(I will kill you all.)
Is this what home is suppossed to be like? The crews are clearing out, but this place still feels filled. Heavy, almost. Srin is near the front archway, making sure that all of the details have been handled. I suppose this space is mine, then.
Seventeen bunks. Seventeen souls. And they’ll be under this roof.
I’m wandering. Stairs curve around the edges of the giant room, leading to a second floor. I’m stumbling up them, slowly.
Stone and steel are vanishing below me. There’s a fire in my skin. There’s a war in my blood. Everywhere I look, I see her face in the shadow. Every space is filled with her eyes, empty, dead, staring. She haunts me in every silent moment, clawing and screaming and begging.
Please, don’t go. Don’t leave me alone. Save me. I’m so lost. I’m so lost.
And her silence kills me.
There is a balcony. Silence.
I’m looking out over the city, mountains of steel, grasping towards the sky. The tentacles of some great monster, consuming, controlling. And now the monster has a beachhead in my heart. It’s there, advancing. And I have no defense.
The stars in the night sky stare down on me. Distant. Absent. Detatched. Maybe I’m the star over myself. And now I’m just watching.
Is this the way it was meant to be? Was I meant for this? Raised up only to be struck down? Given only so that it can be taken again?
Silence. And it’s stabbing me slowly. It doesn’t hurt. Nothing is breaking.
There’s nothing to break, only to wither.
“I need to know something, before we do this.” Srin is next to me, looking out over the city as well.
I say nothing.
“Were you really trying to defect?”
“Does it really matter anymore?”
“It does. I’m not going to go chasing after this shaman with someone I can’t trust. I don’t have to like you. But I can’t work with a traitor.”
“No. I wasn’t. Ashe saw something that terrified her, then she begged me to run. And when I did, they were waiting for us.”
“What did she see?”
“She never told me.”
Srin nods silently. Around us, the echoes of war die out as the city submits to sleep. One by one, we fall to its armies.
“I suppose our task is clear then. We’ve got two days to round up our warband, Emberclaw already has enough of a head start.”
He vanishes into the darkness of our home.
“I know how useless this will be, but you need to get some rest tonight.”
“At least try.”
And now I’m alone.
Maybe I always have been.
Maybe I always will be.
“Sparr, pour me another.” How long have I been here? I couldn’t remember. Is this what happens when no weapon remains? I suppose that’s my lot. Every warrior eventually makes way for the next, and I’ve had my time. Legion, I shouldn’t have been thinking about that. Have mercy on me, Sparr needs to get his act together.
Two young charr materialized out of the crowd and took up seats on either side of me. If they came to talk old war stories, they were going to be sorely disappointed. “Are you Matis?” The one on my left, brown fur, large horns, spoke without looking at me. Sparr finally appeared with my drink in hand. Maybe they’ll just leave me alone. “No. Leave me alone.”
The black furred one on my right spoke, “Definitely him, Ayroh.”
Brown, Ayroh was his name? “Ayroh” kept looking ahead at Sparr when he spoke. “I understand that you haven’t seen action in some time.” I’ve fought too many wars to deal with his prodding. Seen too many friends pass under dragons’ blades. Is this what lies in store for the rest of my life? Suffering at the hands of the curious.
“Ayroh” pulled an official looking document from a satchel on his side. “How would you like to get back in the fight?”
The documents bore the seal of Tribune Steelblood. Marching orders. New warband.
I surveyed the uncouth, young charr, then downed my drink.
Full of surprises, this day will be.
So, there I was. The shopkeeper was busy trying to shoo away my illusion, and I had almost made it out safely with that darling, expensive, dinner-buying vase.
And then some necromancer appeared out of nowhere, casted some spell that broke my illusion, and then there’s a dagger at my neck! The nerve of some charr. Really. No manners, whatsoever. None.
So, anyway, I was in the shop. Great loot. Necromancer. Dagger. And then the shady looking fellow with the lack of manners inquired if my name was Pelk! Were they looking for me or something? I’m nobody, they don’t need to worry about me. So I spun my little story. Sole survivor, dead warband, heroic deaths and all, begging on the streets, I’m so pitiful, please don’t hurt me.
They weren’t buying it.
“Yeah, that’s him.” The necromancer said to his questionable friend.
