The streets were growing quiet. The citizens of Pastrino were returning home, no doubt awaiting a warming supper after a hard day’s work. Being the height of summer, the sky was still light despite the bell tower chiming out six times. While still light, the sky could hardly be called bright though as storm clouds were building above.
Lieutenant William Gapon observed all of this passively as he patrolled through the city. He was a tall, well-built man with short brown hair that descended into a flowing ponytail at the back. His face was bland, emotionless, yet in no way hard, and his brown eyes never ceased their slow study of their surroundings. His uniform was neatly pressed but had clearly seen wear.
Since becoming a lieutenant, he had been offered a paper intensive role in the castle but had turned it down without thought. The streets were in his blood, they were where the guards were really needed. So now he was head of city patrols, despite never having expressed any desire to lead.
He followed his usual path through the market then around past the church before meeting with a small group of guards beside the smithy’s forge. They greeted him and he nodded back.
“Been a quiet day, Lieutenant. After the riot the other day, normal seems kinda dull,” muttered one of the younger guards.
Gapon smiled slightly. His voice was soft, almost poetic, but his language never strayed from the point. “So long as it stays uneventful tonight under my watch. You lads finished?”
“Aye, sir,” answered the youth. He was a stick of a man but Gapon knew him to be a good fighter. “A quick catch-up with the boys then some grub and a kip for me.”
“I’ll leave you to it then,” Gapon said with a salute before continuing on his way.
The clouds were growing darker above. Gapon frowned but showed nothing else at the prospect of a rainy night. He met with fewer people as he walked until only figures beyond windows were visible for the most part. A city like Pastrino would never have empty streets but most got the idea to be inside when those clouds decided to burst.
He turned a corner and stopped abruptly. He thought that he had seen something moving through the sky. Glancing between the rooftops and the snaking aqueduct, Gapon scanned the darkening sky. Even as his brain worked to convince him that it had been a bird, the lieutenant saw the object again, hurtling back toward the ground. There was a sudden crash that shook the earth and stung his ears. Smoke or dust began to rise from the poor district of the city. It took a moment for Gapon to process what was happening. In that short time, another object tore through the sky. This time he could make out that it was a rock. There was another crash, closer this time.
“We’re under attack!” Gapon bellowed, repeating the words as loud as he could as he ran west toward the projectiles’ origins. His iron mace was held firmly in his hand as his feet pounded down the cobbles. His voice was growing hoarse already but still could hardly be heard over the destruction of stone as buildings and pathways were levelled. Those sounds alone were enough to drive the people from their houses in a panic to see what was happening.
“Prepare for battle! Get the children to safety! Fortify the streets!”
As Gapon ran, other guards formed up around him, as did many civilians with farm equipment or other household weapons.
Men, women and children ran in the other direction, fleeing away from the west. Gapon grabbed onto one of the frantic men. “What is going on? Tell me what you’ve seen.”
The man looked around skittishly. “Bless my eyes, sir. There are monsters, awful creatures in black. They’re flooding into the city from the gaps in the wall. Sprites save us all!”
Releasing the man, Gapon cursed as another rock smashed into a building beside him, blasting him with rubble that knocked him to the ground. Through bleary eyes and ringing ears, the lieutenant watched a sudden wave of black-clad figures charge out of a street and spread like oil across every pathway. They were bestial giants who growled and hissed like demons with each loping stride. Crude weapons were held in clawed hands.
Pushing through the pain, Gapon stood and grabbed his mace. The other guards were already in combat but the monsters ploughed through them without slowing. Even as he sped toward the chaos, he watched one of the beasts cleave a guard clean in two with a single mighty swing of its axe.
“Disengage!” the lieutenant ordered. “Pull back to the narrower streets. We can’t take them on in the open like this. Keep their movements in check!”
With those words he closed with the enemy, smashing his mace into a creature’s snout without slowing. Bone, tooth and gristle flew in a spray of blood. Another moved to hack him down but with his free hand, Gapon plunged a dagger into his attacker’s throat. It gurgled but continued its swing. Gapon was only just able to dodge.
Risking a glance behind him, Gapon saw men pulling back from the melee to seal off as many avenues into the heart of the city as was possible. Those men on the frontline had no option other than to stand and fight, hoping to buy their friends as much time as possible to prepare.
Gapon kicked at an armoured knee with all of his strength. It should have snapped any man’s leg but it barely made the monster stumble. That tiny imbalance was all Gapon needed though to ram his mace into the terror’s gut then swing it upward into its chin. A shout was raised from somewhere behind him. It was just another sound amidst the screams and howls at first but distinct words began to filter through his mind.
“Draw. Pick your target. Release!” Sharp twangs cut through the grunts and clashes. Gapon felt sudden wind rush past his face. White feathered arrows slammed into the monsters’ ranks. Several beasts fell but many more continued to fight with shafts jutting from their thick hides. The order was repeated and more arrows sped past the defenders and into the attacking monsters.
Gapon grabbed the man beside him and shoved him back away from the combat. “Everyone back! Form up around the next ring. Fall back!”
The second that he heard another snap of bowstrings, Gapon turned and ran, sighting a contingent of archers atop of the nearby buildings and behind hastily erected barricades. A second of scanning the faces revealed to him Bow-Captain Kenroy Green. He directed his steps toward the barricade that the captain was positioned behind.
“Sir,” saluted the captain as Gapon jogged up to the barricade. Gapon nodded and Green continued his methodical nocking and releasing of arrows. He was a muscular man with short black hair and a thin moustache.
“What’s the situation?” Gapon asked. The barricade was opened up for him and a few other guards and straggling civilians. He wanted to sit and regain his breath but there was no time with those beasts forcing their way forward with every step.
Green never looked away from his target. His movements were smooth and flowing. “The city is breached in multiple locations. These creatures are storming through all sectors. Nothing important was destroyed in the barrage but fires are spreading quickly. We have orders to retreat to the inner city.”
Holding back a choking sound, Gapon rounded on the man. “Retreat to the inner city? That is crazy. The main city would be lost within the hour. What good is protecting the castle if everything else in the city burns?”
“You know that and I know that but orders are orders. The Commander gave them to me himself,” Green said, spitting between shots. “The monsters were running through the city before we even knew what was happening. The city is already as good as lost. I’m here to help as many people escape to the castle as possible before our last defences are overrun.”
“But how could this happen?” stammered a young guard who had fought beside Gapon. His eyes were almost wild. “What are those things?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Gapon darkly. He looked to Green for an answer but the captain simply shook his head.
The monsters were charging the barricades now that all of their opponents had fled. Green released a final arrow then signalled for his men to retreat. The archers began a steady walk east, continuing to lay down suppressing volleys of arrows.
Gapon moved with them. He gritted his teeth at the prospect of abandoning the city to its fate but as Green had said, orders were orders. As lieutenant, Gapon knew that well. Hopefully they could make a stand at the tiered stone of the castle and keep those who had fled safe within.
Previous – Chapter 5. The Reality of the World.
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