Casimir woke with a start, pillow tossed aside and dagger in hand before he took his next breath. A brief scan of the room revealed no arrows, darts, swords, or any other convenient source of death, nor should it have. He knew there was no assailant lying in wait – it had been another damned earthquake that had woken him – but it was relaxing to run through the routine.
Visible threats? No. Wounds? No. Disruptions in the room?
The small frame on the desk beside his bed had fallen over; he flicked it upright to reveal the familiar caricatures of his family, exactly as his sister had painstakingly captured them five years ago. There was his father’s bulbous nose, like a mushroom attached to an otherwise angular face (it was a blessing that neither he nor his sister had inherited that monstrosity). Beside it glowed his mother’s weak, pale countenance, which could only remind him now of her last few sickly months when it had only grown paler. It didn’t help that his sister’s limited knowledge of the subtle arts of shade and tone at the time had led her to choose pure white for the face, making it appear for all the world like a death mask.
His eyes moved to the center, where the artist had awkwardly inserted herself between the two – bless her, but eleven years wasn’t apparently enough time to develop a sense of perspective. To her credit, the charm of the image more than made up for it. She had painted herself with a huge grin and that floppy red had she always used to wear, and scrawled at the bottom in yellow, “Happy Birth-day, Cas”. Saints, how long had it been since he had seen Lanaya or Papa?
With a sigh, Casimir rearranged pillow and dagger into their proper places, and sank back down into bed. That little painting had lived in his satchel for his first two months of duty, until the days following the first attack when he learned that there was not a man among them without some trinket from home. Now, thirty-six attacks later, he had learned two things only: sleep with a dagger close at hand, and value all those little paintings, or lockets, or letters, for they kept men sane.
The ground lurched again, much more violently, and Casimir sprang from his bed. Sure enough, even as he had just begun to pull on a tunic and gather up his quiver, the bell rang out from the barracks’ guard tower, and the sound of bootsteps thundered out in the hall.
A final check revealed that everything was in place – breastplate, gauntlets, bow, sheathe, quiver, boots, helmet, all strapped securely to his muscled frame in preparation for anything the Rift could throw at him. The sounds of boots outside had somewhat diminished, but there was no shame in being last to the fight. Better well-equipped a moment late than dead a moment early.
Casimir stepped out his door directly, very nearly colliding with a fellow soldier, a fairly fresh recruit by the way he trembled with each clanging of the bell.
“What’s the word, lad?” Casimir asked, steadying the boy before he fell over. “Leathers again?”
The lad looked at him, still more or less in shock, and Casimir had to remind himself that any new recruit wouldn’t have picked up the terminology of the Shield’s informal bestiary. Wizards had their names for all of the various fiends, of course, but who remembers that rubbish?
“You know, the big, slippery ones, look like they’re clad in green leather. You’re boots are made of their hide – you know the type? We’ve had a fair run of them lately.”
The recruit managed a stammered, “I-I don’t know, sir.”
Casimir clapped him on the shoulder, then drew his sword. “Stay close to me, lad. I know the first attack is like having your heart squeezed in a vice, but trust your sword and your training, and you’ll get through it. Follow me.”
The boy fell in line as Casimir walked swiftly through the halls, trying in vain to ask a few passing men as to what, exactly was attacking today. Finally, about twenty feet from the main gate, he caught the attention of a reserve archer, just come off the walls with a burn on his leg. It wasn’t serious, just enough to make the man cringe as the doctor attending him applied water and bandages.
“It’s nothing too awful out there today. Leathers and Hooktails, same as last week – Saints’ blood, man, that stings!”
The doctor, to whom the last comment had been directed, glared sharply at his patient. “Perhaps you shouldn’t think to block fires with your thigh!”
Their bickering faded into the background din of battle as Casimir and the recruit made their way through the postern gate and onto the wall itself. They came just in time to see Captain Fardin put a pike through one last Hooktail, and cast the scaly thing back down into the wispy mists of the Rift from whence it came. The men all raised their weapons in a hearty cheer, just as the sun broke free of the mountains to the east, and it seemed almost like an image taken off one of those dusty old tapestries Casimir’s father kept in a storeroom. Dawn glinted black off the bloody pike tip, and even the recruit behind Casimir let out a choked and squeaky hurrah.
Coming back from the edge of the wall, the Captain gave Casimir a hearty clap on the back, his gauntlets ringing off the steel of Casimir’s breastplate. “How nice of you to finally join us, Lieutenant,” he said.
