The Beast Without
The air was still as Lechim made his way towards the commander's tent. He brushed caked mud off his arms, leaving a trail of dried crust behind him as he walked. The sun remained hidden behind the yellow clouds that had scarred Valdac's sky ever since the Change. To himself, Lechim wondered what it was like for the range flights who forayed in the east, outside of the country, seeing the sun, blue skies, clean rain...
But then he came to the tent, where guards nodded and motioned for him to enter. Lechim felt heckles riding up his tail - every time he had to give a report to the flight commander, the same feeling. Sensibilities of his life Before remained: the commander was large, hulking even, all corded muscle and sinew underneath the green scales and fins. Lechim's fears about making a report were never so much about being reprimanded for failing procedure as they were a fear of getting torn in half by an angered commander.
"Report, Lechim." Just because the hulk was sitting at a desk, his eyes poring over written reports, didn't make him any less frightening.
Lechim straightened and saluted the commander before he began. "The town is abandoned, sir, but it looks like a few inhabitants remain near the Alannan shrine. The outer walls are -"
"How did they look?"
Lechim stumbled over his words for a breath. "The walls, commander?"
The commander looked up from the parchment he was reading, the scales on his face taut. "The people at the shrine, Lance-Sergeant."
"Oh. They weren't... Changed, sir."
The commander rolled up the parchment he was reading as he stood up, and nodded. "That confirms our earlier reports. Lieutenant Korbe!"
Korbe entered from outside the tent, coming to stand next to Lechim. While they weren't in the same unit, Lechim had fought alongside him once or twice in some of the bigger battles their flight had taken.
"Your clutch will secure the town. Lance-Sergeant Lechim will act as your forward scout and help eliminate any opposition. You leave at first light tomorrow."
There was a cough from a corner of the tent. Lechim looked over his shoulder and saw a short, hunched figure in black robes holding a coloured handkerchief to his oversized mouth.
Oh, right. The skeezick. Lechim did his best to contain his disgust - not just because the little slaver stank like rot, but because he tended to throw his weight around the camp. The commander, and more importantly the Broodlords, had made it clear that the skeezick noblemen called �tribunes' were to be treated with deference to their station as a major part of the auxiliary. Which was a polite way of letting the skeezick induct any captured civilians into their slave-camps.
"Commander," the beady-eyed little creature cackled, "would you please direct your soldiers to be a bit gentler with our prisoners this time? Any that require extensive healing tend to be less effective in the labour camps."
The commander nodded, and Lechim suspected he didn't like the skeezick any more than the soldiers did. "You heard the Tribune. Minimalize casualties as best you can, but any armed resistance should be put down decisively. Dismissed."
As he settled in after his evening watch, Lechim sat on a log and fished into his musette bag for the army post officer's tube he'd discovered in the town during his scouting run earlier. It was a habit he'd picked up at the beginning of his tour - something to help him pass the time between watches, marches, battles...
As he read through his most recent discoveries, he found the letters entertaining. A few, at least. Some of the letters didn't make much sense to him, speaking very specifically about issues at home, or issues on the front. All in all, they were letters from Before, about people who didn't know about the Change coming, or how the Change would make everything different. It was queer to read about people talking about peacetime, to talk about war as a disruption of the daily life. Lechim didn't understand that - the march was life for him, even since the Change. Now he was a soldier - he didn't lack for excitement in his life. Peace sounded so empty of purpose...
One caught his eye because it was quite long, written hurriedly, with lines scribbled out, and senseless words here and there. Lechim himself only knew how to read through the grace of the Alannan abbot of his orphanage. The way it started out... "Our chaplain was killed in battle, so I have no one to confess to..." Lechim realized suddenly that with the occasional presence of a Black Dragon Acolyte, the draksar armies lacked chaplains. Immediately he was engrossed in the letter...
Our chaplain died in the last battle, so I have no one to confess to. Yet even as I write this, I feel soiled, awash with blood, unable to cleanse myself of the horrors I've seen. I hope that by confessing these sins to you, even if the message takes weeks to be received, I will be forgiven, and will feel the grace of Holy Alanna lift my spirits.
I have fought in two battles against the Elsarin forces so far, as an infantryman armed with spear and shield. In the latest battle, my company stood in reserve as the King's 2nd Armored Corps rode in the vanguard against the enemy. But before I knew it, my companions and I were running down the hill, battle-cries on our lips, spears lowered, until at last we crashed into the side of the Elsarin lines.
