The following is an extract from the first chapter of my novel (Old Earth is Dead – Book One of the Protectorate Trilogy). I was inspired to post this after reading a fellow NaNoWriMo participant’s first chapter and thinking that perhaps it might be interesting to share this with you all. Keep in mind this is a very early draft. No editing has been done on it whatsoever, and the final piece will be quite different. That said, I hope you will enjoy it for what it is!
The sky was on fire. Molten flames scorched the clouds and rumbled on with furious abandon across the horizon. There was nothing in that infernal sea but the black specks of hovercraft and mighty warships hovering overhead like flies around the carcass of some dead beast, or descending at a slow and ominous pace.
In the space of two hours Centruus Gothek had fallen, its Cathedrix blasted into rubble, its Prime Cleric the first to die, if the rumours spoke any truth it had been the hellborne warlord himself who had choked the life from the holy man’s neck before ordering the demolition of the grand building.
By the second day, Argolyth was all but defeated. The Warrior Knights and their Adjutant Squires had formed a valiant defence outside the city, but even at twenty thousand men abreast they had never really stood a chance. The enemy was relentless, with weapons that spat fire and armour that could not be dented.
Now the Warrior Knights were all but entirely destroyed, their numbers reduced to an almost inconceivable low. Those that had survived, shirked their training and honour, running, hiding, surrendering, dying by the weapons of their own hands.
Arin-Xey had not been among those number, nor would he have wished to be. His detachment, a small unit comprised mostly of recruits and first-time Knights had been placed south of Kolesh across the June river. From there they had seen most of the devastation take place but were powerless to intervene. The world was dying, and they could do nothing.
Not anymore, Arin thought. No longer would he stand back and allow this atrocity to continue. War had come to Argolyth, but not a war of their making or in a form they were prepared for. Their enemies came from the sky, so Arin-Xey had to take to ground.
They would beat the hellborne at their own game, or die warrior’s deaths in the attempt. There was no greater honour.
Arin stood for a moment atop his lookout, gazing outwards across the black earth and closed his eyes. He tried to imagine the events that had brought them to this point, but all he could see was a cloaked figure with a long scythe in his hands, beckoning him forwards.
It had all started with the difficult task of transporting the full force of the Warrior Knights from their myriad barracks to their new stations across the city and beyond. Arin-Xey had been training when the order was given, and was still wearing his training fatigues when his commander had informed him and the other Adjutant Squires that they were to fetch their belongings and make haste to Testament Plaza.
Arin had not understood why at the time. Apparently, unlike the entire population of Argolyth he was entirely unaware of the threat that loomed overhead. He had been indoors for days, practicing his swordsmanship and aim after a taller recruit made a comment about his weaker stature. He was ill-prepared for what he saw as they marched out of the stone archway into the wide cobbled grounds of Testament Plaza.
The first thing that had struck him was the absence of civilians. This was after all, a place designed for them. Merchants sold their wares in the plaza on market days and even on others there were stalls dotted around and scores of wandering peasantry. Their absence was disturbing, but beautiful as well. In their place stood the full might of the Warrior Knights, the fighting force of Argolyth, resplendent in their silver armour, standing in full battle formation with the Paladins at their forefront.
The priesthood was out as well, but they were far less organised and far less disciplined. They were scattered amidst the armoured bodies, chatting amongst themselves in quiet voices and looking around nervously. A number were glancing up, and then throwing their gaze back to the cobbles as though they had done something to be ashamed of.
Curiosity drew Arin’s gaze upwards too, and what he saw made him stop in his tracks. The sky was dark and filled with twisting clouds, not a surprising image for this late in the year. What had shocked him though were the shapes that moved between the clouds. Small though they appeared, he could guess by the distance that they were much, much larger. Black dots darted back and forth, or clung to the sky unmoving. For a moment Arin wondered if his vision was failing him, or he had been targeted by an affliction of some form, but as he traced the sky with his eyes he knew this was not the case, and full horror was revealed. The sky was filled with the shapes. Not just over Centruus Gothek, but off into the distance as far as the eye could see.
‘Stop gawping, squire,’ growled a Knight, deliberately bashing his shoulder as he strode down towards his comrades.
The contact brought Arin back into the present and he saw that the other squires had been similarly struck by the strangeness and were now being herded down, not to the plaza but off in the direction of the Grand Cathedrix.
Arin followed them, making sure to stay in step with his fellows as they marched across the cobbles. A feeling of dread crept over him as he realised that even now those black shapes were still above him. Like a terrible truth you would rather just ignore, even looking away it was still there, lingering in the periphery of his vision. Cold shivers ran down his spine.
A Knight Commander came to greet them. Arin recognised him instantly as Eck-Tyr, a verbose man with a round friendly face and neatly trimmed facial hair that curled at the edges. If the talk of the Knights was anything to go by he was a pleasant man, for a commanding officer, with a good demeanour and friendly attitude. If that was the case, it was hard to see any of it in his hardened features and worried expression. Everyone is afraid, Arin realised. It didn’t make him feel any better about his own fear.
