Endgame, Part 3Mature

The Shadows returned to Noman, their varied and chaotic forms galloping in from every direction. They chittered and hissed around his legs, anxiously circling him in anticipation of his next command. He looked down into their soulless green eyes. "Where are they?" he asked. As one the Shadows turned towards the Ivory Tower. 

A sharp crack of thunder punctuated the movement. It drew Noman's attention to the top of the Tower as another bolt of green energy reached down to touch it. Beyond, up in the sky, he could see the portal growing even as he watched, dark clouds spilling from it's edges. He looked back down at the Tower, then at the Shadows who stirred nervously. "Looks like we'd better get inside," he decided.

Leaving the cover of the building he was hiding behind Noman strode across the empty streets and through the Ivory Tower's front gates. The Shadows followed behind, some trotting ahead of him or to either side, like a pack of dogs. He met no resistance in the courtyard, saw no sign of demons. The doors that led to the Tower's main hall stood ajar. He pushed through them, leaving the brightness of the courtyard behind. Sunlight flowed in through a couple of unshuttered windows, but the light seemed to shrink in on itself, settling in small puddles on the floor and straying no farther, as if it were afraid to push against the shadows. 

The banners that decorated the main hall hung in tatters, shredded by demon claws through malice or indifference. The bodies of men who'd fallen during the ill fated counterattack on the Tower littered the floor. He took a couple of seconds to allow his eyes to adjust to the strange light of the hall. Slow, measured steps carried him forward as his eyes searched the darkened corners. The Shadows, his Shadows, entered the hall after him, shrieking in delight as they abruptly lost form and melted away into the darkness. He tracked them by the green pinpricks of their eyes, though even those seemed to multiply, merge, and disappear at random. 

As he neared the stairs that would take him to the top of the Tower and Olian there was a rising cacophony of noise. He recognized the demonic language, if that's what it truly was, as it was deployed in rapid exchanges all around him. Now there were far more Shadows than had come in with him. There was an ebb and flow to them as he walked, groups of Shadows pushing towards him only to be pushed back by others. 

Things came to a head as he reached the stairs. A group of Shadows burst from the darkness to solidify before him. They hissed menacingly and prowled closer until another group took solid form between them and Noman. Suddenly Shadows were solidifying all round him, filling the hall with their noises. Was this meant to be an ambush? He stood tensely, watching the Shadows gather around him. Those that gathered closest to him he took to be the creatures he'd entered with, but the others? Their motivations and allegiance were unknown to him. 

"Friends of yours?" he asked his Shadows. One of the other creatures pushed forward, past Noman's protective pack of loyal demons. It circled him slowly, a steady stream of unintelligible noises escaping the gaping maw of it's mouth. At last it let loose a noise that sounded like a cross between a crow cawing and a dog barking. With that, the newly arrived Shadows disappeared back into the darkened corners of the room. 

Those Shadows that remained made their strange noises at him, then began trotting up the stairs. "Right then," Noman muttered. "Glad to see that's taken care of. Whatever it was." With no further obstacles in his way he took to the stairs at a run. The mass of Shadows inhabiting the hall watched him leave. After waiting nearly a minute, they surged towards the stairs in a black river of night.

**************************

"What the hell is Noman waiting for?" The Captain cursed. 

Those not engaged at the front lines fired their rifles as quickly as they could reload, sending a steady hail of bullets into the horde. Officers urged them to fire faster, to pick targets trying to get past the front lines, or to stop firing and charge into gaps left by their dying comrades. 

Wounded limped back behind the protective palisade, itself manned with soldiers firing into the oncoming horde. The Captain stood just outside the palisade's gate, using a rifle for a crutch as he surveyed the battle. Her Ladyship stood nearby, her house guard scattered around them as they fired shots out into the melee. 

"We're getting cut to pieces," The Captain lamented to his companion. "If Noman doesn't do something soon..."

"Even if he does, we may not get out of here alive," she replied. "They have us surrounded now, with nowhere to go." That hadn't been part of the plan. The horde had been too large, moved too fluidly. It had outmaneuvered the army quickly and would have enveloped it completely. Only Wellesley's quick reaction to the situation had gotten them into the defensive position they now held. The question now was whether or not they'd be able to get out of it.

"We'll have to make a push and hope we make it," The Captain told her. "If we're lucky we can punch through them and make a fighting retreat... provided we have enough men left to even try such a maneuver." 

They stood and watched the battle's progress in silence for a moment, Her Ladyship's eyes darting back and forth across the roiling mass of demons. "They're being coordinated," she decided at last. When The Captain questioned how she pointed. "Look at how they move. Whenever there's a break in our lines they surge into it. Whenever a group of our men pushes out they're quick to cut them off, surround them, kill them. But there are never any weak spots, they never let themselves get too thin."

"Noman said a horde like this would have more powerful demons controlling it," The Captain recalled. "But from where?"

