking down the outer hallway slowly; a magic pendant glowing blue around their neck. Tarius readied a ball of Inferno Flame in his palm, straining to lift his exhausted arm toward the door so the Inferno Flame would welcome whoever entered.
The heavy steel doors creaked on their hinges as one side opened slowly. A gust of fresh air swept into the room.
“Master, it is I.” The voice of his elite Gargoyn bodyguard said from behind the protection of the steel. Lucius swarthy black face darted a prudent glance around the door to check it was safe, relaxing when he saw Tarius extinguish the flame.
“It is time.” Lucius announced.
“How long have I slept?”
“It has been two months since the army departed, a week since they encircled the enemy. Word has come that our forces are launching the final assault.”
Two months. Tarius considered. No wonder I feel so powerful. And so weak. He hadn’t had two months’ sleep since before the war began, two decades earlier. The war ends today Tarius promised himself. He tried to rise feebly from the bed, but could not.
“You have the magic spark, you are not all-powerful,” Lucius chastised as he helped him to a sitting position. “Rest; food is being prepared for you now.”
“You speak too freely sometimes.” Tarius warned. “As Head of my Gargoyns you are valuable; but still replaceable.”
“Yes, Great Lord.” Lucius bowed his head. “Do you wish help to dress, Great Lord?”
“No. Go fetch a table and chair.”
With slow fatigued motions Tarius removed his bed clothes that were soiled with sweat and sand. Even though the room was entirely closed to the elements, the fine desert sand covered everything. The constant dust and the heat were an acceptable trade for the privacy of his Resting Place, surrounded by hundreds of leagues of uninhabitable desert. Tarius dressed in a fresh set of padded garments that he would wear beneath his armour.
By the time the food arrived Tarius was strong enough to limp over and collapse in the chair. Hungrily he ate a freshly cooked chicken and a bowl of stewed vegetables. A good meal and three hours was all it would take for his strength to return, but Tarius begrudged even the three hours. He thrust the bowl to a young servant girl standing nearby.
“Tell my Gargoyns to assemble near the Portal chamber. We leave shortly,” Tarius commanded. The servant ran from the room as though chased by wild dogs.
Tarius rose and stood while Lucius helped him put on his armour: heavy overlapping black steel plates, inlaid with silver and gold etchings. Breast and back plate, leggings, arm-covers and helmet. Except for his hands, which had to remain bare for magic, his entire body was covered. In the areas where plate was not possible there was a double layer of chain mail. Tarius’ movements wearing the armour were slow and ponderous, but the armour had saved his life many times. At his waist was a studded leather belt and the short sword Fury. Finally, Tarius took the three portal rings from a leather pouch and put them on his left hand.
Tarius walked slowly toward the portal chamber. It was rumoured there were five Portal stones in existence; after a painstaking and often perilous search Tarius had recovered three of the stones: placing one at his Palace and one here in his Resting Place. The third had been carried by his army far to the north. Finding and seizing the Portal stones had been his finest achievement; but today, that achievement would be eclipsed.
The Gargoyn stood by the portal chamber and Tarius went to each man, placing his hand on the Stoneflesh pendants that hung at their necks. Taking a few seconds with each, he poured magic into the pendants. The amount of magic each pendant required was small – insignificant – when he possessed so much, but it would enable his Gargoyn to sleep when he next did.
Tarius, Lucius and the four other Gargoyn crammed into the portal chamber shoulder-to-shoulder. The Portal stone they stood on was a series of circles. Tarius poured magic into the Portal ring that had a triangular design. The ring began to glow, and then the stone they stood on; each growing in intensity until they looked white hot.
There was an excruciatingly bright flash of light and when the men opened their eyes the cramped stone walls of the portal chamber had been replaced by the flapping canvas of a tent. They stepped off of the Portal stone with a triangular design, magically transported in three hours a distance of several thousand leagues. No longer in the desert, they were in the middle of his army’s camp atop the sleeping volcano, Mount Vernicle.
