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Into the light
By R.E. METZEL
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 R.E. Metzel
All rights reserved.
"How deserted lies the city, once so full of people. How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations. She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave."
The air felt different in Lach Highland that night. Too cold for summer, with a heavy dry wind that blew up from the south. Not a cloud in the sky remained to break the perfect chaos of the stars as they gleamed around the moon. Everything looked sharp in the blue light. The way was clear for miles as if the sun had risen. The night creatures sensed strangeness in the hour and shrieked their warnings to a deaf world.
The only city in the land, the fortress of Great Hall, sat in darkness under the shadow of a hill. Most slept fitfully through the odd weather except the guards on the wall tops and Cirrus, the young Lord of Lach Highland. He sat alone in his courtroom, surrounded by walls covered in tapestries and the trails of his own thoughts. His head was bowed, his shoulders bent, and his pale hands clasped each other until the knuckles turned white. A scowl twisted his mouth in a deep frown as his empty stare fixed on a knotted sword at his feet. His eyes ran over the rusted blade: the enemy's taunt against him.
He tried to purge it from his mind and bury the sight behind his eyelids, but the weapon was imprinted in his memory. He could hear the laughter behind it, mocking him, reminding him that he had failed.
Cirrus straightened. He wanted to get rid of the sights. He wanted no more memories of that horrible day. He wanted freedom from the invisible hand that closed around his chest to break his ribs and stop his heart.
In a blurred movement he snatched the sword and hurled it across the room. It thudded against an oak door and clanged to the floor. He stood on the dais, jaw clenched, veins rising. He wanted to scream, but held back. He wanted to cry, but pride would not let him. A block of lead sank in his chest.
The fury passed. Cirrus tried to sit, missed his chair, and hit his knees on the ground. He grasped his head in pain and rocked against the voices inside him.
"Get out," he kept whispering, "Get out. Get out."
The door opened. He heard it but refused to look.
"Cirrus?" Mira, his wife, stood quietly behind the entrance. Her black hair fell around her shoulders in distressed knots. Darkness rimmed her tired eyes, the result of the sleepless nights they'd suffered. She closed the door and went to him, "Are you all right?"
"He's gone," Cirrus felt his voice crack and he angrily wiped the tears from his eyes. Mira said nothing. She lowered her head. Her hair fell away and revealed the sharp ears of her race. A lake woman. Cirrus took one look at her face and regretted ever meeting her. If he'd not dragged her from her home, she would not have to endure this. He was the reason she suffered.
He stumbled to his feet, "We'll go out again tomorrow. We'll try to find the trail. Maybe we can track them."
She didn't respond but he saw the doubt in her face. She had no willpower to say what was on her mind. He started to feel the rage again, "We'll find him."
She still said nothing. Her silence was worse than if she had spoken. It made him mad, "Say something!"
Mira's eyes were pleading, "You know it too."
Cirrus did know it, but he refused to accept it, "I won't leave Airan in the hands of those monsters!"
"If we wait for your brother-"
"Hang my brother!" he roared, "It takes him weeks for his court to decide anything!"
"He won't hesitate-"
"He follows rules, Mira! He won't come!" The guilt, the rage, and the helpless anxiety took their toll. He swung at the wall, took the skin off his knuckles, punched it again, and wilted. He slid and sat on the floor, burying his face in his hands and holding back the screams.
Mira's voice shivered for control, "Airan is safe. I know the Emperor will watch over him. I trust everything will be all right."
Cirrus was too emotionally spent to either accept or reject her words. He just let the feelings pass and tried to keep breathing. He had to keep breathing. The blood from his raw knuckles touched his cheek. He wiped it away in disgust.
A heavy knock sounded on the door. Cirrus regained his feet, "Enter!"
The door swung open. Foru Longstor, steward of the Hall, shoved past it. He looked frightened. Sweat plastered the thick hair on his head. He took a breathless gulp to steady himself, "Cirrus ... come quickly. Outside. You have to hear."