In my first battle, I was on the outside of the lines, and did not truly enter combat, but now I was amongst the first in. In the madness of this second fray, I could do little more than thrust my spear blindly, praying I did not strike an ally. Before me, an Elsari fighter brought his mighty greatsword down on a soldier who had run down the hill next to me, and cleaved through his armor like it wasn't there. As the enemy drew his sword out, I saw blood spill out of my friend, staining the ground. Then the Elsari soldier rounded on me. With a scream, I gripped my spear with both hands, and with a thrust I drove the point of my spear through his breastplate. The sword fell from his hands, and I screamed again, like a beast, continuing to push forward, and he fell backwards onto the wet ground. His helmet went tumbling away as his body sprawled lifelessly, and the dead eyes of a boy, one of my own age, stared at me from below.
The rest of the battle lasted only moments; the Elsari commanders sounded a retreat, and no other enemies came to strike at me standing still, breath heaving, as I locked gazes with the corpse of my slain foe.
I know that I am a soldier, fighting for King and country, loyal to the bone. But in that moment I felt fear creep into my heart, a bitter fear that what I had done was not noble combat in the name of honor, but murder. Bloody, sinful murder. I looked about me as my surviving comrades cheered the enemies' retreat, and could not bring myself to exult with them. My eyes stayed low, seeing the bodies of Valdakki and Elsari alike, and I felt all my will to live or fight leave me.
Words don't truly express the terror I felt. I might easily meet the same fate of the soldier I killed. In the midst of battle, who can truly call himself a thinking man? Who amongst those who lived were any more than dogs who bit before being bitten? Then I am nothing more than a murderous dog.
I hope this letter reaches you in good health, Father, and I pray that any response you send reaches me before I must face battle again. I pray every night for forgiveness, every waking moment that I may find some manner of absolution...
Hopefully Yours in Holy Alanna's Love and Grace,
Lechim's eyes scanned over the words ponderously - he could read, but not quickly, and night had taken much of the light. He reached the end of the letter, and reflected for a moment: absolution? Why would a soldier need...
"What's that, Sarge?"
Lechim looked up at the voice. Another private from his clutch, sitting nearby, was looking up from his roasted haunch of meat, idle curiosity in his eyes.
"Just something I found while surveying that town." Lechim replied. "You want to read it?"
The private, Sallhider, laughed at that. "I was a farmer Before; never learned that. What's it about?"
Lechim answered quickly. "Some soldier gets all teary about killing a guy on the field. It's a letter to his priest."
"Ha! How old is that thing?"
Lechim looked up at the date. "It's from Before."
"That's a laugh. It's the same now as it was then: they give us a spear, tell us to punch holes in the enemy. The only thing that changes is that it's dwarves now. Might be elves next week, or centaurs. Who cares?"
"Gods' teeth," said another private loudly, though Lechim couldn't place his name, "I can't stand the centaur. You can't even see them on the battlefield and they're already raining arrows on you. Can't even fight hand to hand, the bunch of cowards."
This caused the archers from the next clutch over to pitch a few insults about the lance-infantry. More soldiers joined in - the letter that started the conversation was forgotten, and Lechim, laughing, tucked it back into the post tube while a scuffle developed between the two units.
It was still dark when Lechim's eyes opened. Korbe had fetched him first, and the two of them went about kicking the rest of the clutch off their sleeping rolls, getting no small number of muttered curses thrown at them. The dim dawn light made hunching shadows out of every walking soldier as they quietly gathered gear and collected themselves a cold breakfast from the quartermaster.
As the light grew stronger, Lechim drew a rough outline of the town in the sand, pointing out where he'd seen a few habitations in the outer town, and noted the points of entry that would best work for the clutch. Korbe approved of a frontal assault, moving directly from the outer edge of the town towards the Alannan shrine, as quick and decisive a victory as possible.
Korbe communicated this to his troops quickly, having each six-lance unit examine Lechim's map. "Light armor, boys, and close-combat arms. This is capture the flag, not black reaper, so subdue enemies unless they resist with weaponry. Everyone hauls at least one wide net with them, is that clear?"
Shortly they moved out of the main camp, armed with combat spears and swords. The thirty draks of Korbe's clutch cast no shadows as they ran across the plain towards the town, the morning sun still dimmed behind the sick clouds. No throaty battlecries, no whooping or hollering. They were soldiers, there to do a job.
Lechim ran at their head, head low, tail bobbing behind him as he dashed forward, eventually reaching the forward walls. He motioned upward, and three of Korbe's soldiers cupped their hand to vault Lechim and two others up on top of the wall. Just as quickly, Lechim and his escorts dropped from the wall on the other side and saw no one about. A few hurried steps to the gates, remove the crossbar, inch it open...
...and the draksar invaded the town in a hush. Drab houses rose around them, dark inside with boarded windows and doors. The column of soldiers split into two, ascending along both sides of the town's main street, driving forward like two dark green veins towards the heart of the town.
