Of Armor and Bone: Chapter 4
A low fog hung over the frost bitten roofs of the town. In the low visibility, nothing beyond the first tier of terraced buildings down the hillside could be seen. The settlement was completely still and barren. Not a light could be seen in any of the windows, and no person had yet awoken to greet the day.
Kiaren sat crouched to low the ground atop the rocky outcropping higher up the mountainside. Her light breath poured out between her clenched teeth in puffs of white fog. Shiloh chattered intermittently in the cold.
“Captain,” The guard whispered in her ear worriedly. “How long must you sit here and ponder this frozen landscape to realize that we’ve come out here observe nothing?”
Kiaren pulled the heavy furs up along her neck. Under the leather cap, her short hair bristled. Goosebumps ran up her arms to her shoulders from the chill creeping up the space between her skin and sleeve. “It would be irresponsible to make such a call when we lack the proper insight.” The commander sighed slowly. “If we discover nothing else, we would still be certain of the fact that the Xiandolans are late risers,” she joked.
“Ma’am, respectfully…” Shiloh wavered. “We may freeze to death before we have anything of value to report back.”
Kiaren slumped her shoulders and wrapped her gloved hands around her bent knees. “May we say that our hunch was poorly founded, Mr. Shiloh?” The commander admitted. “If Xiandol were really in possessions of the object, it would be quite obvious, would it not?”
“Perhaps, perhaps not.” Shiloh rolled his head back and forth quizzically. “This… quiet could be a tactical ruse to diffuse suspicion.”
“Or the disappearance is a fluke. But… if Xiandol knows what we know, what would they do?” Kiaren insisted.
Shiloh blew on this tips of his fingers and sat back against the rock. “I suppose… they would want to confirm that we aren’t in possession of it, either.” He shrugged and shifted his layers of clothing back up against his neck.
The wind poured down the mountain in a whispering song and encouraged the fog to begin drifting downward into the valley. Kiaren huffed warm air into her gloves. “Now you understand why I engaged the first platoon to be alert this evening,” She pointed out as her gaze turned back towards the ever quiet town.
Down in one of the streets, the glow of a sole lantern hovered through the dense fog. The light traveled up the streets towards the towering piles of rubble from the diggings in the mountain. Kiaren’s eyes followed its movement, but the source could not be determined.
“Perhaps it’s someone going for a piss?” Shiloh quipped as he peered over the commander’s shoulder to notice the same light.
“Humph, would men like you rather head out in the cold of the morning then use a chamber pot?” Kiaren disapproved. Shiloh snorted back at her before she continued. “We shall leave as dawn breaks upon this side of the mountain. Any longer, and we risk being seen. I suspect when my brother returns in the coming days, he shall wish to head out on reconnaissance as well.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Shiloh nodded.
“Go up to the ridge.” The commander ordered. “Tell when just when the sun is about to break.”
With a nod, the guard crept up the mountain side. As his soft footsteps over the rocky surface disappeared, Kiaren’s gaze followed the faint glow of the torch. The light paced around the entrance to the Xiandolan mines.
A tumble of rocks pulled her attention away. Shiloh had scrambled down behind her in a haste. “Commander, you must come and see with you own eyes,” He hurried her with a tone of distress.
The faint smell of smoke caught Kiaren’s nostrils. She quickly ducked down against the cold stone of the mountainside and began to push herself up the rocky hill. Atop the ridge, the light of the morning had begun to cast its glow. The sun shone in Kiaren’s eyes as she reached the peak. Down the side of the mountain, tall gray pillars of smoke had begun to rise up from the town she had left intact the night before.
“What the hell is going on down there!?” Kiaren cried out as she pushed herself over to the other side of the outcropping.
“I suggest we make haste.” Shiloh urged.
Small bits of rock preceded their rocky descent down the shallow mountainside. The sun had begun to cast its warm glow on the rocky side of the mountain. The dull gray smoke drifted up lazily from the town and casted blurry shadows down upon them. Kiaren crunched and slid down the slope until she met hard with soft earth of the pathway below.
“Damn it,” The commander cursed under her breath before barking her orders. “See what survivors you can find, quickly.”
Shiloh shoved the sleeve of his cloak over his mouth to block out the fumes. “You mustn’t breath in too much of the fumes, Ma’am,” He warned as Kiaren scanned the buildings farther down the hillside that had yet to catch fire. “There is little chance, I fear to do anything for this part of town.”
