I don’t know. Don’t ask me to explain.
April 25, 2012
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For now I’m going to shower and make sense of what the hell I just wrote.
The sun glinted beautifully off of the anti-dragon ballista as it lit up Barsoom on Castille. Varna, the first woman in charge of a unit of the city watch, gazed grimly over the marshes surrounding the southern gate to the city. In the last week, her unit has seen two attacks by zombies leading a necromancer toward the city, three hordes of goblins, and one spontaneous basement full of rats beneath a Sub-Kingdom franchise. She could smell trouble in the air, though. Bigger trouble than she’s seen in a month.
For one, it was quiet. Too quiet.
Barsoom sits in a valley between two human kingdoms and is mostly a farming town. Over the years, Chosen Ones and plucky parties of heroe have come back home to Barsoom to tend the family farm or run a tavern (or other such small, nice villages) that the normal orc and goblin raids are no longer an issue. Since The Wizard Argyle opened the Sub-Kingdom tavern franchise from Barsoom, the city’s had the benefit of modern defensive emplacements and a fully-stocked machine shop. Now even young dragons avoided the city and the Guard was infamous for being the last group of people you wanted to deal with. Especially when Varna Tarchiesse was leading them.
All of this is irrelevant, though, to the natural disasters that are common in the world of Saffaran. Normally there were a few boulders raining from the sky from local hill giant contests of strength. Or the freak blizzard, or bright sunny day, or rainstorm, thunderstorm, firestorm…just about any kind of storm really (including a frogstorm once) from a wizard’s spell gone awry. Ghouls and zombies regularly rose out of the marsh, assisted or not, and there’s never a shortage of shambling creatures in the fields south of the city that are put down by the Guard or by the farmers themselves. Even quiet days had a few explosions from the machine shop or a few angry conversations from the marketplace.
But not today. Today it was quiet.
She was also nervous from the lack of personnel on the walls. Many of her guards were laid up with some kind of sickness that they contracted the day before. Quiet and feverish, they were all confined to a quarantined barracks building on the edge of town. Last time this happened, all the infected became part of an invading army. Though the clerics and doctors looking over the soldiers were more worried about the fever right now than the potential of zombification. So many good fighters were down there, though, that they only had half the normal complement of guards on the wall. She wasn’t worried about anything attacking the city that the Guard couldn’t handle, but it always had her nerves on edge to not have all of her warriors available.
She was also nervous because a decade before, when she was just an initiate with the Guard, they had repelled an ancient, evil priest of war and famine. When he died and fell onto the fields west of the city, he vowed he would return. Every year on the anniversary of the priest’s death, the villagers barricade themselves inside their homes and the guard positions their most experienced fighters around the impromptu grave. So far, the priest has stayed dead. The morning after was always an edgy one, though.
It may also have been the lack of birds and boars around the city. There were normally a few flocks of birds or drakes flying overhead, as well as a smattering of herd animals. Deer, boar, a couple bison down from the mountains. There was even one odd herd of stone animals (a combination of a family of cockatrice that had to be rooted out a few years ago and a misfired Stone to Flesh spell attempted by an apprentice magician). None of them could be seen or heard, though. The entire valley was still.
The sky was clear and blue, the mountains bright and silvery grey in the cold dawn light. There was ice in the air for Varna. Not cold, just that edge of ice. The sharpness of awareness. The feeling that puts iron in the spine and makes you keep your eyes open until they hurt. There were a lot of things that felt wrong about the day. None of it was at the forefront of her mind, though.
She checked her sword. Long and straight, sharp on both sides, clean tip. It was an enchanted blade inherited from her mother. She had also been a Guard. It was unerringly accurate and unnaturally sharp. It was a simple and serviceable sword, though – half-moon pommel and a wire-wrapped hilt. A broadsword, good for a cut and thrust style of fencing. It was belted to her waist, over her maille and the Barsoom Guard tabbard, and swung easily on her left side under her dominant hand. The other soldiers thought it was a little strange that she drew along her shoulder, but it was faster and more comfortable for her.
Strapped to her right arm was her father’s shield, something he brought home from his early days of adventuring. The shield wasn’t any better than any other medium shield, was not made of expensive materials, nor did it have any particularly useful magical qualities that most adventurers look for. Her father had called it a Shield of Bounty, and it produced one large meal per day, full of everything an adventurer would need to stay healthy and hale including fresh water. What mattered most to Varna, though, was that it still smelled like him. It smelled like lavender and ink, like soft poems and the rosewood of his lute. It smelled like his arms around her while her mother fought to protect them. It reminded her of safety and of family.
None of these things were what was upsetting her, though. None of these things were what had her on edge, had her chewing iron and spitting nails in anxiety.
No, of all of the things that were odd this morning, all of the portents of impending doom and possible destruction, of all of the signs and omens there was one thing that had Varna Tarchiesse on edge.
It was the duck that had been watching her from a shattered stump of an oak tree on the moor.
A single, solitary, brown feathered duck that just stared toward the city walls and waited.