Of Armor and Bone: Chapter 40
The General let out a long yawn, the dimming light slowly eating away at his ability to guide the horse straight. “Have you missed out on sleep, sir?” Chin spoke up, guiding his own mount close.
Edrian straightened his back and adjusted his grip on the reins. “I slept late the day previous so that I could make the trip over the pass during the night. Still, the amount of travel has left me weary. Do you still have that strange brew that will sate your urge to sleep?”
Chin patted at the bag hanging from the back of the saddle. “I believe so. I may check when we rest for the night.”
Edrian nodded slowly and rubbed his eyes with one hand. He turned his gaze back up to the horizon before them, where the sun had mostly been swallowed by the land. The almost crimson shades of sky peaked through the skinny boughs of the tallest trees, still yet to bear leaves.
“We are nearing the ridge, are we not?” Chin spoke up. Below the horizon, the road continued to wind back and forth through the trees, eventually to the dark wrinkle in the land.
“You must be more familiar with Tulefore than I remember.” Edrian muttered. “It was a shame you haven’t been with me us plan our procession so that the people of this land could be aware of our arrival.”
“Tulefore city is the only objective that matters, though?” Chin asked, his eyes fixed on the dark bluff before them.
“It will suffice, for now…”
Chin swallowed hard, looking up to the unit’s leader steadily heading the slow marching group of armored men. “I shall advise Mr. Kensley on how to continue up to the top of the ridge. It may be difficult in this formation.”
“Good man.” Edrian praised.
Bently perked up as Chin began to march forward to the front of the group.
“You aren’t falling asleep on me, are you?” Scarborough perked up. “The withdrawal from the powers of the armor are harsh, remember?”
“It’s not that. Seems we’re at the ridge the captain… Bouglin spoke of.” Bently commented, looking back and forth at the darkening forest on either side. “See anything out of place?”
Scarborough shifted back and forth atop the saddle to better look over the rows of men before them. “Nothing…. Really. Seems Chin is talking to Kensley up front.”
“Lieutenant.” Chin called out to Kensley.
“Sir?” He answered, looking back just enough to catch the side of the mage’s face.
“Are you finding your way easily enough?”
“Mm, yes.” Kensley nodded. “This road isn’t as well used at it seems it would be, considering the path between the mountain and their capital.”
“I believe the Tuleforians often sent supplies on a road to the south, avoiding this ridge completely. This way is unfit for traveling with wagons.”
“I see.” Kensley answered plainly.
“The path up the ridge won’t support this unit in such a formation.”
“Talk to Boughlin.” Kensley replied, tilting his head to the right of the formation behind him. “He can meld these men to any whim or situation with no effort.”
Chin attempted to keep pace with the Lieutenant as they continued. The road began to slope up slightly, and the trees on either side were not as thick as before. “Then I shall use my powers to light the way.” Chin insisted.
“I am able to see well enough thanks to the enchantment upon my helm. I can only assume the others are outfitted similarly.”
“For Boughlin and The General, then.”
Kensley glanced at the mage, his head tilted. “If you insist.” He agreed begrudgingly.
Chin raised his arm over his head, his palm spewing forth a growing ball of light that cast an orange glow upon the ground and trees around then. Chin turned away from the light, staring across the dirt passing underneath the horses hooves. Trailing out before the group were sets of faint but fresh tracks in the matted mud of the road.
The magical glow continued onward towards the mounds of dirt and rocks that had found their way to the base of the ridge from up above. The tall furrow of land was creased with trails made from water eroding at the bare dirt. The road up to the top had slowly been molded by various people traveling up and down the once steep incline, and further improved by men from the empire when the road became a more important route to travel.
Chin kicked suddenly at the horse, causing it to dash past Kensley. The mage launched the ball of light into the air before the animal began to swerve and kick up the narrow switchback.
Several more orbs of light appeared at the top of the ridge before traveling down through the air and into the mass of men. Kensley yanked at the horse’s reins to pull it to a halt. The unit behind him stopped at a staggered standstill.
Charlstine stepped forward down the last of the winding road as Chin skidded past her, jumping down off his horse. As the bright flares cleared, she began to emit her own signal from her staff, lighting her face for the army below to see. The two mounted men from the sides stepped forward to the front of the group.
“Men of Xiandol!” She called out, her voice magnified through the source of her power. “Heed my words, as Arcanus, head of the Order of Magi, return to your homeland!”
Boughlin and Edrian approached the front of the formation beside Kensley. The stars in his eyes from the bright lights slowly faded out, allowing him to focus upon the woman atop the ridge.
“The Order has anticipated us, have they?” Boughlin conferred, looking across to the General.
Edrian scowled, his eye fixated at the top of the path upward. “I believe Mr. Chin has played a part in leading them here.”
“How shall I order the men, sir?” Boughlin asked.
Edrian jerked the horse around, examining the armored unit of men waiting expectantly for orders.
Kensley cleared his voice loudly. “You remember how the magi fight, don’t you?”
The General clicked his tongue in response. “They wash the battlefield in their destructive powers. Have them spread out, mount the ridge the best they can.”