The tent’s furnishings were spartan in a way that only a war camp at the top of a hundred league climb could be. There was a basic bunk, a small table and a smouldering fire. On the table was a clay model of the volcano with two opposing camps at either side of the crater. Tarius’ camp was six times the size of the enemy’s camp but it had the more defensible position; the only entrance was through a narrow gorge and the surrounding cliffs were impassable.
The remnants of a badly broken body lay on the ground at the side of the tent. The man’s identity was entirely marred by violence, but the crushed armour he wore had been identical to Tarius’. The Commander of the army entered the tent, saw them and hastily knelt before Tarius. The Commander’s armour was tarnished and damaged from days of fighting and he had a bloodied bandage around his bicep.
“Is the battle over?” Tarius asked.
“Yes Lord, the enemy tried to break the blockade; we had no choice but to engage them. They fought ferociously and we lost many men, but I am pleased to inform you they have been completely destroyed.”
“And this?” Tarius gestured to the corpse.
“Your last look-a-like, m’Lord. A cavalry charge did that to him this morning. The Alliance lost hundreds of men and horses breaking through our lines; they galloped right over him.”
Tarius smiled. Hundreds of men and horses. The Alliance had been willing to risk so much for the chance to kill him. They had spent their force on killing a man who was unfortunate enough to look like to him.
“Walk with me.” Tarius ordered as he stepped outside. The Gargoyn spread out in a protective array around him and the Commander. A faint rain began to fall. The camp was situated on a gentle slope, tents arranged tightly together unless forced apart by rocky outcrops. The Commander’s tent was on a highpoint of the crater’s lip and Tarius could see most of the camp. Around the camp stirred a few men, some walking, most laying; a few tending cooking pots from which smoke rose slowly. Moans could be heard throughout the camp, as well as some coarse swearing. The land was spoiled from the close-living of a great population, but Tarius could see there were now far fewer men than tents. The camp looked virtually deserted.
“How many men remain?”
“A few hundred m’Lord. Maybe as many as a thousand if the healers do their work well. Losses would have been less if you were with us.”
“Are you accusing me of cowardice or incompetence?”
“No, no. None, m’Lord. Neither….” The Commander stuttered, “I only meant to say you are worth a thousand men. The Alliance’s magic-casters had far more stamina than we had anticipated. They had their great heroes and we had difficulty killing them; you would not have.”
“That was not the plan.” Tarius said, continuing to walk toward the front lines.
“Yes, m’Lord. Of course. Please forgive me… I am battle-tired, foolish things come from my mouth at such times.” As they walked they passed men, most of whom were too tired or wounded to acknowledge them.
“Are all of the Alliance leadership accounted for?”
“All but Lanor Dal’Mear, m’Lord.”
“Of course.” Tarius said, unsure whether to be pleased or angry. Part of him wanted the pleasure of killing his arch nemesis, the other part resented that she of all his enemies would survive.
“She was actively defending the camp – her lightening and earthquakes killed many… but she hasn’t been seen since the Alliance’s camp fell. We are searching for her body now.”
“You may remain here; I am going out onto the battlefield.”
“Um, I can arrange an escort if you’d like. It might not be much, but better than nothing.” The Commander offered.
“My Gargoyn are all the escort I require.”
They walked out onto the battlefield, the ground potholed by thousands of feet and horse’s hooves. The number of dead increased as they approached the Alliance’s camp. Bodies became more regular until they covered the ground and then started to mound in heaps. As far as the eye could see men lay dead or dying, wounded by either magic or man-made weapons. They called for help; pitiful cries of loneliness and fear, all in vain, for those who would help had been slain. Tarius would not waste effort on any man who could not make his own way back to the camp. He was here only to eradicate the Alliance who had foolishly gathered their forces together.
