“Get those tanks working again!” My voice was shouting over the dozens of tank engines, spurring to life. “Legionnaire Tankskin!” Some engineer was shouting for me. Quickly, I traced the voice to a trio of charr standing around an open engine cavity, bellowing forth steam and smoke.
“Boss, we think the cooling system is defective.” Another one chimed in, “I think we might have to leave it behind.”
Dead gods, how did I get saddled with such useless soldiers? Grunting as I pulled my multi-tool from my belt, I leaned over the steaming engine. “Watch and learn, I’m only going to show you once.”
My eyes deftly picked out the main exhaust feed. Check the bolt. Too tight, blocking proper exhaust. Loosen.
Check the cooling system, why is it overheating? Fluids are fine. Coolant is circulating. Heat radiator has no leaks. Where is it….. Ah! Simple, pedestrian even. Central cooling hub is rusted. Use re-solventing fluid.
The smoke stopped. “Test the engine now!” I shouted to the driver, still inside the tank. With a spurt of fire and the roar of combustion, the engine thundered to life. And it continued to run.
I turned around to see the three engineers, staring at me agape. “Don’t ever write off a tank, they’re too important to just leave behind.” I glared at them with my best disapproving look. “It’s worth more to me than you are. Don’t let it break again.”
I left them to gawk at my handiwork and returned to my primary focus, making sure that the dozen tanks under my command were ready for the assault. They were a special run, ordered by our centurion, specifically designed for this coming battle. An engineer in the Black Citadel named Kyr had done the work – improved firing stability, increased pilot protection, specialized anti-flame weaponry.
We had the equipment and now we had the charr-power.
Off in the distance, I could see the centurion conferring with the other legionnaires, in charge of supplies, scouts, skirmishing, and the main ground forces. On this day, we were about to begin our final offensive against the Flame Legion.
Fireheart Rise will fall.
“Legionnaire!” More engineers calling for me. Legion help me, if another engine is overheating , I’m going to gut them where they stand. I turned the corner of a tank to trace the voice and, instead of a group of charr standing around an open engine, I saw a dozen of my soldiers, rifles raised, standing in a firing line.
Anticipating an attack, I drew my pistols and stepped beside them, ready to fire.
Instead of dozens of flame legion soldiers charging up the winding, rocky road, my eyes met a single, heavily robed charr, slowly walking up the path.
He wore a white blindfold around his head.
I gave the signal for the line to hold fire, but to remain ready. I wasn’t going to risk my soldiers, much less my tanks, on some wandering rogue. “Identify yourself!” My voice bellowed across the road.
Without breaking stride, the charr held up a sealed letter, with the mark of the Black Citadel emblazoned on it. Cautiously, I sent a runner to fetch the centurion as the strange charr continued to approach our lines.
As he came closer, I was able to identify more of his features. Long horns, curving back behind his head. Dark brown fur, golden streaks. He wore no weapons. A traveling bag hung from his side. He was beyond suspicious; walking around in Fireheart Rise, unarmed?
He was either allied with the heretics or he was completely mad.
He was crossing into our lines before I spoke again. “What are you doing here?”
His voice answered, low but definitive, “I need to speak to your centurion.” Not likely. “Stranger, I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
From behind me, the centurion’s voice thundered, “What meat is here to waste my time?” Tall, black-furred, and covered in heavy armor, the centurion and the other legionnaires materialized around me.
This was when it dawned on me that the strange charr hadn’t moved his blindfold, despite walking up the curving, rocky road. His head perfectly tracked whoever was speaking.
“Centurion Ayroh Shadowsoul.” He held up the sealed envelope, “I’m here to assist your assault on Fireheart Rise.”
Our centurion, immediately skeptical, fired back, “Where’re your warbands then, Shadowsoul?”
“In the hospital at the Citadel. We just finished operations in Ascalon City.”
Our centurion held out his hand, scowling all the while, “Give me that paper, I’m not buying your story, meat.” Immediately, the air around us chilled, plummeting to freezing in the blink of an eye. I could feel my vision swimming in black as the stranger’s voice pierced through the darkness.
“You fail to understand the situation. I’m going with you. The only thing you can decide is if you are alive at the end of this conversation.”
Shadowsoul walked silently in the center of our column as we advanced. None of the troops approached him or spoke; we knew what he was.
There’s no place for that here.
The centurion checked his papers, they were legitimate. We weren’t responsible for him, but we were required to render whatever aid he requested. More dead weight, pathetic.
I stayed close to the interior side of the tank, keeping my eyes peeled on the opposite wall. The soldiers across from me did the same, weapons ready to fire. For all of their inconsistency, the tanks made magnificent mobile cover.
