Mild Dermatographia



Siege of Gris

worldbuilding

The siege, Migara decided, was not going well. From her vantage point atop a mesa near an outlying farm, the mass of soldiers and war machines pressing up against the walls of Gris appeared frightingly similar to the waves which crashed upon the coastal side of the city, and equally efficacious. The city held, as it had through tsunamis and armies alike for generations. The commander knew its layout and defenses well enough through spies which had scouted the city-state’s defenses in the months leading up to the siege. Hell, she had visited it more than once in her youth. Back then, the massive walls had been breathtaking in their scale and splendor, carved with centuries of wards and charms. Now, they stood defiant, the most powerful Ingarii catapults doing little more than coat their surface with another layer of insignificant pockmarks. An attack from the sea was useless as well; sluice gates no less impressive than the main fortifications had shut out the invading fleet, while a host of elementals had torn apart the lead ships before the survivors could return to deeper waters. With some clever illusions from mages in her personal retinue, a few squads and a high mage had found their way into the city sewers in the dead of night, but she had lost contact with them soon after.

Either those walls are cutting off our communications, or Okur anticipated my move. Her expression soured. The old man lived up to his reputation. The walls are inpregnable. The sea, infeasible. The sewers, we’re either blind or dead. The last Rot Vultures I pulled through are decaying on the inside of the city. That leaves one option.

The gates. Walls had the luxury of immobility; their thickness was limited only by the patience of their creators. Stone seemed to soak up magic better than wood too, allowing for stronger and more persistent warding. The sluice gates were as solid as any wall, clearly designed for natural catastrophies as well as invading armies. But the gates. Those had to open on a daily basis. There had to be hinges, pins, chains, counter-weights. They have to have weaknesses. Somewhere closer to that seething mass of soldier huddled her brightest mages, assigned with opening the massive reinforced doors. Working in tandem with Ingarii spies, they had been cooking something for the last while now, surprisingly tight-lipped in spite of their habitual boasting.

A faint mumbling from behind, then Alras stepped beside her, leather-clad, arms pulling a wool cloak around her stomach in an effort to block the brackish wind.

‘Des says they’ve prepared… whatever it is they’ve been working on. They think they can get the gate down.’ The young leutenant paused to chew her lip. ‘What should I tell him?’

Migara began to reply, then paused. Above them, a gossamer strand blinked into existence, faint against the cloudy sky, shivering, then snapping in two to flit in the wind before fading once more. Then another appeared, adjacent the first. A third, becoming a cascading reaction that drew nearer and more dense, each thread ripping apart after a momentary vibration.

Alras tilted her head. ‘A ballista. I don’t think it will hit us, but it’s definitely closer than anything else Okur has thrown at us so far.’ She chuckled. ‘Whoever is firing those, their aim is definitely getting better.’

Migara gave a slight nod. ‘Agreed. We might need to relocate soon. No point in dying to a lucky shot.’

The arrow was visible now, a dark blur curving downwards, tearing through a nearly opaque web of threads on its descent. We may have been a bit extreme with the detector wards. Migara mused, tracing the bolt’s path through the air. She stiffened, then grabbed the leutenant by the nape of her cloak and threw her sideways, the Ingarii commander following suite with a roar. ‘Get back. NOW!’. The nearby mages and soldiers scattered outwards, irridescent wards forming above the latter.

The massive arrow struck the ground more than a dozen paces away and embedded itself in the hillside. Alras cursed and rose to a knee. ‘What the hell Migara, it clearly mis-’ Her words were cut short as the hill beneath the bolt collapsed, sulfuric fumes rising outwards to blot out the sky. Peering through teary eyes, a large outline became visible, dragging itself clear of the hole in the mesa.

Alras hissed under her breath. ‘Burlue’s veil, is that an Azel?’.

The massive hominid rose to its full height and paused, slowly turning in the incandescent haze. Finally facing the duo, it stopped. The commander felt Alras freeze beside her.

‘Oh good’ Migara muttured ‘a present for me.’

The reptile exploded forward, closing the space between them in an instant, its jaundiced outline solidifying into ocre flesh-armour. She barely had time to raise her shield before a massive fist swung down to collided with it. She felt the bones in her arm snap, the crumpled shield colliding with her chest to break ribs, and was flung down and backwards, rolling to a stop near the edge of the mesa. Her breath coming in shaky, ragged gasps to match the waves of pain, she slowly rolled onto her side to face the hulking humanoid, intact hand digging into a pouch at her waist to grab a fistful of fine powder.

The Azel strode through the noxious cloud, ignoring the arrows and minor spells which skittered off its thick hide from behind. Migara faintly heard a shout from behind her and an arrowhead of mounted troops galloped into view, charging directly at the beast with lances lowered. She call them off, but her voice couldn’t rise above the cacophony of alarmed voices and pounding of hooves. The creature’s elongated snout curled into a grin as the horsemen approached, revealing dagger-sized teeth.