The Alliance’s position had been very defensible, Tarius marvelled. The mounds of his men were so high that those who died last would have had to climb over the dead to reach the enemy. It was a very defensible position, but also a death trap as the Alliance had discovered when trapped by the siege. His army could be rebuilt but the Alliance’s resistance would die here. Those who had dared to stand against him had been beaten into submission or death. Now Lanor Dal’Mear was all that stood between him and complete dominance.
Without warning green sparks filled Tarius vision.
“Magic!” Tarius yelled a caution to his Gargoyn.
With cumbersome movements Tarius turned, reaching out with Lifesense. Green sparks filled his vision as someone tried again to attack him with magic. Tarius had only turned partially when he saw one of his Gargoyn grunt painfully and then collapse. The only way a Gargoyn went down was if he was dead. Behind him, lying on a corpse was a woman stretching her arm toward the Gargoyn. Tarius clapped his hands together, hitting her with Blinding Light. She collapsed instantly. Tarius walked over to her, noticing she was only a young girl; barely of age. The girl wore the brown of a novice and armour that was too big for her.
When she regained consciousness, Tarius was crouching beside her and the Gargoyns surrounded her, weapons ready for death-strikes.
“The feeling of disorientation and nausea will pass, but your magic ability is suppressed.” Tarius explained. He smirked, “The Alliance must have been desperate to recruit one so young.”
“Do you even know who I am?” Tarius asked with an amused grin.
“I know you’re walking around a battlefield on which all my friends are dead and you’re not helping the wounded. That tells me all I need to know.”
“What is your Gifting?” Tarius asked.
“Go to Helluska!” the girl spat as though her words could send him there.
“How did you manage to kill my Gargoyn so effectively? I know of no cast which could do it so instantly and with no visible force. You are young, and not overly powerful; I must assume therefore that it has something to do with your Gifting.” The girl stared at him silent.
“I’ll make you a deal,” Tarius offered, “Tell me your Gifting and I will kill you quickly. Refuse to tell me and I will torture you most horribly. You choose; do you want a quick death or a painful life?”
The girl eyed him, stubbornness and fear battling inside of her. She was young and afraid. She had said it herself: her friends were dead; she had nothing to live for, and no hope of rescue.
“I can cause the body tissues in others to contract or relax. I seized all of his organs,” she said clenching a fist to represent the man’s organs. “It should have killed you.”
“An interesting Gifting…” Tarius eased Fury from its scabbard, touching the point with his finger, drawing blood. “The reason you couldn’t kill me is that my Gifting is rare: I cannot be harmed by magic – either directly or indirectly. You could hurt me more with a stick than all the magic seed in the world.”
Tarius stood up, the mission once more overriding his curiosity.
“Say hello to your friends.” He said as he stabbed her in the neck, killing her instantly. He wiped Fury clean on her clothing and then pointed at the fallen Gargoyn, “Retrieve the Stoneflesh amulet.”
Tarius was putting Fury back into the scabbard when there was a boom above them, and a flash of lightening from the near-clear sky. A scream of pain came from the Alliance camp. Lanor!
“Quickly.” he spurred his Gargoyn ahead of him as he rambled toward the camp. As his Gargoyn passed from view there was another clap of thunder. His Gargoyn could not defeat Lanor, but they would keep her distracted and on the defensive. Tarius grew frustrated at moving so slowly and began to take off his armour. Few Alliance could be alive still, the danger was small – and he wanted Lanor dead now. Free of his encumbrance he ran through the Alliance camp; Inferno Flame ready in both palms. There was a foul smoke rising in front of him, and Tarius headed to it like a signal fire, finding one of his Gargoyn charred and smoking. The precious Stoneflesh amulet at the Gargoyn’s neck was ruined.
