Thursday, September 11, 2014

Day Seven-Fifty-Five: Stop running off like that, you

Lieutenant Brooks was a mere five days away from retirement when the rats came to Brickrite.

He only remembered their arrival as part of an omnipresent haze, now. The staff officer in charge of overnight watches, Brooks had stood silently on the walls of Brickrite for over thirty years, watching to the north, south, east, and west for foreign threats. Aside from the occasional ballsy (and suicidal) bandit horde, no one ever bothered to disturb the fortress. Though no Rodentia, Brickrite was tough enough to rebuff all but the strongest enemy incursions.

Brooks liked that fact. He was a guard, not a warrior. Not once in his thirty-five years of service with the Imperium army had he marched anywhere. Two years service in an outpost on the eastern border; two years as a guard in Rodentia; half a year as an instructor in a combat school; another half a year as a cleaner, during the Great Janitorial Purge. Then, in recognition of his service to the state, promotion to lieutenant and a cushy job in Brickrite.

Watching the walls. Watching the plains. Watching… not a hell of a lot. Brooks was content with seeing very little. He was too old for shenanigans. Especially too old for dealing with, say, a sloth, the likes of which had decimated Rodentia. Or the great evil in the far east. No, he would sit at his walls, thank you very much.

Then the dragons had come. They’d appeared in the night, just as Brooks was coordinating a shift change with his men. And as they came, despite Brooks’ initial panic - Why are there so many? - a calm had fallen over the old man. He’d decided, seconds before the first set of draconic claws hit the ground, that dragons simply weren’t that bad. Nor, indeed, were dragons covered in rats at all terrible. Why, such a thing seemed downright novel, when you thought about it.

Dragons. Yep. Great folk, dragons.

That opinion changed abruptly, though only for a second, when a dragon reared up over the wall and swallowed Brooks whole. He’d never been a tall man, particularly not at sixty-two, and his roly-poly body fit rather nicely down the dragon’s expansive gullet. It would struggle to digest his breastplate for the next three hours.

Brooks’s soldiers raised their spears, though even with eyes glowing fiercely white they looked nervous. Taking a handful of steps back they encircled Brickrite’s command tower, creating a protective ring around a cadre of archers and crossbowmen. Their arrows plinked uselessly off the dragon’s thick scales, and before any of the soldiers could bring a cannon to bear, the dragon breathed fire. Most of Brooks’s soldiers died; the few who reacted in time disappeared into the base of the tower.

Riding on the dragon’s neck, clinging fiercely to its hair and gritting her teeth, Libby braved a glance at the wall. She’d ducked out of sight when the soldiers began firing their arrows. Sure enough, most of the dragon’s opponents were now smoking corpses. She breathed relief, then asked her other companion - Gods, it’s a book, why am I talking to a book - to get her on the ground. Smiling widely, the diary in Libby’s left hand apparently did just that. The dragon’s long neck descended and allowed her to drop onto the wall, then the beast took flight and moved to another part of the fortress, hiccuping as it went.

Kneeling behind a nearby barrel for cover, Libby set the diary down. “Okay. He’s up there?”

The diary nodded and swung open. “Drags. Up. Smells, I do. Smells like pees.”

“You’ve got a hell of a nose, then.” Libby glanced up the tower’s circular facade. Tall, but not that tall. “Any reason your dragon over there can’t just breathe fire through the entrance ’n smoke out the soldiers inside? It’d make getting your ‘diary army’ inside a bit easier.”

The diary considered this, then swivelled back and forth. Libby assumed that was a ‘no’. “We sets it on fire, we crispies Drags. Is no good. I, diary, know crispies be bad. No want burn his pages.”

“He… he doesn’t have… pages….” Libby winced at the absurdity of the conversation. “Forget it. Point taken. Guess we don’t want Traveller going in, either, then - he’ll probably bring the whole damned thing down on Dragomir’s head on his way up. So how do we get up there without them usin’ Dragomir as a, I dunno, hostage? Gonna send your hordes of bees up, or something?”

The diary grinned at the suggestion, and ‘bzzzzzzzz’ appeared on its page, but it seemed to reject the suggestion. “Is simples. You, Libbers, takes I, diary, and puts me closestness to soldier-guys. Gets me closestness as cans without you, Libbers, dying. I do all rest. Kay? Kay. Hup!”

Before Libby could argue, the book scrambled over and hopped at her arm. She picked it up, reflexively. “The hell? That’s your plan? All you’ll do is confuse ‘em! At best you’ll give ‘em a damned paper cut!”

The diary grinned up at Libby, but it would not elaborate. Its pencil-thin eyebrows wiggled as though it knew something she did not, which, Libby hoped, it did.

“Fuck me.” Libby shook her head, rising carefully into a crouch. She began creeping towards the tower’s half-charred entrance, trying to listen for the clink of jittering armour and readied weapons from within. It was difficult, given the horrible din of noises from other parts of Brickrite. “Where? By the door?”

The diary vibrated a negative, cover jittering. It pointed two small claws towards an arrow slit in the side of the tower, just over six feet off the ground. A little relieved by the idea, Libby changed her route, edged through the field of charred bodies and tiny fires in front of the tower, and dipped beneath the arrow slit. She had to rise onto the tips of her toes to get the diary in place, and it only managed the climb thanks to its graspig feet.

“Dunno what good this’ll do,” she grunted, mostly to herself. Once the diary was out of her hands Libby ran back to her hiding place, adjusting the barrel to better mask her presence.

For almost five minutes, nothing happened. Libby waited, tense, arms and legs sore, still a little flushed from her bizarre, too-nude encounter with Traveller, wondering if she’d ever see the diary again. The sounds of frenzied combat in other parts of the fortress contrasted too keenly with the absence of noise from the command tower.

As Libby was wondering if she should sneak off and find someone to help her lead an assault, though, one of the guards wandered out of the tower’s entrance. His eyes blazed white under his helmet, but the look of vapid confusion on his face - particularly when he collapsed - hinted at some severe crossed signals. It looked to Libby as though his brain had simply decided to give up.

He wasn’t alone. Another soldier, two more, five, seven, twelve soldiers in all emerged from the tower. Each collapsed at roughly the same point, forming a pile of arms, armour, and drooling, useless men. They were joined, perhaps two minutes later, by a line of rats that didn’t look any better off. The rats didn’t collapse, but their unsteady legs as they formed a wobbling pack suggested extreme fatigue.

The diary came last. It, too, looked quite strained, its simple face narrowed in comedic concentration. It didn’t say anything to Libby, apparently preoccupied, though the tiny tip of its spine towards the tower said it all. Confused but thankful, Libby nodded and ran past.

Dragomir, she thought, staring past a room full of scrolls, books, reports, and maps to the stairs at the far end. I’m so sick of chasin’ you down. This is the last time you get outta my fuckin’ sight.

She ran -

- and spiralled upward -

- along stairs she counted -

- to the top.

At the top, set into a simple stone wall and flanked by blue banners, was a door. Libby threw open the door at once, not pausing to catch her breath.

Dragomir was standing inside, eyes focused on a cluster of intermingled rats. The creatures were heaped into a small, writhing mountain, tails twitching gruesomely. A white something floated over the rats, something Libby could not hope to identify or explain, though she thought, she strong suspected, that the something might be a ghost.

“It’s a deal, then,” Dragomir said. “Keep your mouths shut ’n I’ll do it.”

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