Charlstine watched the movement of the men below, talking among each other. “Your two commanding officers, I suppose?” Charlstine commented back to Chin as he approached from behind.
“I’d like to think the General likely held me in higher regards than Captain.” He explained. “Boughlin commands those men, but the one at the front will be the one to lead them into battle. His armor is the same.”
The files of men began to break out of their lines, spreading out across the road, some disappearing off into the brush and bare trees of the forest. “As you said, they are not backing down.” Charlstine said.
“General Edrian is assured of his tactics, especially with the force to back it up. Second-guessing is not in his nature.”
Charlstine clicked her staff against the ground, extinguishing the magical light at the tip of it. The road below went dark with only the vestigial glow of the sunset reaching the ground.
“I shall be watching.” Edrian addressed Boughlin and Kensley before turning his horse back down the road. “If you are able to, intercept that woman alive. It would be another prize to flaunt before the Emperor at Tulefore city.”
Boughlin nodded back at the General as he passed back through the thin line of men. “One again, I must offer this honor up to you Kensley.” He said.
Kensley glanced at the tiny silhouette against the dim sky atop the ridge. “I shall put in my best effort.”
Boughlin patted him on the shoulder. “As expected. This is one of the times I wished I were outfitted with the same armor you posses. Please, lend me your horse so that I may save this poor animal from the wrath of these magi.”
Kensley nodded and flung his leg over the saddle, passing the reins up to Boughlin. The Captain took them and slowly guided the horse back around. Kensley took the sword from the sheath at his back, feeling the weight of the second sword supported beside it. Glancing to other side, he could see the armored men poised in front of the base of the ridge, prepared to climb.
“That sword on his back.” Scarborough whispered to Bently. “Why did he bring such a thing?”
“I can’t see it.” Bently returned. “Where did it come from?”
“It belonged to that woman. There is something unnatural about it, but it seems useless in any of our hands.”
“Mr. Bently!” Edrian called out as he approached. “Unfurl that banner.”
“Sir!” Bently jumped in surprise, hoisting the pole up from his side.
“We will have them recognize it, even through the pitch black.”
At the base of the ridge, the lone soldier leading the group held his sword to the sky, releasing a cry that echoed through the quiet night. Charlstine waived the staff before her, alerting the other magi on either side. “Release the first volley!”
The magi atop the ridge simultaneously released waves of bright orange fire from the tips of their fingers, the flames growing as they rolled down the hill. The boughs of the dry trees caught fire, sending sparks down to the underbrush.
The line of men approached the steep side of the ridge, planting their fingers into the hard dirt. The flames washed down over their suits of armor, the bright orange light reflecting off the metal plates. Kensley squinted through the glow, his eyes adjusting to the luminescence of the magical power.
The breeze blew through the trees, sending flames licking through the bare forest. The Order halted their assault, but the fire continued. The scent of gray smoke rising into the dark night traveled into Charlstine’s nostrils. In the newfound light of the blaze, she could see the soldiers climbing the side of the ridge, their hands clinging into the rock and dirt. “They have nowhere to hide now!” She called out to the other magi.
The Arcanus raised her staff to the sky, before slamming it to the ground. The ridge shook, sending down first loose dirt and pebbles from the side of the ridge. Chunks of soil began to shake free, tumbling down to the ground below. Several of the soldiers lost their grip, falling back down to the ground, quickly being able to recover and continue their climb forward.
Bits of rock and soil tumbled down the steep switchback as Kensley continued to march forward. He caught sight of the Arcanus looking down in his direction as the loose bits pinged off his armor plates. The magi of the order closed their eyes in concentration before releasing their own assault of vibrations down the ridge. More of the climbing soldiers fell, and along with them, larger chunks of soil and plant life, stripping the ridge of its face.
Kensley felt himself being yanked back in a slide of compacted dirt as the embankment before him collapsed downward. The world flipped him upside down as more earth followed down after him. More of the dry plant life around the ridge had caught fire, and the once neat path up to the top had been turned into a rough incline of crumbling dirt.
Charlstine held her hand to the sky, stopping the other magi. “Edrian of Xiandol!” She called out, her voice echoing down to the road. “Shall we remain at a deadlock here throughout the night, or will you turn back and return to whence you came?”
Edrian grit his teeth, shaking his head up at the ridge. “This is little more than an annoyance.”
“The men will not be distraught by something as foolish as this.” Boughlin looked on.
“I should hope not! Continue!”
Charlstine held her hand to the air continuously, watching on as the rabble of soldiers below picked themselves.
“They will not stop.” Chin spoke up.
“Obviously not.” Charlstine nodded. In the glow of the growing fire, she could spot the commanding officers of the army. “They are mostly unprotected. If they feel threatened, they may back down just slightly.”
“Kensley, the man at the front, may still lead them.” Chin informed.
“Nevertheless, we will not be able to hold them forever. Crestin, attempt to send a barrage of fire at them.”
“Yes, milady.” The tall mage replied.
“Hold our secret technique for the last moment.” Charlstine warned. “We can’t let them know we can counteract them directly.