And then, they tell me I can either die or be drafted. Hooray! Choices! Am I right? Choices. The spice of life.
I think I might gag.
Shield up. I dig my claws into the dirt; he tipped his hand early. His hammer thunders against my bulwark, but I give him no ground. Turning the force of his blow into my own momentum, I bring my mace around from my back and strike him in the chest. The air knocked out of his lungs, he drops his training hammer and crumples to the ground.
“And that’s what you get for running your mouth, trash!” Hmph. I turn and stow my training equipment on the sparring center’s wall. Another day, another victory.
“Not bad.” A black furred charr approaches me from a nearby bench. He must’ve watched the match. “Thanks, beating these cowards senseless is rather therapeutic.”
He smiles. “How would you like a real challenge?”
I smile back.
“Any idea what the cause of death was?” The coroner looked over at me, completely confused. How did I ever get stuck in this job?
With a sigh, I lifted up the dead charr’s arm. After a few moments of searching, my fingers hit upon a bump. I turned the arm over, to get a better look at the underside of the wrist.
There, running from the center of his palm to just below his elbow, was a long, faitly necrotic scar. With a slight tug, the skin pulled apart. The wound was completely devoid of blood.
“What?” Clueluess again.
“Someone bled him out, then used necromancy to seal the wound.”
“Perceptive.” A strange voice echoed down the staircase into our basement workshop. A moment later, a brown furred charr wearing heavy robes emerged from the shadow.
“How would you like to see some real magic?” A faint glow pulsed through the robed charr’s hands as he approached.
Then the corpse sat up, eyes glowing a menacing green, and stared at me.
“This had better be good!” I yelled as the sparring gates closed behind me. No one in this close-minded city requests duels with me. Magic is for cowards. We can’t trust you. It’s an abomination. Bah.
At least I get to pulverize some, unlucky soul.
When the center gate rose, I found myself facing another charr, wearing heavy dark robes. No giant sword? This will be fun.
Without waiting for him to throw the first strike, I readied a plague bolt and fired it at his chest. He didn’t even move. Did he have a deathwish or something?
A second later, as the bolt neared him, his arms flew into motion. One hand rose above his head; the other dropped to below his waist. Just as the bolt struck him, his arms flew around like a windmill. The bolt shattered in the air before him and scattered helplessly around the floor of the arena.
He hadn’t even taken a step.
“Cruk, you need to keep both of your hands on the sword.” The cub looked over at me, confused. “Let me explain again. If you only have one hand on the weapon, it’s too easy for your opponent to simply knock it out of your hands.”
The cub was trying to show off, and that was exactly the sort of thing we needed to curtail. There’s no room for grandstanding among the charr. With a resigned look on his face, he placed his other hand on the wooden greatsword and returned to sparring.
“I’m sorry, where were we?” The black furred charr remained patient as we stood underneath the shade of a low-hanging tree. “This fahrar is particularly troublesome.”
The black charr leaned against the tree, closely studying everything transpiring around him. “I had just asked you how you were enjoying life away from the Dragonbrand.”
“It’s terrible. Boring. But once you get out of the swing of things, it’s hard to get back in. Even for someone as young as me.”
“What if I gave you a chance to get back into the fight?”
“I wouldn’t think twice.”
“Then get your things.”
Blue fields all around me. Dragons everywhere. It’s so peaceful.
“Is that him?”
Oh, look! A deer! It looks so precious.
It reminds me of that time we were amushed by ogres. Choppy choppy choppy chop. And they said they couldn’t be cut in half!
“Great, we’ve got a sleeper on our hands.”
Stab. Stab. Stabby stabby stab stab. Blood everywhere! This is so much fun!
It’s almost like that time we were cornered by those gold legion spies. Not sure whether it was my sword was too big for them, or their armor was too weak for me.
Same thing, really.
And then I was shaking around. Hands were on me. Shocked, I shot up in my bunk to find a pair of charr standing over me.
“Pack your things. You’re in our warband now.”
And now I have to be serious again.
A few moments later, I followed them out of the gladium quarters.
Maybe I’ll get to stab some real deer now.
“So, why am I even talking to you two?”
The black one spoke first.
“Because your file says that you’re one of the best hunters in the citadel.”
