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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Gathering Dark - Chapter 4


Chapter 4 - Spoils of War

The city-states of the Dark were autonomous, independent entities, each one vying for power against the others. There were twelve major city states and a host of minor ones throughout the period of the Dark. All of them maintained their own armies, often at great expense. Early historians state that this was to fight the goblins, but in actuality most of their battles were against other city-states. The church, more concerned with spiritual matters and willing to see the individual city-states spend their time battling each other to their own detriment, turned a blind eye to the continual infighting, until it was too late.

-Arkol, Argivian scholar

A month after leaving the city as part of Ghet's army, Jodah finds himself staggering through an abandoned city with no more armor and weapons, and the rest of his company gone. Clearly either some magical spell or disease drove away all the inhabitants. If they had been driven away by war, all the buildings wouldn't still be standing. The buildings are still furnished... with whatever hasn't since rotted away. No animals either, except for a flock of pigeons. If he could catch some at least he wouldn't starve... if he can avoid the goblins . They would have been able to take Alsoor, and Jodah could be searching for Voska this very moment if not for them.

...In the beginning...

The war didn't start out as a war. They were told by the city leaders that they were just going to perform military maneuvers to display a show of force so Alsoor would know they still remained strong. Jodah's corporal, Togath, voiced that it was also a convenient way to get a large segment of its citizens to forage off the land rather than eat into the city's resources. Even more convenient to have these maneuvers take place by farmlands where the owners have yet to decide to sell their upcoming harvests to Ghet or Alsoor.

Best part about being in the army wasn't that it was made up for plenty of refugees so Jodah didn't noticeably stand out, but rather that no priests were among the army. Togath explains that the priests are only involved with the army within the walls so they don't actually have to be put at risk when it comes to actual battle, and that suits Jodah just fine.

...Back at the mysterious city...

Jodah limps on his wounded leg and wishes he could find some milk, mineral oil, and eggs. Walking through the city he finally puts his finger on what makes it so odd. For a city this size, he's surprised to see that it has no city wall. But maybe that's the reason the inhabitants decided to abandon it.

A weird feeling crawled up Jodah's spine. He had become separated from the other survivors int he fog and soon afterward found the first buildings of the city. The buildings loomed in the mist like great, gray shadows , resolving themselves only as Jodah drew nearer. First one, then another, then a third, and then several aligning themselves in the fashion of a street. Then patches of paving stones appeared among the grass and hard-worn dirt.

Side streets appeared and arched away on both sides. Jodah realized that the city was laid out like a  circle, with the wide main streets leading to something at its center.

Jodah stays close to the buildings and makes his way to the city's heart.

(Good idea?)

...Back to the army...

Togath was right that the maneuvers would lead to a conflict. Jodah wasn't there, but Fendah told him what happened. In this particular case, the war started over a couple barrels of wine. Ghet scouts had come across a vinter getting some barrels ready to gift to the Alsoorians. When they asked him what was going on, he told the Ghet scouts that of course it would be his honor to give them an equal amount of barrels of wine.

The problem arose when the Alsoorians showed up to escort the vinter. Words escalated into a skirmish which lead to deaths. Eventually the Alsoorians were put on a full scale retreat back to their city with the Ghet army trying to maneuver to cut them off.

Travel was slow going thanks to the sudden downpour of rain, and as the army stretched out, units would disappear and rumor rose. Some would say that the Alsoorians were using magic to summon evil creatures that were picking them off one by one. Jodah knew pointing out that the Alsoorians didn't trust magic much like the city of Ghet and that magic wasn't only used to summon evil would do him no good, but he was glad when Togath spoke up. When he reminded them that during every war both sides always accuse the other of consorting with demons, being followers of Urza or Mishra, and bringing about the Eaters of the Dead that inevitably show up to feast on any crippled and wounded they could catch. It's all foolishness when it's more likely that the missing units will reappear as part of a mercenary group fighting for some lord or another within a fortnight.

They lost the race to Alsoor and it became their turn to retreat. But once begun, the conflict couldn't end so easily. New orders came. There is a ford several days up the Almar river that they're ordered to defend. Time to march.

...Closer to the center of the city...

The sounds of splashing get louder. The city's roads converge on a great circle, dominated by a large fountain with a pedestal with four lion heads spewing water.

(Oh? That's a bit less ominous than the surrounding city.)

