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|The fate of the Tanais and her crew is determined at great cost.||
Jacquemets knelt in the prow of the rowboat. Six Guardsmen behind him rowed cautiously. They'd muffled the oars in an attempt to row quietly. Nobody spoke. The village of Bluore had to be close by now.
There'd been no sign at all of the Tanais along the river and so they had entered the Fens tributaries making their way directly towards the village. A thick fog or marsh gas had appeared a few hundred yards into the swamp and it wasn't dissipating even though it neared midday. It felt unnatural and so they'd muffled the oars and talked in whispers.
They spotted a marker post on the edge of the village. It showed the water height in times of flood. The fog was so thick now that Jacquemets could barely see the back of the boat. They edged forward slowly. The air was fetid and warm, clinging to the skin. Jacquemets was sweating profusely. He peered into the gloom.
The rounded rear of the Tanais loomed out of the mist like a wall of wood. It was moored next to a jetty that protruded to the deepest point of the channel. There was absolute silence. Jacquemets stepped off the boat and onto the jetty. One of the Guardsmen tied the boat. Everyone drew their weapons and slowly made their way down the jetty.
A ramp led up to the Tanais. Jacquemets led four Guardsman up onto the Tanais but no signs of life could be found. They made their way back down onto the jetty. Nobody aboard the Tanais -- not that any further evidence was required, but clearly something had gone very wrong here in Bluore.
Jacquemets led his group silently into the village proper. Huts loomed out of the fog but were devoid of life. They cautiously made their way further into the village. The atmosphere was claustrophobic. After what seemed an eternity they found themselves on the other side of the village, where the animal pens were located. It was then that they heard the smallest sound of movement within the stable, like some kind of animal shifting its weight slightly in the straw.
Jacquemets signaled to his men to fan out a little. He then walked towards the main door of the stable. It wasn't locked. As silently as possible he drew the bolt, and then drew the door wide open. It was dark within, and with the fog very little light penetrated far into the stables. A whimper could be heard within, like that of a small terrified child.
Jacquemets advanced into the stable, sword at the ready, peering into the gloom. His eyes adjusted and he could make out bodies lying on the ground. Then he heard a small whisper -- "May the gods protect us." The voice carried no hope. Jacquemets strode across the stable towards the voice. Sous-Capitaine Odette lay on the ground naked.
"Odette!", Jacquemets exclaimed in a whisper. "We have come..."
Odette reached up and clamped his hand over Jacquemets' mouth fiercely. He drew Jacquemets' ear down to his mouth and whispered, "By all that is holy be silent. Sound attracts them. And when they come they feed." There was a fevered look in his eyes, a look of sheer terror.
Jacquemets whispered, "Then get everyone up and onto the Tanais. We are getting out of this place and we are getting out now!" As he said this there was a shout from the Guardsman outside the stable. Odette whimpered, "They are here."
Jacquemets leapt across to the stable door. Outside he could see that the fog was coalescing, thickening into shadowy forms. The ground erupted and bones leapt up into the shadowy forms. All manner of insects scurried up the bones and clung to them, forming macabre muscles. Fetid, decaying cloth ripped from the ground and covered the bodies, as did rusty armour and weapons. Horrified, Jacquemets turned and screamed into the stable, "Everybody up! Run for the jetty and get aboard the ship! Save yourselves!"
It was pandemonium. The villagers, or what was left of them, ran screaming from the stable. The Guardsmen formed a shield wall and Odette and what was left of the marines formed a wedge behind them, taking the Guardsmen's secondary weapons. Then they ran for the jetty.
The Champions of Chaos set about their work methodically. The villagers were running in all directions, trying to flee their wrath. They were largely unsuccessful. The creatures caught them and slew them. It was a terrible carnage.
Jacquemets led the way for his troop, at the point of the wedge. The creatures tried to bar their way but many of them pursued the villagers. They were able to maintain the momentum, using their shields to force a passage at a run. The fog had lessened, somehow absorbed into the Champions of Chaos, and they could see the jetty. Several villagers were already running down it and making their way up the gangplank and onto the Tanais.
As they made the deck of the ship their bodies were ripped asunder by something half seen. Then several Champions of Chaos made their way down the gang plank.
"What's that thing on the Tanais?!", yelled Jacquemets.
"No idea!", cried Odette, "But let's make for your rowboat."
The fighting on the jetty was fierce. The Champions of Chaos barring their way were strong and their bodies took blows that would fell a man without wavering. When they did finally expire they burst apart like a ruptured sausage. They soon found themselves facing attack from the landward side. Two Guardsmen fought a rearguard action while Jacquemets tried to break through the enemy line. When one of the Guardsmen at the rear fell a marine stepped into the breach. Naked, he managed to grab the fallen Guardsman's shield before he was struck. Soon he too fell. And then the second Guardsman. The marines were now in a desperate plight.
Jacquemets could hear the cries of fear behind him. Odette turned and rallied his men. The jetty was not wide -- two fighting men could hold it while four men could walk down it comfortably. Odette bellowed and charged between his men, launching himself at the pair of Champions of Chaos that were assaulting his men. While his men parried their blades he grappled them and carried them back along the jetty, over the Guardsman's bodies. His men followed up, grasping the shields, helmets, and swords of the slain Guardsman.
Odette sprang away from the pile of bodies while the Champions of Chaos slowly rose to their feet. They moved steadily, inexorably back into the fray.
At last Jacquemets reached the gang plank of the Tanais. Every inch had been hard fought. They pushed on, ignoring the lure of the Tanais. They soon reached the end of the jetty, the press of men pushing the last of the Champions of Chaos over the edge and into the water.
"Down into the boat!", yelled Odette to his remaining men. They piled in, manning four of the oars. The Guardsmen took the landward side, continuing the fight. In time Jacquemets ordered all but one other Gaurdsman aboard the row boat. They took the last two oar positions. Odette untied the rowboat and maoeuvered it to the end of the jetty.
"Jump aboard!", cried Odette. Jacquemets and his companion attempted to disengage and leap aboard the boat. As they did so Jacquemets was struck in the back and he was fortunate to be catapulted into the boat. The other Guardsman disengaged successfully and leapt for the boat. A dread hand reached up out of the water, grasped his ankle, and swiftly dragged him beneath the surface of the water in spite of the valiant efforts of the marines.
"Row you maggots!", cried Odette. "Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!"
Odette called a cracking pace though nobody needed further encouragement than what they'd just experienced. Bluore soon disappeared into the fog and silence though this day would remain vivid in their memories for many years.
Note: For explanations regarding the world in which this story is set, it's peoples and language please take a look at The Encyclopaedia of Everything located in my library.
|Chapter 4: An Unexpected Displeasure||Chapter 13: The Shadow Plane|
|Chapter 35: The Chains are Tested||Chapter 28: Findegal Finds the Traitor|
|Chapter 39: The Cost of Victory||Chapter 26: The Maros Comes Into View|