Melp Meets the Army

I’m in the process of writing book 3 in the Defense of Reality series. Below is my rough draft of the first chapter (warning: unedited). It picks up right before the last chapter of Mencken and the Monsters. If you have any thoughts or suggestions, I’d love to hear them in the comments. Enjoy!

Melp Meets the Army

Melp’s mouth hung open at the rows upon rows of warriors. Grou
ped by race, they stood shoulder to shoulder in ten by ten squares. Melp gaped down each line. It was nothing like he’d ever seen before. The warriors all faced forward, calm and unflinching like they were frozen in time.

Melp stumbled over a small rock, almost falling into Bose and Balamack, his two guides. Melp had struggled to keep pace with them for days. The closer they are drawn to the army, the faster the two Conculos had moved. Melp had begged routinely for them to slow down, but they paid him no mind. “I can smell it,” Bose had said repeatedly. “They are on the cusp of battle. No time to dally. Keep up or be left behind.” But now that they were among the troops, Melp’s guides had slowed to a normal pace. As they walked through the ranks, Melp could hear the faint greetings and acknowledgments.

The squares of one hundred seemed to be grouped in a larger organization of five: three squares of Mardocks and two squares of Slakes. Warriors of the squares were randomly armored, some carrying shields or swords, but most wore the simple, loose fitting cloth.  At the head of each square stood two to three Conculos and a Sinciput or two. They made the most stir when Bose and Balamack passed, often waving or calling out to the returning soldiers.

“Um, excuse me,” Melp said, holding up his hand as they walked. The gesture felt foolish as he knew Bose and Balamack would not turn around to see him.

“What is it?” Bose replied without slowing or looking back.

“Um, well, I was just wondering, how many different groups are here? I mean, how exactly is the army divided?” Melp looked left down a row of Mardocks. He’d never seen so many stand so quiet for so long. It sent a shiver down his spine.

“There are 6 cohorts,” Balamack said. “Five centuries per cohort.”

“Plus the extras,” Bose added as he nodded to three Conculos who saluted him with upheld fists.

“Um, extras?” Melp asked, also nodding to the saluting Conculos, who in turn replied with a confused look.

“The camp keepers,” Balamack said. “Cooks, scribes, tent menders. Noncombatants.”

“Like you,” Bose said, acknowledging a Mardock who had broken ranks to bow as Bose passed.

“Oh,” Melp said, looking to the ground.

On the right, the rows upon rows of Slakes and Mardocks broke, revealing a sight Melp found most terrifying: a square of armored Egrats. Even though Melp only counted twenty of the beasts in total, the square took up far more space than the rest. Each of the giants wore helmets that fastened around their horns, protective gear on their arms, and they carried axes, swords, and clubs. From the hoard came a low soft rumble as the monsters all hummed a different tune.

“Um, excuse me, sir,” Melp called as they passed the square of horned giants.

“What is it now?” Bose asked without slowing his pace.

“What does an Egrat need with armor? Aren’t their hides strong enough?” Melp asked, again tripping over another rock.

Bose made no answer. Balamack grunted in reply.

At the head of the Egrat square, the army met its end. As he followed Balamack and Bose into the open field, Melp looked left and right, taking in the perfectly formed line of squares.

Ahead of them was a circle of seven benches. Six of the benches were crowded with Conculos. Each bench held six warriors. All the warriors carried weapons of various kinds, but only a few were armored. Behind the benches, facing out with their swords drawn, protecting those sitting in the circle, were Conculos dressed in matching black armor. Melp assumed these were the infamous Riptride of Azo that he had read about in the Great Library of Malacandra.

On the seventh bench sat a single, stately Conculos. His head was shaved, his beard was short, and there was wisdom in his eyes. He rested his arms on the hilt of a large sword protruding from the ground in front of him. All the members of the circle were focused on two Sinciput who seemed to be arguing with one another in the center of the gathering. The small creatures wore complicated clothing, unlike anything Melp had ever seen.