Jodah looked over the wide rim. The water looked mountain-fresh spewing from the lion's mouth, but the basin was filled with a thick growth of algae. The bottom of the basin had filled with muck, and greasy-looking plants jutted from the water, spreading wide, foul-smelling leaves. The foaming waters of the fountain collected near these stalks in string of bubbles, and several dark shapes that Jodah chose not to identify floated in the water.

A motion catches Jodah's eye, and as he turns to his right, there's the Rag Man off at the circle's edge. Jodah takes a step towards this dark guardian angel of his, and it smoothly glides into a nearby building, as if it was a ghost.

The then sound of goblin laughter could be heard out in the fog, coming closer.

...On the march...

On the fourth day towards the ford, an Alsoorian spy was caught in camp. The soldiers grumbled that his being tied up in the supply tent meant that he had better accommodations than they did. Togath wrung out his rain-soaked blanket in front of them for effect.

As everyone went to sleep, Jodah decides he wants to take a look at the prisoner, and is surprised to find just one soldier, not much more than a boy, on guard.

Yet there was something in his manner, something in the way that he drew himself up as Jodah approached, that said this one, despite his age, had seen more fighting than Jodah, Fendah, and Togath combined.

Jodah declares his intention to ask the prisoners a few questions, and when the youth says that he has order that no one can see the prisoner unobserved, Jodah tries to put him at ease. He recognizes a fellow northerner and asks where the youth is from. When he says that he's from Thorn, Jodah tells him that should mean he knows the people of Giva are honorable. He just wants to ask a couple questions, and if he can't let anyone talk to the prisoner unobserved, then he should come inside with him and observe. The youth caves in and agrees.

Jodah's questions are simple. He wants confirmation that the spy is from Alsoor, and asks if he's heard of a man named Voska. The spy says yes to both. He's heard that Voska is a sorcerer, and rather than killing him outright, the Church has him kept prisoner. After answer the questions, the spy decides it's only fair that he get to ask a question of his own, but rather than tell the truth, when asked if it's true that the Ghet army has wizards working for them and if they've raised an Eater of the Dead... Jodah says they've raised three and walks away.

Before he gets too far, comes after him and asks him what that was all about. Who's Voska? Jodah can't tell him the truth so instead he says that he lost his family thanks to Voska, and so he has a very personal reason to make it back to Alsoor.

The youth's response is to spit on the ground and say that this whole thing is a shame. Humans killing humans. Goblins are the real danger. Jodah tells him that he hopes someday that the church and the city-states will recognize the increasing numbers of refugees coming from the north as a signal of where the true threat lies.

The boy snorted. "I hope I live to see that day."

"I hope we both live to that day," said Jodah.

The boy smiled and held out a hand. "Tivadar ," he said.

Jodah takes his hand, and asks if the matter of the questioning can be kept a secret, and makes his way back to his unit.

...At the fountain...

Jodah can hear the goblins bicker back and forth and desperately hopes they'll just pass him by and his hiding place within the fountain. He's not so lucky and he hears one of the goblins declare how thirsty he is and so Jodah dunks himself all way inside the murky green water hoping he can hold his breath for long enough.

...At the ford and beyond...

The united armed forces of Ghed made it to the ford first, and quickly dispatched a garrison of Alsoorians who hadn't even known about the escalating conflict between the two cities. Scouts brought in reports that the approaching Alsoorian army was only two days away. They options were to dig in and build defenses or ride out to meet them. Considering the state o the rain soaked land, the army commanders decided to ride.

The army positioned itself on a hilltop and led the attack on an unsuspecting Alsoorian army that had failed to properly scout the fog-filled valley. They attacked while the cavalry descended upon the Alsoorian flank who don't have enough time to fully form protective squares of pikemen or use other defensive measures.

At least that's what is supposed to be happening. With the fog so thick, Jodah can't do much more than try to make out the colors of each person who appears before him. If they wear green and black, they're an ally and he has to trust they can recognize him just as quickly. If they wear other colors, it's time to attack. His first strike and first sight of another person's blood leaves a strange sensation within him, but Jodah doesn't have time to dwell on that as all his concentration has to be put into recognizing each person as they materialize from within the fog and act upon those colors.

Soon enough Jodah starts realizing that he's no longer fight just humans, and rather a leaner and taller variety of being. He remembers rumors of Alsoor hiring elven mercenaries from the Shattered Isles, and the fighting and confusion continues.