Lechim continued running with his spear low, eyes darting every direction. The sound of the soldiers tromping behind echoed in his ears, terrifying, as though every step threatened to reveal a dwarven ambush. He would splay a number of fingers and point, dispatching that many soldiers to secure certain houses and other points as he continued to advance, Korbe at his back and the rest of his clutch coming up behind.
Lechim paused at the entrance to the Alannan shrine compound. There was no need to overleap the high wooden fence here, as the entrance was open, inviting, but Lechim had heard voices, and Korbe ordered silence with a swift hand command. The soldiers inched carefully to the shrine's outer fence, Korbe with half of the troops on one side of the entrance, Lechim on the other with the rest. Lechim met Korbe's look, and they both snuck looks into the shrine compound, seeing no motion but still hearing voices. They communicated with hand gestures to plot their assault:
Lechim's hands moved quickly but carefully as they motioned: I'll enter and go right. My half will cover the shrine's east side as I approach the rear entrance.
Korbe nodded and gestured back: I'll enter and cover the west side, and then enter the shrine building's front entrance after a ten-count. Move on my signal.
Lechim signaled an affirmative, then leaned against the wall to signal orders back to his line. He looked back to Korbe when he was done, and saw the lieutenant had done the same. Korbe crept his eyes around the wall again to get a look, then raised his fist. Tense heartbeats passed. The dawn light was as strong as it would get - were the sky not still cloaked in yellow clouds, the sunlight would be shining on them directly, pure and clean... Lechim looked away, towards Korbe, ready.
Korbe's fist came down, and as one he and Lechim rose and ran through the entryway, twin trains of drak soldiers trailing behind them. Lechim saw no one as he rounded the wall and headed towards the southeast corner of the red-trimmed shrine.
Lechim's head darted around the corner and saw nothing, and he dashed along the wall of the shrine once more, his two escorts barely a hair behind him. Between the outside of the shrine's red wooden wall and the high fence that edged the compound, granite gravestones stood etched with symbols of the dragon-goddess Alanna the White, the Forgiver of Sins, whom all Valdakki appealed to at death. They ran through the graveyard with little regard to the dead that lay buried beneath their clawed feet.
Three-count, four-count, five-count...
Lechim heard a muffled shout somewhere behind him. He stopped again at the northeast corner and saw no one behind the shrine building, as expected. The graveyard stopped short of the wall, though some earth lay disturbed - fresh bodies had been buried, but no stones marked the graves yet.
Six-count, seven-count, eight-count...
Lechim ducked around the corner again, his line behind him. He splayed three fingers and pointed at the supply buildings that stood at the far end of the shrine's northern yard. The wall here, made of thick layers of paper decorated with depictions of White Alanna weaving serpentine through an off-white sky, was set back from the yard, under a red awning that hung over an open porch that ran the length of the shrine. Lechim hopped onto this porch and moved to the door that faced north, left hand poised to slide it open. He pointed to the two soldiers nearest him and gestured that once he opened the door, they'd enter first to secure the room. Two nods responded.
He threw open the door. Two draksar rushed past him, and he turned and followed behind. Screams could be heard through the paper walls of the shrine as Korbe and his men entered from the front, and Lechim was quick to distribute orders with words rather than gestures. Lechim himself made his way in towards the shrine's sanctuary hall.
More screams - none of the people in the shrine would have weaponry, but some fools must be resisting anyway. Lechim heard a shuffle in a small room as he passed, and immediately turned to slash up with his spear, cleaving the paper wall apart and stepping through a rare image of the Black Dragon in repose.
A middle-aged man stood stooped over a chest before him, a rusted-looking old flail in his left hand, garbed in the purple robes of an Alannan cleric. The man's face was the normal-looking pink of one who was had not Changed, but the hand holding the flail was a darker color, covered in scales, nails blackened and sharp, just as Lechim's had become.
The flail rose up, the steel ball arcing as the cleric swung it towards Lechim's head. Effortlessly, Lechim caught the weak swing around his spear and yanked the flail from the man's hands, then raised the butt of his spear to poke him in the chest. The cleric slammed back against the desk that filled most of the small office, stunned, as Lechim recovered and leveled his spear. The priest looked back to the rear door of the office, which Lechim quickly assessed led to the sanctuary hall, but saw it closed, and the draksar far too close to let him escape through it.
"Holy Mother Alanna, blessed and pure," the priest began to pray, eyes closed against the point that hovered scant inches from his chest.
"Hold your tongue if you want to keep it, priest," Lechim said, but the priest continued on.