Melp, so focused on the circle in front of him, ran into the back of Balamack when Balamack and Bose came to a sudden stop. Although the collision knocked Melp to the ground, Balamack didn’t budge. “Oh, um, I’m sorry,” Melp said as he rushed back to his feet.

“When we approach the war counsel,” Bose said without looking back at Melp. “Don’t speak until you are spoken to.”

“And don’t ask any more questions,” Balamack added.

Melp removed his round glasses and cleaned them with his shirt. “Of course,” he said. “I’ll just, um, follow you, I guess.”

Melp shifted his weight from one leg to the other as they waited. Looking off the right, he tried to make sense of the ghost-like shadows around him. Monstrously sized buildings loomed on all sides. Melp couldn’t make out the details of the fog-like features. He could only tell that they hovered above, taller than any building he’d seen. There also seemed to be creatures moving in the mist, but Melp struggled to make out their figures as they drifted in and out of focus. When he’d began his journey from Malacandra with Bose and Balamack months earlier, they’d warned him that the ghosts of Reality would be disorienting, but even after their long trek together, Melp still could not comprehend what the moving mist represented. He hoped crossing the Veil might help, but Balamack assured him it would not.

The stately Conculos looked up to where Melp, Bose, and Balamack stood. Smiling, he motioned with his hand for them to approach. Bose and Balamack snapped into action, stepping forward with brisk enthusiasm. Melp followed, trying to keep up with their pace.

As they approached, the stately Conculos stood and moved to greet them. “Welcome home my friends,” he said, stretching out his arms for an embrace. His voice was rich and warm and left Melp wanting more.

Rather than accepting the embrace, Bose and Balamack both fell to one knee. Surprised, Melp followed suit.

“My commander,” Bose said, looking at the ground.

Reaching out and touching Bose’s shoulder, the Conculos said, “Bose, please. Stand. I’ve missed you. It is wonderful to see you again.”

“Thank you, sir,” Bose said, rising to his feet but keeping his eyes on the ground.

“And Balamack,” the stately Conculos said gripping both of Balamack’s shoulders. “We’ve missed your tenacity in the sparring ring. It is good to have you back.”

Balamack stood. “Thank you, commander. It is an honor to have returned to you.”

“And who is this?” the Conculos said, looking passed Balamack and Bose to where Melp still knelt.

“This is a new recruit who followed us from Malacandra,” Bose said. “Rise and introduce yourself to the commander,” he added, kicking at Melp.

Confused, Melp looked up and was met by the purple eyes of the commander. The Conculos seemed to grow in stature with proximity. Melp was awed by the leader’s broad chest and powerful arms.

“Do you have a name?” the commander said with a smile.

“Um, yes,” Melp said. “I mean, my name is Melp? I am an associate scribe at the Great Library of Malacandra.”

“This is his first time outside the city gates,” Bose said. “He is a little overwhelmed. We thought he might serve on your staff, recording your exploits and memoirs, or some such thing.”

“Rise, Melp of the Great Library,” the commander said. As Melp stood, the commander took hold of both of his shoulders and looked him in the eyes. His gaze made Melp want to look away. “I am Azo, Commander of Great Hoard. It is my pleasure to welcome you to our family.”

“Th-thank you,” Melp said.

The commander squeezed his shoulders and, looking at Bose said, “I don’t know, Bose. There might be a warrior’s heart in this one. With the right training, we’ll see.”

Melp’s chest rose with pride. “Th-thank you, sir. Thank you,” he said.

Stepping away, the commander called off to right, “Semize, go and fetch our brothers’ weapons.” Bose and Balamack followed behind the commander as he returned to his bench. “Of course, you know I could not hold your positions in the Riptride. The force needed to be replaced.”

“I apologize and seek your forgiveness for my failure,” Bose said, looking at the ground once again.

