User:HMSVictory/Rise And Fall/Awakening
'The distinction between Trade and Warfare is seen only by those who have no experience of either.'
- -Dumac, High King of the Dwemer,
- from his inaugural address
cheydark looked up from his work. 'I bet you and the men are wondering how long we'll be dug in to this hell-hole,' he said. 'The truth is, I can't tell you. This is a war of attrition. Always has been, and always will be. We could be here for months.'
Mzand was now feeling so warm and satisfied by the good meal he had just eaten that the general could have told him his mother had been murdered by Chimer and he wouldn't have worried much.
'Sir?' Pthuch's voice was a sudden intruder into the gentle calm.
Ncheydark looked up. 'What is it, Rhend?'
'I think... that is... I think there's an attack coming.'
Mzand chuckled. 'How could you know-' he began but the general cut him off.
'Somehow, Pthuch's sensed each attack so far before it's come. Each one. Seems he has a gift for anticipating hammer-fall. Perhaps it's his young ears.' Ncheydark crooked a wry grin at Mzand. 'Do you want to argue, eh?'
Mzand was about to answer when the first wail of fire howled in.
Ncheydark lept to his feet, knocking the camp table over. It was the sudden motion rather than the scream of battlefield spells which made Mzand leap up in shock. 'Ncheydark was scrabbling for his sword, hanging in its scabbard on a hook by the steps. He ran to it and grabbed it, calling out to his brethren telepathically.
'Ncheydark to all castes! To arms! To arms! Prepare for maximum resistance!'
Mzand didn't wait for any further instruction. He was already up the steps and banging through the mesh curtains as volleys of fireballs assaulted their positions. Huge plumes of smoke and grey vapourised earth spat up from the main wall behind him and the narrow battlement was full of yells of suddenly animated guards, and the hiss of suddenly animated centurions.
A bolt of lightning flashed down low across his position and dug a hole the size of a house behind the rear breastwork of the nearest wall. Liquid mud drizzled down on him. Mzand pulled his shortsword from its sling and paced up towards the top of the stone bulkhead. There was chaos, panic, soldiers running in every direction, screaming and shouting.
Was this it? Was this the final moment in the long drawn-out conflict they had found themselves in? Mzand tried to slide up the side of the stone ramp far enough to get a sight over the lip, across no-man's land to the enemies' emplacements. All he could see was smoke and charging troops.
There were several clangs of weapons and several accompanying screams. More fireballs fell. One of them found the centre of a nearby supplies trench. Then the screaming became real and immediate. The dirzzle that fell on him was no longer water and mud. There were body parts in it.
Mzand cursed and wiped his face clean of filth. Behind him he heard a shout, a powerful voice that echoed along the traverses of the bulkhead and seemed to shake the very rock itself. He looked back to see General Ncheydark emerge from his tent.
Ncheydark was now dressed in his full battle armour, but had left his helmet. The cape of his adopted battalion swirling about his shoulders, his face an ancient mask of bellowing rage. He carried with him his mighty warhammer, which blazed and sang with enchantments in the early morning air.
'In the name of Resdayn! Now they are on us we must fight! Hold the line and do not leave your positions until they come to you!'
Mzand felt a rejoicing in his soul. The general was with them and they would succeed, no matter the odds. Then something closed down his world with a vibratory shock that blew mud up into the air an seemed to separate his spirit from his body.
The bulkhead he was in had taken a direct hit. Dozens of men were dea, and stone fragments flew into the air. Mzand lay stunned in the broken line of defenses. A hand grabbed him by the shoulder and hauled him up. Blinking, he looked up to see the face of Ncheydark. Nchedark looked at him with a solemn yet inspiring gaze.
'Sleeping after a good breakfast?' the general enquired of the bewildered soldier.
'No sir... I... I...'
The fierce roar of melee combat and destruction spells began to envelope them from around the armoured loopholes in the bulkhead wall. Ncheydark wrenched Mzand back to his feet, his strength enhanced by his annointed armour.
'I think the time has come,' Ncheydark said, 'and I'd like all of my brave men to be in line with me when we advance.'
Spitting out grey mud, Mzand laughed. 'I'm with you, sir,' he said, 'from Red Mountain to wherever we end up.'
Mzand heard the buzz of Ncheydark's massive hammer as the general leapt up the scaling ladder fused into the stone wall above the firestep and yelled to his scattered men.
'Men of Resdayn! Do you want to live forever?'
Their reply, loud and raucous, was lost in the fury of combat. But Colm Ncheydark knew what they had said.
Weapons swinging, Ncheydark's Crusaders went over the top and blasted their way towards glory, death, or whatever else awaited them in the smoke.
he night sky was matt and dark, like the material of their fatigues they wore, day after day. The dawn stabbed in, as silent and sudden as a knife-wound, welling up in a dull redness through the black cloth of the sky.
Eventually the sun rose, casting a raw amber light down over the temporary huts. The star was big, heavy and red, like a rotten, roasted fruit. Dawn lightning crackled several miles away.
Jex woke, acknowledged briefly the thousand aches and snarls in his limbs and frame, and rolled out of his hammock in his shelter's only room. His small, booted feet kissed into the grey dust of the ground.
Jex was an unnaturally Bosmer on the wrong side of forty, built like a weasel and going to bone. His slim but hairy forearms were decorated with blue spiral tattoos and his beard was thick and shaggy. He wore the black webbing and fatigues of the archeological team and also the ubiquitous cloak which had become their trademark. He also shared the pale complexion of many of his people, but carried with him a mane of deep brown hair. He was the team architect of the Empire's foremost archeological dig crew, the so-called Steinteeth.