Which Shadowsoul proceeded to ignore, entirely. Brazenly, he continued to march unprotected in the center of the column. I knew the intel; we were moving through an area primed for ambushes. The only road in was through a narrow canyon pass, with high walls rising to each side. It would be phenomenally easy to line the walls with soldiers then massacre us in a crossfire.
My eyes never stopped searching the edges of the cliffs.
Out of the corner of my vision, I saw Shadowsoul come to a stop and turn his blindfolded head towards the wall at my back. Before I could figure out what he was looking at, explosions began to ripple across the convoy. Massive meteors of fire magic began to topple over the edges of the cliff by the dozens.
Soldiers were screaming, firing at the cliffs and hitting stone; they weren’t exposing themselves to our superior mechanical firepower. No time to think, only to act.
“Arc the main cannons onto the cliffs!” I was shouting, running between the tanks as they turned their turrets to nearly vertical firing angles. As the meteors shuddered against the tanks’ fireproof armor, their cannons barked shells on high arcs through the air. After the first shell hit the upper reaches of the cliffs, the meteors subsided.
A massive roar went up from the Flame Legion surrounding us, and dozens of them dove over the edges of the cliff to escape our barrage. Bristling with armor and weapons drawn, at least seventy warriors leapt to engage us in melee.
Desperate, I pulled up my gun, tracing the nearest soldier I could sight. Falling, falling, falling, falling.
And then he stopped in the air, and hung.
I looked around, panicking, to see that the entire attacking force was caught in mid air, flailing around and screaming. Caught in some invisible power, they were helpless. As my eyes frantically searched for the origin of this sorcery, I saw Shadowsoul, standing in his position at the center of the caravan. Both of his arms were extended outwards, pulsing and radiating with white cracks of lightning.
He brought his hands together to form a circle with his limbs, his arms tense and stressed as though pulling on some invisible cord.
Around the caravan, the snared charr started screaming and howling as their metal armor began to fold around them, shattering bone in a chorus of breaking limbs and shredding flesh. Weapons curved around, impaling and dismembering their wielders as the Flame Legion soldiers were crushed, crumpled, and compacted inside of their armor.
When Shadowsoul released his hands, seventy perfectly circular balls of compacted flesh, bone, blood, and steel fell to the ground around us.
The walls ran with blood.
I don’t know how long I sat, terrified, and stared at the shaman.
“All hail the Hero of Ascalon!” Around me, hundreds of voices cheered, howling for their savior. Is that what they called me now? A savior?
Bittersweet, it all was. The dirt over Galar’s grave was still fresh, and here I am, basking in the adoration of our people. He should have been here. This was his victory as much as it was mine.
I kept my gaze focused ahead as my warbands marched behind me through the gates of Hrangmer. Our triumph, our city, the last bulwark of our people against a hostile world. My home.
Women and children lined the road, cheering us as we passed through the main gate. This city was not like the Citadel of Flame, which was long past us. No apocalyptically burned ground from dark magic, no eternal flames burning in the shadows of corpses. A volcano, yes, but here we could build a life. This city was our flame, our burning light, and I was home at last.
The faces around us blurred together as my soldiers and I marched solemnly through the crowd. Years of constant war had left us alike – unable to simply release and enjoy the peace we had earned. It was separate from us, distant. Perhaps we would come to accept it, but that day, we didn’t.
The next definitive image in my mind was standing before the shaman, our rulers. They circled me, sitting around a massive, raised stone table. The shaman at the head of the table rose to speak. The crowd around me, hundreds strong, fell silent to listen to them accept my resignation, with honor.
“Tribune Markus Cinderheart, a leader of our glorious campaign to undermine the rule of the heretic charr legions, we receive you in honor!”
The crowd roars.
“Before we accept your earned, honorable retirement from service against the enemies of our great Legion, we wish to inquire of you a number of things that have come to our attention.”
The crowd fell silent.
“And that have caused us great concern.”
I stared at him, unmoved. I knew what they were going to say, and I knew the smart decision would be to concede. I would have, now that I consider it.
But I remembered Galar. I remembered the long nights we spent alone in the lands of our enemies, speaking freely and with abandon. If he were here, that young fool would have done it.
So I will, in his stead.
“Tribune Cinderheart, why did you refuse to accept any shaman into your command and forcibly return any that we assigned to you?”
For Galar. His death will not be in vain.
“I sent them back because they impaired my ability to lead my soldiers, they were ineffective in combat, and they had a strongly negative impact on my command’s morale.”
The room was silent.
“Substantiate yourself, Tribune.”
I didn’t hesitate.
“Respectfully sir, the shaman were weak. The first one that I let into my camp tried to convince my soldiers to put away their guns and trust in his magic to carry victory for us. I threw him out.”
The shaman was visibly furious, “That is blasphemy, Tribune.”
