The whip cracked against the large back of the gladiator, nearly causing him to drop the heavy wooden beam he was shouldering to the excavation site.
“Faster!” The overseer was spitting his commands in ruthless succession… His hand must have ached with the lashes he dealt to the throng of exhausted labourers. That frail little wrist that could snap with a mere motion of the warrior’s own large, calloused hands. And the gnat’s little neck would snap just as easily…
But he needed to lay such fantasies to rest. He could not entertain them, not now. Not when he was so close to securing an escape. His size and raw power would be more than enough to take down a sizable amount of the slavers, but scores of them lined the digging grounds. The footmen on the borders would surely strike him down with their numbers, if they descended in a coordinated subjugation of his revolt. He could not risk it, even as the bloodlust was rising dangerously within him.
“Faster, dog!” The word had become a vexing little noise as it taunted the daily routine of his toil. Like a reminiscent hammer beat, the order tempered his patience. In the past, any who dared undermine him so would be put down by his warclub or fist. But in this place, he had quickly come to regret such an uprise. The scar to his eye attested to that. He was a proud fighter, but by no means a fool.
So he was compliant. As long as he needed to be. He repositioned the beam and picked up his pace. The loads of cargo that had arrived were heavier of late, and he could feel his tired shoulders burn from the exertion. His skin was grinded raw by the rough wood as it shifted balance. Others had long since succumbed to the struggles demanded of their labour. Of the entourage that had arrived with him, few remained; they had long since been replaced by fresh muscle that lent their youthful vigour for the cause.
The watchtower was a huge and cumbersome structure. It rose like a dark monsrosity, blotting the sun as one stood in the shadow of the stronghold. The construction of it had taken months, built on the foundation of the sweat, blood and souls of the many who had worked themselves to death on the crude stone giant that was raised from the floor. And as it grew higher, it took more scaffolds and support beams to steady the working platforms and hoisting mechanisms that made the large stonework reach the heavens. If it was meant to be imposing, then the Crown had succeeded in funding the lone sentinel that stood watch over the borderlands. The building thereof was a move of strategy, as it was resourceful by happenstance.
As the ground had been turned for the laying of the foundation, a labourer had stumbled upon a shard of a mysterious substance, gleaming in the first rockbed to be tilled from the earth. He had hidden the precious metal amongst his rags, hoping to sell it at the black port, reputed for its passage given to deserters and criminals. He never made it that far. The next day, with him missing, his entire regimen had been reassigned to the stone quarries for the extraction of the large stones that would form the steep walls and battlements of the tower. The man had been part of the gladiator’s own group, and they had not returned to the borderlands until a strong militant force was present to keep vigil, along with the foundational stones already laid for the building of the fortress. And cordoned off apart from the tower, was the excavation site. It was not manned by their own people – a strong message of the distrust maintained toward the foreign captives that they had enslaved for the hard drudgery and manual labour.
But his party had returned on occasion. Word of the precious mineral most likely traveled through seedy channels, and the overseers had dispatched them to act as a disposable assault force to drive invaders from those lands. That was until, they established their foothold in the region. Effectively, no longer being needed, his group had been stripped of their weapons, and handed the ropes instead that would pull stone and lumber many leagues to erect the monumental structure
He preferred the fighting pits. There at least, a warrior could die a death more honourable than this grinding slavery; a pitiful end met by dehydration, exhaustion, or accident. In the bloody gladiatorial grounds, a warrior knew his purpose – even if he was enthrall to the greedy masters who owned them. In the fighting ring, a proud warrior was not subjected to the constant repertoire of barking orders from weak men who would be crumpled by one deft swing of his mace.
He needed to cease giving audience to these thoughts…
He reached the foot of the tower and set the beam against the bulwark. Soon, he thought. Soon he would escape his wretched captivity, and see to it that his weapon become slick with blood on the battlefield. A field where he would command once more the vast force of the united clans that would see to the fall of this blasted kingdom. He would then tear down this stronghold, brick by brick, until nothing was left but… …
His train of thought was broken as he heard a low horn sounding off from within the valley. Few turned to the noise of the sudden blow that had broken the tempo of heaving and grinding stonework. Most toiled on, unmindful of the faint sound. Until a second horn blared from right above them on the wooden scaffolds from atop the tower. The significance of this became worthy of note as the gladiator heard the sound of cracking whips cease almost instantaneously, drawing his gaze to land on the overseers who stared toward the valley in perplexed uncertainty. At that moment, the horn sounded again. This time, a succesive series of blasts travelled across the plain of slaves to be met with yells from the militia who broke their guard. Lines of soldiers who idly stood watch now rushed to the call of echoing warhorns that sounded off across the leagues of the clearing filled with labourers, helots and soldiers; all but halted in their tasks.