He yawned. Down the hill, in the tents and shelters sporadically set up over the area, the Steinteeth awoke too. There were coughs, gasps, soft yelps as nightmares became real in the light of waking. Matches struck, tools were unswaddled and the damp cleaned off. Precision instruments were carefully packed. Food parcels were unhooked from their vermin-proof positions up on the shelter roofs.
Shuffling in the ash, Jex stretched and cast an eye down the long, dark, zigzag rock formations outside to see where the mercenary scouts and sentries were returning, pale and weary, asleep on their feet.
The dark grey cloaks of the mercenaries, the distinctive uniform of the group, were lank and stiff with ash cast up by the movement of feet. Their replacements, already at the camp perimeter, bleary eyed and and puffy, slapped them on the arms as they passed, exchanging jokes and flin. The night sentries, though, were too weary to be forthcoming.
Several yards away, Mad Larkin, the group's fossil expert, was cooking up something that approximated ash yams in a battered metal tray over a wood fire. The acrid stink hooked Jex by the nostrils.
'Give me some of that, Larks,' the Bosmer said, pacing across the dull ground.
Larkin was a well-built yet unhealthily pale Imperial in his fifties with three huge scars on his left arm and wiry brown hair that reached his shoulders. He offered up a misshapen ceramic cup. There was a fragile look of fatigue and fear in his wrinkled eyes. 'This morning, do you reckon? This morning?'
Jex pursed his lip, enjoying the warmth of the cup in his hand.
'Probably. Depends whether that damned director can organise everyone.'
Jex glanced up at the dull sky and sipped his drink. It was almost unbearably disgusting. 'Good stuff,' he muttered to Larkin.
The director's tent was large, accessed only by a small cloth drapery over one side wich parted in the middle. Inside, the light was a dull orange from the many lanterns adorning thr interior wooden supports. The floor was covered in an array of carpets and rugs and there were even such marks of civilisation as shelves, books, charts and an armoa of decent alcohol.
Sliding into the main tent, Jex noticed first Brin Milo, the young Redguard trainee the team had aquired during their expeditions in Stros M'kai. Word was, Milo had been rescued personally from a cave collapse by the director himself, and this bond had lem him to his status of team courier and adjutant to the senior officer. Jex didn't like to be around the boy much. There was that smoething about his youth and his brightness of eye that reminded him of the dangers of their work.
Milo was setting out breakfast on a small table. The smell was delicious: cooking kwama eggs and scrib jerky and some toasted bread. Jex envied the director, his position and his luxuries.
'Has the director slept well?' Jex asked.
'He hasn't slept at all,' Milo replied. 'He's been up through the night reviewing finds and planning today's expedition.'
So it would be today. Jex hesitated in the entranceway to the director's corner of the main tent, made private by an arrangement of wallscreens and crates.
'Come in, sit yourself down.' At first, Jex though Milo had spoken, but it was the director himself. Ra'jish Khazura emerged from the rear chamber looking pale and drawn. He was dressed in his usual leather clothes, covered in silk stitchings indictaing his senior position. He gestured Jex to the seat opposite him at his small study table and then swung down onto the other stool.
Jex hesitated again and then sat at the place indictaed.
Khazura was a tall, hard Khajiit in his forties, and his lean face utterly matched his reputation. Team Architect Jex admired the director less than a mountain adventurer admires a cliff racer, but had worked with him for more than six years now.
Khazura seemed more tired than Jex had ever seen, and he didn't trust this feline to bring them through. If anyone was going to completely destroy this mission, it would be Ra'jish Khazura. He was a rare beast, a political officer who had been granted leadership of a logistical team with absolutely no prior acheological experience.
'I'm sorry to interrupt your breakfast, director,' Jex said, sitting uneasily at the camp table, fussing with the purse of scout reports he was carrying.
'Not at all, Jex. In fact, you're just in time to join me.'
A feeling of intense loathing sept over Jex, and he hesitated once more, not knowing if this was a joke. They were supposed to be making their final inspection of the entire expedition today, and Khazura was asking him waste valuable time eating breakfast he neither wanted nor needed?
'I'm serious,' Khazura said. 'You look as hungry as I feel. And I'm sure Brin has cooked up more than enough for two.'
As if on cue, the boy produced two ceramic plates of food - mashed kwama eggs and cooked srib jerky with toasted chunks of bread. Jex looked at the plate in front of him, wondering how such fresh ingredients could be found in the Ashlands, as Khazura tucked into his with relish.
'Go on, eat up. It's not every day you get a chance to eat officer's rations,' Khazura said, wolfing down a forkful of scuttle.
Jex nervously picked up his own fork and began to eat. It was the best meal he'd had in weeks. It reminded him of his lost days as an apprentice woodsman in the mills of Valenwood, back beofre his enlisting, of the wholesome suppers served on the long tables of the courtyard after last shift. Before long, he was consuming the breakfast with as much gusto as the director, who smiled at him appreciatively.
The boy Milo then produced two bottles of Shein, and it was time to talk business.
'So, what do the dispatches tell us this morning?' Khazura started.
'I don't know, sir,' Jex said, pulling out the the report envelope and dropping it onto the tabletop in front of him. 'I just carry these things. I never ask what's in them.'
Khazura paused for a moment, chewing a mouthful of eggs. He took a long sip of his drink an then reached out for the envelope.
Jex though to look away as Khazura unsealed the paper packet an read out the written scripts contained within.
'It's today. You're going today. It says here that the conditions are the best as they are likely to be for a long time.' Khazura looked at Jex. 'Take the whole first team in with you.'
'But we have no time to prepare...' Jex replied hastily.
Gaunt cut him off. 'Look, this is our chance. This is the last stop, and we need to be back in Ebonheart within seven days.'
Jex considered arguing, but gave in. There was no way he could persuade the incompetent director to give them time to prepare.
(More coming soon)