Chapter 1 - Sisters to the Slaughter
Art awoke in the darkness, to cries of "Wake up! Wake up! Everyone wake up!" shouted from a woman close by. "We're under attack!"
"Ugh, ten more minutes," Art said as he flopped over to plant his face into the straw pillow he now wrapped his hands around, along with an agreement of groans from the other now-awakened sleepers.
"Did you not near me? I said we're under attack! Now wake up!" shouted that same voice, except now it was bearing down right on top of him and he found his pillow being pulled out from under him, his head smacking into the cold smooth stone of the floor. -- "Oomph" -- "Get up, get up," she continued to shout as she stepped over him to stand before and shake the man in the next bed over.
Art rubbed his hands against his eyes with a grimace. Couldn't a traveler get one night's decent rest? He and the others had been walking ten hours a day that day, and the day before, and the day before that, and the Rogues' Monastery was the last place where they could really catch a rest before the four hundred league desert trek to Lut Gholein. And it felt to him as if he'd caught no more than one minute of sleep. "Damn it, it's not even light yet, what time is it?"
"Killing time," the woman retorted. -- "That's what I'm doing right now -- killing time! Ow. Ow, why, that hurt, lass!" Art retorted, eyes now wide open, rubbing at the spot on his side where she'd whacked him with the tip of her bow, and then muttered to himself. "A monastery full of women, and what do we get? A rude awakening, that's what."
"You want to know how it feels to be a-hurting, keep sleeping away." She was on to rousing yet another of the room's six occupants from his bed.
"Hey Art, get up already," said a man who'd been sleeping in the bed beside Art's. Art recognized the voice as Warriv's -- the leader of their caravan. He too was drearily wiping the sleep grit from out the corners of his eyes and rising out of bed. "I don't think the sisters have that bad a sense of humor."
Art sighed, then opened his eyes in alarm as he heard the sound of iron on iron clanging in the distance and steadily getting louder - the sounds of battle were swiftly approaching his room. His mind was aswirl with confusion. An attack? Who, how? He bolted up from his bed. "Shit, Warriv, for once you weren't fooling around."
He looked around in the near total darkness. His eyes having already adjusted, he could make out the shadowy forms of the others sharing this guest bedroom with him, who were all in the process of getting up. Manden, the lanky traveling minstrel who Art knew to have probably stayed up late into the night entertaining his audience, stretching and yawning and shaking his head. The stout and wide-bearded Warriv, reaching for the chest at the foot of his bed. Tyler and Johann, the pair of wide-eyed youngster twins the caravan had picked up from the last village they'd passed, already had their chests open and were rummaging through their contents. From their frenetic actions Art surmised the two were eager for their first dose of the adventuring experience. Boone, oldest and fattest of them all, muttering out loud, "I have to get my armor… I have to get my silver… I have to get my water… Ahh, forget the water…"
With a look at the door into the hallway, Art saw the woman had already fled back into the hallway, and a stream of archers running across the hall, their bodies, the brown and white gambesons they wore, and the round shields in their hands made visible by the coppery light of the torches ensconced in emplacements in the walls.
Retrieving his arming sword from under his bed, Art muttered at his bad luck even as he still tried to make sense of it all. An attack? From where? The Rogues' Monastery stood nestled across the valley between two mountains, an impregnable fortress -- so it looked from the outside when he and the rest of Warriv's caravan had made their approach that evening. Or, at least he remembered seeing it that way. Clearly the cries from out the hallway stood testament to the fact that he'd vastly overrated the safety this place offered.
They'd all paid good money for the priviledge, too. A whole penny. Not for the room - each. And that was on top of the ten-pence tarrif per wagon taking the pass. Warriv's caravan had several dozen wagons -- only a fool would brave the deserts without plenty of company in case something went south -- and given the importance of this pass through the mountain range, he was pretty sure that a caravan passed through its gates at least every day. That all added up to a lot of silver, and he'd wanted to complain when he heard what the Rogues charged -- highway robbery! Only the imposing scene of dozens of archers atop the battlements had made him keep his mouth shut, then. Guess they were about to see what kind of guards that kind of money fetched.