"...take your child and servant Nash into your loving embrace, to safeguard him against plague, war, pestilence and sinful death..."
Bloody, sinful murder... memories of the confessor's letter flooded back into Lechim's mind as he stood there. This was the man for whom that letter was intended. Father Nash...
A thousand thoughts roiled through Lechim's mind. The confessor's letter had spoken so passionately of forgiveness, seeking so hard for absolution - all of that desire directed towards a now-silent god, but funneled in a way towards this man, this priest. That confessor had hinged his spiritual well-being on Nash's response, a response that would never come because the request had never found him. What could Lechim say, certain that the confessor had died wondering if both his god and his trusted priest had abandoned him to the horror of war?
The priest finished his prayer, and fell silent, noting the sudden change in Lechim's demeanor, his spear point drooping, less ready to strike suddenly. The draksar didn't notice Nash surreptitiously reaching behind to grasp something, but then the cleric wasn't subtle when he screamed. With a lurch he came forward, a wide-bladed short-sword in his hand, hacking down through Lechim's forearm, right below the elbow.
Lechim, brought out of his confusion, looked up from where his arm fell lifelessly to the ground, and growled. The cleric, at first satisfied that he had struck such a blow, now looked at the soldier with wide eyes. Lechim's left arm grabbed the robes around Nash's thick neck and heaved, and the screaming cleric burst through the paper wall into the sanctuary, his body sprawling heavily across the smooth wooden floor. Lechim stalked after him, blood dripping from the stump of his right arm. With an awkward motion, he drew his shortsword from his belt in his left land and raised it up.
The cleric looked up at him, raising his arm to ward off the blow, muttering something about mercy or grace that Lechim didn't hear. Lechim knelt and stabbed down, pinning the cleric's arm to his chest with the blade. With a gurgle, the cleric writhed briefly before going limp.
Lechim left the sword there for now, looking around at the terrified faces of Alanna worshippers that gaped now at him. Korbe and his half of the clutch had subdued most of them, but Lechim noticed some signs of struggle. Those who struggled had stopped when he had kicked the cleric in, and now the scores of people were stunned at the sight of Nash, on the floor of the shrine below the very visage of Holy Alanna, his body bleeding and dead.
Lechim saw terror in the faces of those who had not Changed, pink skins looking at him from under the watchful eye of Korbe's draks. Lechim felt a twinge in his arm and blinked, and looked down at the stump, realizing for the first time the pain it held. Lechim's eyes then went back to the floor, to what he had just done on simple instinct.
"Report, Lance-Sergeant," Korbe said as he approached, snapping Lechim's eyes back from the dead cleric on the floor.
"The rear of the shrine is secure, Lieutenant."
Korbe nodded and looked down at the body as well. "Good show of force on the priest, Lechim. Would have been too old for the camps anyway. Looks like he got a hit on you, though..." With that he motioned to Lechim's stump, and looked up for an explanation.
"I knew this priest, Lieutenant. From Before." It was a lie, but it would take too long to explain anything else.
"I wanted to question him, discover if he knew of any hidden caches, or if he was being aided by Ironfist. I hoped to use our past relationship to -"
"Well, never mind it now. My clutch will secure things here. Go pick up your arm, and report back to the commander. Then get to the chirurgeons, see if they can't stitch that back on. You ever had to grow one back completely?"
"No, I haven't."
"Hurts like a devil. Count yourself lucky it's a clean cut."
Lechim nodded and headed back into the office, and picked his unmoving arm and the spear it still clutched from the floor. He stalked through the sanctuary again, and smelled something.
The skeezick Tribune had emerged with a pair of hulking baiters escorting him, clanking with manacles to chain the newfound slaves with. Lechim bent over, putting his spear on the ground in order to draw his sword out of the cleric's body, but then looked up to see the Tribune standing before him.
"How regrettable," the skeezick cackled, "Alannan priests are often very good at keeping the masses pacified with all their talk of grace and salvation. I suppose you had no choice, Lance-Sergeant?"
"No, Tribune. I'm sorry, Tribune."
"Don't worry yourself too much. They'll still work, even if they are hopeless. You have done well today, Lance-Sergeant. Should you ever look to leave your commission, we would have work for you in the Auxiliary in Waldis."
He meant the slave camps. Lechim watched as the baiters went about their work of clapping irons on the captives while Korbe and his clutch looked on. Many of them still stared tearfully at the dead priest, and more than a few looked up at Lechim not with terror, but with a powerful, nearly tangible hate.
"Thank you, Tribune, but my place is in the field."
"To each his own then," the Tribune said carelessly, "we all serve the Broodqueens in our own way, yes?"
Lechim said nothing in return, and made his way out of the shrine.