“Every second you waste on lecturing may be one that could be used to be searching.” The commander growled. She eyed one of the alleyways and quickly dashed down it. The guard was left behind to make his own path.
The roar of the fire grew in Kiaren’s ears. The first two soldier’s barracks that she passed were little more than smoldering remains with questionable remains inside. Only the small glint of a soot-covered sword caught her eye as she passed. Two blocks down towards the main road through the town, the fire raged.
A set of deep-sunken footprints caught Shiloh’s gaze. He had almost missed them in his haste, but the size of the print seemed almost five centimeters larger than his own. Over the musty odor of smoke, he could smell traces of the richness of blood and death.
The commander watched at the fire wicked its way over the overhanging roofs that had been constructed much too close together. The road was just a few buildings away, but the fire had almost created an impassable wall. Kiaren caught sight of something sticking out of the mud. Her eyes burned with the smoke and flecks of ash dancing in the air.
With a quick breath, she pulled the furs up over her body and rushed through the licking flames. The rancid smell of burning hair floated to her nostrils as she rolled clear of the fire.
Buried in the mud of the road, one of her soldier laid. Despite the suit of armor, that worn by the first platoon, the man had been stabbed all the way through by a thin blade. Another soldier rested not too far from the first body. Kiaren pursed her lips as she turned the man, pale faced, over on his stomach to hide the set of cold, dead eyes.
Down one of the streets not too far from the training grounds, Shiloh had spotted a pile of men slumped up against each other. He swallowed hard to hold back the disgust hanging in the back of his throat. Before he could turn away, something moved from underneath the pile. “Ma’am, over here!” Shiloh shouted, hoping that the Commander would hear.
Kiaren ran down one of the nearby streets after the voice. In the distance, there was a loud crack of a burning timber separating itself from the rest of its structure. The ground could barely be seen under the pile of bodies and shed blood. Some of the fallen men belonged to the platoon that she had ordered to form up that evening prior. Others looked as if they had been caught asleep and awoke to fight back against the attacker.
Shiloh spotted the commander around the corner. He stood atop one of the piles of men. “There’s someone alive down here,” he signaled. He continued to pull at the unmoving body of the armored guard. Kiaren tread lightly upon the corpses and approached Shiloh to help uncover the survivor.
An exasperated sigh was released as the final corpse was moved away. Below, one of the guards lay pinned against the wall. The metal plate had been dented in against his chest, and his breath was strained. The man’s eyes lit up as Kiaren leaned down to pull him up.
“Commander,” he choked out. “I can’t breath. I think… I think my clavicle is broken too.”
“We’ll get you out of here, soldier.” Kiaren comforted the man. She bent down quickly and wrapped her arm under his and propped him up against her side. The smoke entered her lungs as she attempted to catch her breath. Shiloh quickly cut the leather straps that buckled the halves of the man’s smashed chest plate. The armor fell to the ground with a clatter. The man’s limp legs dragged behind him as Kiaren continued to drag him out of the alleyway. With Shiloh in tow, they stumbled out to the main street as the fire slowly caught up with them.
Exhausted, the commander dumped the man on the ground as they reached the clear section of the town. “I owe you my life, Commander.” The solider wheezed. He crumpled down on the ground holding his shoulder.
“What happened here?” Shiloh interrogated him as he wiped the sweat from his brow.
“Demons.” The guard shuddered.
“Demons?” Kiaren confirmed his statement. She crouched down to the ground and eyed him. “What do you mean by demons?”
The man wheezed loudly. “A group of men… probably two… three… maybe more.”
“How does a group that small do all that?” Shiloh said incredulously as he looked up at the commander. “And to get past us, while we were on watch too.”
“Armor… impenetrable.” The man mumbled and his eyes begun to drift closed. “Too strong… for us.”
Kiaren felt the man’s chest for a heart beat. His chest rose and fell with his breathing. The commander looked up at Shiloh, whose face shined with dirt and perspiration. She bared her teeth and seethed.
“Calm yourself, Maam.” Shiloh stopped her as he breathing became more forced. “We must first try the best we can to find more survivors and try to stop these fires. Only then we can give thought to these men called… demons.”