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Grimdark Magazine Battle-Off: Heaven's Gate by Toby Bennett

Heaven's Gate by Toby Bennett

This is an excerpt provided by the author for the Grimdark Magazine Battle-Off Competition

“The Citadel” 

The great building casts a long shadow on the burning plain of Golifany but only the dead enjoy that dark respite, while seven thousand men fight on, caught in the hateful glare of the late afternoon sun. Here, at last, the crusading armies of the Inquisition have reached their goal, the last refuge of the evil they have hounded for three bloody years. An evil that, for uncounted years, has crept into sleeping houses at night, to satisfy its endless hunger for the blood of their children and their wives or worse to claim their souls. More than one soldier is gripped by the fear that he might find some long lost brother waiting, pale and sharp-toothed, in the impenetrable darkness of the ancient corridors that twist through the alien building, towering over the fiery sands of Golifany. Whatever the Citadel had once been in its forgotten past, it is now a fortress. A fortress strong enough to weather the thunder of the Crusaders’ artillery and return it with a raking fire that tears a crimson swath through the fanatics massed around it. Legend has it that the huge stones cover an older structure and that, within that ancient building, are held the unholy secrets, which have served the Strigoi, the Devil’s undying children, in their insidious domination of men since they became trapped in the burning prison of the Bowl.

Three years ago the man, who commands this army, had been counted little more than a boy, a child leading his fellows into darkness with a guttering candle, of no account in the machinations of Barons and Daemons, yet today General Leedon and his army stand poised to destroy the last great fortress at the heart of a silent empire that has manipulated and corrupted mankind, unopposed, for untold centuries. The fires of his Crusade have swept the vermin back quickly, harrying them from one stronghold and desert town to the next until, at last, the devil spawn will pay the ultimate price for their complacency. The war is his, if he can breech one last set of walls before sundown, before the bloodless lords within the Citadel awake.

“It will be a fine balanced thing, Angus.” Father Rugan says tensely, guiding his horse closer to the preoccupied general.

Rugan’s normally rotund face is strangely drawn with tension and his worry is written plainly on his suddenly sallow features, so that by comparison to the young warlord next to him, he seems impossibly ancient and worn. In the reddening light Angus experiences a moment of concern for his old mentor but he thrusts the thought aside, almost as soon as it is formed. Rugan could not be so changed or pale as he seemed, it must just be the light of the sun, the exhaustion of their forced march and the anxiety of battle. Rugan is strong, Angus reminds himself. Without the priest he would never have begun the great Crusade and the blood sucking Strigoi would have been left unchallenged.

“We shall press on, whatever the cost,” he replies, giving voice to his own uncompromising determination.

“It is as it must be,” his wizened confessor agrees, lending the young man what strength he can spare with a glance and the brief touch of a reassuring hand.

Once more Angus raises his sword; as always he feels the true weight of the slim, curved blade, the fulcrum for the lives of thousands causing his young hand to shake with the pressure. He cannot allow doubt to unman him now, when the fate of humanity balances on a razor edge of winking steel and on the slow setting of the sun.

“Another charge!” The General calls out to his officers.

Ignoring the carnage already spread out in the Citadel’s growing shadow, he curls his hand tighter around the roughened grip of his sword hilt, tenses, then brings the flashing metal down like a bolt from the cloudless sky. 

With a wail the fanatical Crusaders respond, echoing the trumpets with a frenzied battle cry that seems to shake the Citadel’s very foundations before being swallowed abruptly by the desert’s emptiness. The silence is quickly filled again by the rumble and crash of the charge and the individual cries of martyrs, flinging their living flesh and hearts’ blood against the unforgiving stone of the Fortress. From within, the hard pressed defenders howl in consternation; driven to near madness by conflict between the fear of the approaching army and the terror of their sleeping masters’ displeasure. Canons roar, sending thick smoke mixed with spent souls curling into the heavens. Behind that deafening roar comes the more regular crack of rifles, punctuated by the cries of dying men and the golden notes of the trumpets, drowning pain’s lament with glory.

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