Recently, Mantic hosted a writing competition for their fans to help build the blossoming worlds of Kings of War and Warpath. I decided to participate and while I didn't win, I still had fun writing it and exploring a fantasy world mostly open to interpretation.
The following story is about how in the world of Mantica...even the shadows stalk your every move.
If you like Kingdoms of Men or Night Stalkers, check it out!
Convinced no one was watching, Pierce drew the pendant from his breast pocket and held it to the firelight. A brilliant array of colors danced over its surface. The jewel was bound with sophisticated wiring that resembled the root structure of an ancient tree. Fragile golden filaments swirled over an azure masterpiece of craftsmanship. He was enamored by it. It seemed to vibrate within his touch. A silvered chain slid between the softness of his fingers, causing the trinket to sway in the cool night air.
To have found such an object undisturbed on the field of battle was a fortune seldom granted to soldiers. It was possible such a thing was intrinsically worthless but he would entertain no such thought. For whatever reason, it spoke to him as if it were the greatest possession he owned. Contemplating its value, fantasy after fantasy flooded his mind. Each was a wave of emotion carrying with it extravagant promise that receded just as quickly as the last. To be a man free of duty in Mantica was a luxury even kings did not possess. If this artifact were as valuable as he believed it to be, a world of promise awaited him. He glanced to the banner he was tasked to carry firmly planted at the threshold of his tent. The thought abandoning his duty burst forth in his mind like a soft tendril in the spring. Such a thing could be possible with a gemstone as wondrous as this.
Such thoughts were dangerous to contemplate. That tapestry defined his existence. Risking life and limb, he marched under General Garret for nearly a year now. Sworn fealty to the flag. It never brought him any true satisfaction though, it was just a job. A deadly, foul, cruel job that he detested. What a curse it was that the Gods granted him such a talent. He could inspire men to walk straight to their doom. Would even a mad man desire a skill such as that? With every battle he willed his brothers to hold in the face of certain death. Rousing stories of their victory in the thickets of fire and blood was his profession. Under the command of the General, who had far greater resolve than his own, he ordered men to stand when running was their only salvation. He watched in horror as they were cut down by the nightmares of the world.
In a mockery of circumstance, they loved him for it. Among the camp, none were more popular than himself. To them, he was an inspiration to their cause like no other. He harbored tremendous guilt. The scars of sight and sound would never heal. Memories branded into his being and he could stomach them no longer.
“Pierce, join us!” shouted Janus from the center of the camp. “The men are waiting to hear the tale you’ve spun of our victory!”
Quick and stealthy fingers coiled the pendant around its chain. Donning his role, he forced a broad smile and confident eyes. He rose from the stump he was resting upon and stored the trinket back in his pocket. With outstretched arms, his show began, “And who am I to keep them waiting?”
“We are finally to return home!” Janus exclaimed. “What would you make of such an experience? When we started, you had the fear of a lamb beneath the gaze of the wolf. Now look at you! Loved by the men and General alike. You very well may have a career in the king’s army!”
Pierce locked his gaze to the brittle leaves of the forest floor. He developed an extraordinary skill of masking his fear. Men in turn mistook it for bravery. The secret was to force an overconfidence and allow them to make of him what they would. “Glory and riches await the brave men of the king. I shall show them what it means to be heroes! How about you, intent on marching on under the banner of Lovaria forever?” he asked.
Janus shook his head, “That’s far too much drama for me. I would gladly take my pay and return home. There is no greater fortune than to have seen what we have seen and come home unscathed.”
“Come now, the impeccable aim of the deadeye Janus? What will the king do without your steady hand? Valiant hunter of the General…slayer of lord and monster alike!” Pierce said mimicking the loading motion of a rifle. He pretended to be caught off by the recoiled release of the imaginary black powder, “You will be missed, my friend.”
“Perhaps I can set my sights on a lass instead of this rotten lot!” Janus joked.
“I have far less confidence in your ability to pick one of those,” Pierce said with a mocking smile.
Sounds of celebration filled the camp. Laughter and song stretched further than the shadows beneath the forest canopy. The yearlong campaign was finally at an end. The Virtue of Winter would be able to return to the Kingdom of Lovaria victorious once more. Under General Garret they suffered no significant defeat and by most accounts were untouched on the field of battle. Pierce’s accounts, of course. Reality was far more honest.
