Warm blood splashed across Lieutenant Gapon’s face. The warmth grew into a burning sensation which he ignored. His own blood dripped down his right arm which hung limply at his side. A solid wall of the hulking monsters pulsed at his front while the spiral structure of Pastrino’s castle rose up from the earth at his back.
Lines of bodies marked each place where the defenders had tried to hold the beasts off before retreating further back. They were like lines in the sand to mark the coming and going of the tide. Looking out beyond the battle, Gapon could see flames and smoke polluting the darkening sky.
“We can’t hold for much longer, Sir,” rasped a young captain who had forced his way to Gapon’s side.
Their orders were to hold these grounds at all costs, but the younger man was right. They were back on open ground, assailed at all sides by a stronger foe and with too few men who had any experience with battle. Nobody recruited after the Ghibok war had even seen real combat before this day, the young captain included. Orders were orders, but men’s lives rested on his decisions here. Damn it, he was a soldier not a leader. Let him die or live, just so long as he wasn’t responsible for the deaths of his men. If any of these men were to stand a chance of seeing dawn, they had to move.
“Sound the horns. Get the gate open and tell the men to get inside quick. We’ll only have a scant few minutes before they break through to join us. I want everyone in a defensive position and traps to be set up across every hallway.”
The captain saluted him. “As you command, sir.”
Gapon swallowed hard and brought his mace down upon the fingers of a monster. They splintered like matchsticks. Another guard rammed his sword through its throat, dispatching it before the lieutenant could swing again.
Sweat drenched him and his breath came in gulps. Muscles burned and his vision was growing blurry. He couldn’t keep this pace up for much longer. The monsters were showing no signs of relenting either.
Horns blared, closely followed by the groan of the heavy wooden doors behind them opening. Men scrambled through as orderly as was possible. With each guard that left the line, the beasts pressed ever further. Gapon edged his way to the door, then as the last guard dived through he threw himself inside, crushing the hand of a monster with his mace that tried to pull itself past the door. A final burst of arrows through the gap ensured that no other monsters could gain entrance before the wooden slabs were firmly closed again.
Gapon took this moment of respite to regain his breath. Weapons could be heard hacking into the wood from the outside. It would only be a matter of time before they broke through.
“Stack what you can to block this side off. This will be our last stand. Let’s make it a good one,” the lieutenant began. He was on the verge of issuing more orders when a stern voice broke his chain of thought.
“You had orders to hold the grounds at all costs.” It was Commander Decole, a grizzled old man with white hair, a hard face and a greased beard and moustache. “Why then are you and your men inside?”
“It makes tactical sense. Outside we are nothing but another wall for them to break through, inside we stand a chance of beating them back.” Gapon answered, meeting the commander’s eyes with a level stare.
The commander shook his head. “All of this is wrong. It’s madness. If we’d had warning then we could have planned but half of the city was lost before we even knew what was going on. We have grown too soft over the years. It’s too late to fret over things now. We’re all dead. It’s just a case of how many of these beasts we can take down with us.”
An axe bit through the wood, revealing frantic silhouettes beyond. A snarling snout forced its way through the gap but was immediately withdrawn after an arrow opened up the flesh. Catching a glimpse of their prey, the monsters seemed to redouble their efforts. The gap was growing as each second passed.
“Men,” Commander Decole began in a low but powerful voice. “This castle is the last strong point in the city. If you are patriotic then know that it is your duty to protect our lord with your life. If you don’t care for nobility then remember that every man, woman and child who escaped the initial onslaught are huddled within these walls. If we fail here then everyone is lost. Fight hard and die with honour!”
The door finally gave way. A stream of arrows decimated the front row of creatures but more piled in before a second volley could be launched. Gapon wasted no time in engaging with the brutes once more. His mace splashed blood across the walls with every swing. The monsters were bigger and stronger than a man but fighting against the Ghiboks had taught him and the other veterans how to compensate these disadvantages. Duck under attacks, get up close so the superior range is meaningless, and make every strike count.