“Sorry, sir. Just helping this lad through his first attack, is all.”
The Captain gave a hearty chuckle at this. “Well, there’s no helping that, is there? I remember my first attack, nearly wet myself, and for good reason too. Back then we had Wisps coming up something fierce, and damned if there’s anything worse than watching a man disintegrate before your eyes.”
Casimir eyed the Captain with a little surprise – he didn’t usually talk about his days as a recruit. In fact, it was hard to imagine old Leather-hide Fardin without a face full of scars and a smile almost wholly devoid of teeth. It must have gone quite well today, or quite poorly, to unearth such scraps as these. “What’s the butcher’s bill today, Captain?”
“Five wounded, none seriously, and none dead.”
Casimir whistled. “Can’t have been too bad at all, then.”
The earth heaved again, and Casimir and the Captain exchanged a wary glance as they helped the recruit back on his feet. Thrice in one day was never a good sign.
“Back to the edge!” the Captain called out to the other men, who were already in the process of walking back inside with much congratulating and back-slapping. Casimir followed him to the nearest crenelation, and peered over along with the recruit down into the Rift.
The recruit gave an audible gasp when he saw it; the mists swirling in unearthly colors over a dull yet ethereal glow that was the Rift was quite the sight to behold the first time. Men often said it was a wound in the world itself, that some dark and powerful wizard had torn a chasm into something deep in the earth that wasn’t meant to have been disturbed. Many believed it was the source of all magic itself, but Casimir felt that those sorts of people were easily convinced by flashing lights and pretty colors. As for himself, he freely admitted not knowing the nature of the Rift, and why should he? All he needed to know was that the beasts came out of it, and it was his duty to see that they didn’t get far.
“Saints preserve us!” the recruit mumbled as a few slick shapes formed out of the light and mist, scrabbling up the cliff face a few hundred yards beneath them.
“Calm down, lad,” Casimir said, “it’s just a few Leathers. See the green color, the wet-looking skin?”
The lad nodded.
“Good,” Casimir said. “Now, watch that one in the middle.”
In a fluid motion Casimir sheathed his sword and brought his bow around from his back, nocking an arrow to the string as he went. Taking aim for only a moment he loosed, and the creature fell back into the mists. “Nothing to get worked up over. They die like any other creature.”
Indeed, all along the wall a few dozen archers were proving that empirical truth with just as much accuracy. “Leathers aren’t the ones to worry about,” the Captain informed the recruit. “They’re weak, slow, and a thimble-full of bog water could outsmart one.”
After picking off two more, Casimir handed his bow to the wide-eyed recruit, who looked back at him in awe. “Really, Lieutenant, sir? Your bow?”
Casimir replied by handing the lad a few arrows, and pointing down at a Hoooktail flailing its way up the cliff face, hook then teeth then hook grasping the rough stones in rapid succession. “Those are nasty business if they make it up onto the wall itself. But, they’re vulnerable as they’re climbing – I’d say a single arrow should do it.”
The recruit nodded, taking a deep breath before falling back into the comfortable familiarity of his training at the archery range. Casimir could almost read the words passing over his lips: two fingers on top, thumb supporting. Breathe. Draw, aim. Breathe. Loose.
The arrow flew true until a Wisp rose from nowhere, overtaking the Hooktail just in time to be pierced through its heart by the bolt. Casimir and the lad exchanged a glance, and burst out laughing. “If that isn’t the luckiest shot I have ever seen...” Casimir said. “Here’s my quiver. Just keep firing, and hopefully you’ll make a few more like that. I’ll be back in a moment.”
Casimir moved left along the wall, following the familiar serpentine curve of the stones as they followed the contours of the mountains they were built upon. Rounding a bend he saw that the battle on this side was a different matter entirely, for a decent contingent of Leathers had broken through the line of archers. Drawing his sword, Casimir walked deliberately up to one from behind and stabbed it through the back, careful to avoid the hard, plated spines it had for ribs. Many a man had been unfortunate enough to lose his sword stuck in one of those ribs.
Pulling his blade clear he let the body fall with an unpleasant squish and hiss as air left and the frame of the creature deflated into a bloody mess. Moving on, Casimir neatly lopped off the head of another as it crouched to spring on a nearby archer. The man, slowly relaxing his anticipating cringe, gave Casimir a nod of thanks, and put an arrow through yet another Leather approaching him from behind.