He hadn’t taken the time to compose a tale of their final triumph. In truth, there wasn’t much that needed decoration. Efficiency was ever the key to their achievement. The castle of Darthill was stolen from the king with the invasion of the Varangur. Their ultimate task was to secure it once more. Rumors of court doubted the strength of his highness upon its loss. Power withdrew from him as frost does from the rising sun. With no other option, he turned to General Garret and ordered the Virtue of Winter to reclaim it. Against impossible odds, they had done just that.
Behind Volkur, the barbaric warriors drove a wedge into the heart of the enemy. The man was a monstrosity, completely devoid of fear. His axe cleaved a path for the General’s forces from the beginning of the campaign. None stood before his might. With careful embellishment, stories of his ferocity found their way to the enemy’s ears. They broke in panic the moment Volkur stepped through the lines.
General Garret was cunning, of course. He intended this all along. The modest retreat by the enemy forces was anticipated and Captain Alise and her mounted company, the Thorns, struck their flanks with wicked precision. The thunderous roar of horsemen bursting through poorly formed ranks decimated the motivation of the enemy. The memory of such a flawlessly executed charge carried with it an inescapable pleasure that sent a chill up his spine. Alise was ever the sword for General Garret. She admired him like a father. With each order, she was a soldier through and through. With each success, she gained his favor. Through the promise of such reward, she remained flawless.
What men remained were left so broken and disordered, the lines of Arquebusiers released only three volleys of fire before all were scattered before them. Janus himself was even rumored to have caught the opposing wizard beneath the wide brim of his hat from half a kilometer away. The poor fellow fell, spewing fireballs into the air that crashed down upon his own men. That would undoubtedly make for an amusing anecdote.
Nevertheless, parting and joyous words would be what Pierce would use to rouse the men one last time. As he approached the great bonfire, he admired the faces he grew to love over the past year. It was as if his tale were another log to stoke the flame. He felt a resolute peace in the moment. Time and time again these very men stood before him, defending his life. Such a devotion was unknown to him. Simple acts of brotherhood remained a blessing and a curse. He could not stand to watch them die. The decision to leave the Virtue of Winter was made. This would be his last night as one of them.
“Brothers!” he exclaimed. The gathered soldiers cheered in a drunken glee that burst forth and left a sudden void of silence. All gathered awaited his tale. General Garret approached with Alise at his side. The clank of his fully armored steps came to a still. The pop and crackle of the bonfire built the tension of the moment.
“We have marched together for so long the stars have found their original position in the sky!” he said to a bursting round of laughter. “In that time I have seen the bravery of you fine men tested against the baleful tribes of the north. Ogres and Goblins were crushed beneath your might! Even the unsightly Ratkin ran from your twisted faces!”
Rumbling chuckles came from the General. Such a gesture from the stoic leader filled Pierce with confidence. His mind raced with ways to further entertain the war band. He could explore the time the cannon crew misfired so badly that the braces came loose, knocking it from position. Or perhaps when the rain fell so heavily on the Muted Plains that the entire Pike horde lost their footing when moving into position. Something praising their great General would be most fitting, however.
“Would any of this be possible without our General? Were it not for his cunning, the mad hordes of Mantica would have trampled us beneath their bestial hooves. Through flawless execution we were lead through the fires of the Abyss and now we head for home. Three cheers for the General!” he exclaimed, raising an arm high into the night air. The band shouted in three deep cheers with militaristic discipline and remained intent.
“For many, doubt filled our march to Darthill. The king himself chose the General for this task. And he chose you,” Pierce said waiting for the realization to sink in. “No others would have stood the way you have. Not in the face of what we have seen. The king, the General, and I am in your debt this night.”
Pacing around the fire, he drank in their captivity. Faces of admiration glowed up at him, watching his every step. “What you have done is no simple campaign. You have firmly planted a foundation for the Kingdoms of Men to grow forth in the world. Your deeds will go down in history. You are no mere soldiers…you are legends of Mantica!” he said throwing his arms into the night air.
The gathered soldiers stood in unison, embracing Pierce and their brethren. Celebration erupted as quickly as a firework across the night sky. In the intensity of the moment, his vision blurred. The energy triggered something. Everything felt off. Sounds faded as if beneath the surface of water. A burning sensation bored into his chest. It were as if a hot coal had been placed into his pocket. He clutched at the searing heat, wrapping his fingers around the pendant. Beyond the cheers and shouting of the night, a whisper trickled into the innards of his mind.