Chaos broke loose as guardsman broke ranks, and as the groups of slaves were driven to file in haphazard lines of evacuation to leave the building site and the materials that they had manned. Soldiers were rushing to the valley’s edge in squadrons, hardly paying any heed to the hundreds that had dropped their payloads to stare out across the flat basin from whence the first horn repeated its warning call in broken blares that seemed to sputter on every blast. So… they were under attack.
He caught himself frozen in place, eyes locked on the horizon over which the lone scout had ridden as he repeatedly sent forth a cracked clarion call to warn the outpost of an approaching danger. Attacks weren’t uncommon in this area. The land and its newly unearthed minerals had attracted the attention of many unsavoury bands of rogues that roamed the surrounding counties. Entire tribes of them had also sent forth paltry armies to cut into the flanks of the armed border post. Horns had been sounded before. Threats had been dealt with. But this… There was an unsettling desperation about those blasts that yielded impatient shouts and curses from the emerging commanders and captains that now snaked through the broken ranks of troops having formed at the edge of the embankment.
The river that had once flowed at the bottom had run dry as per the arrival of the dry season. The cracked earth made easy passage into the valley for scouts to survey the surrounding area. It was unfortunate though, that the natural barrier of the waters was now removed for the sake of enroaching attackers as well.
The gladiator caught sight of the overseer from the corner of his eye, as the puny man motioned forward in his tentative curiosity. The man had all but forgotten his mistreatment of the builders as he stared to the other edge where the hilltop rose. The overseer was truly nothing more than a scrawny pup. Easily half the size of the gladiator’s own striking bulk. Once more, vengeful thoughts flooded his mind as he towered over the small whipmaster. So effortless it would be, to just reach out… to end the boisterous little cur….
As the overseer’s eyes widened, and the colour drained from his face to leave a ghostly pallor, the warrior broke from his reverie and followed the gaze of the pathetic mongrel to fall on the now-shifting horizon. There were a few of them at first: ragtag stragglers that ran ahead of the rising dust that had begun to blot the lower part of the sky. And then a score followed. Their jetblack hides were blurring dark blots as it blitzed down into valley; supine bodies that twisted and contorted unnaturally as they descended. As they ran closer, he made out the grotesque bending of twisted, backward limbs ending in elongated razor-like claws that tore into the earth. It ripped open the tough bedrock, ravaging the ground in its wake. The ungodly speed of the ghouls quickly sparked unrest among the frontline defenders that had formed at the gates of the stronghold.
The warrior too, was given pause; stricken with the malady of his own horror at these faceless foes that silently raced toward the scout. The hapless wretch had not crossed nearly half of the distance to the embankment. One demon pounded mercilessly in pursuit, right on their heels, and leapt…
Horse and rider were split in half as blade-like appendages slashed through bone, nerve and muscle. The bloody remains were dragged in lieu of the unrelenting black creature that charged forward in an unbroken stride with the others. Panic ensued as soldiers abandoned their line in mutiny to the ragged and hoarse commands of veteran captains that had stared in horror at the gruesome slaughter of the valley rider. Others, armed to the teeth, raised shaking shields to the uncoming threat – a threat that most were unsure they could likely survive.
The rest who witnessed the dreaded scene were not as brave. Disorder gripped the once structured production lines as the panic spread through the masses. The overseer dropped his whip and started to run as he saw the hellish monsters speed closer; his shouts now shot through with the fear. But the battalion gathered what remained of their resolve, and entrenched themselves in a solid line to break the charge.
And then they heard it. A bone-chilling scream that ended in a hisslike screech resounding across the valley. Atop the jagged farside hill, from whence the demons emerged, was a hooded figure in a dark tattered cloak trailed by midnight. Crooked and bent, it raised one of its gnarled clutches in a gesture toward the outpost… a necromancer. Which meant…
Hordes of the undead broke across the valley mouth in that moment. They advanced in waves, in wake of the demonic terrors that had outrun them. Their impossible numbers kept pouring forth. Horrific nightmares tumbled down the hillside, trampling over their own as their wicked legion hungrily raced forward. This was no attack. This was an invasion… a scourge sent against the living.
The gladiator looked up from the nightmarish distraction, up at the tower they had built, and he wondered whether it was deserving of the staunch defence that assembled itself at its foot. The proud ideals that had surrounded its construction as a beacon of might – as a deterrent to enemies – seemed so meaningless now; now faced against a blight that cared nothing for the megalomania of infant races. But as the warrior looked back on the armour-clad retinue, he had to commend the pious fools for their honour. Even if it would get them killed…