The commander sat on the bench and then, patting the seat next to him, inviting Bose to sit. Bose took the seat and once again, looked to the ground. “No forgiveness is needed,” the commander said. “You fought valiantly trying to prevent this very night. You cannot be blamed that the Grancanjo of Baltimore would not hear reason. Not to mention that the Exile and his lapdog stood against you. No. Your leadership made me proud. There is no shame in the battle.”

“There is no excuse for my failure, my commander,” Bose said. “I will be honored to accept whatever position you have available and will fight to earn the right to lead again.”

“Nonsense,” the commander said. “Place my best field commander in the ranks? No. You will take command of the Third. Injenga has been holding the spot knowing he would return to century command when you arrived.”

Bose looked to the third bench in the circle. Warriors stood and moved to the ends, opening a seat in the middle, and Bose nodded in recognition. “It is an honor, sir. I will bring you honor in battle.”

“Well,” the commander said, leaning forward. “As usual, your timing is flawless. We are on the cusp of the battle that might bring your revenge. The Gracanjo of Baltimore move to make a stand against us with the aid of one from the north and the Rothman. And even now, moments from the battle, my chief strategists can’t seem to agree on how the Rothman will counter our attack.”

The strangely dressed Sinciputs rushed forward, pushing each other and speaking at the same time.

“As I have said, my lord must trust the counsel of I, Momont the Magnificent. I alone understand the mind of the one who calls himself the Rothman,” the first Sinciput said.

“It is only I,” the other called, “Creed-dunce the Calamity Causer who has predicted the failings of our enemies.”

“Enough!” the commander barked, raising his hand to the small Sinciputs who fell silent. “One believes the Rothman will fall for our ruse, the other believes he will not.”

Again the Sinciputs moved to speak, but a stern look from the commander cut them short before they could utter a word. “It matters not,” the commander continued. “Either way, the strategy is the same. We have staged the battle here, in this open field, to draw the attention of the Gracanjo who sees both sides of the Veil. Once he has made his move, cohorts one, two, three, four, and the Egrats will reposition to the top of the hill on the city’s south end. Our strike team awaits there to open and then expand the initial portal. Cohorts one and two shall flood the portal, drawing the attention of the Rothman and the Grancajo. Once the battle has begun, on my signal, you with the third and the Semize with the fourth will open new portals on the flanks of our enemies. Once their line is broken, our forces will regroup at the bottom and top of the hill. The Sinciputs have plotted how the city will be searched. Each cohort has been assigned an area to plunder and then burn. The fifth and sixth will remain here to break camp so we can be prepared to move once the battle is done.”

“It is an ingenious plan, my commander,” Bose said. “We will have the Tinkers Box by sunrise tomorrow.”

“If it is in this city,” the commander said, “then I have no doubt we will find it.”

A Conculos in dark green and red armor stepped forward and held out two matching broad swords. Bose stood and took one. Balamack took the other.

“Thank you Semize,” the commander said. Then turning to Balamack, he asked, “Where is the rest of fallen Riptride? It’s rare to see you without Antinese lurking somewhere close by.”

“The rest of the force had yet to emerge from the pit,” Balamack said.

“The two of us were the first to rise,” Bose said as he examined the blade of his sword. “We rushed to your side, hoping not to miss whatever battle would come. I have no doubt the rest are not far behind.”

“I’m sure they aren’t,” the commander said. “I assume you will wish to stay at Bose’s side?”

“Yes, sir. Unless you have a use for me elsewhere,” Balamack said with a bow.

“No,” the commander said with a smile. “That’s fine. And keep your new recruit close,” he said, motioning to Melp. “He could find no better mentors.”

Melp flinched at the loud crash that rattled from the north. Through the fog of Reality, he saw a bright green light rise in the distance.