“Have you seen the Captain?” Casimir shouted, bringing the flat of his blade down on the head of a Hooktail trying to fling itself over the edge of the wall.
“Further down!” the man replied, pointing Casimir into the thick of the battle, where a few Hooktails had managed to secure part of the wall, and beasts were pouring up from the Rift like water from a burst dam.
Casimir swore to himself and plunged into the chaos, leaping a bolt of fire from the first Hooktail and cleaving it in two against the stones. A second came at him in a flurry of teeth, which simply meant that he could hold his sword out and let the thing impale itself.
Before he could remove the scaly thing from the length of his blade a group of Leathers clambered up over the edge, but he kicked them off with a solid blow to the first one up.
Finally, off in the distance he could vaguely make out the shape of the Captain and two other men fighting, backs to the wall, against a dozen Leathers. Making a dash for them Casimir barreled through the closest two, and by the time he arrived the Captain had dispatched of the other ten as he and his men made an organized offensive that drove the fiends off the wall, back into the abyss.
Casimir was about to make a comment to the Captain when a Leather a few dozen yards behind him let out a piercing cry.
“Saint’s blood,” the Captain muttered, and Casimir felt his pulse race. The creatures had always been dead silent before.
Other creatures took up the cry, one by one along the length of the wall until Casimir forced himself to clamp a hand over his ears. It was like listening to a hundred kettles shrieking at uneven pitches. He shot a questioning look at the Captain, who returned a blank stare. Men all along the wall stopped fighting to close their ears, though a few still seized the opportunity to kick some beasts back over to their doom while they maintained their motionless shrieking.
Then, as quickly as it had begun the cries stopped, and the creatures in one great motion cast themselves off into the Rift.
“Twenty years,” the Captain said, nearly shouting from the ringing in his ears. “Twenty years, and this place still has surprises left for me. Bring the wounded to the infirmary!” The last exclamation was to the soldiers, who were standing stock-still in shock after the mass suicide of their opponent. One by one the Captain’s orders turned them to their duties, and they began working their way through the dead and dying.
“What do you think, Lieutenant?” the Captain asked.
“I couldn’t even begin to think about it, sir,” Casimir replied.
Casimir and the Captain both turned to see the look of horror in the face of the recruit, waving Casimir’s bow at them frantically. “Sir! Lieutenant! Someone!”
“What is it, lad?” Casimir asked, taking his bow back from hands that readily yielded it.
“I-I don’t know,” the recruit replied. “B-but I think you need to see this.”
The lad led them back at a breakneck run to the spot where Casimir had left him to his archery, very near the gate.
“Well, what is it?” the Captain asked, and the recruit led them over to the edge.
Flares in the Rift weren’t entirely uncommon. The odd light that emanated from somewhere down within the expanse would sometimes pool together into a small, brilliant cluster before shooting upwards in a glowing and fairly benign display of color before dissipating well below the top of the wall. But this wasn’t the sight that confronted the three men, each staring, transfixed.
Light that normally floated softly now writhed and thrashed, forming a bulbous and twisted shape that constantly shifted to more and more sickening incarnations of itself.
“W-what is it, sir?” the recruit asked, fingering his short sword nervously. “M-more fiends?”
“Shoot it, Casimir.”
The surety in the Captain’s voice caught Casimir off guard. “Excuse me, sir?”
“Shoot it before it has a chance to come up here. I don’t know what that thing is down there, but I don’t mean to find out.”
Nodding, Casimir nocked and arrow and took aim at the blob of light as it heaved gelatinously. “What should I be aiming at, sir? It all looks the same to me.”
“Just hit it, and we’ll see what happens.”
Hitting it proved to be fairly simple given the thing’s enormous size; his arrow flew straight into it, though the effect seemed minimal as the tiny bolt simply disappeared into the writhing mass. If anything, its agitation seemed to increase, as it now convulsed with such fury that the earth began to tremble.
“Hit it again!”
Even as Casimir went to nock another arrow something burst forth from the glowing light, something long and black and sinuous.
The recruit let out a choked wail, and Casimir took a final shot at the newly-emerged creature even as the Captain kissed his ring finger and made the symbols of prayer over his chest. The arrow vanished into it without a trace, and the creature flew up before them with astonishing agility for something of its size – and it was massive, towering over them like a great black tree that sparked and oozed and smelled like nothing.
Casimir dropped his bow as it turned its head downward, towards them. “Saints preserve us,” he whispered.
The creature opened its massive jaw, and from the depths of its mouth poured oblivion.