Of Armor and Bone: Chapter 2
Far from the sanguine battlefields surrounding the foothills and rivers around the base of the Sing Mountains, the once zealous Xiandolan magi had been at work. They had sought a way to use their magic to turn the tides of battle without ever having to step foot outside the city. Forged, sharpened, and assembled under the effects of their powers, swords and armor could be created, bearing the near incomprehensible forces that the magi carried. Such equipment gave the wielder the strength to block attacks both physical and magical, able to deal them in return as well. Before enough could be produced, the call to arms from the front line arrived. The four completed sets of armor and weapon were quietly shipped with the supplies, ready to be put to use by a select team of men, those who had previously gained their renown under the title Magekiller.
The sound of metal pounding against stone radiated through the dim tunnels. The oily smell of kerosene drifted low across the floor as the flickering flame of the lamp danced around the rough, pockmarked walls.
“Can’t you dig faster?,” Kensley sighed heavily. He paced back and forth, dragging the light with him as the workers struggled to find crevices to accommodate the edges of their pickaxes. “It can’t be that heavy.”
“Sire,” One of the workers complained, smearing streak of mud across his sweaty brow with his wrist, “we’re exhausted. Please let us take a break, and grab a drink.”
Kensley stepped up to the wall of piled jagged rocks and mud, shining the reflected lamp light at the growing hump of rubble. “You can rest when you’re dead.” He said, quickly turning away from the two men. “Remember, when your job is finished, ours is just beginning.”
The second worker spit loudly at the ground before hefting the heavy pickax back up over his shoulder. As their tools began to strike out at the stone once more, Kensley quickly hung the lamp on it’s peg that had been driven into the rock of the tunnel.
Leaning back against the cold wall, Scarborough absentminded juggled the sword back and forth between his two gloves. The thick, hard leather of the grip landed in his palm for a moment before being sent back effortlessly to the other hand. The blade shone brightly even in the dim light. Annoyed, Kensley quickly stepped up in front and snatched the blade out of the air, holding the metal tightly in his hands.
“Hey, you’ll break it.” Scarborough protested. He swung his hand at the grip, missing it as Kensley jerked it out of reach.
Standing beside him, Bently turned his head up to look at Kensley now examining his hands for any cuts that might have penetrated the light, flexible chain mail of his gloves. “I’d hope not.”
Kensley shoved the long sword back at Scarborough, jamming the pommel into his chest plate with a dull clink. The pale, skinny man leaned the blade towards his face. As he examined the blade for any tarnish or dirt, the light cast a fractured reflection of light across his face. The grey bags under his eyes flickered as he blinked away the brightness of the light.
“See?” Bently nudged the thin man’s shoulder, causing his armor to grate slightly against the wall. “Nothing.”
With a sigh, Scarborough sheathed the sword with a deliberate movement, allowing it to dangle at his side. Kensley’s eyes remained fixed at the two workers, taking turns attempting to pry at one of the larger boulders at the bottom blocking off the path.
“Scar,” Kensley turned his head back quickly towards the other two. In the light from the lantern, his stubble casted tiny shadows across his strong chin. Bits of light traveled through his long, dark hair, resting at the back of his cuirass. “Go wake up the captain, won’t you?”
“Mhm.” Scarborough lifted himself off the wall, mumbling in reluctant agreement. The light clinking of the armor pieces contained as he walking out of the light, deeper into the cold, airy tunnel.
Mandabus sat, back against the wall, with only the set of armor seeming to cast a glow on the space around him. The chin of the helmet was pointed downward towards the ground, and the sound of his soft breathing could be heard faintly over the sound of the digging and pounding in the distance.
“Captain, seems we’re almost through,” Scarborough announced, approaching slowly. “You awake?”
“Of course,” Mandabus quickly thrust his legs out in front of him, lifting himself up. “Just alone with my thoughts.”
Scarborough backed up a few steps as the captain planted his feet on the cold hard surface of the tunnel floor, covered in a thin layer of dirt and rubble. Deep down the passageway, a light trickled towards them from the lantern. The sound of rumbling and grinding stones followed. Mandabus adjusted the strap on his back, carrying the long leather scabbard of his sword. The thin strap holding the light weapon found it’s way around and under the plating of his armor.
“Sounds as if they might have made it through.” Scarborough looked up at the captain, attempting to get a glimpse of his eyes through the darkened slits. “We mustn’t dawdle.”
“I know that.” Mandabus grumbled, pushing past the other man roughly.
Kensley turned back down the tunnel as Mandabus approached, followed by Scarborough several paces behind. The brilliant armor of the captain gleamed at him as he approached the source of the light. Ahead, Bently shoved aside bits of rubble from the collapsed pile of rubble.
A wind whistled faintly though the tunnel, following the path to the other side of the underground labyrinth. The second worker approached Kensley. The dirty-looking man hoisted the lantern off the wall before speaking. “We’ve…erm, encountered no further barricades inside this area of the tunnels.”
“You’ve done satisfactory work.” Kenseley nodded at the man before bending down to pick his helmet off the ground. “Hurry back now, tell the general that we’ve set out.”
“Yes, sire.” The miner waved at his partner, who followed quickly after him tugging on the handle of the pickaxe that dragged behind him. As they passed Mandabus, their eyes drifted away from his intimidating form, and quickening their pace ever so slightly.