The commander stood and drew his sword from the ground. Sheathing the giant blade on his back, he called in a powerful voice loud enough for the entire circle to hear, “Our enemy is on the move. Do not be reckless in battle. Although they are few in number, they are well trained and strong. Remember your training, do not fear, and tonight we will warm ourselves in the ashes of this city.”

Melp flinched again as all the warriors around the circle stood, raised their weapons, and cheered.

“To war!” the commander screamed, raising his fist in the air.

A flurry of activity followed as the members of the circle returned to their cohorts. Melp would have been lost in the activity had Balamack not grabbed him by the arm and drug him along. Bose and Balamack moved toward the third bench from the right. The warriors from the bench rose and met them mid-way. There were hugs and pats on the back exchanged as the leaders of the third cohort welcomed their new commander. For the most part, Melp was ignored, which he mostly appreciated as he found the scares on the faces of the hardened warriors to be terrifyingly fierce.

Once welcomes had been exchanged, Bose and his leadership team moved quickly across the empty field to where five squares of Mardocks and Slakes stood. Once at the head of the squares, Bose yelled as loudly as he could, “Warriors of the third!”

His words were echoed by Conculos standing at the head of each square, making it sound as if he were standing in a tall canyon.

“I am Bose. Your new commander,” he said, pausing at the end of each sentence as his century leaders spread his message. “And today. We will burn this city to the ground!”

Five hundred warriors burst into cheers.

Raising his hand, Bose regained control as the warriors returned to attention. “No more words!” Bose yelled. “Let us be the first to the field. Double time! To war!” Turning to the south, Bose raised his sword in the air, and began to run.

To Melp’s shock, the five blocks of warriors ran behind their commander, maintaining their perfect lines. Melp scampered to keep up with Bose and Balamack, realizing that if he fell behind, he would likely be trampled by the hundred Mardocks running behind him.

The race to the hill was not long. The terrain was flat and without obstruction. Crossing the middle of the steep hill, Bose maneuvered his cohort into a line wrapping around the side of the hill. The other cohorts arrived shortly after, two positioning themselves at the crest of the hill and a fourth in direct opposition to Bose.

Melp marveled at the discipline of the warriors. Twenty-century leaders all echoed the commands of their cohort commanders, creating what sounded to Melp like a hurricane of senseless sound, yet each warrior seemed to be attuned to the voice of his century leader and moved exactly as instructed.

The Egrats were the last to arrive. Standing at the top of the hill, off the side of the main force, Melp thought their weight might cause the entire hill to crumble.

After the Egrats came the commander. Positioning himself in the middle of the hill between Bose and opposing cohort, he studied the mist of Reality. The two Sinciputs stood at his side, once again arguing with one another. Twelve Conculos in black armor took position twenty yards all around him and turned their backs to him, forming a protective wall.

Looking to the top of the hill, the commander pointed his sword at the line of warriors waiting at attention. “It begins,” he called in a loud voice.

A pink swirling circle burst to life at the top of the hill and Melp watched in wonder as Mardocks, one at a time, began to rush through. The portal seemed to transform them and grow them into mist as the warriors passed through it. Melp’s mouth hung open as he watched closely, trying to follow the path of each warrior down the hill. Unfortunately, after a step from the portal, Melp could discern nothing more than a swirl of legs and feet.

The commander, Bose, Balamack, and all the other warriors around Melp, seemed to know exactly what was happening on the other side of the Veil. They each watched the mist with great interest, studying its movement.

Melp marveled at the number of warriors streaming through the pink, swirling circle. Two cohorts moved through in what felt like minutes. Desperate to know where the lines of Mardocks were vanishing to, Melp tugged on Balamack’s arm and said, “What’s happening? Are we winning?”

“Shut up,” Balamack said, refusing to take his eyes from the mist. “And prepare your mind.”

“Third and Fourth!” the Commander yelled, raising his sword in the air. “Ready yourselves!”

