Underspire Writing Contest – The Watch
by L. Swift
The two men at arms stood watch atop the palisades. The darkness engulfed the fields beneath them, the light of torches that illuminated the dirt road barely penetrating the pervasive gloom. Fat snowflakes drifted down in the chill air, briefly catching the glow of the flames before vanishing into the dark night. The snow had begun to settle, the frost on the grass below glistening in the flickering firelight.
The new recruit blew on his frozen hands in a vain attempt to breathe warmth back into his frozen digits. The chill was seeping through his thick woollen uniform and he stamped his feet in an effort to keep the circulation going. His companion glanced over at the noise.
“Freezing, sir,” said the recruit, not sure how much cheek he could get away with. His companion reached into his tunic and pulled out a hip flask, tossing it towards him.
“Take a swig of this.”
He obliged, stiff fingers fumbling with the cap. The whiskey burnt his throat and lit a fire in his stomach. He wheezed and handed the flask back.
“Oof, strong stuff.”
“You’ll soon learn to pack your own. The watch is long on nights like this.”
The recruit studied his companion. He was a seasoned veteran, easily a good few decades on him. His grizzled face held the traces of faint scars gained in long-forgotten battles, his eyes the hardness of one who had seen far too many good men die inglorious deaths. His calloused hand rested on the pommel of his sword, relaxed, yet with the tension of one who knows he may need to seize it in any moment. He was staring out into the darkness beyond the palisades, watching for something that may not have even been there.
“You new to this, boy?”
The recruit started, surprised and embarrassed that his staring had been noticed “Aye, sir. Well, to the army; I joined three weeks ago, but with fighting-”
“What fighting have you done?”
“Bandits, sir, our area had a problem with bandits coming in from the pass, so we’d have to occasionally clear them out. I was-”
“Bandits!” The veteran snorted “That’s not fighting.”
The recruit bristled “In all fairness sir, when a man is charging at you swinging a sword I think that counts as fighting.”
“Aye lad, and so is your missus punching the barmaid. I’m talking about actual fighting, out on the battlefield. Fighting wars, not clearing out bandits from their shacks in the woods.”
The recruit bit back a treasonous sharp reply, instead taking a deep breath and letting out a sigh that drifted away as mist on the cold air “No, sir, I’ve not been assigned to combat yet. Though I hear that may be likely soon!”
“That’s nothing to be excited about, lad.” The veteran straightened, stretching out his stiffened spine “It’s nights like this you learn to be excited about. The quiet, the calm. I’d rather a thousand nights like this than one on the battlefield.”
The recruit’s eyebrows rose in surprise “But the men in the camp, they all say you-”
“That I’m a hero? An inspiration?” The veteran snorted “I’m sure they’ve regaled you with the stories of how I struck down the Jarl and retrieved our colours, or when I dragged that injured noble’s arse to safety with three arrows sticking out my side. But I’m sure they never told you of how many comrades I’ve seen hacked to pieces besides me, how many times I’ve had to stick my sword into some poor bastard to save him a worse death. War’s not the adventure you think it is, boy. They sell you stories of the glory, but never of the reality. Besides,” his eyes grew hard, continuing to stare out into the darkness “From what I hear, the Spires have started to stir a few leagues away from here. We may have to deal with their kind soon enough.”
“The Spires?!” The recruit’s voice came out a higher pitch than he intended “I’ve…I’ve heard the stories about them, but I’ve never…” he looked out into the night, as though expecting them to suddenly materialise in the gloom “Are…is what they say true about them?”
The veteran chuckled “Probably, probably not. They say a lot of things.”
“Have you fought the Spires?”
“Aye,” his expression darkened “I’m not a praying man, but if there’s true evil in this world, it takes the form of them damned Spires.”
“Have you seen them?” asked the recruit, a terrible curiosity filling his mind “As in…”
“You mean have I been face to face with them? Aye, and I’ve killed more than a few too. You never forget your first battle against the Spires. I mean, you see plenty of horrors during war, but these things…” He trailed off as unpleasant memories resurfaced, and when he spoke again his voice was steeled and steady.