In sleep, one embraces the dark. In death, all fear the light. Through shadow of spirit, we enter your realm. Kinsmen of Night, come forth once again!
Pierce stood paralyzed. His face shifted into one of anguish. With clawing and grasping motions, he tore at the pocket on his chest. Delirium consumed him as he felt like a beacon for darkness. Reaching inside he grasped the pendant and cast it into the fire. Sparks of brilliant orange swirled in a vortex high above the flame as if a spirt leaving a body. A hiss erupted from the embers as the pendant glowed an otherworldly green deep within the bowels of flame.
Blackened shapes darted out away from the flickering flame. Stretching from the shadows of the men themselves, fingers unfurled from ethereal patterns. The cackle of the bonfire became hushed whispers, branding words promised of death.
“What vile voice breaches my mind?” one of the knights burst out. “It’s happening! Make it stop, make it stop!”
Snickering laughter resounded through the trees from a hundred birds. Simultaneously they took flight. A gust of wintry air with a sharp otherworldly scent surged through the camp. Soldiers began to lose control of themselves. Rocking back and forth and speaking in muted tones, they dug their fingers into their own flesh. Reality distorted all around them as if they had walked straight into a nightmare.
A soldier at the edge of the circle cried out in inhuman inflection. Hands clasped to his temples and he dropped to his knees. With a sudden pop his head burst like a ripe grape under a steel boot. The sound smacked against their chests with an impact that penetrated armor. His lifeless body collapsed in a pool of blood. From within the cavity of his body, a thick, snakelike worm burrowed out of the gaping hole left by his head.
Panic set in. Dread blanketed the encampment as easily as a cloud covers the sun. The darkness was coming alive. Fully formed figures, phantoms, and mockery of men and beast stalked at the edge of the light. Eyes glowing of crimson hues locked onto prey from every direction. They were under attack.
Bellowing commands erupted from Garret’s bearded lips. The general stood strong and calm in the face of madness. “Men of Lovaria, steel yourselves! Form ranks and make way to me. Stay within the light! Volkur, Alise, secure our flanks. Do not let them behind us.” His men lost their disciple and he would not stand for it.
Alise turned to her commander, the fear in her eyes betrayed her composure. She reached to him, desperate for comfort, “General, what’s happening? Is it the enemy?”
With a deep swoosh and thud, Volkur’s axe buried itself into the wormlike creature sopping at the blood of the decimated soldier. Prying his foot into the head of the blade, he wrenched it from the ground and raised it to his shoulder. “Doesn’t matter what it is, we’ll kill it like all the rest,” he said with confidence.
Pierce gazed to his hands, seared with the heat of the pendant and fell to his knees. What happened, he thought. What have I done!? That foul cursed object has set the shadows themselves upon us. It made its way inside my mind. This is my fault…I’ve done this to them. Sent them to their deaths once again! He looked to his general who would not return the favor.
“Foot Guard, on me!” bellowed the General. Forty men in disciplined unison wove between one another to form a solid formation enclosing the light. The expertise of the system was apparent and well known as the General’s prized unit. In the midst of the night, however, they were unprepared. Most were not wearing any armor and none carried their shield. They would fight for him nevertheless.
Shapes of what looked like men shrouded in incorporeal shadow marched into a mirrored formation across from Garret’s Guard. Wreathed in energies that caused them to flicker in and out of reality, they snapped with impish jaws. Twisted black flame coiled around them morphing their bodies into a bestial mockery of the very men that stood before them.
“What sick joke is this!?” whimpered a soldier from the front rank. “I gaze at my foe and see my own eyes!”
The fine hairs beneath Garret’s armor stood on end. Was it the Abyss? No…this darkness felt far more ancient and twisted. These creatures peered into the very depth of his soul and fed off the shadow cast by the flickering fire. “Steady men!” he ordered. “Stand together and send these foul abominations back to the darkness from whence they came!”
His command sent the creatures into a frenzy. Somehow his words inspired the cursed men and they charged. The two masses crashed together with the force of thunder. With equal skill and discipline they exchanged blows. In unison bodies fell lifeless from the exchange. The General’s lip curled in confusion. He had never seen an enemy strike blows with techniques he himself taught!
“General! What is your command?” Alise demanded at Garret’s side. “Would you have me flank them with the Mounted Thorns? It is dark and surely they will not see the strike.”