Bose turned to the Sinciput at his side. Melp watched the small creature pass a coin Bose. Holding it in the air, Bose turned to the centuries lined up behind him and screamed. “Ready!”

Melp swallowed. A pit formed in his stomach and his mouth felt suddenly dry. He looked to Balamack. The lean Conculos stood with his feet ready to run. Noticing Melp’s glance, Balamack said, “When Bose throws the coin, a portal will open in front of us. Bose and I will be the first through. Follow behind us. We will destroy the Grancanjo before they realize we are there and the battle will be over.”

“Okay, okay,” Melp said, nodding.

“Ready!” Bose called again.

But before he could drop the coin, a chant rang out from all directions. At first, Melp thought the cry was coming from the cohorts, but the stunned faces of the warriors around him told him otherwise.

The rumble began with a single, deep, loud voice that sounded somehow enhanced. It called in a language Melp had never heard before. “Dah Dah Dah! Ha-Nu-Wah!” it rang. The ferocity of the sound sent chills through Melp’s bones.

A thousand voices, as strong and fierce, from all directions, screamed in reply, “He-Nu-Wah-Kah!”

Melp search in all directions for the source of the terror. Then, looking at Balamack, he followed the warriors gaze to the bottom of the hill. There, emerging from the mist, came Mardocks unlike any Melp had ever seen. Baring their teeth, and pounding their chests, their white skin was covered in wild black swirls. Over their eyes, they wore black goggles that hid the swirling liquid common to their kind.

At the bottom of the hill, the largest of the stranger Mardocks stomped his feet, pounded his chest, and again cried in a voice that swallowed all other sounds, “Doh! Dah! In-doh-mon nah nah!”

Pounding their chests in unison, the rest of the strange Mardocks replied, “Nah! Nah! Oo-we-ha knee!”

Melp was shocked back to action by the sound of Bose’s voice. “Defensive positions!” he screamed. “Protect the main assault! Defensive positions!”

The third cohort leaped into action turning outward to form a perimeter around the hill. Melp watched in wonder as the fourth cohort did the same.

“Get the commander out of here!” Bose screamed at one of the soldier’s in black armor. In response the twelve soldiers snapped into action, circling the commander, they lead him up the hill toward the block of Egrats.

A third scream came from the leader of the strange Mardocks. “Hu-k! Hu-k! Ne-shan-nah ha!” he screamed, pounding his chest and legs.

In reply, the wild Mardocks screamed and jumped, and beat their chests. Then in their midst, next to the lead caller, appeared two Conculos, both with swords drawn. Melp might not have noticed them had it not been for Bose who pointed his sword at them a screamed with a shaken, rage-filled voice, “Kill the Exile!”

The leader of the wild Mardocks began to scream for a fourth time. As he yelled, Bose turned to Balamack. “We have been played for fools,” he said. Pressing the coin into Balamack’s hand, Bose said, “We have been played for fools. Break the line. Cross the Veil. Find the box and you will restore honor to all our brothers for our past failure.”

Balamack gave a slight bow and said, “As you wish, sir.”

There was another cry. Melp turned. His mouth fell open with horror as the wild Mardocks screamed and charged. Bose’s troops braced for the oncoming force. The warriors collided with screams of rage and pain. Black blood flew in all directions. Melp felt a hand on his wrist tugging him forward. Closing his eyes, he ran. Things bumped him on the left and right, but by some miracle, he kept his footing. Then there was a rush of wind, and a pulling sensation and the screams were gone. Opening his eyes he saw twisted and broken bodies of dead Mardocks at his feet. He looked back. He was at the bottom of the hill. The army was gone. The wild, tattooed Mardocks were gone. In the middle of the hill stood four strange looking creatures. They fought with warriors who were streaming out of a pink portal at the hill’s crest.

There was another sharp pull on Melp’s wrist. “Keep moving,” Balamack said as he began to jog away from the hill. Taking one more glance back, Melp swallowed, and then followed behind his guide.

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