Realizing that he was still in his night-wear, he bent down to the locked chest at the foot of his bed and, in the darkness, fumbled around with the lock and his keys before unlocking it and looking at its contents. Not that he could make out much anything, with the only light coming from the nearest torch out in the hallway. He felt around with his hands, feeling past a canteen, leather bags, a pair of moccasins, until his hands found a heavy padded jacket. Retrieving his black gambeson, put it on over his night clothes to cover his chest and waist, his shoulders and upper arms, and his thighs. As he finished tying the knots of his gambeson and proceeded to tye his sash about his waist, he felt the chill draining out of his body, wrapped as he was behind a dozen layers of fabric.
"Just who are the Rogues fighting?" asked Warriv.
"Think the king has finally got off his fat arse?"
"Well I wouldn't put it past him. Declaring them rogue in the first place, that would make him the usual suspect. Though I'd thought he'd have dropped it by now. Attacking now? Actually I take that back, with the kind of luck we've been having that's just par for the course."
"Damnit Taril I told you before and I'll tell you again, no one's going to pay for the crap you're peddling."
"You just wait--"
"Or, you know, could be anyone the Rogues have managed to piss off in the few decades they've held this place, with the kind of fees they charge," said Art. "The last caravan that had come by, the one before that, all the caravans who had to turn away, our caravan, you, me…"
When Art finished with his sash he put on his leather boots and gloves, fit a leather cowl snugly overhead, stashed his money-pouch into his sash pocket, then retrieved his kite shield from the chest. With the sounds of battle slowly getting louder, he felt a lot better with a large metal barrier between him and whatever was coming his way.
"Think they'll be able to hold them off?" asked Tyler.
"Think we'll have ourselves a fight?" asked Johann.
"Boys, if you think you'd enjoy a good fight then I have a lesson in hard knocks that I think you'll enjoy."
Art went through a mental checklist of his belongings. Armor-- check. Sword--check. Shield-- check. Purse-- check. The rest of his belongings weren't quite as important. If they were forced to retreat, he wouldn't want to have too many belongings on him as that would slow him down. If the Rogues won then he'd be back in no time. Oh, and the water, don't forget the water, he thought to himself as he brought out the canteen, uncapped it and drank.
"Guys, are we ready?" Johann called out. -- "Yes," Art replied. -- "You know me; I'm always ready." -- "Now hold on just one moment Tyler…" -- "…yeah just… what he said… have to get my silver… where's my silver?" -- "Check your pockets, I think you said that one already." -- "Ah. Yes. Why thank you, Art." -- "Always here to help, old pal."
From where he stood Art could see a continuous stream of people running in both directions - women in brown and white uniforms running rightwards with bow or javelins in in hand and full quivers over their shoulders, and an assortment of disheveled men, women and children rushing leftwards with packs on their backs. "Uh, guys, we should probably hurry up, we don't want to be the last ones out of here…"
"Warriv, Taril, you all ready to go?" -- "Ready as can be." -- "Aye." -- "Have to get my papers…" -- "Aw, forget your damn papers," said Art as he prodded Boone toward the doorway. "If the attackers get a hold of you it'll be 'have to get my liver, have to get my bladder… eh, forget the water in my bladder' with you." -- Laughs from Tyler and Johann.
"Right then," said Warriv, "Let's go," and together the six made for the entrance, where they waited for a gap in the stream of passersby. One woman was holding a crying babe up close to her bosum; one man limped along with a walking stick in one hand and a teenaged boy in the other, holding up all the others behind them. Sleepiness and disheveled hair all around, noted Art as his eyes passed over them all. Once this group had passed, Art pointed Boone down the hall after them. "Go." Boone needed no prodding, and Tyler and Johann went right after, practically at a jog, turning right at the end of the hallway. Warriv went next, then Taril.