The entrance hallway was wide but stacked furniture and statues narrowed the path of the demons. The defenders finally looked to be holding their ground when the tolling of a great bell rumbled through the stone of the structure to a frantic rhythm. Gapon started with surprise and almost lost his head as a result.
Decole looked just as taken aback. “The upper castle has been breached? How is that possible? Nothing has passed us,” gibbered the commander. His eyes were starting to take on a wild quality.
“They must have either destroyed a wall to gain entrance or have found one of the secret passages,” the lieutenant stated through the dying howls of a broken monster.
Decole managed to regain control of himself and leapt into action. “Captain Green, hold this position for as long as you can. When you fall back, make sure that the beasts are caught in every trap that we have. Lieutenant Gapon, you and your men are with me. Move out!”
The commander and Gapon raced along corridors and up the rough stone stairs to the upper ring of the spiral fortification. Twenty men ran with them. Taking so many men from the front door was a risk but neither man knew how bad the incursion would be.
The second level of the castle was grander than the lower floor. It was designed as a refuge for nobility, a place of beauty and comfort, not as a truly defensive construct. The white stone was covered in coloured mosaics, paintings, and tapestries, while ornately carved tables, chairs and dressers filled out the airy open spaces.
Everything seemed eerily peaceful at first. Then they found the first body. It was a man in servant livery, although it was hard to tell from the blood soaked mess that was the body. The next room was littered with more butchered bodies, dotted with the occasional body of a monster.
Screams and shouts echoed from the adjacent hallway. The men ran through the unhinged door to be confronted by a scene of carnage. A group of around a dozen of the creatures were locked in combat with the Lord of Pastrino’s elite bodyguards.
A shouted order from Commander Decole sent Gapon and the other guards charging into the enemy’s’ rear. His mace slammed into the first monster’s armour-plated back, shattering its spine. The beast toppled and thrashed around on the tiled floor, knocking down the feet of one of its companions. As men closed in on both sides, the demons were trapped in a pincer and quickly fell when they tried to split their attacks. It was a brutal but short battle until all of the monsters were dead.
A shrill scream from behind the bodyguards caused everyone to rush to the ornate door that led into the lord’s private chamber. The door was thrown open and the guard who moved to enter was sliced across the chest by a wicked dagger. A monster burst out from the room but was instantly cut down.
Men stormed into the room to see the lord cowering in the hand corner with a long candlestick held in his hands as a weapon and more of the beasts piling out from a passageway that looked to usually be hidden behind a bookcase.
“Kill them! Quickly!” squealed the lord frantically. His thinning black hair was already slick with sweat. He waved the candlestick wildly to ward the beasts away despite them being nowhere near him. The two groups engaged in a vicious combat around the canopied bed that occupied the centre of the chamber. Gapon fought with instinct alone now. His muscles were strained and fatigue weighed heavily upon his mind.
More monsters poured through the tunnel in a constant stream that never ended. How they had even found the secret passage was beyond the lieutenant’s comprehension. The guards were outnumbered and outmatched.
There was a sudden series of loud bangs from outside that barely registered in Gapon’s mind. Then more beasts entered the room through the main doorway. Gapon turned to face this new threat. His entire body felt numb. He swung, dislocating the jaw of his target. A sword drew a vivid red line across his thigh, causing him to hiss in pain. His mace lashed out again but his wrist was caught in a clawed grasp. A fist drove itself into Gapon’s gut, knocking the wind out from his lungs. His grip loosened from the weapon and one of the beasts grabbed it from him. Before he could regain his stance, the mace was slammed into his ribs. He felt bones break. Gapon hit the ground hard. Through unfocused eyes he watched a darkened spear stab into Commander Decole’s throat. The lord was punched in the face, sending him sprawling in a heap.
Men died all around him. The pain in his chest was unbearable. He felt rough hands grab him and drag him to his feet. In his last seconds of consciousness, he watched the world spin as he was thrown over one of the beasts’ shoulders. Several other guards and the lord were picked up too.
As the pain grew too much to handle and unconsciousness began to sweep across his brain, Gapon caught a single sentence from the monsters, spoken in a rough, but understandable language.
“The city is ours. Take the captives to the forest with the others. We march for Lanstiro.”