“The first thing you notice about them is how quiet they are. War is a noisy business; those Nords scream at you like a landlord at closing time, the Dwegholm clash their shields and sing war chants, but with the Spires…there’s nothing. Just silence, marching in unison. They don’t even have nobles bawling orders at them or sergeants with sticks up their arses telling them what to do. Instead they have this bloke with a big stick waving smells around.”
“Smells? Now I know you’re taking the piss.”
“Naw lad, it’s the truth, and I wouldn’t believe it either if I hadn’t hacked down a few in my time. They control their soldiers with scents. In the heat of battle when you’re elbow deep in some poor bastard’s innards you can smell it, this awful cloying stink, like sweet perfume mixed with a slaughterhouse. It sends them Spires mad. You could have broken a regiment and sent them packing, then this smell comes wafting in on the wind and suddenly they rally and turn on you like a pack of rabid dogs. No idea how they do it. Had an alchemist once tell me it something that ants do, but to be honest I think he’d been at his own potions if you know what I mean.” A smile twitched his lip “I used to know a captain who claimed he could understand the smells. Said he’d fought the Spires so many times he could tell which scent meant what. Which meant attack, which meant retreat, all of it. It was like intercepting the enemy’s orders. He was a good man. Unfortunately ended up on the business end of a Jotnar’s club. They say they found what was left of him two miles away.”
The recruit winced. “So they’re just quiet? That doesn’t sound too bad.”
“Sure it’s not; it’s unnerving for sure, but you soon get used to. The real problem is when you get in close. That’s when you realise what you’re up against.” He took a shuddering sigh as if to steal himself, then turned away from his watch and fixed his companion a harsh glare.
“They ain’t human. I don’t mean like how the Dwegholm ain’t human, they’re still flesh and blood under all that hard steel, these Spires are more like…” he trailed off, struggling to find the words to articulate the monstrous “Their flesh is pale, like a corpse left out in the sun for too long. Covered in growths, like they’re riddled with cancers. They wear no armour, just hard shells like beetles. Just as good for stopping your sword as plate, though. And their faces…” he shuddered “That shell goes all over their faces, like a mask, except it’s sewn onto them. Once tried to pull one off a dead trooper. The entire front of his skull came off. They’re brittle, these Spires, but there’s a lot of them. Well, the little ones that is.”
“The LITTLE ones?!”
“Oh aye. They have their footsoldiers, just like me and you, but they have their big guys too. Brutes, we call them. Twice your size and five times as wide. Nothing but pure muscle and rage. They hammer blades into their arms, so these bastards go flailing about smashing everything they touch to pieces. Saw one cleave a knight and his horse in half with one blow. My advice? Stay back and let the crossbows handle them.”
“Noted,” shuddered the recruit.
“I once saw one even worse,” he paused, as though unsure whether or not to keep his companion in happy ignorance “Several years ago I was stationed in a keep just off the borders of Norvden. The Spires had been laying siege to it for a good few days, but the lads were as solid as the walls and held them off. And that’s when they brought it in. This…this thing, this abomination. Size of the castle walls it was, four jumbled legs under it, and it just strode over the moat like it was a puddle. Great claws as long as your arms latched onto the battlements and just started tearing them down. Took us nearly all our arrows to bring it down. No matter how much we struck at it it kept coming. And the whole time…it was crying.”
“Aye, crying. You don’t need to speak whatever infernal tongue they do to understand what it was saying. That thing was begging for death. I don’t think it was natural. I think…they made it. And it still remembered what it used to be. That was why it wanted us to kill it. We obliged, of course. Lost a lot of good men putting that thing out of its misery.”
He pulled out his hip flask and took a long draught. After a pause he took another. Silence reigned between them, the still falling snow muffling even the wind.
“I hear…” said the recruit, tentatively breaking the silence “I hear they collect the bodies.”
“Oh aye, they do. Living, dead, doesn’t matter. Once the fight is over they strip the battlefield clean. They leave the equipment and the gold, they just take the bodies. Just load them up and take them back to those towers of theirs.”
“What do they do with them? Eat them?”
“I wouldn’t put it past them. But I think the truth is far worse. They don’t use equipment like we do. Their spears are just sticks with bone on the end. Instead they have their weight of numbers. No matter how many of their troops you chop down more come spilling out of their towers. They need those resources somehow.”