Just as he was about to take off after Taril, however, Art's eyes went to another squad of archers going the other way -- sisters, off to the battle, bows in hand and quivers on their backs, their gambesons prim and proper, high leather boots plodding upon the stone floor as they passed, some with leather coifs covering their heads, others with spears in hand, all with that same determination etched on their faces as they raced to defend their home. The torchlight provided enough light for him to make out who they were: all women, none he recognized, some young enough to take Art aback: some of the ones they were sending into battle probably hadn't even seen their fifteenth birthday.
For a moment Art froze. He had a sword and shield in hand, and he wasn't sure but maybe, just maybe, the defending Rogues could use some help. If he went with them… but that would mean leaving his caravan-mates behind. He didn't want to lose sight of his friends at a dangerous time like this. Who knew if they'd come under attack the moment they turned a corner and he could have helped? Besides, they'd wonder what happened to him. He couldn't bear to let them worry so. And the archers could use his help, too. In case the invaders got that far.
Which led his thoughts back to the Rogues. They needed help and they needed that help now, and he'd be damned if he didn't give them that help when he most definitely could. He had his arms at hand and his armor about him; what excuse did he have? Could he stand aside while girls went to brave the dangers he, a grown man, would not dare to face? Would he follow Taril and live to one day tell his grandchildren of how he had shirked his chivalric duty to fight when the battle beckoned?
No, of course he couldn't.
His hand reached out to the last of a squad of the women archers racing the other way, and held her back by the shoulder, causing her to turn around with a questioning look. "Miss, I can fight," he said, raising his ensworded scabbard up and giving it a little shake for emphasis. "See? I have a sword!"
"Go with the others," she replied, giving him a light push in the direction Taril and the others had gone, before taking off after the rest of her squad.
It was then he noticed several others who were facing him… members of the caravan though not anyone he recognized, a crone, a young boy, a svelte lady and his partner, and a toddler, with not a weapon among them, who had stopped to see his transient discussion with the archer. Oh, right he was in the way. He stepped aside to allow them to pass. One by one they gave him and his sword and shield meaningful looks, their eyes saying, what are you doing just standing there, don't you have a battle to fight? Were those accusatory leers, mocking his indecisiveness?
No, he was a swordsman, he reminded himself, and not just any swordsman: he had taken years of direct instruction from masters of not one, but two schools. With his thumb he fingered the silver crest of the wing engraved upon the pommel of his sword -- a crest earned by and borne only by those who had risen to the title of first sword and proven themselves a master of the ways of the Flying Feather School.
The one who'd spared him not a second glance had of course not known that. It would be up to him to prove his mettle to her, by stepping up to the battle and fighting whatever invaders were threatening the archers.
The archers who had already all disappeared around the corner of the hallway.
"Oh come on," said Art as he rolled his head. He turned his head, watched as the rest of the group of caravaners filed off into the distance, around a corner to safety, then turned to back to face the direction of the clanging and screams. It had gotten a lot louder now, a lot closer. "Ah, damn it," he cursed and took off after the archers, passing the doors of several other guest bedrooms as he went and noting that a handful of caravaners still remained inside them, taking their time to get their assets in order.
He rounded the corner of the hallway, turned right and proceeded down a narrow, short corridor to find several of the archers forming a ring around the top of a spiral stairwell, their bows held outstretched, arrows nocked and pointed downward, ready to draw. Those standing in front of the stairwell held their javelins raised over their right shoulder, ready to lunge at an instant.
"Um, gals, what's going on here?" he asked of them, waited a moment as they continued to stare downward. "Hello?" He looked from one to another. "I know it's a late night and you girls are tired… you know what, forget it."
