Chapter One - The Pit
“Fear. Insidious and tenacious. It worms its way into the body of a man and wraps its cold tendrils around his slowly-beating heart. And what do we fear above all else? Is it the shadow by the door? The cry for help we hear in the night? The whispered echoes that keep us from sleep? No, our greatest fear is what we cannot comprehend, what we do not understand. The fear of the unknown.”
Brachyura, Fourth of the Twelve, 12 AT
The wind came screaming up from the Pit like a demon, rolling in chilling waves over the crumbling stone battlements and down into the plains below. Flames flickered in wrought-iron lanterns hanging from metal poles at intervals along the wall, casting strange shadows across the faces of the Old Guard manning their posts. With a resounding crack, one of the poles was torn free and fell spinning into the Pit, the light from the lantern dwindling to a spark before disappearing from sight.
“Damn,” mumbled Reed.
He had been standing only a few feet away and a small chip of stone had hit his cheek when the metal rod fell. He wiped away the trickle of blood with a gloved hand and pulled his threadbare vermilion cloak closer to his body in an effort to keep warm. His leather mask had been knocked down from his nose and the wind was not only cold but stank of sulphur and death, a nauseous mixture of rotten eggs and decaying flesh that crawled its way into his mouth and nostrils, making him gag. Eyes watering, Reed pulled the mask tightly around his bearded lower face and stared out over the Pit.
The Pit. An enormous circular crater in the earth, as deep as it was wide. It stretched out from the base of the wall to the horizon like a lake of smooth, slick tar. The sun had set many hours ago, and murky clouds obscured all but the brightest stars, making it impossible to discern where the Pit ended and the night sky began. No lights, no movement, only an endless gaping maw of crushing blackness.
Men of the Old Guard became surly and irritable staring into the inky depths day after day, night after night. It sapped the light and energy from even the sturdiest of watchmen and left them pale-faced, hollow-eyed, and shivering from the cold.
The chasm was surrounded on all sides by a twelve-foot-high ancient stone wall. Squat towers sprouted like forest mushrooms along the ramparts, topped with signal fires and filled with stacked faggots of dry wood to keep the lanterns burning day and night. On one of the towers, the tattered remains of a flag depicting a red sun on a field of gold flapped limply in the wind. A paved pathway, wide enough for two or three men, ran the entire length of the wall: miles and miles of mouldy, slippery slabs of weathered stone. And Reed had walked along it all.
The Old Guard existed for one immutable duty: to maintain and defend the wall. Once several hundred strong, it had been looked upon with honour and respect, a regiment of veteran soldiers resplendent in their uniforms of red and grey. But the years passed, and the Pit remained dark and silent. Vigilance gave way to monotony. Their numbers dwindled. Some retired, others left to carry out menial tasks and never returned, or chose family over celibacy. Those who remained were not nearly enough to keep the wall intact and, much like their faded cloaks and rusting spears, the Old Guard was becoming a dull echo of its former glory.
Attempts were made to recruit new members from the several dozen or so villages eking out a meagre living on the windswept plains close to the Pit. Most of the hamlets were nothing more than a haphazard jumble of wattle huts, huddled close together to offer some comfort from the howling gales that raced across the flatlands and raked the walls with grit and dirt. Only the largest of the villages, Jaelem, had a few stone buildings and a wooden palisade to keep out the worst of the dust.
Reed remembered the day the recruiter had come to Jaelem, the memory forever etched in his mind despite the years that had passed since. He had been helping his ailing mother gut and clean silvery fish from the nearby lake when the goatskin drum had sounded loudly over the whistling wind, calling villagers to the public square.
The recruiter was a large, barrel-chested brute of a man with a bushy black beard and two rotten front teeth. He had been dressed in a frayed leather surcoat emblazoned with a stylised red sun, and his discoloured vermilion cloak had billowed out behind him like the sputtering embers of a dying flame.
He had spoken at length in a booming voice about the Old Guard; the watchers, the protectors, the guardians of the wall. “The Old Guard is the light against the darkness,” he had intoned. “The burning sun against the cold of night, the mighty shield against the unknown.”
Reed had been enraptured and had left with the recruiter the next day, promising his mother to return soon. It was the last time he had seen her alive; she had died from a severe case of winter fever a few years later, tired and alone. And Merad Reed had spent the rest of his youth and a large portion of his middle years walking the wall.
A buzzard screeched somewhere out over the Pit, startling Reed out of his melancholy thoughts. He looked up to see Hode, his fellow watchman, slowly approaching along the ramparts, a mug of something hot and steaming in each hand, a spear slung across his back. Hode edged carefully around a mound of fallen rubble and proffered one of the tin mugs to Reed, who accepted it gratefully.