“What do you-”
“Remember what I said about that abomination?”
“That it…oh gods above!”
“Nasty business.” The veteran uncorked his flask again, raised it to his lips and paused. His companion was as white as a sheet, eyes wide in horror as the implications sunk in. The veteran passed the flask to him instead, and he took several long gulps.
“Now look lad, I don’t mean to be scaring you with all these stories. But war with the Spires ain’t like clearing out some bandits. You know where you stand with bandits. The Spires though, they’re something else. They’re not natural. So when you’re fighting them, you give it all you’ve got. Show them no fear and show them no mercy, because you’ll be damned sure that they won’t show it to you either.”
The recruit nodded slowly and handed the flask back. The veteran’s expression softened and he changed the subject to ease his companion’s nerves.
“So, what will you be doing once your service is over?”
“Me?” The recruit found his voice again, wavering slightly but soon finding strength “I’ll be heading home, use my payment to set up shop. My uncle runs a mercantile business out near the ports, I’m sure he’d appreciate me expanding his reach inland.”
“That’s good,” he nodded “Trade your soldier’s shilling for some honest work.”
“What about you?”
“Me?” the veteran smiled wryly “I ain’t going anywhere lad. War is the only trade I know. There’s nowhere for old soldiers like me. I’ll keep marching until my hand can’t hold my sword no more.”
“But surely you can’t-”
“Don’t worry about me lad, I made peace with my path a long time ago. You go earn your pay, go home and settle down. Find a nice girl and regale your kiddies with tales about that time you went to war. Then when his old broken soldier comes limping past on patrol one day give him a seat by the fire and a shot of whiskey, and it’ll all be worth it.”
The recruit laughed “I’ll make it two shots and a plate of dinner, how’s that?”
The veteran grinned “That’s a deal lad, and don’t think that I’ll be for-”
His words choked off with a gurgle. The recruit turned, freezing in shock. The veteran’s eyes were wide in surprise, thick black blood bubbling from his mouth. A blade of bone protruded from his chest, slick and stained, retreating back into body and out the other side with a faint hiss. He crumpled, body spasming as the blood drowned his lungs before falling limp and still.
And now he could see the creature that had stood behind him. It was tall and thin, with elongated limbs clad in bony protuberances. Its bare flesh was taut and sallow, splattered with fresh red lifeblood. A thick, cloying scent of sweet flowers and rot filled the air. Its face was a featureless carapace of bone, and as he stared it split open with a wet crunch, like limbs snapping in the rain. Beneath was a raw mass of muscle and a gaping maw, lined with jagged teeth, and from within came a sing-song voice.
“Is what they say true about them? Is what they say true about them?”
He recoiled in horror, hearing his own voice echoing out from the creature before him. He reached for his sword but in the blink of an eye the creature lunged forward, smashing him into the edge of the palisade. He tried to call but there was a kiss of bone across his throat and in an instant the creature was gone, bounding away into the darkness.
He grabbed at his slit throat, the boiling blood pouring outwards and scalding his hands. He couldn’t get his words out, his breath drowning under the blood that just wouldn’t stop. He had to raise the alarm, yet his strength was ebbing away and his legs refused to support him. He dragged himself upright, staring out into the fields beyond, and his weakening heart pulsed in terror.
From the darkness came an army, silent as the grave, their hard shells flickering in the torchlight knocked aside by towering brutes. The falling snow distorted their images, emerging like ghosts from some abyssal void. From within the camp came screams and cries as the defenders were caught off-guard, scrabbling for their weapons as the camp was overrun by an implacable foe.
The recruit slumped down, propping himself up against the palisade. Darkness was creeping into the edges of his vision, the noise of the butchery fading into the distance. He struggled for breath, his useless hands like clay as he futilely tried to keep the slowing tide of blood back. And then a huge hand reached up and grasped the edge of the sharpened palisade besides him, and with the last of his strength he looked up. Towering above him was an immense creature, a monster of flesh and hardened carapace, sinews straining as it hauled its enormous bulk over the fortifications. Its face passed over him, an expressionless porcelain mask welded into its flesh, and his fading eyes met with its blank, polished orbs.
And as he sank into oblivion, he heard the sound of crying.