“Be swift as silver, my keen sword. We must retake the element of surprise,” he replied. For the first time in many campaigns, he was caught off guard. He was not known for his strategic application of defensive force and searched for a method to turn the tables on an opponent he did not understand.
Alise mounted her mare and raised a basket hilted sword high into the cool air, “Thorns, with me! We seek to draw blood once more!” Her regiment of knights saddled their horses and quickly organized. They disappeared into the darkness beyond the fires in a flash.
The stark black of the forest swallowed the rider’s whole. Seeing the horrible dark consume his favored captain left the General with a pit in the hollow of his stomach. It curdled his thoughts. With no target to point them at, he decided to commit his Arquebusiers to their defense. “Riflemen, secure the defense of the Thorns. Do not allow them to fall to this unholy darkness!” he commanded.
Pierce was lost in the madness of the melee. The instinct of fear filled him like stream beneath the rain. In moments like this, the task of bearing the flag to his comrades was his only solace. With resolve, he broke through the lines of whirling combat. A mad dash through leering evil faces in the night brought him straight to his majesty’s royal banner. The emblem of Lovaria lie face down against the forest floor. An unsteady hand reached for the flag and raised it from ruin. Bearing it aloft, he raised the banner for all to see. From the forest canopy the light of the moon was eclipsed by the gnarled mass of shadow towering over him.
A hulking monstrosity devoid of eyes bared a broken jaw mouth lined with jagged teeth. Foul otherworldly breath expelled from the pit of the thing and clung to his skin in the cold night air. Pierce let out a gasp as he stumbled backward, losing his composure. With the banner pointed at the core of the beast like the tip of a pike, he prepared to defend his life.
From out of the dark, Volkur charged the shadowy monster. His axe head flashed in a sweeping arc and bit cleanly into its putrid flesh. The gut-wrenching pop of bone snapping echoed against the forest trees. The creature wailed in tones not unlike a poorly tuned organ. “You like that, foul creature!?” Volkur spat through gritted teeth. “On your feet, Pierce. Take the banner back to the General. Rally the men. Dawn approaches.”
The Shadow-Hulk drug a disjointed claw through the mud in the ground and with inhuman speed threw Volkur from his feet. The creature roared in a violent rage, pursuing his target with feral bloodlust. It leapt high into the air and came crashing down on its prey. Volkur met it with his axe exposed and the two clashed in a maelstrom of shadow and steel.
Looking back to the General, Garret stood illuminated by the bonfire. A beacon to his men. Small amounts of light crept through the loose patchwork of forest leaves. The sun was rising. Pierce knew where his place was. He would join the General and show the Virtue of Winter that they could stand against any foe.
Riding a surge of emotion, he charged into the thick of battle. The truest test of his will was on display. Now his fear was no more. The cry of his voice was no mere mask for despair but true hope, “To the General, brothers! On your lives and for your homes! Rally to me…men of Lovaria!”
His call seemed to feed the foulness of the bestial shadows. The intensity of the battle overwhelmed Garret’s Guard. The few men that stood were swarmed by their warped counterparts. Like a hammer striking hot iron, Alise and the Mounted Thorns crashed into the wave of foul creatures at the last possible second. Hot on their trail were a pack of wild flaming horses. Their mouths hung open bellowing smoke and iridescent flame. Great blackened wings of torn flesh erupted from their backs and they took flight. A gale surged forth driving the forces from their feet and threatening the life of the dwindling fire.
Janus stood at the center of his troop and issued his single command, “Spew fire!” In disciplined unison, the riflemen complied. A solid volley of flame burst forth from nearly a dozen black powder rifles. The nightmarish horses were pierced in a hail of bullets. The iron pellets hissed against their foul hide and the creatures bucked in the air. In a devastating crash, their lifeless forms floundered on the campground. A noxious cloud of obsidian smoke released from their corpses.
As the creatures fell, a harsh jade light split the dying flame of the bonfire. The crystal pendant rose on its own high above the battlefield, brimming with supernatural light. Pierce shielded his eyes from the incandescence. The battle seemed to come to a still around its brilliance. Within the minds of all those present, a familiar and terrifying voice chewed through a single word.
In an instant, the pendant burst in a flash of energy. Shards of the crystal were a deluge on the battleground. General Garret was thrown from his feet and the shadowed creatures feasting upon his Guard burnt away as coals fade into ash. The bonfire was scattered and snuffed out. Stillness remained within the waning dark.