"What's wrong?" Mira was already halfway to the door.
Foru shook his head, "We don't know."
Cirrus grabbed his sword from behind his chair and strapped it around his waist, "Show us."
They hurried through the fortress of Great Hall to the outer courtyard. Foru took them up the stairs to the top of the inner wall and stopped, facing the city and the world beyond it. The numbing chill caught them by surprise. Cirrus and Mira shivered beside the nervous steward, straining their ears for a sound.
Cirrus shot a glare at his friend, "I don't hear anything."
Foru wiped his face, "Exactly, sir. Not a sound. There were all kinds of night noises moments ago. Now they've stopped. Something's out there."
Mira tilted her head to the sky. Her eyes widened in horror. A mass of clouds rolled from the south and covered the heavens. The wind rushed by. A blade of fear shot up her spine, "Cirrus ..."
A desolate wail lifted its voice from beyond the city limits. They froze and stared out at the forests even as darkness took over the world. Shrill howls joined the initial voice. Clear and ringing. They were close.
Cirrus shook his head in disbelief, "Roth Mordans. They're back."
Foru burst into the fortress barracks, "Battle stations! We're under attack! Cover the perimeter and get the people inside the Hall! Move!"
The men scrambled to pull on their armor and grab their weapons. Archers darted to the ramparts, too excited to remember formations. The stables thundered with the shrieks and stamping hooves of the cavalry horses. The gates of the Hall's inner wall opened and soldiers poured out to guide the villagers.
Cirrus' mind turned as the rest of the world moved in a blur. He watched the frightened faces of the women, children, and elders as they ran to the Hall for protection. He spoke quietly to his wife, "Get Fairlight and the villagers to the tunnels."
Mira ran back to the fortress, shouting out, "With me! Hurry to the caverns!"
Cirrus watched the people rush by. Their mouths were open in panicked cries, but the sound did not register in his ears. He only heard the jeers of the enemy outside his city.
Sharven Medilius, his cavalry captain, appeared at his side, "The last of the villagers are coming, Lord Cirrus."
Cirrus drew his sword, "Bar the gates behind them. Use anything you can to support the entrance. We can't let those devils through."
Sharven called an order to his men and they scattered for supplies. The last of the citizens passed into the fortress and the gates slammed shut behind them.
Cirrus shouted to the battlements, "Commander Rorus, the enemy cannot pass this wall!"
The commander saluted and pulled his archers in tight formation around the ramparts.
Foru returned to Cirrus, "Any more orders, sir?"
The lord of Lach Highland shook his head, "Nothing."
His eyes grew distant and he looked up at the clouds boiling overhead. A sad smile breached his mouth, "We're not coming out of this. Not alive."
* * *
The men grew uneasy as they waited. The shift of armor and nervous coughing became the only noise that filled the emptiness within the fortress. Cirrus sat on a charger beside Sharven, the two leaders watching the gate. The horses tossed their heads and tapped their feet on the pavement. Smoke rose from their heated bodies.
They listened to the gut-wrenching howls from the throats of the enemy outside. Soldiers whispered prayers for strength. Their slick hands clung to their weapons for comfort.
Rorus, the commander of the archers, leapt down the stairs of the gatehouse and stopped before Cirrus, "Sir, the enemy is past the city limits. They're setting the place on fire."
As if on cue, there was an explosion and a red glow erupted in the sky. Croaking cheers followed the noise in excited bloodlust.
Cirrus's frown twisted, "How far up are they?"
A crackling roar made them all jump and the horses reared in fear. A flaming stone soared overhead and cracked against the Hall, settling at its top. The wooden beams burst into flame.
"Fire!" cried a dozen voices.
"Stop!" Cirrus shouted before they moved, "It's a distraction! Stay at your posts!"
He faced the fortress gates, "Archers, take aim; fire!"