Lances collided with stone skin and shattered into splinters. The Azel lunged between the two front riders before they could peel away, its shoulders matching theirs for height. Massive claws engufled their heads, squeezed, and released the crumpled masses as their horses momentum carried them by. Its tail caught a third horse in the chest, shattering bone and flinging its rider over the stirrups. The three remaing soldiers rode wide around it, dismounted, and drew their blades, faces pale. The reptile let loose the deep hiccuping which passed for laughter amongst the chosen of Tume, and charged the unfortunate trio. Their swords skittered off skin thicker than plate, while the creature’s massive claws and teeth tore them to shreds, their armour worth no more than parchment.

The Azel turned back to Migara, gore dripping, three mishaped masses soaking the earth behind it. It spoke in Azelii, its voice gravely and depthless. She retorted in the same tongue and the creature snorted in amusement, then began leisurely strolling towards her prone form.

Migara threw a handful of gold dust into the air, the particles spreading to form a thin cloud between her and the incoming hulk. She drew a small dagger and the Azel hiccupped again. She grinned, teeth stained red, and dragged the blade along the edge of her shield. Sparks leapt from the surface, tracing a lazy path along the shimmering cloud until they reached the Azel’s neck. A glimmer of apprehension in the creature’s eyes, then a larger bolt erupted from the shield and struck it, burnt flesh pelting Migara as the reptile was thrown backwards through the sulfuric air.

Alras’ voice whispered beside her, seemingly from nowhere. ‘I tried to distract it, but it wasn’t paying attention to anything I threw up.’

‘No worries, it wasn’t looking for me so much as it was for the scent of Rot.’ Migara groaned, rising to a knee and fighting back oblivion at the edges of her vision. ‘Grab a sword and stab it for me, will you? I tore out a chunk of its armour, but that won’t be enough to down it. Damn things are hard to kill.’

The leutenant began to complain but Migara held up her functioning hand. ‘I’ll be fine, nothing the healers can’t fix. That Azel will shake off the impact soon, and we’ll be sorry if it isn’t dead by then. Hurry.’

From her vantage point, Migara could see soldiers converging on the slowly rising reptile, its hulking form cutting through the remnants of the yellow smog, smoke emanating from a wet lesion on its neck. Alras, now visible, picked up a longsword from near one of the eviscerated soldiers and strode towards the creature, which had begun tearing into the throng of Ingarii, despite their best efforts to form a wall with shields and spears. The leutenant seemed to waver as she approached the massacre, then the effect was gone. She shouted and the Azel turned, spying its original quarry beyond. A sweep of its tail threw soldiers back, and it began stomping towards Alras. The leutenant raised her longsword as the reptile brought down a massive claw, which passed cleanly through both blade and body. Her form wavering once more before dispersing into a fine mist.

The creature was afforded an instant of confusion, then began to raise a massive arm to its neck as brown blood poured from the gaping wound. Alras appeared on its shoulder, her longsword pressing deep into the opening. The Azel opened its snout, gasping, each spasm spraying a fine mist of ocre fluid into the tainted air. Its arms clawed at its neck before falling limp, and the reptilian humanoid collapsed forward. Alras rolled gracefully off the massive corpse as it slammed into the ground.

‘Quite convenient it wasn’t paying attention to my tricks, eh?’ She chuckled. Her expression of bemusement turned to one of concern. ‘Why didn’t you use realm magic? You could have blown it apart immediately.’

Migara rose shakily to her feet with help from her second in command. ‘Okur chose well. That Azel was from Rot. Anything I pulled from there would have just attracted more of them. That,’ she said, pausing to spit a gob of blood to the yellow-stained dirt, ‘and they’re even harder to hurt with their own magic.’

Alras led her commander to the center of the butte, where healers were now swarming over the injured. One approached and Migara nodded. He began gingerly removing the straps of her shield. The Ingarii commander winced as the healer pulled the mangled metal away from destroyed flesh and bone, and turned to the killing field to distract herself from the infuriating itching of healing magic.

What had begun in an exchange of arrow fire and occasional walltop skirmishes had turned into one-sided slaughter, with coruscating waves of magic and shot-charged ballista from the besieged hammering the near-routed invaders below.

‘Tell Des to do it. We’re not gaining anything from throwing our dead at those walls, and Okur might decide to fire another Azel our way.’

Alras’ gaze became distant, jaws bunched unconsciously. She finally turned back to her commander.

‘Des seems relieved. He wasn’t happy to leave so many soldiers without protection.’

Before Migara could retort, a low dirge resonated in her mind, rapidly rising in tempo and pitch, becoming a screaming hurricane buffeting her senses. Vision slowly being squeezed by some alien force and a massive pressure driving her downwards, she sunk to her knees, vaguely aware of Alras, her healer, and the other nearby mages all in similar positions.