High pitched ringing reverberated through Pierce’s head. Though his body was punctured with shrapnel of the crystal, he willed himself to stand. Pain coursed through his veins with every movement and he felt cold. Using the banner as a crutch, he made his way to the General. Garrets eyes were still. Blood stained his face and armor. The proximity to the fire made him absorb the full power of the blast.
Cries of anguish from Alise were the first sounds to return to him. She flung herself to the ground over the General’s body. The red cape worn around her neck draped delicately over his body. Her fingers clung to his lifeless cheek. She was desperate to report her success one last time, “The charge was fierce, my General.”
Volkur strode through the final dancing sprites of fires among the leaves of the forest. His face betrayed true emotion on a man that seldom relinquished any. A bloody and soiled axe rest heavily on his shoulder. Dropping to one knee, he bowed before his commander one last time.
Pierce turned from the scene, planting the banner of Lovaria deep into the ashes. The creatures gathered around them with snapping jaws and fiendish tentacles. Such profane things had no place in the world. This filth would not be allowed to wash away what they had done together. In the face of all doubt, they would stand for Garret and the king. With a booming cry, his voice pierced the night, “For the General!”
The men remaining from the Virtue of Winter gave a resounding, “Huzzah! The General!” Shadowy stalkers inched their way toward a final kill when it finally happened. Sunlight burst forth from high above the forest floor. Trickles at first, like stars appearing across the night sky. In mere heartbeats the light of dawn filled the foul forest with warmth and radiance.
The shadows hissed and spat. Creatures of night itself receded to the dark where they grew still. Sunlight banished them to a place beyond sight. The anathema became the morning and as quickly as they fell upon the soldiers, they vanished.
A tranquil sense fell upon the world. The battle was over. A forest overcome with horror only moments ago was now a peaceful place. It was as if they had just awoken in a place they did not recognize. Many long moments of silence passed.
Janus carried his loaded rifle to the epicenter of the battle, putting an arm around Alise. He raised her from the General’s corpse and supported her weight, “On your feet now, soldier. We have to move.”
She steeled herself and stiffened her jaw. The order was what she needed. Though her eyes were welled with tears, the discipline Garret taught her forced its way through her grief. Sheathing her sword she waived her hand in the air giving a distinctive silent call to the Mounted Thorns. Placing her fingers between her lips, she whistled a sharp pitch and her steed quickly approached. Climbing into the saddle, she motioned forward and commanded her unit, “Move out!”
Stepping carefully through the remains, Volkur spied the chain of the pendant. Its silver hue glinted in the morning sun. Treating the thing like a venomous snake, he hooked it around the broad blade of his axe. Raising it to the light, he showed the crystal was somehow still intact.
“It can’t be…” Pierce muttered.
“Vile magic, this one. An accursed artifact of a bygone age. We are best to leave it in this desolate place,” Volkur replied.
"It should be destroyed. Something so wicked should not be allowed in the world,” said Pierce.
“That is not for us to decide. Mantica has chosen for us to happen upon this pendant, just as another will one day happen upon it. Whatever fate she has divined for that poor soul is not ours to be seen. We must simply thank her for keeping us alive,” Volkur said gently placing the jewel back amidst the ash.
Pierce churned in thought. Why would he have been chosen to pick up such a blighted object? The guilt he felt before paled in comparison to the burden resting on him now. His entire company was decimated thanks to his mistake. “This is all because of me,” he whimpered.
Janus slung his rifle across his back, “You saved us, dear boy. Were it not for your inspiration, we all would have broken in that hysteria. Raising that banner was what we needed. It was always what we needed. It reminded us what we fought for. You simply stood for us, and united us when it could not have been more necessary.”
With crossed arms and judging eyes, Volkur nodded in approval, “Of course, I told you to do it.”
Pierce broke down and cracked a smile. Perhaps he had a place among them after all. When everything was on the line, it was he who stood against the horrors of Mantica. For now, he knew where he belonged. Whatever future was in store for this band of soldiers, he would stick with them. After this night, their bond was set in stone.
Following the lead of captain Alise, the Virtue of Winter moved out. Janus lagged behind, surveying the ruined bodies of his comrades. A specific feeling consumed him in this moment. Reaching into the ash, he plucked out the jewel. Upon doing so, one word flooded his mind…