“By the Twelve, it’s cold tonight!” said Hode, the steam from the mug obscuring his pudgy face and thinning fair hair. “I can barely feel my toes after an hour standing around out here.”
Reed grunted noncommittally and eyed the contents of the mug warily. It looked palatable enough: some sort of stringy meat stew and the odd carrot. As he watched, a morsel of gristle rose to the surface and floated there forlornly.
“It’s like this every night, Hode,” he replied irritably. “We haul ourselves up the one hundred and twenty steps from the barracks an hour before sunset, freeze our members off for eight hours straight, then shamble back down and drink ourselves to sleep until we do it all again. It’s always cold, it’s always windy, and nothing ever happens.” Reed’s scraggly beard was beginning to itch terribly under his mask.
“Now that’s wrong for a start,” said Hode cheerfully. “Remember last autumn? When the second Southern Tower split apart and we lost two men to the Pit? It took us weeks to clear the debris and consolidate the tower again. Captain Yusifel said he would send a request to the Council, petitioning for a team of engineers to come down here and shore up some of the other dangerous parts of the wall.”
“That was months ago, no one has come, nothing has changed,” said Reed, gesturing with one gloved hand at the heap of rubble Hode had skirted around just moments before. He lowered his mask, took a mouthful of stew and grimaced. It was still piping hot despite the cold and tasted awful. He swallowed with difficulty, then shrugged and took another swig.
The buzzard screeched again over the wind, more insistent this time, and both men looked up, scanning the horizon for some sign of the bird.
“You’re wrong again, you know,” continued Hode, returning to his stew. “Someone has come to see us, I heard it from one of the men up on the third Northern Tower; a visitor rode down directly from Arelium.”
Arelium was the provincial capital, a week’s ride away for someone on a fast horse. Reed looked at Hode sceptically.
“You heard this from who exactly? Not Kohl I hope, that peg-legged old miser is missing more than just his leg!” He tapped a finger on his forehead emphatically.
“No, not Kohl.” Hode frowned. “One of the younger recruits, the lad who helped me fix my boot when I tore it open on a loose stone last week, remember? Anyway, he said that it was some kind of knight, maybe even a Knight of the Twelve, sent to help us guard the wall and maybe—”
Reed cut him off. “Guard the wall? Do you really still believe that? After all this time? Guard against what exactly? Old age? Nigh on twenty years I’ve been up here. I’ve seen the twenty towers a thousand times. I’ve seen the Pit from every conceivable angle. I’ve maintained the signal fires and the lanterns, washed my cloak and polished my spear, scrubbed my leathers and brushed my boots. And guess what? The only thing I’ve got to show for it is a handful of stray grey hairs. Do you know how many times I’ve used my spear for anything more than stabbing a few straw bales in the practice yard? Never! Not once! None of us has seen anything other than wild animals up here, even Kohl who is older than the two of us put together! And a Knight of the Twelve? Why would any of them come down here where all there is to do is look out into nothing but the DAMNED PIT?”
Reed paused for breath, realising he had shouted the last few words. He shook his head and smiled sadly, then looked up at Hode who was staring at him wide-eyed, small drops of stew escaping his open mouth and running down his chin to pool in the leather mask hanging around his neck.
“Sorry, Hode,” said Reed slowly. “You’re right. It is cold, and cloudy too. Damn Pit is messing with my head again, didn’t mean to raise my voice like that. Thanks for the stew, by the way. Where did you manage to get hold of fresh meat? Storemaster said we were on dry rations ’til next full moon!”
Hode sipped his stew thoughtfully.
“So, you know I was on resupply duty yesterday for the third Southern Tower? Well, I was restocking the wood for the beacon and I found a couple of big black rats hiding in a corner. Got ’em both with the butt of my spear and took them to the storemaster who offered to stew them for a couple of pennies and a mug or two of ale for his men. Pretty good deal I thought!”
Reed scratched his itching beard and looked down at the stew. What he had thought was a carrot turned out to be a small spindly rat’s tail, bobbing merrily among the bone and gristle.
He opened his mouth to reply but, before he could say anything, something fell from the sky and slammed into the rampart with a wet smack. It was the buzzard, its headless body rent by two large gashes oozing blood, its wings reduced to a tangled mess of feather and bone.
A strangled cry echoed further down the wall and, for the first and last time in his life, Reed saw the signal fire atop a distant tower roar to life in an explosive burst of smoke and flame.
The beacon burned brightly in the night sky and was soon joined by another, then another, until a half-dozen fires lit up the horizon to the east like a colony of faraway fireflies.
Reed turned to Hode who had dropped his mug and unslung his spear from behind his back. He stood shivering, breathing fast, eyes darting left and right along the ramparts, stopping briefly to linger on the broken body of the buzzard.