From down in the fields outside Gris, a massive portal yawned, perpendicular to the ground and facing the main gate of the city. Tendrils of virulent smoke rose from its edges, quickly expanding and washing outwards to obscur the killing field and brush against the city’s walls. The magical onslaught on the Ingarii forces had stopped, both sides frozen in place, unsure of what to do.

The screaming in her head was tearing her mind apart, every though snatched by the swirling gale and ripped to shreds. The portal seemed to recede slightly, as if shy, then pulsed once, twice. The pressure rose and Migara felt more than heard herself join the unholy cacophony, jaw popping and muscles tearing. The portal pulsed a third time and, at its apex, a massive beam erupted outwards, blasting through the city gate and surrounding wall. From her vantage point and through bloodied eyes, Migara could see the ray continuing through the city and out the other side, melting the adjacent structures and ripping up chunks of earth and stone. She felt her eardrums rupture, blood pouring down the sides of her head to match the wetness of her cheeks. The portal began rotating slowly upwards, taking with it the top of the wall and leaving behind a scorched gulley of melted stone. It rose up into the heavens, cleaving the sky and clouds, giving the air a sickly red hue. It flickered slightly, then redoubled its intensity, becoming blindingly bright. Finally, it began to turn back down to the ground, away from the city. And directly towards us. Oh you damn fools, shut it off! Migara could only manage a sob as the massive ray continued down towards them, its heat beginning to smoulder branches and warm her skin beneath leather and steel. It then flickered, the pressure in her mind receded, and the beam sputtered out of existence. The sky was dark for a moment, but finally the light of the sun returned behind a bisected sky of clouds.

Migara lay on the hot dirt crying, deaf to the world, muscles aching, mind rubbed raw. Finally, she began to test her battered body, slowly pulling her legs in, turning onto her side, testing her newly healed shield arm. Shaking, she made her way to her knees, then her feet, and raised her head to see the world through eyes puffy with tears and crusted with blood.

The gate of Gris was gone, it and the surrounding wall having vanished, easily a hundred paces of ancient defenses disintegrated. A gulley divided the city beyond, the buildings and walls within having disappeared without a trace. Buildings near the edge of the carnage had blown apart, massive chunks of rubble strewn throughout the rest of the city, fires rising here and there to pollute the sky, salty wind pushing smoke out to the Ingarii encampment.

Past the far wall of Gris, the fields and forets had been similarly bisected; the mountain range leagues north had become two. On the killing field, soldiers near the blast had been incinerated, bits of smouldering armour all that remained. The survivors were now stirring and moving aimlessly through the hazy air, a chorus of confusion and pain filling the air. A healer approached the commander, his orifices crusted with baked blood and hands shaking from the burden of repeated healing. He placed his hands on Migara’s ears, then jaw, and the familiar itching returned. As the sensation receded, Migara waved him away, looking around. She spotted Alras close to the edge of the mesa, jaw bunched, looking sickly but otherwise unharmed. The leutenant turned.

Migara beat her to speak, the commander’s voice hard. ‘With me, now’.

She strode down the hill, Alras at her heel, weaving their way between the moaning soldiers. ‘Mind explaining what just happened?’ ‘Not yet,’ Migara replied, ‘we need to pick something up first.’ They crossed through camps of the wounded, what passed for living quarters, and rows of catapults and broken war machines, finally making their way to the battlefield. Moving further into the low haze, they approached the origin of the portal, a few hundred yards from the charred hole where the gate had been. A ring of churned, rotten earth marked its origin, while piles of burnt cloth revealed the fate of the participating mages. Migara approached a man weeping on his knees, grabbed his leathers and yanked him upright, newly-healed arm and ribs aching in protest. The mage, she recognized as Des, yelped, then fear turned into recognition.

‘Migara, we g-g-got the gate upon. Something went wrong though, we t-t-thought we could close the p-portal-’ she placed a hand over his mouth, rubbing the streams of dried blood caking his face into his skin, and turned to Alras. ‘Keep him distracted.’ The leutenant nodded, moved behind the still gibbering Des, and placed a hand on his back. The mage’s eyes glazed over and his mouth slackened. Migara turned back towards the bisected city and began walking, Alras nudging the discombobulated Des along behind.

‘How about now?’ Alras continued.

‘Once we’re with Okur’ the commander replied, the footsteps behind her pausing momentarily, then continuing.

‘I take it you’re not in a mood to explain why we need him here to discuss this?’