Kensley pushed through the pile of dirt to retrieve the sword that had fallen from his hands. As he gripped the hilt once again, he looked to either side for the others. The men scanned the wall for handholds, some attempting again to make their way up. The collapsed series of switchbacks had formed a steep, loose incline of rocks and muddy dirt. Kensley dug his feet into the rubble the best he could, pushing forward. A few nearby men closed in on him, following him up.
Small bursts of fire flew over his head, landing on the road below. Kensley looked back to see the General and Boughlin creating more distance between them and the ridge. He continued forward, shoving the blade of the sword in for support. As his gaze turned back to the sky, a sudden cold washed over him, and feeling he had never felt while in the confines of the armor. The others beside him slowed in reaction to the abrupt change in temperature.
Kensley blinked his eye reflexively as a shard of ice impacted upon his helmet, the magical force protecting it from penetrating the face mask. He continued to grip at the hilt of his sword and the bits of rubble before him. More boulders continued to fall from above on the slope. A loud crunch echoed from his armor as a rock impacted upon his chest, cracking the cold brittle metal. Another falling rock tumbled into his right arm, causing him to lose grip on the sword. One other soldier had already fallen to the magically induced landslide. Kensley grasped at the blade of the sword to pull it out before more rubble came his way.
“Pull back!” Kensley called out, continuing back down the hill. The men slowly retreated, each failing to make any more progress. The unit attempted to take upon its original formation as they returned to the road. Kensley continued to waive them past until he remained the sole person at the front, slowly backing the men up. The group marched past the bits of scorched ground, where Edrian and Boughlin awaited them.
The General grit his teeth. “They’re toying with us, those magi!”
Scarborough approached the Kensley and the group, his gaze still fixed up towards the ridge. “I spotted it, just to the left, where the path upwards was collapsed.” He pointed. “If you walk up that side, you should be able to find footing.”
Boughlin guided his horse around to follow where Scarborough was pointing. “I see it. I’m afraid we must risk the full brunt of their assault in order to make progress. The entire guard should push up as one. The same as we collapsed the gate back at the settlement.”
“Sir, their powers are potent.” Kensley announced. “They would be able to concentrate upon us as a group.”
“Are you hurt, Mr. Kensley?” Edrian rebuked him.
“Then the enchantments are holding as they should. Follow Boughlin’s orders.” The unit had managed to rearrange themselves in the original formation, poised to march again upon the ridge. “Scarborough, join them, guide them forward with Mr. Kensley.”
Kensley approached Bently, working the extra sheath of cloth off his back. “Take care of this.” He offered, handing off the heavy weapon.
Bently hefted the sword in his hand, barely able to swing across his thighs upon the saddle. “What’s with it? It belonged to the Tuleforian commander, right?”
“Keep it safe.” Kensley asserted, turning back to the unit. Scarborough slipped off his horse and followed after. They met side by side as they reached the front of the formation.
Charlstine looked down upon the neat rows of soldiers formed down the road from them. On either side of them, the forest smoldered with bits of fire still clinging to the trees. Above, save the smoke, the sky had began to clear itself, revealing the sliver moon.
“Prepare to focus fire upon them.” She ordered, the group of magi packed close.
Chin clenched his palms, the feeling of magical energy fresh at his fingertips.
Kensley looked down at his blurry reflection in flat edge of his sword. With a deep breath, he sucked in the thick sweet odor of the smoke on the air. He glanced to the side at Scarborough, who nodded assuredly at him.
“Forward!” He cried, lifting his blade to the sky. With each rapid step bringing his feet to the ground, he could feel the pounding of several more heavy footsteps behind him. The heat of flames engulfed them as they reached the incline of the collapsed pathway.
“Draw your weapons!” Kensley called out. The air echoed the sound of the matching arming swords being to be yanked from sheathes. The rear rows of soldiers continued to press their weight upon the group, pushing them onward.
Kensley felt his lungs burning and fighting for air as the blaze continued to grow and flare up around them. The flat edge of the sword behind him pushed upon his back as he forced his feet to move onward, one arduous step at a time up the rocky slope. The heat was suddenly replaced with more blasts of icy cold air and the pelting of stones and boulders. Before him, just out of reach, was the remnants of the path leading to the top of the ridge.
“Now!” Charlstine called out, casting a blinding light at the rabble of men slowly pushing their way up the slope.
Kensley felt his arms going stiff as he attempted to continue moving. He drove his sword into the hard dirt, piercing it with a dull thud. His fingers managed to grasp upon the hilt of the sword just as they went stiff and unable to move.
Mandabus looked up to the sky, where a low wispy cloud of gray had begun to drift over the tops of the trees. “Smoke?” Kiaren asked breathily.
“I think my intuition was right.”
“People are around then?”
You can’t hear it, can you?” Mandabus tapped at the side of his helmet. “The sound of battle.”
“What is it? Where is that smoke coming from?” Kiaren shrugged, the rope still holding onto her tentatively.
“It isn’t the smell of the smoke I’m interested in.” Mandabus let out a low laugh. “There is another familiar scent upon the air.”