Having examined for any signs of dirt remaining on the helmet, Kensely placed it atop his head, carefully adjusting his long locks to fit neatly under the helm. Mandabus pushed besides the others, approaching the pushed-aside pile of rubble, leading off down the newly clear tunnel. He turned back to see the other two trailing Kensley. The sets of armor glowed dimly in the newfound darkness. The helmets rested upon their heads, and weapons hanging by their sides.
“You know the way?” The captain grunted back at the group.
“By heart, captain.” Bently spoke up. His gauntlet dragged against the wall as he pushed up behind Mandabus. “Allow me to guide.”
“Quietly.” Mandabus reminded him.
The crunching of lose rock and dirt below their feet followed them through the tunnels. The cool air smelt of mildew, with a hint of burning wood fires in the distance.
Scarborough breathed loudly behind the group. The fog produced on his breath was barely visible in the almost pitch black of the tunnel.
“Captain, what do you propose if we find it isn’t anywhere to be found?” Kensley whispered, pushing his chest almost up against the captain in front of him.
“We find someone who can tell us where it is.” Mandabus grunted backwards at him.
“Shh-” Bently shushed them, stopping abruptly. The plates of his armor clinked softly, and the leather scabbard bumped against his back. The whistling of wind weaved through the tunnels around them, sending cold chills through the cracks of their heavy plating. “Close to the surface… but no sound of people.”
“If they had unearthed… whatever it was, don’t you think they’d be celebrating?” Kensley postured.
A loud, short war-cry suddenly echoed from the outside, rattling the walls of the cave. Scarborough jumped, scraping his armor against the wall of the tunnel loudly. Kensley yanked at the squirming man’s arm, while Mandabus pushed ahead.
“Sounds like an army, does it not?” Bently turned his head towards the captain.
“I’ve heard louder.” Mandabus scoffed. “Even from Tulefore.”
“That may be…” Bently said as he readjusted the strap on his scabbard to hide his unease, “but is it really the wisest decision to engage if we will certainly be outnumbered?”
Mandabus gave him a dark glance to the side. “Do you really think numbers count against us while we wield weapons imbued with such power? And covered with impenetrable plates of iron?” With a loud resonating crash, the captain pounded his fist against his chest.
“Even so,” Bently offered, “For what reason would they be arranging an army at this point in time?”
“We weren’t sent here to ask questions.” Kensley stated sternly.
“Damn right.” Mandabus muttered. His loud footsteps pushed ahead into the tunnels, the others trailing behind.
The wind blew louder and colder. Above their heads, intermittent timbers spanned across the ceiling, being held up by posts driven into the ground in roughly drilled holes. Old dusty footprints littered the ground. The smell of wood fueled fires entered their nostrils.
Past an abandoned mine cart atop a rusty track heading back deeper into the mountain, an exit loomed. Double file, Bently and Mandabus lead the way. The night sky shined bright with a full moon that illuminated the fringes of the clouds sitting still in the air above. The torches around the mine entrance were sparse, mostly having not been lit for the night. Beyond the blacksmith and other small buildings sat a wall of tall, bare timbers having been pounded into the dirt. Even farther, larger buildings sat, their dark silhouettes encroaching on the horizon. That which remained of the forest far from the town sat aglow, bathed in the light of the moon. The light of a bonfire cast an orange glow upon the walls and gables of buildings deeper into the settlement.
Bently crouched down to the ground and ran his hand across the ground, erasing on of the old soft footprints from the soft, dark mud. “How long ago did the energy disappear?”
“About 40 hours.” Scarborough fathomed. “Almost two days now?”
“It rained last night, just a bit.” Bently announced softly, his head scanning the surroundings. “If there were workers attempting to remove something from the digging here, there would have been much more signs of traffic, a mire underfoot.”
“Perhaps they work quickly?” Scarbough grunted, looking around at the empty buildings in the vicinity.
“Who cares what how they did it?” Mandabus grunted and nudged Bently with the tip of his boot. “We have to find what we were ordered to, even if that means burning this whole place to the ground.”
Kensley groaned. He grabbed at the chin of the helmet and pushed it up and down to scratch the back of his head. As adjusted it back in place, the glow of a torch caught his eye. Stumbling along into the fenced-off area, a man holding a torch had begun to wander. He fiddled with the fly on his pants, holding the torch with the other hand up and out of his face. Drunkenly, he glanced towards the group before his gaze wandered back, looking for a location to urinate. Realizing what he had seen, his eyes quickly turned back to the group of four. The man’s head jerked back for a moment in surprise, before uttering a single warning. “Hey!”
Mandabus’s eyes quickly found the same target at Kensley. Before the drunk could utter another word, Mandabus had dashed towards him, sword having been drawn before he had even covered a quarter of the distance. The long, narrow blade dangled behind him before he quickly shifted it to a two-handed grip. The tip pierced the man’s abdomen without resistance, and the cross guard eventually met with his flesh, bearing the full impact of Mandabus running at him.
The torch fell from the man’s hand and fell on the ground with a dull thump and a burst of glowing cinders. Shifting his right foot back, Mandabus quickly extracted the sword that held the man’s limp body up, dropping it to the ground. With a quick swing backwards, the blade shed it’s fine layer of blood. In the distance, a commotion had already arisen.
The captain quickly looked back at the other men who had barely yet to react. Bently quickly rose to his feet and began scanning the distance. Lights of torches had begun moving around the town, looking for the source of the cry. Kensley jogged up to where Mandabus had made his attack.
“I guess we forfeited any chance of a surprise attack.” Kensley scoffed, kicking at the limp body of the man.
“Now where’s the fun in that?” Mandabus laughed viciously. Beyond the fence, men carrying lit torches began to approach.