“I won’t let you get away!” He yelled. Tarius reached out with Lifesense and detected Lanor’s big blue spark ahead of him, along with another smaller blue spark and a red spark – probably one of Lanor’s Gargoyn. Lanor’s blue spark was bigger than Tarius’, but it was dim. She had been fighting for a week and he had been regenerating for months. He would kill her and her granddaughter, the last of the Alliance; then there would be none to oppose him. His three remaining Gargoyn were closing in on them from both sides. He ran towards Lanor’s spark; until all three of their sparks disappeared. He pushed Lifesense harder, pouring more magic in – and got nothing.
Tarius reached the section where they had disappeared first, and then Lucius and the remaining two Gargoyn joined them.
“You should not have discarded your armour,” Lucius warned. Tarius answered him with a glare,
“They were here only moments ago.”
“Search the nearby tents,” Lucius ordered the Gargoyn, who returned with shakes of the head a few minutes later.
“What now, Great Lord?” Lucius asked.
“Now we find her,” Tarius said resolutely. He gestured outwards with his hands and inferno flame spread along the ground in a straight line to his left and his right. The flames took hold quickly, growing in intensity as they burned. The oily black smoke of burning flesh, leather and canvas rose into the air. Tarius made a slow pushing gesture and the smoke was caught as though by a gentle breeze and pushed toward the cliff face. As the smoke reached the cliff face it began to rise. Tarius repeated this process four times along the back of the Alliance camp before the smoke seemed to rise only a short way, and then disappeared.
Tarius inspected the cliff and could not see any crevices, gaps or holes and yet the smoke had gone somewhere… He gestured at the cliff, as though pulling down a curtain, casting Disillusionment at it. Nothing happened. He poured more magic into the cast until he could sense it dimming his spark with effort. He was just about to stop when he saw the cliff face warp inwards above his head. Aha! he thought, pouring more magic in and directing it to that exact spot. Suddenly a small crevice large enough for a man to walk-through sideways appeared just above their heads.
Tarius climbed up and stepped into the crevice, the light from the outside soon giving way to pitch blackness as the crevice weaved left and right, but always going down, down, deeper with each step. Tarius cast Stardust like a man spreading seed and thousands of glowing dust mites illuminated the passage. For several minutes they walked, always going down, surrounded by rock at both shoulders. Surely we are below the crater now Tarius thought as the heat continued to rise and the smell of sulphur grew pungent. The Gargoyns began to cough; long, hacking coughs and their breathing became laboured.
“I will help you,” Tarius said as he placed spheres of Cleansing over each of their heads; transparent bubbles which neutralised the sulphur before they breathed it. “Stay within 300 spans of me, or the cast will disintegrate.”
“Stop,” Lucius said and grabbed Tarius’ arm. Lucius pointed at the ground; a step in front of Tarius’ feet was a thin trip wire. They followed the wire up, and a large axe blade hung in a recess above their heads.
“I can disarm it,” Lucius said getting down on his hands and knees. “She is certainly cunning.” This was not some bolt-hole that Lanor has escaped into Tarius realised. It is too planned, too perfect. The path was built to be difficult and treacherous.
“This must be her Resting Place,” Tarius guessed.
Tarius cast Stardust to illuminate the passage in front and he heard the twang of the bowstring and saw an arrow hurtling toward him. It was hard to judge in the split second of its travel, but it may well have hit him in the neck, had he not pushed it aside with gesture. Lanor’s Gargoyn stood waiting for them as he threw his bow aside and drew his sword in challenge.
“Take him.” Tarius waved forward a Gargoyn who ran down the tunnel with a battle cry. At the last moment Lanor’s Gargoyn stepped around the corner away from view. The clash of steel rang again and again, reverberating up the passage. There were grunts and shouts… a cry and then silence. Tarius rounded the corner to find his Gargoyn dead and Lanor’s Gargoyn gone.
“Take the Stoneflesh,” Tarius said, disgusted.
Tarius poured magic into Lifesense, and was surprised to find that Lanor, Elise and her Gargoyn were nearby. Tarius turned and made a signal for silence.
“They are just ahead of us.” He whispered.