‘Gather up,’ ordered Eck-Tyr, a red-cloaked cleric waving two more detachments towards them.
They formed a line before the Knight Commander and knelt in succession, holding their hands to their breast as they did so.
‘Rise,’ said Eck-Tyr, with more than a hint of annoyance in his voice. ‘We don’t have time for niceties.’
As one the soldiers rose, but Arin could see the confusion and annoyance in their faces. It would have been amusing that even over all the fear their pride shone through, but this was not the time for laughter.
‘By now you have all seen them,’ said the Knight Commander without needing to explain further. ‘The Prime Cleric has informed us of their intent, and we must make ready in kind. The days of doom are upon us now, but we must remain strong. Hell itself must not find us wanting.’
It was not much of a motivational speech, but Arin could feel the spark of defiance flickering within him all the same.
‘You will be loaded onto carriers and driven out of the city,’ continued Eck-Tyr. ‘Each detachment will form up around one group of carriers and embark in a swift and disciplined manner. We are moving out. Understood?’
‘Understood, sir,’ chimed the soldiers.
‘Then get to it,’ said the Knight Commander.
The red-cloaked cleric was joined by a number of his peers who divided the assembled groups of soldiers and siphoned them efficiently towards a number of parked carriers. Arin’s group took to one in the middle, speedily ascending the boarding ladder and shuffling back into the seats.
As he made to grasp the ladder himself the tall squire from early pressed past him, smirking as he did so. Arin scowled, righting himself quickly before clambering up to join the others. He was the last to board, and took the seat furthest from the driver’s. He could see another three full detachments of soldiers being talked to by the Knight Commander and then marching off to another group of carriers.
The vehicle burst into life with a mechanical snarl, then began to move. As it did so Arin glanced back at the Grand Cathedrix and marvelled at its massive spires and turrets, its stained glass windows that depicted the nineteen great martyrs, and high up, observing the events he saw the statuesque figure of the Prime Cleric, resplendent in his crimson robes and hat of gold and ivory.
Arin wondered what thoughts were going through his head. If he already knew how this was going to end. Then another, far darker thought struck him. Somehow, without knowing how, he knew that this would be the last time he ever saw the Grand Cathedrix or Testament Plaza.
It was a curious thought, and he couldn’t understand it, but as the carrier pulled out of the city he was left with a feeling of sadness he could not fully understand. It was like saying goodbye to an old friend.
In the carrier beside him the men were chattering. Some were telling jokes, or gossiping about the day’s events. Many were silent though, their faces as hardened as Eck-Tyr’s had been. The gravity of the situation was descending upon all of them.
‘So what do you think it is?’ asked a man seated next to Arin.
‘What?’ asked his comrade.
‘You know, that we’re fighting.’
The other man simply shook his head and refused to comment after that. His skin had paled at the question, as though he had somehow managed to ignore the looming threat and that just hiding from it would make it go away. Arin knew better, but he could not fault the man.
Everyone is afraid, he reminded himself.
Several hours passed in silence, save for the sound of the carrier’s wheels churning through the muddy landscape. Such vehicles were designed with every terrain in mind, but Arin knew that in practice this was more of a hope than a promise. He had been in carriers many times before as the Warrior Knights fished him and his peers out from the training halls to train in the open air instead.
He was not a fan of the outside world. He had grown up in the stone confines of Centruus Gothek. Orphaned at a young age he had never met either of his parents, and had been forced to scrape a living on the streets. He could often be found stalking Testament Plaza in search of food and goods that he could pilfer.
He had been a tall child, lanky and clumsy and it had been hard to avoid the watchful eyes of the merchants, especially once they knew he was there. This had made stealing very difficult, but not impossible. He had instead relied upon distraction, taking things only when he was sure no one was watching. This had not always proven to be the case.
Many times he had been chased out of the plaza by the Warrior Knights that guarded it. They were ruthless and fast, but their armour encumbered them, keeping them a safe distance behind and ensuring they would tire long before he did.
Once he had tried to play with the Knights, leading them through the narrow side streets where he knew they could not follow him. They had tried all the same, and become stuck, needing help from their comrades to be pulled free of the tight space.
This had only worked the once. After that, the Knights took note, and would send one of their number to block off the exit. They were smart, and strong too. A beating from a Knight was terrible to endure, far worse than even the most furious of merchants.
In spite of that he could not help but respect them. They looked so powerful in their silver armour, and they held themselves with such authority that every man and woman bowed before them and obeyed every word they said.
He would be lying if he ever said he had dreamt of becoming one himself. It had never occurred to him that he could, but all the same his luck had eventually changed for the better and now here he was, a Squire Adjutant. Some day he would be a Knight Warrior too, if the world didn’t end before then.
The carrier stopped with a sudden jolt and Arin cursed himself for allowing his mind to wander. He looked out at the landscape. It was mud mostly, with some grass and hills and the river June rumbling not far away. In the distance he could see the silhouette of Centruus Gothek against the sky. It was a great jewel upon the horizon.
Then he looked up at the black dots in the sky, and cursed himself again. They had started moving. They were beginning their descent.