The Welcome Home

Of Armor and Bone: Chapter 10

The barely warm rays of sunlight had soaked up the morning fog and pushed the day towards noon. The rocky expanse and yellow grass of the Xiandolan plains greeted the group long in the distance. The trees had long since thinned out, and the rocky outcroppings of the mountain had shifted around to the other side of them.

Kensley led the group with a silent stride. His face mask poured out bursts of white fog with each steady breath. Around his eye holes, he could see the ice crystals form as condensation collected and froze on the cold metal exterior of the armor. Inside the suit, he could feel no more than the slight warmth from the sun on his back.

The watchtowers of the settlement stared down at them from atop the rocky hillsides. “Up this way.” Bently alerted them with a hoarse voice, the first words exchanged in some hours. “Some old goat path.” He gestured up the hillside, where the thin grass and moss had been warn down in a thin wavering strip of dark dirt.

Kensley nodded in agreement and changed course. The armor plates clinked as he leaned into the slope to steady himself. As they moved single-file up the rocky ground, Kensley scanned the defensive structures that began to come into view. Up above in one of the towers, an exhausted looking guard, huddled in a thick layer of yak fur and leather, lazily peered out towards the horizon.

“You, look alive!” Kensley’s voice boomed, shaking the watchman alert. “Call for the general, immediately!”

The man stood up tall and nodded with exaggerated movements. With a quick turn, he spun around and grabbed at a cord dangling from a dull brass bell hanging inside of the watchtower. He pulled at the string with three slow, deliberate tugs that rung out in a low metallic tone that echoed over the camp.

Bently grabbed at Scarborough’s hand to pull him up the final step up to the road near the side gate. The dark mud leading had been purged of most tracks and footprints by the rain that had come two nights prior. The wooden gate opened to welcome them. On the opposite side, two of the general’s personal guards stood. They shivered slightly in the light decorative armor as they offered salutes to the group of three. “General Edrian has been awaiting you, he would wish to see you immediately.” One guard rattled off.

“No doubt,” Kensley sneered just out of earshot of the guards. “Let us proceed at once, then.” He relented.

Kensley and the others followed closely behind the guards up to the General’s quarters; a hexagonal yurt built atop a tall outcropping of granite. Scarborough peered down at his feet as he climbed the creaking wooden treads up to the structure. The clunky metal boots had become caked with mud and bits of green vegetation.

The opening in the top of the structure extruded a dainty plume of white smoke. The guards parted ways at the door and took places on either side of the entrance. Kensley pushed aside the heavy fur blocking the doorway and stepped inside with the others in tow.

“Mandabus, what news do you bring?” The general announced as they entered. He stood facing away astutely. Kensley could see the man’s thick black sideburns from behind. Bently cleared his throat loudly.

The general started to turn around, and Kensley gingerly removed his helmet. His hair drooped out from the metal enclosure, and he could feel the slightly warm, humid air inside of the tent.

“Where is your Captain, Mr. Kensley?” Edrian asked as he finally made eye contact. His dark eyes glistened in the light of the fire pit crackling away in the middle of the room.

Kensley took a knee and placed the helmet on his thigh.
“He perished in the attack.” Kensley admitted unabashedly.

Edrian grimaced and grit his teeth. “You are a man of honor, Mr. Kensley.”

“Yes, sir.” The lieutenant nodded in response.

“Then…” The general growled. “How can you tell me these lies?”

“He is telling the truth, Sir.” Bently interjected. Kensley glared back at him and returned to his feet.

“Chin!” The general yelled. From one of the dark corners, a man in a dark robe stood up from a pile of furs. Tiny puffs of purple smoke winded out of his nostrils, and more wafted from the bowl of his pipe. “You understand the situation Mr. Kensley is suggesting, no?”

The man ran his bony fingers and long fingernails through his thin, dark hair. “Yes, yes, interesting.” The wizard hummed.

“Tell me, mage.” The general continued. “Armed with the tools- the enchanted armor, the weapons- is there a chance that one of them could have fallen in battle?”

The wizard hobbled forward and cracked his back with a loud pop. He sucked on his pipe and approached Kensley. “Give me that.” He said ungraciously and grabbed for the helmet. The lieutenant recoiled from the smoke that was ejected from the man’s mouth, and the helmet was snatched out of his hands.