"There," she pointed again. The Captain strained his eyes to see across the expanse of the horde. "At the back," she clarified. "A group of demons that aren't moving. There's one that looks... almost human."

"Yes, I see it."

"When the time comes to break out," she told him, "We strike there. If we can kill it we might disrupt the horde enough to stand a chance."

"Runner!" The Captain bellowed, and an aide swiftly appeared. "Take note of that position," he pointed out the demon that seemed to be coordinating the battle. "Inform generals Wellesley and Howe we've found the enemy command, and tell them I need the soldier who's their best shot with a rifle." 

"Surely that's too far for a rifle," Her Ladyship argued. 

"We're about to find out," The Captain replied, and sent the runner off.

*************************

 The second floor of the tower was deserted. The hallways here were deathly silent, with only the occasional corpse adding to the already eerie atmosphere. Every closed door held the possibility of ambush. Noman pushed on as quickly as he dared, mindful that every moment the portal remained open cost the lives of men in the army outside Marsten. 

When he reached the stairs that would take him to the third floor of the Tower, his Shadows pulled up short. They shrieked and hissed and backed away from the entrance. Noman glared at them. "We're not stopping here," he told them. Even so, he felt the sudden need to reach into his coat pocket and take hold of a stone he no longer had. He contented himself instead with pulling a sword from the grip of one of the corpses. "Move," he ordered, and headed up the stairs. 

It looked like the third floor would be more of the same, aside from the Shadow's reluctance to advance. Roughly at the center of the third floor was an open common area where Watchman could gather to play cards, socialize, or just relax. As he started across it the Shadows once again pulled up short, hissing and clicking at nothing. 

"What?" Noman demanded of them, "What is it?"

"Me," a strange voice replied. It sounded as if two people were talking at once, one voice slightly behind the other. When he turned to see who had spoken, Noman found a cloaked, hooded figure standing at the end of a hallway. The figure approached slowly as he watched, it's movements full of strange jerks and twitches.

"And just who the hells are you?" Noman demanded, raising the point of his sword towards the figure. 

"Heshraveth," it said. The word carried strange echoes and intonations as it was spoken; it made his skin crawl to hear it. "Loyal servant of my god the Dark Maw, embodiment of chaos, the Devourer of Worlds."

"Your god likes his titles," Noman observed. 

"I am one of his chosen emissaries upon this world, as you are of your god. Tell me, godservant, to which of his siblings do you kneel?"

 "I don't serve any god."

"You lie," the demon rasped. "I can see their mark upon you."

Noman charged forward, sword raised to hack at the demon. It reacted more swiftly than he thought possible, flying to one side and avoiding his strike. The sudden motion pulled the cloak away from the demon's body. It floated to the floor, revealing it's true nature to Noman as he turned to face it for another attack. 

Heshraveth's face might once have been that of a man, bald and pale. Two milky white eyes sat sunken in their sockets while a constellation of smaller ones dotted the right side of his face. Below the ragged wound where a nose would have sat was the gaping, rotten maw of a mouth with no lips or teeth. Instead, strange mandibles protruded from the center of it, framed all around by a mass of long, writhing tentacles. 

The creature raised a bony hand and spoke in a language that made Noman's ears hurt. "You cannot win," it said when it was finished, and gestured to a nearby corpse. The deceased Watchman twitched and jerked, slowly rising into a sitting position. As Noman watched aghast it stood, tentacles and strange pale protrusions bursting forth across the body. Other corpses began standing as well, and Noman's mind turned to the many bodies that littered the main hall. This needed to end, and quickly.

He looked to the Shadows that still kept their distance from the demon. "They cannot help you," Heshraveth told him. "They are too weak to face me, and the others are servants of the Dark Maw's will."

"Others?" Noman looked around the room and was startled to see how many Shadows had snuck in along the walls and ceiling. 

"Simple things, a mindless army held in thrall to lay waste to this world," Heshraveth said. "I will-" his next words were cut short, replaced by a startled exclamation as countless Shadows burst from their hiding places to accost the demon and its grotesque puppets. Blasts of dark energy swept through the hurricane of Shadows that surrounded the demon, and though he thinned their ranks he could not kill them all quickly enough.

Tightening his grip on his sword Noman charged into the conflict. Shadows parted before him, revealing Heshraveth wrapped in a tight swirl of dark smoke. He pulled one arm free, only to have it weighed down again by more Shadows. Seeing Noman approach it spoke once more in it's strange, ear torturing language. Whatever it was doing, Noman's sword slicing through the creature's neck interrupted it. Not satisfied that decapitation alone was enough, the Shadows tore the body limb from limb and descended upon the head. When they withdrew all that was left of the skull was deformed bone, and the torso lay in bloody chunks across the room. 

"Good job," Noman told them with an eye towards the stairs. "Now let's go end this."

The End

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