He'd… not expected them to have stopped here. He wasn't familiar with the layout of the monastery but he'd expected from the way the archers were rushing this way, that this would be a stairwell up to a turret overlooking the battlements. Any invader would have to overcome the outer cloister walls in order to make their way into the monastery proper. But going down? He had thought they were already at ground level, though now he couldn't be so sure. Had the enemy already breached the walls then? If that was the case then which way were the caravaners going to be fleeing? He cursed himself for not having taken note of the layout earlier.
Chancing a look over the railing, he saw that it was just one spiral, one flight of stairs to the bottom, the floor below. The stairwell was empty; no civilians rushing up from below. He rushed to take the flight of stairs down, his boots pitter-pattering against its wood as he descended. As he rounded the bottom of the stairwell he could see light from bursts of fire reflecting off the stone walls, smelt a tinge of smoke in the air, heard the sizzling and crackling of electricity, the sounds of shattering ice, the ring of metal skipping off metal, and cries of pain.
Was that the weapons of the enemy, or that of the defending archers? He tried to recall what ways the Order of the Sightless Eye taught. Ways involving enchanting arrows with fire and lightning? He was pretty sure some of the Rogues of the order were taught a way allowing them to loose arrows out of thin air in case they ever ran out of actual arrows, and if rumors were to believed, a way for their arrows to hunt their targets as if possessed with a mind all its own, but elemental sorcery? That he couldn't be sure of. If they didn't, then that meant the invaders were casting fire and lightning, and these youngling archers didn't seem the type that would be prepared for that eventuality. Perhaps there he could be of assistance?
Along the connecting corridor several of the archers were nocking arrows to their bows, and as he approached them he could see their nervousness, their unsurety, in the way they kept looking to each other and kept adjusting their footing. The nearest noticed his approach and gestured with an arm to shoo him away. "What are you doing here? Leave now!" -- "Leave, already? But I just got to the party!" -- "…Party?" she cocked her head and made a grimacing face that read of outright disbelief. -- "I said, I've--"
"Front line, retreat!" a female voice called out from just out of Art's sight, and the archer he was speaking to whipped her head around to look down the hallway they were all facing and raised her bow, preparing to aim, to give a covering volley to those further down the hallway as they retreated.
Art walked up and peeked around the corner of the wall to see a column of archers racing right at him, the closest one practically about to run into him. "Out of our way with you!" the one shouted right in his face. -- "Ah! Out of your way with me," he shouted in surprise, and turned and bolted down the hallway so as to not get in their way, then realized he had no place to go but up the stairwell from whence he'd descended, so up he went, with the mass of archers hot on his heels. With a single flap of wings might I glide through the sky, horizon to horizon might I fly, he thought, and with the Flying Feather's way in mind, he bounded up the flight in four leaping steps.
Behind him he heard that same commanding voice call out, "We will hold them back at the top of the stairs! You lot, don't hold here, move move move!" Followed by the sound of crackling lightning.
Upon reaching the top of the stairwell Art moved to a slight alcove in the room to give the archers room to ascend. For the first time he caught a glimpse of the commander of the archers: an archer in her own right, decked out in mail, her auburn hair tied back in a ponytail, her quiver devoid of arrows. "I want two lines around the stairwell." As soon as she finished speaking, the two dozen archers gathered here formed two concentric rings around the top of the stairwell, with the first ring kneeling right before the stair railing and the second ring standing behind and over them, leaning over the railing, all of them with their arrows nocked against their bows.
Art looked over the arrayed archers - distraught, tense, with tears falling down some of their cheeks. The screams were getting closer now, getting louder until it was right below them. Several of the archers cry out in grief as one of the archers below cried out, "Help, help me! He--" and just as suddenly her scream cut off. Seconds later, the last of the archers rounded the top of the stairwell, panting.
For a few seconds a pregnant silence echoed through the halls.