Rorus whistled and the arrows flew.
* * *
Mira led the people to the lower levels of the Hall with controlled speed. She searched for the statue that marked the underground tunnels. Her fingers brushed along the cold stone, feeling their way through the dim passages. The shadowed figure of an angelic Sherubim appeared before them in the dark. She almost sprinted to it. She pushed the statue and slid it along the floor. A part of the wall moved with it and a gaping hole opened into the earth. Mira motioned the people inside, "Stay close together! Hurry!"
The frightened faces of her people passed. Terrified eyes searched the darkness for a source of hope. Many of them looked to the Sherubim as if it would come to life and protect them.
Mira reached out and pulled Foru's wife out of the crowd, "Guide them through the tunnels, Yael. Wait for me at the cavern."
The young woman's terrified eyes glanced at Mira, "Where are you going?"
"Fairlight!" Mira shouted as she sprinted back down the hall.
Arrows shot from both sides. Screams knifed the air. Chaos erupted around the fortress walls. A thundering boom echoed over the sounds of battle as a great force was flung against the gates. The impact rolled like thunder as the battering ram twisted metal and cracked wood.
Sharven lifted his sword, "Ready horses!"
The cavalry men behind him lifted their weapons and roared defiantly. The shrill screams of the enemy matched their pitch.
A mind-blowing snap silenced it all as the gates gave way. Cirrus lost all sense of the battle. He could only hear the thudding of his frightened heart. The soldiers moved slowly. So slowly. Splinters of wood and shards of metal floated past. Sharven's cry rang in his head, "For the Emperor and the Coming Kingdom! Charge!"
The world snapped back to life. The horses of Great Hall bolted across the courtyard. A wall of stamping beasts charged the exposed gates. Wild manes tossed in the wind, heads bobbed and eyes blazed for the fight.
They faltered. The enemy had their match. Wulves. Scores of creatures the size of stallions crashed through the gate and rammed through the wall of horses. The fight became a confusion of hooves, claws, teeth and fur.
Rorus split his archers in two groups, trying to cover the outside walls and the inner courtyard. Other invaders joined the wulves. Dark, skulking creatures with jagged armor and demonic faces. Roth Mordans from the south. They leapt into the fray, howling battle cries and swinging blades. Swords flashed and cut into flesh. Arrows whistled into targets. Fists thudded against armor and cracked bones. Every chest throbbed with the heat of the fight.
Foru drove his blade into a creature, yanking back as his enemy fell to the earth. A gasp rushed from the steward's lungs as his sword came free. A movement caught his eye. He saw a shadow scale up the fortress walls. It stopped at one of the windows and drew a knife. He bolted into the fortress. He didn't think, he just ran.
The hallway crackled with tongues of fire. The roof groaned, threatening to fall. The beams looked ready to drop. Mira hated herself for not coming here first. She hadn't thought the danger was this close. A million better plans flashed through her mind as she ran for her daughter's room and a hundred regrets thundered in her chest. She found the door and tried it. Locked.
"Why?" Mira screamed. She never locked this door. She wildly searched the walls and grabbed a candle holder. She pounded the knob with it, the clang of metal ringing through her skin. Tears poured out of her eyes as again and again she attacked the door.
Fracturing wood announced her victory. The lock broke free. She shoved the door open and burst inside. Fairlight's crib was by the window. The fire had not reached her room. Trembling, Mira wrapped the infant in a thick blanket to protect her.
"I'm so sorry, little one," she gasped, "I'm so sorry."
A croaking shriek blasted in her ears. She felt spit hit the back of her neck. Spinning around, she dealt the thing a kick to the stomach. The scaly face stared at her in shock. Its eyes clouded over. Its face froze in a picture of agony and it fell to the floor in a heap. A knife tumbled from its hand. The sharp edge of a sword showed itself, running through its back and appearing from its chest.