“No, it is not. Consider this, your excellence; We are in retreat across all of our battlefields. Word is spreading that the Black Citadel is even planning to begin a campaign against the Citadel of Flame. They have rejected shaman entirely, and despite the best efforts of our valiant soldiers, their weapons and technology are overcoming our shaman.
“It is a fool’s dream that we will win this war if we do not begin to accept that our future must be shaped by new forces and ideas.”
The entire room was in an uproar, the crowd had no idea what to think and the shaman was roaring in fury.
“Sir, I threw those shaman out of my command because if I had kept them, we would have lost. I will not trust the future of my people to a dark, corrupting art!
“I will not trust the future of my world to beings that walk in the same darkness that has nearly destroyed it a dozen times over!”
“Your magic is weakness, it is a crutch.”
“I will have no part of it, and neither will my soldiers.”
“TRIBUNE!” He was screaming at me, yet I continued.
“There is a future out there for us!”
“And that future does not include your wicked shamans!”
“TRIBUNE, YOU ARE DISMISSED!”
In unison, the council shouted, “BEGONE!”
Askal’s voice echoed up the stairs to my private quarters, “Tribune, you have a guest.” I growled; I had no time to entertain the controversy of the masses. The entire city was in uproar, and I was at the heart of it.
“Did I not instruct you to let no one in?” I made certain to let my displeasure rear its head. “You did, but I think you will want to make an exception, sir.” I sat back in the chair at my desk, staring at the mounds of paperwork before me while angrily rapping my claws on the wooden surface. I don’t have time for this.
But I know Askal; he’s my centurion now. And I need to trust him. So I did.
He will never trust me unless I extend it first.
I cleared my throat as I turned to face the doorway to my study, “Send him up.”
“Boss, you’re in for a surprise.”
Light steps echoed up the staircase, steady and rhythmic. No armor, no weapons. Unarmed. Definitely not a soldier. Why would Askal let him through?
As the visitor reached the top of the staircase, I knew immediately why he was passed through. Dense, heavy robes. A staff on his back. A hood obscuring his face.
Askal couldn’t have turned him away if he wanted to.
I saw a flicker of his tail. Red fur.
The guest pulled back her hood to reveal a pair of piercing, blue eyes. She was young, likely in her early 20′s. Her horns grew unusually long, curling in delicate and irregular spirals around her head. Her face was peaceful, clear, youthful.
And she came in the garb of a shaman.
I stared at her through narrowed eyes, skeptical of her purpose. “Why have you interrupted my work by masquerading as a shaman?” Her eyes remained wide and focused on me, “I am a shaman, and I’m here to talk with you.”
I laughed, “Is Askal trying to play some kind of joke? There are no female shaman in the Flame Legion.”
She remained unmoved. Decades of sizing up my enemies fed her to me wholly. Strong. Independent. Definitely had something to prove. Felt threatened, but by what?
“It’s fortunate for me then that I’m not in the Flame Legion.” I immediately drew my pistol from my belt and pointed it at her chest. Reflexively, she raised a single arm in protest and shrunk backwards. “But my father was, and I am not an ally of the Black Citadel.”
My weapon remained, unmoved.
Carefully, she continued to speak. “What matters isn’t who I am, though. The point of this is to warn you.”
“The Black Citadel is launching an offensive against the Citadel of Flame, and they’ve deployed their shaman against us.”
My eyes narrowed as I bared my teeth. Did she really expect me to believe that the Black Citadel was using its own shaman now? “I don’t believe it, they would never turn to magic.”
“They aren’t; they’re just using him as a weapon. And a brutally effective one, at that. Just yesterday, he massacred a scouting company on the southern border of Fireheart Rise.”
I leaned back in my seat, pistol still readied, calculating. “Did he ambush them?”
She shook her head, “They ambushed him and a column of Iron Legion tanks. He picked the entire attacking force up with elemental magic and crushed them to death inside their own armor.”
“Why does this matter to me?”
She took a step forward, lowering her hand as she did. “The shamans are about to redeploy you to defend the Citadel of Flame. They’re going to send you against the magic-user.”
I roared as I leapt to my feet, kicking my chair aside. Didn’t I fight for them? Didn’t I bleed for them? Hasn’t my sacrifice been enough?
The sum of blood remains unfulfilled.
I turned back to the female, “Why would you tell me all of this!”
“Because, I want to come with you.”
“Why would you want to march to war? Do you know what horrors await you there?”
“Respectfully, none greater than the ones behind me.” There was her nerve, showing once again. She would not be deterred.
I looked her lithe form over once more, compact and muscular, while still retaining a disarming thinness. The body of a fighter. The way her legs stayed bent underneath betrayed her to me; her weakness was a feint. Cunning.
“What’s your name?”
Unusual name. No warband. Gladium.
“Where’d you get that surname?”
“I chose it for myself after my father died.”
“And who was your father?”