I sometimes dabble in a bit of fiction writing, and the following was my entry to a competition for the Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Anime convention of Epic-Con, held in Maynooth last weekend. The opening paragraph was the only guideline. And it won! Enjoy.
“Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it”
A lone figure hovered over the edge of the large communications device that dominated the centre of the Freedom League headquarters. His face was bathed in the scarlet glow cast by the machine, his sharp eyes carefully monitoring each flicker on the screen. He lifted a calloused hand to rub his bloodshot eyes, exhaustion pricking at his every nerve as he poured over various maps and reconstruction plans. The war is almost over, he reminded himself. Just a few more days…
Of course, it had been “just a few more days” for a while now. Dwarves might be long lived, but even to one as experienced as the Commander this war seemed to have lasted longer than anything else.
He gazed around the control room again. His kinsmen surrounded him, the clinking armour and muffled voices only barely to be heard over the grinding of gears, the hissing of steam, the puff of smoke. They cursed and grumbled, moving to and fro, a hundred different repairs to be done, a thousand different tweaks and changes. He was the leader of this group, these half-men, who fought their Kingdom’s greatest enemy. Fought them with those devilish machines that dominated the far side of the room.
The magic that made the machines work was partly beyond him. Gears he understood, steam he comprehended. But the Elders had infused these things with a force that made miracles happen. Thus did the machines show images of events a thousand miles away, allow he and his kinsman to fight from afar. Only a Dwarf could have had the mind to imagine them, their intricacy, their brutality, and their genius. Only a Dwarf would have been hard enough to use them. Only those who sprang from stone could do it.
And only he had the will to command them. And, he admitted to himself, his cursed old age meant his days on the real battlefield were over.
“Freedom League” he muttered to no one. Such had the enemy called themselves, when they had set up their headquarters here, long ago. Those men were dead for many years now but the name remained the name. For what purpose, remembrance or motivation, the Commander did not know.
The device in front of him allowed him to communicate and see what all the other “Minders” were doing. The sensation was not unpleasant, the weaves of magicka infusing his brain, inflaming his mind. He could see the battlefield where his younger and more able kinsmen fought even now, advancing against their enemy. The screen, glowing an angry orange, showed his brothers in blue, a collection of many small – and a few large – dots, their foes in blood red. The village where that despicable villain was holding up was near, and his orders – direct from King Thantagoria himself, may his axe never be blunted! – were to take it and take it soon.
But now, he hesitated. He had been awake for days, the machines needing his constant attention. He, a Dwarf bound by the life of a soldier, knew nothing but duty. This was his duty. But he could not wrench his mind from his memories. A memory of that very village. He had been their once, not ten years ago, in a more peaceful time. When the horror of a war unlooked for was not yet a reality. He remembered a young boy, a shopkeepers son, who had sold him some grain. Had called him “milord” in a cracking voice.
He struggled with his emotions. This war had to be fought. It had to be won, for the good of the land. Pull yourself together, he thought, turning his eyes back to the battle in progress. The fight continued.
The fires burned, orange flame and black smoke rising, the stench of ash mixing with that of blood and steel. The thatches across the field, a line of defence that spoke of desperation and madness, lit up the early morning darkness. Behind, scores of ragged looking soldiers, in peasant robes, stood huddled. The great trench which held most of them had been built after many hours of labour the previous day, a waterless motte before their home.
Pike, pitchfork, sickle and hammer. The arms of the needy. Of rebels. Only a small few had anything better. They gazed now, grim and determined, beyond the fire, at the enemy approaching.
The Dwarven warband waited, packed tight in formation, their axes shining, their shields hard, their helms engraved in symbols of many colours. No less grim and determined then the scum, or so they thought them, that had lit this burning barricade, the flames reaching twice their height. They outnumbered their foes five to one, and the fire would burn away soon. But it did not matter.
For the Dwarves had no need to wait. Their eyes, as like the eyes of their foes, the peasants that dared try and disturb the natural order, were lifted high. They would advance only when the vanguard was done.
They were giants. Five times the height of a man, golden clad, the flames reflecting brightly in their vast chests. Metal rivets held their enormous bulk in place. Their arms and legs poked out of the central structure, cylindrical and alien, all four limbs jointed at the “knee” and “elbow” by a round disk, each ending in a multi-tapered claw, which created the great sound every time they felt the earth.
Eight there were, the turning of gears, the hiss of releasing steam, the faint smell of magic assaulting the senses of those behind and ahead. The Empty Giants they were, for their movements came not from themselves, but from the aged and wise Minders a thousand leagues away in the great hold of Karash Nulaki.
Their heads, a grim parody of reality in their soulless eyes and crafted beards, gazed lifelessly ahead, as they moved slowly towards their enemy.
The shout came and the stones were cast, flung from catapults long prepared. These engines were small, rudimentary, the stones found here and there. For these villagers it was all they had.
The air tore in a scream as the stone flew, some aimed too high, others too low, still more passing between the demonic machines, who advanced abreast, stepping over the fiery thatch as if it did not exist. One or two stones made contact, a dull thud and a small dent their only reward.
For the defenders, battle weary and looking death in the eye, their hopes for freedom now a ghostly reflection on the monsters chests, it was too much. Those few manning the catapults fled headlong back, as the Giants crushed the devices underfoot.