Chin held the cold metal up to his forehead and closed his eyes. He sucked in a long breath and ejected more smoke out of his nostrils. “The enchantment is still active.” He said and slowly opened his eyes. As he returned the piece of armor to Kensley, bits of ash dropped out of the pipe wedged between his fingers. “No normal attack could have done any one of these men any harm.”

“I saw the man… the mage who attacked the Captain.” Scarborough butted in. “It appeared as if it were some sort of… dark magic.”

Scarborough was met with blank stares. Bently quickly turned to him and yanked the short sword from Scarborough’s sheath. “Scar had an altercation with the attacker… who slayed the captain.” He explained, offering up the weapon to Chin. “Tell me if you sense it here.”

The wizard took the weapon tentatively and examined it. Before he closed his eyes, he brought it up close and peered down the blade. The man scowled and marched towards the general. “There is something not right here.” He said, presenting the weapon for the general to take.

Edrian pursed his lips and turned the shiny metal towards the light. “Rust?”

“Unless these men were supplied with second-rate arms, I must conclude there was some strange force that came into contact with this weapon.” Chin surmounted. He snatched the blade back by the flat edge and shoved the handle towards Kensley.

The pattern of the damascus steel had been traced with veins of red-orange oxidation having eaten away at the alloy.

The General grumbled and tapped his foot. “How, then?”

“Even the strongest of mortal powers desiccate in the presence of time.” Chin uttered mysteriously. “I wish turn to my books to study what might have went wrong.”

Edrian grunted and turned away to prod at the dying fire. “Do what you must. What of the body, Kensley?”

Kensley shifted back and forth. He looked down at the dull shine of the helmet and searched for the best words he could come up with. “There would have been no way for us to retrieve it and return home. There is no risk of the enemy coming across it, either, I assure you.”

“Very well.” The general grumbled in hesitant accord. “Considering the nature of this mission… it was wise of you to be quick and efficient… and somewhat discreet. At least… tell me of what you found among the Tuleforian armies. Was there any signs of the artifact?”

“No, sir.” Kensley reported slowly, passing the short sword back. Bently clenched his teeth and Scarborough took the weapon and shoved it back in his sheath. “We concluded that any signs of them retrieving anything from the mountain were not present. As ordered, we brought much of their settlement to the ground, regardless. As it stands, we fear no immediate reprisal.”

Edrian paced around the fire and carefully leaned down to retrieve a dry log from the pile of firewood. He tossed it upon the fire pit from a few paces away, sending a shower of sparks over the room. With a quick stomp of his foot, he extinguished a burning ember that had attempted to catch fire to the fur by his feet. “Very well then.” He announced tamely. “Get rest while you can. We must reorganize our strategy sooner than later.”

Kensley briefly bowed his head and turned to exit the structure. Bently and Scarborough followed quickly after.

Down at the base of the mountain, the group entered the empty barracks. The Captain’s empty bed sat coldly at the end of the room, partially obscured by a row of hides hanging from the ceiling. Scarborough stamped his feet on the hard stone floor at the entrance and finally removed his helmet.

Bently pulled at the leather and brass buckles on his shoulders and pulled them loose. The armor tumbled to the ground with a dull crash onto the wooden floor. Bently followed it to the ground quickly after, exhausted. Kensley stared out the window, helmet still in hand, out at the mountain outside the window.

Scarborough had hung up his scabbard and helmet on the rack and had begun to undo his chest plate. As it landed on the ground, the man crumpled over, holding his shoulder. Bently grunted and pushed himself off the ground. “It can’t be that bad.” Bently said with a roll of his eyes.

Scarborough tugged at the collar of the long-sleeved linen shirt with one arm while the other one dangled. Bently pulled at the shirt to pull it off of him. Underneath the cloth, a bright purple bruise ran up the entirety of Scarborough’s bicep to his shoulder. The skin along the edges had turned a bright yellow, and his fingertips were a pale white.
“Hell, I never even felt it.” Scarborough managed to say between gritted teeth. “Don’t think… it’s broken though.”

Kensley grumbled out a long sigh and looked down at the dirty leather of his palms. “Under all these layers of metal plate… unnameable enchantments and incantations… we can’t forget that we are still simply… men.”

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