“And that matters to you because?”
The brown one. “It matters because we’re going hunting for the biggest target you’re ever going to get. We figured it would be a shame to let you pass it up.”
Typical. Nice try. “Sorry boys, heard it before.” I slid my chair back to leave.
“Before you go, I think you should take a look at this.” The black one slid an official looking paper across the table.
A pardon. Stamped by a tribune. Oh, mercy.
“Do you remember that incident last year with that Blood tribune’s son? Because we do. And we can make it go away.”
Someone knocked at my door. With an annoyed sigh, I got up from my workbench. My pistol sat on the bench; my cleaning tools frozen in place with my absence. “This’d better be good.” I muttered under my breath.
I opened the door; Vash was there. What was she doing here? Swiftly, she entered my apartment and shut the door behind her. Her bright, tan fur was the cleanest that I had seen it in years. She had either struck it rich or was about to commit suicide. She could’ve fallen either way.
“Alai, we’re getting a clean slate.”
I didn’t even blink. “How much have you been drinking?” I sniffed her breath. Clean. Unlikely.
“I’m not drunk; it’s for real this time. I’ve got papers with a tribune’s signature on them.” She withdrew a folded page from her jacket and handed it to me.
Alai and Vash.
Expected service in Soul Warband.
Rubbing my eyes, I sank back onto my couch. Is this really happening?
She moved close to me and placed her hand on my shoulder. Her forehead was on mine. “Please, don’t let me do this alone. We can be free, finally, after all these years.”
Why am I a sucker for her? Is it her brown eyes that look deeper into me than I knew there was to look? Is it the way she smiles at me when she’s had one drink too many? Is it the thousands of times she’s stumbled into my apartment, crying and holding onto me like I’m the last thing in the world?
There’s nothing in me that could tell her no.
“Kik, you’re going to get me killed.” I stumbled to my feet at the end of the alleyway. The drake snapped happily in response. Did he even realize that we were about to get beaten to a pulp?
“How many times have I told you that leather armor isn’t for snacking?” This was at least the third time this week that he’d snapped up someone’s boot or cuirass. Normally, I could talk my way out of things like this. Unfortunately, these fellows were to drunk for my tongue to be of any good use.
And I don’t have my sword with me. Beautiful.
The five drunkards angrily advanced down the alleyway towards me. Kik was busy happily enjoying the stolen boot of the one on the far left while I tried to find a way out of this situation.
No good options. Just my luck.
Without warning, a sixth figure entered my vision, materializing out of a shadow against one of the buildings blocking me in. It looked like a charr, made of black, churring smoke. Stunned, the drunks stopped their advance. The cloud advanced on the attackers slowly; moving into the center of the alley with its back to me.
Above it, darkness churned in the air. Kik whimpered and retreated behind me, cautiously peeking around my side. With the sound of lightning, a dark visage erupted from the shadows in the air. The spectre held a scythe high over its head; screaming and howling all the while. Terrified, the drunks couldn’t get away fast enough.
As they vanished around the corner, the shadow and the spectre disappated into the air, leaving nothing but a single, brown furred charr in the alley with me.
I had seen that before.
Death Shroud, it was called.
Kik barked cautiously at the necromancer as he turned to face us.
Wait for the world to slow.
I’ve got this.
And the world vanishes.
“Nahi! Front and center!”
Can’t that fool see that I’m busy? With a sigh, I set my rifle back down on its side.
The citadel looming high over my head, I turn and walk down through the scattered stone walkway towards the range commander’s post. I wonder what Rin was like before we burned it down. Definitely more target rich.
The commander is standing there, with two charr by his side. I don’t know them. Strange.
“Marching orders, Nahi. Get your stuff.”
My gaze stays fixed on him. “You can’t be serious. Only three of us survived that last patrol through the Dragonbrand. We’re not ready for a full deployment.”
“Fair point. Which is why your warband has been disbanded. Meet your new legionnaire.” He motions at one the charr beside him. Dark brown fur, gold highlights. Heavy robe. Maybe a magic user. He’s kidding, right?
I addressed the legionnaire, “Sir, what’s the objective?”
The charr crossed his arms. “First, don’t call me sir. Second, we’re going hunting.”