“What now?” asked the stocky watchman, pointing at the pinpricks of light in the distance. “How far away do you think they are? You reckon we should do something?”
Both men knew what the beacons meant: that section of the wall was in danger and needed help. The Old Guard may only be a faint shadow of its past self but one thing would never change: the unspoken bond between guardsmen, ties that linked these men together as strong as any family. A family that could count on one another and protected its own.
“We can’t be more than a half-hour away at most,” replied Reed, pulling up his leather mask and grabbing his spear. “We have to go.”
Another far-off cry echoed through the night, a wail of pain and anger that left little to the imagination.
His choice made, Reed started moving in the direction of the sound, not waiting to see if Hode followed. He could feel his heart beating wildly in his chest, a dull thumping rising up towards his throat, threatening to smother him. He forced himself to breathe out slowly and gripped the haft of his spear, its weight giving him some small comfort. Hode came up on his left, protecting Reed’s weaker side with his own weapon.
For several minutes they crept slowly forwards, spears out, cloaks flapping in the wind. They reached the closest tower and found three other guardsmen milling around its base, lanky young recruits new to the wall. One had a surcoat several sizes too big that fell nearly to his ankles, another had lost his spear and was left with a dagger, which he brandished at Reed and Hode.
“W-w-who goes there?” stammered the youth, barely out of puberty, his voice wavering up and down like a poorly-tuned harp.
Reed battered the knife away hard enough to knock it out of the young recruit’s hand and the man scurried to retrieve it, cursing profusely.
“Reed?” said the youth with the oversized surcoat. Reed vaguely remembered his name was Kellen. The recruit had removed his mask, revealing a few tufts of hair clumped around a spotty chin in a poor attempt at a beard.
Reed sighed. This was all some sort of karmic joke. After years of complaining, he had finally got what he wanted: danger on the wall and a chance to lead men into battle as a proud member of the Old Guard. He realised now that he had never been more wrong in his life. Repetition and boredom were terrible things, but safe and comforting. And in an instant, all that had been taken away from him.
What to do now? Fight or flight? Hode wouldn’t be much help, the man might be good at restocking the wood and braining rats, but using his spear against anything bigger probably wouldn’t end well.
Reed glanced over to where the fair-haired guardsman was leaning against the inner face of the tower, fiddling with the straps of his mask in an attempt to wrap it back around his nose and mouth. Hode felt Reed’s gaze on him and looked up with a small smile and a shrug before returning to the task at hand.
“Reed? What now?” repeated Kellen.
“Give me a minute!” Reed snapped back and squinted down the ramparts towards where the signal fires still burned brightly. Silence had returned to the wall, a quiet and calm so absolute it made Reed wonder if those two painful screams had been a trick of the wind. But then who had lit the beacons, and why? He ran a hand through his greying hair and made a decision.
“Looks like the beacons are spread among the Eastern Towers,” he said. “The eastern barracks will be close by, with Captain Yusifel and the night reserve. We’ll proceed along this stretch of wall here till we get to the barracks and inform Yusifel of the situation. Either some idiot has been playing with a tinder block or there’s something more serious going on. Either way, Yusifel will want to know. Hode and I will lead, Kellen you’re behind me with your friend who doesn’t know how to hold a knife—”
“Iden, Sir,” piped up the young guardsman with the dagger.
“Right you are, Iden,” said Reed. “You stay close to Kellen and Freckles here.” He gestured to the third man, as tall and thin as his friends with a shock of ginger hair and a smattering of freckles over his wide nose.
Freckles gave him a sour look but said nothing and took up position behind the others. Reed set them moving with a curt nod and they advanced briskly down the ramparts, scanning the way ahead with wary eyes. The towers drew closer and closer, the beacons no longer pinpricks of light in the distance but the cone-shaped flickering of large bonfires, smoke curling up from the apex to mingle with the dark grey clouds hanging heavily in the night sky.
Reed reckoned they couldn’t be more than four or five hundred yards away from the stone steps that would lead them down off the wall towards the eastern barracks, Captain Yusifel, and the reserve guard. His confidence grew and he picked up the pace, his booted feet pounding heavily on the paving stones accompanied by the rhythmic tapping of the spear’s wooden butt.
A few minutes more and something appeared out of the night, a dark shape lying motionless across the width of the wall. A flurry of wind tugged at the shape and Reed saw a flash of vermilion. A cloak of the Old Guard, still attached to its owner. Reed heard a gasp from behind him as one of the young recruits realised what they had discovered.