Art looked around and counted them in disbelief. He'd seen at least several dozen archers manning the walls when the caravan had first arrived at the gates of the outer cloister, and a place such as this was certain to have more of them elsewhere. In the, what, one minute tops? from when he'd awoken to when he'd emerged into the hallway, he'd have wagered a pretty penny or two that at least five dozen rogues had passed by the hallway. Here there were only two dozen. Where were the other archers? Did they stay with the caravaners, to give them protection in case they came under attack from a different direction, or defending another chokepoint further back? They weren't still manning the battlements, unaware of the situation, were they? Or, he thought with a tinge of worry, had the rest of them fallen already?
He had yet to catch a glimpse of what the archers were fighting. He couldn't come up with a plan of attack until he did. His old master had once told him that a true master of the Order of the Flying Feather could stand toe to toe with just about anyone of any skill level in any of the ways. He'd seen the sparring and the inter-order challenges to prove it. But Art himself was no master, and if the invaders were, then he'd not be able to hold his own.
Tapping the nearest archer on the shoulder, he asked, "Just what in the hells are we fighting? What's down there?"
He saw, in her eyes when she turned around, an utterly bewildered look. Just what monster had they seen, what horrors had they witnessed? At times like this he wished he could see what they'd seen.
She didn't reply, merely turning back to looking down the stairwell. "Well it can't be that bad, is it?" When she still didn't reply: "Oh, it's that bad, is it?"
Who the hell were they fighting? Was it, as Tyler thought, the king's men? What other faction could have the intelligence to penetrate the Rogues' defenses, the power to force the Rogues back in their own facility? Was it hundreds of men, or had a single martial artist managed to fight his way through on his own? Perhaps someone of Art's own caliber?
His palms felt cold, the heat of battle having rushed from his limbs to his head. Readjusting his grip on his kite shield, he realized that, unlike all the archers here, he was holding a shield and that he wasn't making any use of it. This lot were all archers - he didn't see more than a handful of spears among them - and when the enemy advanced up the stairwell the Rogues would need someone to block them. That of course, would be him.
With a look of determination, he went to the start of the descending stairs and tried to push aside a pair of archers with his shield. When they looked askance at him, he replied, "I will hold this line."
Then a beastly roar shook the very foundations of the stairwell. Art took an unconscious step back, sagged where he stood, grimacing, his offer forgotten as they all shared a collective held breath as the silence resumed for but seconds. "Okay, I take that back. Pretend you didn't hear that?" When the archers summarily ignored him, "Ah perfect. You pretend very well."
A heavy thud broke the silence, and the two rows of archers simultaneously drew back their arrows for a first volley. But before they could shoot, came another thud and a third in rapid succession, and then an attacker was up the stairwell. Something massive, though it remained hidden from Art's sight by the archers arrayed before him. The stone of the stairwell reflected light fiery and white as the archers loosed arrows of enchanted fire and captured lightning every which way. A heavy thud as archers were sent flying back from the brim, to smash into walls and collapse inert upon the floor. The wooden railing, blasted off its supports and hinges, shattered into lethal shrapnel and embedding into flesh and bone. Other archers, thrown onto the floor in that same stroke. A second later another impact sent more of the archers diving headfirst or hindfirst into the walls. Screams of terror, cries of pain, and a halting, lone voice calling for another retreat--
Oh gods, what the hell are we even fighting? Art thought in horror as it began to dawn on him that this was no mere human the Rogues were fighting. How could he … could he even… what was he thinking in coming here? And the throng of archers, their faces a rictus of fear beneath the light of the stairwell torches, were taking steps back and turning and making for the exit, coming toward him as he stood closest to the exit--
Without even realizing it, Art backed out of the stairwell and out into the adjacent corridor as several of the archers fled right into him, the throng pushing him further and further back, tripping into each other and losing grasp of their bows in their bid to flee. Then they were past him, out the corridor, turning left and fleeing down the hall, and Art found himself taking additional steps backward from the stairwell entrance, his shield clutched in his hands and held right in front of him, as if it would provide him a modicum of protection from whatever was within.