They made the final few twists of the path without Stardust; Tarius wanting to surprise them. He used Lifesense to gauge Lanor’s strength and was pleased to see it was miniscule. Even just keeping the three of them alive in this place must be using most of her remaining strength. At the final corner Tarius paused and readied his defensive and offensive casts. He leaped around the corner with eagerness.
His enemies were in a small rounded room that had an entrance at both ends. She would likely flee, but she couldn’t run far, not now that he was so close. Lanor looked up and saw Tarius at the same time as her Gargoyn did. The Gargoyn looked as though he was about to charge when Lanor pushed him and Elise toward the door at the other end of the cavern.
“Run Elise!” she cried. “Save her!” she commanded her Gargoyn.
Lanor turned and thrust her arms violently at them and the ceiling of rocks began to fall, threatening to seal the doorway. It was not enough, she is too weak Tarius thought as the falling rocks petered out having only filled the path to waist height. Tarius smiled at Lanor through the gap. With care not to bring down more of the ceiling, Tarius made a slow sweeping motion and pushed the rocks into the cavern. When his work was done he found Lanor collapsed against the wall, her spark depleted. She was too weak now to put up any kind of meaningful fight.
“Get the girl.” Tarius commanded. The Gargoyn ran after them, but Lucius remained.
“You too.” Tarius ordered. I won’t have any of the Alliance alive, and I will take no chances. Lucius nodded and immediately joined the pursuit, leaving Tarius and Lanor alone in the cavern. Two old enemies, finally together for the final time.
“Well, it seems that we meet at last.” Tarius gloated as Lanor stared at him, clearly exhausted. “I have defeated your pitiful Alliance. You tried to oppose me, but you have failed miserably.”
“You should not have had your Gargoyn leave you.”
“Why?” Tarius scoffed, “Do you think you’re going to stab me with a knife or something? You are so weak you can’t do anything to stop me. I will kill you and your granddaughter…” Tarius unsheathed Fury.
“I know that I am as good as dead,” Lanor interrupted, “But you won’t kill Elise.”
“Oh? And why is that? How can you possibly stop me?” Tarius asked, and slowly pushed Fury into her guts as she gasped in pain. “You will die slowly, painfully.”
“I have used… my Gifting against you.” Lanor said with a sly smile.
“Impossible; my Gifting prevents you from harming me.”
“I did not harm you.” She gathered her strength for her final words to her nemesis, “My Gifting is an ability to send others to sleep. Sleep makes you strong; you will sleep for at least 200 years … and…”
Was such a thing possible Tarius wondered? His Gifting protected him from harmful magic, but what about something that make him stronger? Tiredness washed over him like a flood and he dropped Fury in shock as much as tiredness.
“You will not kill my granddaughter.” Elise smiled weakly, “You will be asleep very soon. If you wish to make it back to the safety of your Resting Place you must leave now.”
“Enjoy Helluska!” Tarius yelled as he stumbled back the way he had come. He poured massive amounts of magic into making a wind which propelled him along. He had to make it back to the Portal and his Resting Place before he fell asleep. He didn’t have long…
Lanor lay bleeding from her stomach wound, passing in and out of consciousness. Sometime later a familiar voice drew her back to reality; a reality where her stomach felt on fire, and the rest of her was cold and clammy.
Lanor opened her eyes to see Elise kneeling over her.
“I’m not very good at healing, but I can try,” Elise offered, placing her small hands on the wound.
“There’s no point, El. His blade,” she looked at where he had dropped it, “is tainted with poison.”
“Is there no hope? Surely someone can help?”
“It’s done its work, I am dying.”
“Oh Grandma…” Elise said cradling her, “You defeated the Great Enemy. You defeated him.”
“No,” Lanor coughed blood. “Blessed One, help us all. I have not defeated him – at best I have paused his conquest. When he returns, he will be far more powerful than ever before.”
She coughed, sadness in her voice, “I have doomed a generation not yet born.”