Tax collecting. That’s why he had been there years ago. Collecting the Kingdom’s taxes from the humans villages to the east. They’d been lax. He and his men had made them less so.
The Commander looked at the Minders. They sat in curved wooden chairs, hands atop onyx sceptres, eyes intent upon sets of dark crystals. Wisps of light could be seen moving between the two points. The Minders, aged Dwarves long past use in actual battle, gave their brains that they may still serve their Kingdom. They appeared paralyzed and motionless, but they were not so, not really. For out in that village, that series of red and blue dots on the communications table, they were the Giants, their souls encapsulated within them. The mighty machines that the crystals were embedded in, that hideous mix of magic and technology, continued to clang, scrape and hiss.
“Humey Bastards, eh Commander?”
The voice came from an adjutant, some other Kinsmen that the Commander did not even know by name.
He didn’t have the heart to correct him, to correct the slur.
“They should know when they’re beaten.”
He was smiling when he said it, the Commander saw, a smile of a conqueror.
“They’ll know soon enough. I was there for the potato tax riots, the seizure of the Fort Rasken corn stores, when the Freedom League first rose, those first terrible fights in the streets. I was there at Battle of Obstatrix, the Lortarian Vally campaign, the burning of Port Varasia. I’ve hunted their guerrilla bands and I’ve killed their spies. I will tell you the one thing I’ve learned about these human rebels. They aren’t beaten until they believe they are.”
He sighed as he finished his speech, one long rehearsed and oft said. His words no longer had his full heart behind them. A decade of fire and steel, machine and blood had seen to that. A Kingdom divided, the stone from which they had all sprang, split.
Perhaps the underling saw this, for his next words were tinged with caution.
“Shall we…release the infantry Commander?”
He thought about it. One last stronghold. One last rebel hive burnt and it will be done. Perhaps they may throw down their swords before the end.
“Order the advance. And get the giants firing.”
Arrows twanged, the inhabitants of the trench firing what little they had left, a few of the missiles tinged with flame. They hit the golden behemoths and sprang back.
The hedge was pulled apart, and the warband roared forward, ancient cries and shouts filling the air.
The defenders held, pikes and pitchforks raised pitifully at the Giants, which were now only a score of yards away.
As one, the giant twitched, hidden gears working, slots moving, tubes filling. A compartment in each arm opened, a metal nozzle appearing. Those arms were raised until they pointed at the rebels, rebels who wept for their fate.
The fire was a brilliant blue and it erupted from those arms with a brutal sound. It rushed forward, tapering out in a wide circle of searing destruction. There was no escape but to run back. Many of those that did were already burning, their clothes in ashes, their skin blackened, their cries of pain mixing with the cries of terror. Men and women ran amok, some fully aflame, desperately trying to escape the reach of this hellish weapon, which burned and burned and would not go out.
The giants advanced still, the warband close behind. It was to be their job to complete the rout, their job to slaughter those in retreat, their job to burn this village and salt the earth. Onward they rushed, seeking a final vengeance for the terrible rebellion that had wrapped their beloved Kingdom in such crisis for a decade of bitter attack and counter-attack.
The giants were upon the trench now, their fire extinguished. Only the dead and dying remained in that crevice, the rest gone to seek their final doom in their homes, only a short distance away.
One of the giants stepped into the trench as the half-men clambered down themselves, screaming with the battle lust, the fury of carnage. They saw, too late, the rebel. He carried one last token of his hate for their oppressors, one last message from the grave he would soon occupy. As the giant made to step forward out of the trench, he pulled the pin on the object, stolen from looted Dwarven armouries years before, and saved for this final moment. With the last of his strength, he flung it near the giants leg.
The explosion was brief, the fiery ball that erupted gone in an instant. The charging Dwarves little noted it, so wrapped up in their berserker rage. But the Giant saw. His leg in pieces now, he wavered, slipped, and finally toppled sideways, the rushing of sound almost like a groan.
The Dwarves that were near in the trench, gleefully surveying their prey ahead, at least had the mercy of never knowing what hit them.
The control room was awash with shouts of horror and outrage. The Minder screamed as his Giant smashed to pieces, his mind lost among the broken cogs, wheels and rivets. The Commander gazed at the map, at the few blue dots that slowly vanished, Dwarves that would never rise again.
It should be over by now. The rage built inside him at the thought of more dead Dwarves, a sacrifice to the pointless endurance of these rebels, who just would not give up!
It could not be borne! His thoughts of sympathy vanished, his anger was all that he was.
“Send the giants forward! Burn the lot of them!
The battle-fury was on him now. He fiddled irritably with the tables controls, changing the glowing display to that of a Giants eyeview. The titan strode forward, its blue flames burning all in its path. He was, to his displeasure, spared the screams of the dying. Too often he was soft. Too often he was merciful. That was what had made his Kingdom weak, made these rebels think they could try and bring down their betters, their masters. No more.
He saw the Giant look down, seeing a crawling figure, utterly wretched, a human drenched in blood and mud, perhaps trying to hide from the metal demon that now stood next to him. It availed him not.
The metal leg raised, and came down in a rush, its terrible accuracy the conglomeration of science and metal and war. The young man had just enough time to turn his face upwards, to look his death in the eyes. The Commander saw it was the young boy who had sold him that grain, a man grown now.
He felt nothing as the young man died. In the end, he thought, they would all became one with the stone.
“…since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”