Unusual. “What’s the quarry?”
“The gold legion.”
I might be able to like this.
“Careful.” Is he listening to me? “Be careful, Akant.” He’s not listening. “Irah, make sure that he doesn’t kill himself with that.”
“I’ve got it! Stop being so stuffy.” He’s a terrible listener. Irah’s long, white fur flashes as she flings herself through the weaving structures of our workshop. I adjust my stance on the raised walkway over the seige engine we’ve been working on. If this design goes through, it could change the way we attack fortifications. Ebonhawke wouldn’t be able to put those walls up fast enough for us to keep testing. That is, if we can make it that far without dying.
Akant’s speckled face twisted in concentration as he tightened the firing mechanism for the main cannon. Too tight, and it won’t fire. Too loose, and a bump will blow up the tank. A moment later, Irah was next to him, holding a mirror on a stick in front of the firing mechanism so she could look at it without being killed if it went off. Smart girl. Careful as well.
“A little slower, you’re getting close to threshhold.” Akant might ignore me, but he knew better than to cross Irah. Some old proverb about angry females and damnation tried to form in my mind, but I was too busy holding the counterweight that balanced the cannon’s barrel to remember.
Set the firing mechanism. Then attach the barrel at the pivot. And then let it settle into place. Easy in concept, but not quite in execution. There were a thousand places it could go wrong and this tank seemed dead-set on getting lost at each one.
“That’s good, stop!.” Akant pulled his screwdriver out of the tuning port the moment Irah’s voice hit his ears.
“Everything set?” I yelled down at the young duo. “Yeah, we’re good.” Irah shouted back with a cheerful wave. That girl seemed set on carving out a place in my old heart. I would’ve killed for a daughter like her.
With a slow and methodical motion, I began to lower the barrel’s weight onto the tank; the suspension shifting as I did. As the weight shifted, the duo moved to the pivot and lifted the main bearing above the socket.
“There’s only one shot to get this right. Are you two ready?”
“What took you so long?”
He just needs a good beating. That’s what he needs.
I readied my grasp to pull with all of my might.
I pulled on the cable, temporarily lifting the barrel out of its pivot. As soon as the giant steel tube was clear, the pair dropped the bearing into place. “Done!” Akant’s voice shouted over the clang of the metal. With a final tug, the barrel lifted a small bit higher before I released it.
Under nothing but its own weight, the barrel fell into the pivot with a thunderous clang. The roar of gears grinding into place shook the walls of the workshop. Success.
Akant and Irah were laughing as they bumped their fists together. “I told you the weight of the barrel would be sufficient as a stablization mechanism!” Akant’s proud voice bellowed forth. For all of his impetuousness, he could be rather insightful when you made him sit still.
He might be something worthwhile one day.
With a laugh, I leaned on the walkway’s railing. It had been a long day, but a productive one. A few more like this, and we’d be ready to start field testing. A brief survey of the workshop from my raised vantage point revealed years of hard work, spread across the sprawling warehouse that we called home. Tanks, turrets, bombs, and traps. We had built ourselves an arsenal that would make Smodur himself proud.
A loud ringing echoed through the building as the two happily chattered on the workshop floor below me. Someone was ringing the door bell. “You two start washing up for dinner, I’ll go see who’s at the door.” I followed the walkway to the ladder that led to the ground floor. I was getting too old for this. With a grunt, I clambered down. After a short stop by the wash basin to make sure that there wasn’t any grease staining the white and brown fur that speckled across my face, I unbolted the door.
A young, brown furred charr stood in my doorway. “What can I do for you?” Guests were unusual, especially this late in the day.
“Are you Kyr?” Definitely unusual. No one looks for me anymore. “Yes, I am. May I inquire about your presence here?”
“Ayroh. Legionnaire. Soul Warband. I have orders for your warband to fold into my command.”
I chuckled. “I’m sorry, but unless that comes from a tribune or up, I’m going to have to refuse. We’re too near to finishing our work to stop now.”
He produced a document from the satchel on his side and extended it towards me.
Tribune Steelbood’s emblem sealed the folded papers. This charr was more serious than I thought. “May I come in?”
“I don’t suppose that I have a choice.” I stepped to the side as I took the document from his hand and he entered. Irah and Akant’s idle chatter echoed through our workshop.