Foru pulled the weapon from the creature's body and grabbed Mira's arm, "The enemy's broken through! Get out of here!"
Breaking glass drowned him out. The steward yanked Mira and her daughter to the floor. A flaming arrow shot through the glass of the bedroom window and buried its head in the wall. Flames licked the curtains and they burst aglow.
Foru pulled Mira to her feet and hurried her out of the room.
Something ripped his hand from her arm. The crushing weight of a roof beam hit him in the head. He fell on all fours, dazed. Mira jumped back, "Foru!"
Fairlight's wails rang in terror.
Foru worked out of the beams and stumbled to his feet. He fell against a table. He could feel the wound in his head.
A wall of fire and wood stood between him and his lord's family. He tried to focus on them through dazed eyes, "Get out of here."
Mira held Fairlight close and she stared at him through the hot flames.
She turned and ran. Foru gathered himself together and staggered the opposite way.
* * *
The gates shuddered again. The walls cracked under tremendous pressure. Huge stones fell from their place. An enormous head appeared through the gap, large and lizard-like, baring its mouthful of razor teeth.
"Tierrano!" voices screamed.
No one had seen it come. Soldiers ran from the sight. The beast shoved through the gateway, wriggling through the opening.
Commander Rorus pulled back his bow and fired. The dart struck the tierrano in the throat. It roared in pain and reared back on two powerful hind legs. Its long tail lashed out, catching wulves and soldiers by surprise. Rorus shot again, hitting it above the eye. It went into a mad rampage.
A hot breath hit Rorus on the back of his neck. He swept out an arrow and spun, stabbing the enemy in its mouth and shoving it over the battlements. Gravity took over. He found his knife and caught a Roth Mordan in the arm. One push sent it sailing over the edge. He loaded his bow and struck a third invader.
A blurred shadow. He saw a battle-axe flash toward him. He jumped back, dodged the first swing, leapt over the second, but failed to clear the third.
The axe cut his side. A blast of pain ripped through his body. He felt his mind go cold. He lashed out with his blade and somehow the monster fell. He sank to the ground, clutching his wound.
One of his archers caught him, "Commander!"
Rorus gasped in agony, fighting the pain, "Dear God, deliver us."
A clawed hand wrenched away the archer. Something picked Rorus up. He struck out, but the blow had no strength. A Roth Mordan threw him over its shoulder and he yelled at the shock of ragged metal against his ribs. Others grabbed him, howling with laughter. They carried him to the edge of the wall and prepared him for the thirty-foot plunge. He felt the air receive him. His limbs thrashed out, catching anything in range.
Three came with him.
* * *
Cirrus was growing tired. It hurt to lift his sword. His movements were sluggish and weak. On every side, he saw his friends fall. His mind wondered if his wife was safe. Did she reach the tunnels in time? How could the Emperor ever forgive him?
A Roth Mordan charged at him. He flinched. His sword went out instinctively. Somehow he caught the creature with the blade. Cirrus shifted under the new weight and struggled to get his weapon free.
Someone grabbed him from behind. He had no power to fight back. All strength had left him.
It felt strange, being stabbed. He'd been injured before, but not this way. Never before had it hurt so much. The world blurred. He collapsed to the ground on his knees, fighting for life, wanting to breathe, unable to hold on.
"Emperor," he whispered, "forgive me."
The enemy screamed in victory.
* * *
The tunnel door lay shattered in a thousand pieces on the ground. The Sherubim rested in three parts among the debris. The head was nowhere in sight. An empty howl of air passed over the blackness of the tunnel entrance.
Mira's feet skid to a halt. Her mouth dropped open. Her fingers clutched her squirming daughter. Fairlight's terrified cries echoed from the walls at every side, trailed by a void of haunting quiet. Mira's exhaustion kept her from comforting the child in her arms.
"Your son squalled too."
Excerpted from Cathedral by R.E. METZEL. Copyright © 2013 R.E. Metzel. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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