At one point Jodah comes across the head of Fendah, with no body in sight, but eventually cries of victory fill the air. Considering the amount of Ghet's forces around him, Jodah can only assume they won.

That was when the goblins attacked.

It happens so quickly. The cries of triumph change to screams. The silhouette of the goblin army fills the fog, and quickly the two humans armies band together against this new threat. There are goblins of all kinds, with lager white goblins scattered throughout the smaller green ones, as well as larger giant-sized shapes out in the fog that Jodah can't make out. Explosions throughout the battle makes Jodah wonder if goblins have wizards of their own, but it's only a passing thought because survival is the true priority.

Fighting side by side with elves and Alsoorians alike, it becomes clear that the battle is hopeless. Soldiers begin shedding their weapons and armor in the hopes they can outrun the goblin horde and Jodah does the same. Jodah runs with the others over one fog covered hill after another until exhaustion takes him. When he wakes, Jodah finds himself all alone, and stumbles across the city later that day.

...In the fountain...

The goblin leader smacks the one approaching the fountain, and tells him how stupid he is for wanting to drink the clearly polluted water and tells him they'll find a stream later. There some movement out beyond the plaza and the goblins go one over the check it out, and Jodah spits out what water entered his mouth and gasps for air as soon as the coast is clear.

Jodah climbs out and heads in the direction that the goblins came from, eager to set up a fire and dry off. Only then will he realize that the pain in his leg is gone, and the wound completely gone.

* * *

Tivadar of Thorn

Grubb does a good job using a guest appearance of a card character as a metaphor at how pointless the wars between the city-states are.

The cameo could easily have been just:

"Hey guess what! It's me young Tivadar of Thorn, soon to be legendary leader and writer of the History of the Goblin wars as seen in the flavor text of Morale , Tivadar's Crusade , and the Knights of Thorn in the set The Dark, and later made into a card myself in Time Spiral."

"Nice to meet you. Bye now."

Instead we get a full story arc about how war can start over the most trivial of things, how fighting is not glamorous and is rather a mass of confusion, and demonstrates how everyone knows that sometimes there are real threats out there that are so clear that no debates, arguments, and concessions have to be made before everyone can join forces to face it together. We get to see the set up of the world as it is, how it is ready for Tivadar to step in and begin his crusade to drive the goblins back from destroying all of humanity, as well as the expression of hopelessness of war collected in the flavor text referencing Maeveen O'Donagh and his Memoirs of a Soldier, which can be read in the flavor text for Pikemen , Ashes to Ashes , Lurker , Venom , Marsh Viper , and Word of Binding .

The Spoils of War isn't actually about the glory and treasure earned through battle, but rather how those who are spoiled and are privileged can send others to war over trivial things, and the end result is spoiled and rotting bodies littering the ground. Or perhaps how selfish motivations of war, no matter what the leaders of each side claim are the true reasons for fighting, can be ruined and spoiled when a true threat comes along.

And of course... all that really was used to get Jodah from point A to point B, but if told and executed well, there's nothing wrong with that.

Fountain of Youth

This part of the chapter wasn't as well done. I suppose he had no choice but to jump into the fountain... but why didn't the Rag Man just yell out:

"Hey kid! Goblins are coming!"

Much sooner than he did so Jodah'd have time to find a real hiding spot? Or why not talk to him and say:

"You! Lord Ith sent me to find you. Come with me and I'll explain everything."

Or if he can't speak, then write a note! Jodah already trusts him. It's time to tell him to get a move on, that he was sent to find him... or did he actually somehow plan on Jodah running away from the battlefield so he could stumble upon and climb into the Fountain of Youth? It's all one big master plan?


  1. This isn't the city of Shadows. The Rag Man cannot, indeed, speak, and the fountain may indeed have been the Rag Man's entire intention of being at the Fountain in the first place. It IS the fountain of youth, after all.

  2. Yeah, I was able to finally do two write-ups in a single day yesterday, finally build up a buffer of one chapter (with hopefully a few more on the way) so I can finally once again get my write-ups at a specific time each day regardless of what happens at work... and so I learned that I was probably wrong about the City of Shadows.

    But from the way it was described, that's still what I thought it was at the time, that's still the impression the chapter left on me so I decided I'm going to leave it as it is.

    As for the Rag Man's personal goals... I'll have to take your word for it.