Before him, the last remaining archers were trying to fight the attacker off while retreating, their high-pitched shrieks unintelligible over the din. Art backed out of the corridor, turned to proceed ten steps down the hallway, and turned to look into the nearest guest bedroom. He noted from the dim light cast into it from the hallway torches, that some of the civilians were still busy getting ready to flee.
It couldn't have been more than two minutes since he and Warriv had parted, but Art had expected them to know better. Anger rose within him. Out in the corridor and the stairwell, young women, some even girls, were dying, all to buy these stragglers a few more precious seconds, and they in their cluelessness were taking their merry time, rummaging through their chests for more belongings to take, or perhaps others' chests for objects of value to swipe. Insolent fools. "Leave everything behind and run, you idiots!" Art shouted at them, then proceeded fifteen feet further back to another guest bedroom, shouting at the stragglers there, "We're out of time!"
Instead of turning to flee, they redoubled their efforts to finish packing.
Art groaned, realizing that at the rate he had seen the defending force fall apart under the onslaught, these last few caravaners wouldn't be able to make it out in time, there were only seconds left. The archers were just about all fallen, now, and what could one swordsman do where so many Rogues had failed? And yet, that same code bound him to stand guard, to give the defenseless just a few more seconds…
The thought of facing off against whatever creature had just torn through several dozen archers made his heart beat palpably against his chest. He could feel his pulse racing. He took several deep breaths to calm himself, and raised his sword and shield, alone in the middle of the narrow hallway. "Just for a few seconds…"
Yes, if it was just a few seconds, he could manage. He'd learned to fight from the best, after all, and had been accepted as an adept of both the Flying Feather School and the Arid Mesa School. He wasn't about to bring shame upon his masters, who had taught him many of the ways, among them Arid Mesa's way of the monolith.
Planting his feet down firmly, left foot ahead and right foot behind, his shield set before him, he leaned forward with a slight crouch. He began to focus his mind inward and thought, as if chanting, For a hundred years here I have stood. The winds blow past, the rains pound down, yet day after day I hold fast, implacable, unmoving, unbreaking.
Another archer fled out the hallway connected to the stairs, turning to run past him. He saw the blood caked all over her limbs and gambeson, saw the delirium in her eyes as she raced past without any hint of recognition of his presence. She slammed right into him as she made her way past, but with the way firmly in mind, Art did not budge an inch.
For a thousand years we stand. Moons wax and wane, seasons change and cycle, yet month after month do we still stand, never changing, never budging, never yielding.
Another archer followed her but barely made it into the hallway before a giant clawed limb grasped her by the ankle, causing her to fall."No no no help someone help!" she screamed at the top of her lungs and cried to crawl out into the hallway, but was swiftly dragged back into the corridor, out of Art's view.
Art felt a sudden pang of fear in his chest. That was no invading army, no master of any way, but something altogether different. Something he'd had no experience fighting before.
"Oh gods," she choked out, muted, as if resigned to her fate. A crunch of breaking skull and snapping spine, and he heard her no more.
He hadn't taken a single step forward to save her. For any lesser man, the fear would have rooted him in place. For Art, it was the way of hardened self and steeled resolve that had done so. His mind had entered the peace of an eternal moment, making him at one with the virtue of the unyielding.
For ten thousand years yet shall we all stand. Saplings grow and trees fall, towns rise and their ruins decay, yet year after year will we all remain, indestructible, immortal, invincible.
WIth a thud it stepped out into the hallway. Only then did Art see the beast clearly for the first time: a frame the bulk of ten men, spiked scaly tail the the girth and length of a full-grown anaconda, reddish black scales covering every inch of its body, arms and legs each bulkier than a grown man, foot-long claws a-drip with blood, two curved horns jutting out the top of its head, two rows of jagged teeth in the rictus of a grin, gleaming red eyes settling on him.
He dropped his shield and ran.