“Follow me, let’s find somewhere we can talk.” Silently, he traced a path behind me through our machines and experiments as I led him to our living space. After following me up a ladder to the third floor, I motioned for him to take a seat across from me in our dining area. Irah and Akant’s banter froze mid-sentance when they saw Ayroh take a seat. Cautiously, Irah approached me.
“Should we prepare dinner for one more?” I studied Ayroh for a moment, his reserved expression holding still all the while. “Would you like to join us for dinner?” A small smile passed his face briefly before vanishing. “It has been quite a while since I’ve had a proper meal.”
Irah nodded and vanished back into the kitchen, where Akant had been silently busy.
While the two labored away, I decided to excavate whatever I could from this unknown charr. “So, why shouldn’t I march up to Steelblood’s office and chew him out for even thinking about folding us into another warband?”
Ayroh simply motioned at the papers that I held in my hands. With a sigh, I broke the seal and opened the bundle. The first page was written in Steelblood’s script.
And yes, it will definitely be worth your while.
The second page explained the details of the new warband.
And the incentives we would have to join.
Priority supply requesition.
Tripled discretionary budget.
And our designs on Smodur’s desk.
“This….This is remarkable.”
Ayroh nodded silently. What else did this charr have up his sleeve?
“If you don’t mind humoring me, what is this warband’s first mission?”
He was direct when he spoke, his voice was unusual though. Soft, for a charr. “We’re going to hunt and eliminate a flame legion shaman named Emberclaw. To do that, we’re going to need to acquire a number of artifacts from the southern end of the Dragonbrand, so we’ll be headed there first.”
“What kind of force are we going to have?” The old gears in my brain started to turn again. There was a way to warfare, and I was no stranger to it.
“The warband will be 17 strong, including myself. Handpicked soldiers, all veterans.”
I nodded. They were serious about this.
“Dinner’s up!” Irah and Akant erupted into the room, bearing a whole, roasted pig on a large platter. In a blurr, the dish was flung to the center of the table, hiding Ayroh from my view, and gyroctic-segregators distributed.
As Irah and Akant began to section the pig up, a realization hit me.
“Oh, Ayroh. These are Asura devices, Irah got us attached to using them. Do you need me to show you how it works?”
I leaned over the table to peer around the pig at Ayroh. He held the tool in his hand, skillfully using it to carve the meat off of a thigh.
This charr was full of surprises.
He left me.
He left me.
He left me.
Why would he do that?
Why would he leave me?
I kicked the side of the cage in frustration.
He used me.
He only used me.
Promised freedom, then threw me to the enemy at first chance.
If I get the chance, if I ever see Emberclaw again, I’m going to kill him. At least, I’ll try.
They’re never going to let me out of here though.
And it’s Emberclaw’s fault.
The Iron legion guard appeared from the staircase, his gun already aimed at me. “Mouse, you have a visitor.”
“Are you really that bored? Can’t find anything else to do but annoy me?”
He growled at me. “No, I don’t have time for gold legion scum like you. Apparently, this legionairre does though.”
Behind him, a charr emerged, robbed in black. Immediately, I could feel the air grow heavy and stale. The guard wasn’t aware, but I was.
The necromancer approached my cage, slowly, as the guard withdrew into the hallway. His cold eyes surveyed me as I leaned against the wall of my cell. He might as well have been a shaman, for the way he acted.
At last, he spoke, “You know what they have designed for you?”
I neither responded nor moved. What’s his angle?
“I’m going to assume you do. By which, I imply that it will consist of a lot of pain, followed by talking, and then a bullet in your skull.”
“I’m not going to worry about whether or not you deserve that. The only thing I care about is that you know Emberclaw, and he abandoned you to be captured as a decoy.”
I growled at him before falling silent again.
“I’m only going to offer this once. Choose to come with me, and you’ll get your chance for revenge.”
That is foolish enough to deserve a response. “Do you really think I would join with the Iron Legion?”
“I think you want revenge, and you want it enough to work with me to get it.”
His eyes narrowed, glowing a dark green the shadows of the prison around us.
“Which makes us exactly the same.”
A shiver went down my spine as the temperature in the room plummeted.
“Because revenge is all that I want.”