Migara grimaced and continued, the wall looming ever closer, runes now visible in seemingly random intervals along their pockmarked surface. Archers appeared here and there along the top, but they either didn’t see or weren’t interested in firing upon the Ingarii delegation. They passed through the shadow of the wall and down into the shallow gulley forged by the beam, its base a fine layer of crystalized stone. Upon reaching the inside of the wall, they turned right towards a low, spartan building hiding in the shadow of a massive keep, and climbed the side of the trough. A wizened old man awaited them paces from the top, standing tall despite the decades brandished into his skin and layers of battleworn leather and mail. Behind him stood a division of soldiers, at attention despite their evident horror. He tilted his head at Migara, looked to Des, then back.

‘How’d he do it?’

She shrugged.

‘I’m not sure. I figured we’d find out together.’

‘You mean you think your siege is over.’

She turned back at the cleave in the wall, then back at Okur.

‘Do you think it’s over?’

He thought for a long moment, then sighed.

‘Gris’ walls have never been brought down, and that, along with a healthy stock of supplies, would have been enough to ensure the Ethirin wipe you out before we starve. With that hole,’ he noted, expression dour, ‘we can’t do much against your numbers. That, and every mage I had killed themselves trying to seal back up what this buffoon opened.’

Des giggled, his mind disant. Alras spoke up, her voice strained.

‘I can’t keep this up for too long. Where should we go for… whatever this is?’

Okur turned to a soldier in pristine mail, a red circlet on their right arm.

‘We’re surrenduring; Gris is now a city of Ingar. Send messengers to the walls and let the Royals know.’

The soldier nodded and turned with their company, jogging with evident complaints from their bodies a few dozen paces before splitting up, one heading towards the keep, another the wall, more into various side-streets from which citizens had begun to peek out.

The Grisian commander turned towards the low barracks and gestured the Ingarii along. Migara faced Alras.

‘Let Varlan know the state of affairs and have her return the troops to our camps. We’ll figure out occupation afterwards.’

The leutenant nodded, eyes glazed momentarily, then sharpened again.

‘She has questions, but none that can’t wait.’

The commander nodded, then turned back to follow Okur into the squat edifice. They followed a series of narrow corridors, eventually descending a winding staircase until arriving at a damp, dimmly lit row of cells. A soldier behind a table near the stairs held up a set of keys, which Okur took as he led the Ingarii leaders to the end, where a reinforced wood door awaited them. He unlocked it and swung the door open, revealing a smooth stone slab with burnished chains for a persons hands, feet and neck. Migara felt slightly faint as she entering the room.

‘You lined the restraints with aersrock.’

‘Aye,’ the Grisian commander nodded before patting the slab, ‘so that mages don’t get any funny ideas.’

Des’ eyes cleared, then widened in horror.

‘Where are we? What are you doing?’

His voice rose to a shriek as Alras shoved him forward and Migara slammed him down onto the slab. He tried to cast as they chained him down, but nothing more than a match flame rose from his hands before extinguishing. Finally, the incapacitated mage grew still, his breaths coming in fast and shallow. He looked at his commander, eyes pleading. Migara approached and leaned over him, maintaining eye contact.

‘You messed up Des. I told you to find a way to open those gates, not destroy the Mortal Realm. I’d ask how you discovered the Obliterator, or what possessed you to try harnessing it, but frankly, I can’t trust anything you’d say. You’ve broken rule number one of high magery, which means you’re incredibly stupid, suicidal, insane, or some combination of the three. Which is why Alras here is going to shred your mind for the truth.’

She looked up at her leutenant, who had gone pale.

‘Is this really necessary?’ she stammered.

Migara turned to Okur, his expression unreadable. The Grisian spoke, his voice declarative but not unkind.

‘As much as I’d rather avoid it, I agree with Migara. This isn’t the kind of situation we can afford any misdirection or forgetfullness. We need the truth, and now. If your mage and his what I assume are newly deceased kin aren’t the only ones who know about this, we could all be in trouble.’

Alras shrunk back as Okur spoke, holding her breath for a long time after he finished, then released a shaky breath. She slowly approached Des, who had remained silent during the exchange.

‘Please Alras, don’t do this. I’ll tell you everything.’

His voice began pleading, becoming more and more panicked, tears following the lines of blood on his cheeks. She set a hand on his forhead and his pleas turning into wimpers. She turned back to Migara, whose expression was tight. The Ingarii commander stepped forward and placed a hand on her leutenants shoulder, giving a gentle squeeze.

‘I’m sorry Alras. I’ll explain after we contact the capital, but this needs to be done, and now.’

The young mage-soldier looked down at her companion in arms, tears streaming down her face.

The chained mage’s face twisted in apprehension.

‘No, no please, please don’t do this, ple-’

His face slackened.


Note: I wrote this as a sort of campaign prompt/try-out situation for a fantasy setting I’m working on. If you have any thoughts, criticisms, etc., please send them to milddermatographia@gmail.com. I’d love to get your feedback :)