The Outland Gate
“You hear something, Dobb?” the thin, scruffy-faced man asked his companion. His eyes were surrounded by large black circles. Since the fires began, he had slept little. When the screaming started, he slept not at all.
“Other than the battle?” the man replied. “Not really. You must be imagining things, Pete. Who in the dead would want to come here anyways?”
Not for the first time, Pete questioned the logic of continuing to man their post. He knew Dobber felt the same, though he wanted to join the fighting at the Wall. All Pete really wanted was to find somewhere to hide. Considering it was well-known the Outlands were infested, the guard tower seemed as good a place as any. That was to say, before he heard the muffled curses from down below.
“I swear I heard something in the road,” Pete continued.
“Well then, take a look,” Dobber replied, disinterested with Pete’s fears and anything else that remotely related to his assignment. He took it as an insult to be assigned to the edge of the city, when the war was being fought at its heart.
Pete, however, considered himself lucky to be awarded the assignment. He was still unsure how he landed the position, nor did he wish to question such fortunate luck, but he had a strong suspicion as to how Dobber ended up there. Back at the barracks, he had heard rumors that Dobber got a little too close to the commander’s wife. For his own safety, Dobber was relocated as far as possible from the commander, who was a hardened survivor of the first war of Lock Core.
“What if it’s the dead?” Pete asked.
“All the more reason to look, then. It’s our job, after all. But, if you ask me, all the dead are in the city.”
The curses from below became clearer, and fouler. Pete blushed beneath his scruffy beard, while Dobber’s sun-tanned complexion grew suddenly pale.
“Whoever it is, he doesn’t sound happy,” Pete said.
“No he doesn’t.”
“You still think we should take a look then.”
“May as well,” Dobber stated, with little conviction. “My ass has been getting tired from sitting here so long.”
Though not exactly the order he expected from his senior officer, Pete complied, and together they poked their heads up from the tower wall.
One look at the masked figures below, and both of them immediately ducked back down, frantically trying to string an arrow to their bows.
“You there!” came a gruff call from the road.
“What do we do, Dobb?” Pete whispered, still wrestling with his bowstring.
“I’ll handle it,” he replied, then shouted to the pair of Death Guards below. “Sorry, good sir. You’ll find no infected here. I give you my word on that, as a gentleman.”
“I don’t give a bloody damn about your honor, or if you’re infected or not. If you don’t open that gate, I’ll split your skull either way.”
“Begging your pardon, but I don’t think I can do that . . . even for you. No one’s to enter the city, Keeper’s very own orders.”
“The Keeper!” the man below fumed. “Your Keeper’s a rotting son-of-a-bitch. Literally! He’s god-damn infected. To the dead with his orders.”
“I think he means LeCynic,” Pete whispered to Dobber.
“Right . . .” he replied. “They must not know”
“May LeCynic rot in hell,” Dobber cursed down to the pair. “And all his creations. We take our orders from the good lady Katerina now. In case you haven’t heard, there’s a war brewing in the city, and a plague as well. We have enough to deal with in the city without letting in the Outland infection.”
“Besides,” Pete chimed in, poking his head up for another look. “You’d be a fool to want in. Beyond this door, there’s nothing but death.”
The man’s hand whitened as it constricted on the sword handle. His brown eyes filled with pulsating red veins.
Pete ducked back down, his arrow finally notched and ready.
“Let me in the gate, boy, and I’ll show you who’s a fool.”
A gentle whisper interrupted the tirade of cursing, then a sweet and soft voice spoke, “We just came from the outlands, and have seen more death than you could possibly imagine. We faced the Keeper’s undead army and have survived. It’s true, we know nothing of the City’s plight, only what has befallen the Outlands. Please, let us inside. We need to tell our tale to our leader. And as members of the Death Guard, we need to join the fight for this city.”
“There is only the two of them . . .” Dobber pondered. “And really, what harm can they do? Other than to themselves?”
“I suppose you’re right,” Pete replied, not sure he was. The woman seemed to be a reasonable sort, but he was certain the man was going to cut him down the first chance he could get.
“Keep your arrow on them,” Dobber said, sensing his fears. “Just in case.”
Fortunately, beyond the insults directed at their mothers, the pair of Death Guards left them alone. They didn’t even bother to check them for infection before dashing off into the city, where their black robes and masks soon vanished amidst the darkened streets.
Afterwards, it was relatively quiet in the tower. The fires died down in the distant sky, and the screams as well. Only the occasional moan reached their ears, but whether it was from the living or the dead, they couldn’t tell. From their position, there was little they could do either way.
Further orders never came . . . so in the meantime they continued to man their posts. Taking advantage of the respite, Pete was even able to catch up on some sleep.
Then, half sleeping during his watch, Pete once more heard something from the Outlands . . . a rhythmic pounding from the roadway below.
He nudged Dobber, motioning to the Outlands.
He took a moment to rub the sleep from his eyes, then, ever so slowly, they raised their heads over the wall . . .
. . . again, they immediately crouched back down.
“What do we do about them?” Pete nervously asked, not even bothering to notch an arrow this time.
“Open the damn gate or I’ll smash it open,” came the thunderous voice from the road. “. . . then I’ll knock down that tower and you along with it.”
“We let them in, of course,” Dobber replied. “Didn’t you see the size of him . . . and his weapon?”
Pete scampered down the tower to obey. Operating the winch before the giant could make good on his threat. As soon as the door opened a crack, a meaty hand took hold of it, thrusting it open the rest of the way. Pete flew to the ground as the winch spun wildly out of control. Laying on the ground, he felt the earth shake as the massive being lumbered in. It paused to scowl down at him, gripping its gigantic war-pick tightly. Scars covered his hairy face and arms, a leather vest covered his chest.
Pete was certain he was about to be squashed by the fearsome giant, when a hooded man stepped forward; his eyes empty pits on his head. Behind him, a throng of ragged children piled into the city.
“Who is the current Keeper? What has befallen the city?” the man with the dead eyes asked, somehow able to gaze directly at Pete’s location, though obviously blind.
He felt even more frightened under his eye-less gaze than he did under the giant’s, and felt compelled to reply.
Before they left for the city, Pete told the man what he knew – which was very little. The Boulder Dwarf looked angrier than ever at his words, while the blind, old man simply looked defeated. Taking the children with them, they followed the same path as the pair of Death Guards . . .
. . . Roughly a day later, they didn’t even bother to stop the other party that arrived at their gate. The one-armed boy seemed ready to kill them with his glare. The gaunt elf lord appeared to be death itself. And the girl with the pouty lips . . .
They were embarrassed to admit it afterwards, but she disarmed them with little more than a smile.
. . . Much later, another being approached the gate to Lock Core. But by the time he crawled his way to the wall of logs, the gate was already burning. And the tower was a toppled pile of ash . . . a pair of skeletons mixed within.
The being lacked the strength to crawl over the debris, so it rested among the ashes instead. As the being was about to make peace with death, a miracle occurred . . . a globe of blue energy covered the entire city and beyond . . .
The bald-headed elf rose to his feet, then entered the city through the Outland Gate.