“Hode, with me, mask on and tight. The rest of you, stay here,” he said, pulling his mask tighter around his face and moving closer to examine the body. The guardsman had died face down, one arm folded under him, the other stretching out for his spear that lay just out of reach. The back of his head was crusted with blood and more had seeped down into his cloak, turning it an even darker shade of red.
Reed used his spear to flip the body over onto its back and his eyes widened as he took in the damage done to the man’s face. Two deep gashes had opened the skin diagonally from eyebrow to lower lip, pulping the man’s left eye and mutilating the nose. The remains of the bottom lip were hanging by a thin thread of flesh, exposing his lower jaw and teeth. No wild animal could have done this; it was something much, much worse.
Reed turned to confer with Hode and something flitted across his vision as he did so, a dark shadow there and gone again like a cloud passing across the sun. Hode stood looking at him, mask dangling around his chin, jaw half-open as if to say something.
“Is everything all right?” asked Reed haltingly, trying hard to keep the tremor out of his voice.
Hode made a small choking sound and a thin rivulet of blood trickled down from his mouth. He took one half-step forwards, eyes searching for something, then coughed violently, spattering Reed’s face and hair with bright crimson droplets and remains of stew. Reed recoiled with a shout, scrambling away from Hode in shock until his back hit the parapet of the wall and he could go no further.
Hode fell spluttering to his knees, fighting to draw breath as he drowned in his own blood. And Reed saw what had been hiding behind his fellow guardsman, a hunched shadow given form.
The creature was short, no more than five feet tall, and covered in grey, wrinkled skin. It had bulbous yellow eyes set in a cadaverous face, cheekbones and jawline starkly visible. Spindly arms ended in three clawed fingers; one claw shorter and wider than the others, viciously hooked like a sickle. It was naked apart from a piece of mouldy leather strapped around its groin. Reed met the creature’s eyes and thought he could discern some dark intelligence there, a seething malice scorched deep into the thing’s core.
The creature cocked its head and gave Reed a wide smile, revealing dozens of dirty, triangular teeth. It sauntered over to where Hode rested on his knees and, never taking its eyes off Reed, drew one of its dagger-length claws across the dying man’s throat. Fresh blood sprayed from the wound. Hode pitched forwards onto his face with a muffled gurgle. His legs thrashed briefly one final time, then he was still. The thing brought a wet claw up to its maw and a black tongue darted out from between dry lips, licking it clean.
On seeing the creature taste his friend’s blood, something broke inside Reed. An angry scream exploded from his lungs. Pushing himself up with his spear, he bounded forwards, jabbing his weapon at the grey-skinned apparition with a strength born of desperation. The creature gave a screech of surprise and dodged backwards, avoiding a blade through the chest but taking a ragged slash across its navel, deep enough to draw blood. Reed pivoted and sent the butt of his spear hurtling forwards, hammering into the thing’s head just behind the ear with a crack that echoed off the sides of the Pit.
Black ichor oozed from the creature’s skull and it cried out in pain. Dazed, it floundered backwards, tripping over Hode’s lifeless body and landing heavily on the stone walkway. Reed moved in quickly and stabbed down with his spear as hard as he could. The sharp tip pierced the thing’s chest and, with a rattling cry, the light left its eyes.
Reed staggered over to the parapet and fumbled with the straps of his mask, his stomach clenching uncontrollably. He managed to release the straps just in time, turning to retch violently over the wall and into the Pit. He heard the sound of running feet as Kellen and the others caught up with him. He looked up at them, angry words forming on his lips.
“Where the HELL were you?” he shouted. “Hode, my friend, a man I have known for ten years, is dead! Killed by that … grey-skinned monstrosity and you all just stood there, you just STOOD there!” He stopped to catch his breath and looked again at the soldiers standing before him. Three skinny, inexperienced, scared young men; barely old enough to handle a spear, let alone use one in combat. They shifted uneasily on their feet, eyes downcast, weapons held loosely in trembling hands.
Reed exhaled slowly. What shame could he bring to them that they did not already feel themselves? It was courage they needed now, courage and hope, enough to get them through the night alive. He felt his anger drain away, only to be replaced by a feeling of dread. They needed to move.
“Sorry,” he said quietly. “I apologise, I am not myself.” He turned and scanned the way ahead. They were close to the towers now, no more than a few minutes march.
“You have seen terrible things here. Things that are difficult for us to comprehend, things that make it hard to think rationally, to keep calm. We will come back for our fallen comrades and we will find out what is happening here but for now, we must keep moving forwards, we must get to the barracks. Once we arrive there it—”
He was interrupted by a screech that cut through the night air close by, somewhere in the darkness back the way they had come. An answering shriek came from in front of them, resonating out over the Pit.
They were surrounded.
(c) Alex Robins 2021
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