James Davis: The Shield of Weeping Ghosts

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James Davis The Shield of Weeping Ghosts
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James P. Davis

The Shield of Weeping Ghosts

(Citadels — 3)

I had a dream, which was not all a dream. The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars Did wander darkling in the eternal space, Rayless, pathless, and the icy earth Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air; Morn came and went-and came, and brought no day,

And men forgot their passions in the dread Of this their desolation; and all hearts Were chilled into a selfish prayer for light…

— Lord Byron (I788-I824)


946 DR The Kingdom of Ashanath

Winter winds moaned across the plain as the children trudged along the well-worn road. Broken spears and abandoned siege engines jutted from the white field, a dead forest of sticks and bones. Small, bare feet pressed shallow prints into the frozen mud. Hollow, haunted eyes stared at the path ahead, rolling as thirst and hunger gnawed at empty stomachs. Chains rattled at their wrists, manacles digging into their tender flesh and dragging little trails alongside their footprints, as the children pushed on toward Shandaular.

The old road had been quiet for several tendays, disturbed only by bold scavengers and the first snows of winter. The children had no one to call out to, no caravan or even brigand to witness their journey. The oldest of them was thirteen, her long dark hair once well-kept and smooth, now tangled and dirty. The youngest was almost seven, and she was the first to spot the high walls ahead, the pale light of dawn rising behind them. She lifted a trembling hand and sobbed quietly as they came into view.

She pulled at the chains, running faster than the others despite her size. The other children wheezed through lips a bruised shade of blue as they struggled to keep up. Seeing the tall gates and small figures patrolling the city's perimeter, the youngest girl glanced nervously over her shoulder. Somewhere beyond the western horizon, in deep shadows that stabbed her with fear, she imagined their pursuers gaining with each passing breath. As if sensing her anxiety, her six companions picked up their pace as they shambled ever quicker through the new fallen snow.

Soldiers' voices called out from the walls, breaking the grim silence of the field beyond the city gates. Startled carrion birds took wing, disturbed by the sudden activity and voicing their displeasure as they left their rotting meals. The gates swung open slowly, pushing drifts of snow ahead of them as several soldiers ran out to meet the children with blankets in hand.

The youngest tried to smile, her face stiff and aching, tracks of frosted tears cracking on her cheeks. She could see the horror in the soldiers' eyes, hear their whispered oaths to merciful gods. The soldiers wrapped a blanket around the youngest girl's shoulders, and spoke soothing words in her ear as they lifted her in their strong arms. The chains stretched taut, connecting her to the other children, and more soldiers were summoned to carry the strangers she had traveled so far with.

She looked back over the man's shoulder. The western horizon shimmered with darkness as if a black sun heralded an unnatural dawn to mirror the east. The monsters hid in the dying night, beneath fading stars. The chains began to squirm on her skin. Soothing voices died away, overtaken by a sibilant whispering that tingled painfully in her mind.

She shivered as the pain grew and tears welled in her eyes. The gates loomed high, their shadow falling over the children who began to shake and weep in unison. One cried out, falling from his rescuer's arms, dragging the others low as the chains pulled tight. The chains glittered, tiny runes etched on the links flaring to life, matching those burned into skin, on the napes of their necks and down their spines.

Waves of rolling heat flowed from the chains and melted the snow. The soldiers fell back, mouths agape as the first fallen boy convulsed, his eyes blazing with sudden light. The young girl swooned, eyes fixed on the west, imagining the cruel standard that chased them: the dead tree stripped of leaves on a crimson field. A warm breeze caressed her skin as power erupted around her.

Wood splintered and stone shattered, flames poured outward destroying all that they touched. The children sat unharmed at the epicenter, dazed as the magic forced upon them spoke itself. Plumes of smoke rose into the predawn sky, charred forms crashed back down to earth, steaming in the snow as the children stood on aching legs. The chains, writhing and whispering, pulled them beyond the gates and into Shandaular.

The snow blackened and hissed like acid poured on the ground as they passed. More soldiers came, but they fell back screaming as the aura of magic touched them. Others shouted orders, and some blew horns, notes of alarm echoing across the city.

The young girl fell under a shadow and looked up at the tall northwest tower of the fortress within the wall. Her breath came quickly and she did not understand what was happening. The skin of her arms crawled as if something moved beneath her flesh. She led the others on, recognizing the northwest tower somehow, unsure of her memory. Small faces pressed through the children's skin. Little horns and needle-fangs responded to the call of magic in the chains; clawed hands pushed for escape.

Blurry figures ran screaming from small homes, following the shouts of soldiers. Smoke drifted through the streets. The flames spread despite all attempts to quell them. Soldiers ran to the broken outer wall as the sound of beating drums thundered from the west.

The young girl tried to walk faster, fearful of the dread army that followed. She scratched at her arms, digging deep and sobbing as chaos erupted in the city streets. The northwest tower looked down upon her and her shambling companions as they neared the main gates. She stared at the massive entrance, closed and unusually quiet.

The other children shuddered to a stop, the whispering chains growing louder.

More explosions and spiraling coils of smoke heralded the clash of the attacking army and Shandaular's defenders. Arrows clattered on cobblestone streets, raining from the sky, carrying pitch and flames.

The old wood of the castle gates bore the symbol of a stylized archway within the shape of a tall shield. The young girl struggled to understand, memory trying to assert itself past the pain that rippled through her body. She had returned here, though nothing remained of why she had been taken away. One of the boys fell to his knees, roaring in a voice that was not his own. She reached out, skin boiling, her fingers brushing against the gate as she recalled its name.

"The… Shield!" she croaked, her throat raw as power surged through the chains and used her voice to scream.

The Shield stood as mute witness to the fall of Shandaular.

Flames rose so high that they appeared to burn the sky. Crowds of frightened people ran toward the city's center as a single mass, screaming and clutching at one another. Prayers drifted on the air alongside ash and smoke. And children, bound in chains, shattered the fortress gates with foul magic, demons bursting through their skin as they marched into the silent courtyard.

Mostly empty halls awaited them. Ice grew in the old cracks, frost spreading from corridor to corridor. Torches still burned, but only weakly, their light lessened in the odd gloom of the citadel's towers. Breezes stirred strange mists into streams that flowed outward from the notthwest tower.

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