Heartless, Chapter 1

Chapter 1:

The warmskins say we have no compassion, no understanding, no empathy. This isn’t true. What we do to them and what we feel are two separate things. Often, we want to spare their lives. But it’s not like we have a choice.”

-letters of Draken Victor Vivendas, after the slaughter of Bollager’s Keep

~

Dead horses made poor mounts.

Such a statement might seem axiomatic to the vast majority of the planet, but it was no less true of those beasts that had been Reborn, brought into a rotting existence to serve as beasts of burden for their lifeless masters. Among the peasantry and rabble of the warmskins, there was the persistent image of the undead riding to battle on a decaying mount, flesh hanging off in strips, bones showing through fetid skin and rotted muscles, eyes glistening with the fell power that animated their bodies and gave man and beast their unnatural existence. True, that vision was not without cause. Many of the undead did use mounts such as that, but both horse and rider were chattel. Clever thinking was not a trademark of the lower Reborn and there was no point investing in a mount whose entire purpose was to suck as many arrows as possible away from the more valuable elements of the army.

Pyres and Coldbloods did not ride dead animals. They were saddled upon drakes. Evil, foul-tempered lizards with armoured scales, powerful limbs and teeth and claws like knives. These beasts only abided the touch of the undead. Some tales whispered that Nekerya, the goddess of death, had coupled with a dragon and that drakes were the children of that grotesque union; gifted with the goddess’s malice and hatred of the living, and the maddening, ravenous hunger of their sire. Hundreds of the hissing creatures now bore their riders through the mud and unseasonal snowfall of a temperature forest, with hundreds more decaying horses staggering alongside, carrying decomposing riders and hauling the wagons and train of a force thousand strong.

Upon one of former rode Betrayer, the master of this fell army. Even without the baroque armour and terrifying death-helm he wore, he was a tall, imposing figure. In life, he had been known as Marcus Levinus of Sardilla Province, one of the Dynasty’s blessed soldiers, a leader of men, proud and strong, but that name, that very existence, was all but lost to him now.

Now, he was a Coldblood noble and a ranking general in the Harvestman’s host. When he had been Reborn, he had been granted a more fitting title. Nekerya had, through Her most imperfect vessel (though none would say such things in the presence of said vessel), blessed him and elevated him to one of Her most beloved children. Unlike the lower orders of Lifeless, there was not a trace of rot or decay upon him or any of his fellow Coldbloods. Beneath his horned helmet were the angled, noble features of a young man of Sardilla, the duskiness of his skin sapped to a deathly pallor, the green of his eyes replaced with the azure gleam inherent to all Coldblood. When his heart deigned to beat at all, it twitched weakly inside his chest. When he breathed, it was from reflex and not necessity.

Beside him rode Coryphée, a fellow general. Like him, she had had different name and station when she had been alive. Death had not taken one iota of her natural beauty, though like Betrayer, her flesh had greyed and cooled with her Rebirth. Instead of the olive hues of a native Abidan, her skin was the colour of a corpse. She wore no helmet and her raven hair, flecked with snow, hung down her back. She regarded him cooly. In life, her eyes had been a vivid, luscious brown. Now they shone with the same faint blue fire as his.

“Temperature’s dropping,” she observed redundantly. Not that it mattered to either of them. Or any of the soldiers forging through the choking blizzard. Had they been living flesh and bone, dozens, perhaps hundreds, would have died by now from the cold, but they were Lifeless and the Seventh Host trudged relentlessly through the unexpected snowstorm that whipped at them, thousands of feet marching in perfect unison through a dead forest.

“It is,” Betrayer confirmed, his eyes never deviating from the path that lay before them. “But our lord insists that we make Fallow Bridge by noon tomorrow.”

Coryphée closed her eyes for a moment, gathering her thoughts. “The blizzard is stronger than expected,” she said. “Draken Rencisis is reporting that the bonewalkers are getting bogged down and our pikes won’t make it much further.” A wry smile touched the undead woman’s exotic features. “I don’t think the little bitch wants us to pay her mother’s vassals a visit.” The goddess of nature, Demesis loathed Nekerya and all Her children. It was small wonder then, that invading Hosts attempting to cross into the Dynasty-held lands of Alven and Kanas often found themselves besieged by inexplicable and fierce weather. Or the inclimate storms could simply be blowing down from the great peaks of the Vawlstone Mountains that dominated the southern horizon. In either event, Alven’s frequently bizarre weather patterns made campaigning within the province difficult.

A spray of snow and a looming shadow heralded the arrival of the host’s third general as Ursid galloped up to Betrayer’s left side, the massive Coldblood’s thick fur cloak covered in snow. His mount, a foul-tempered beast even by drake standards, hissed and growled in discomfort at the cold, but the animal could no more freeze to death than could its rider. “It’s getting harder to press through this shit,” he grunted by way of greeting, confirming Coryphée’s report. He wiped snow from his mouth with the back of one hand, but the gesture accomplished little. Within seconds, his thick beard was again peppered with white flakes.

Betrayer nodded. “Where’s Canticle?”

Ursid growled from deep in his chest; in his former life, he had been a Northman of the Windfang tribe and he easily had size over both his comrades. With the bloodstained cloak that he never went into battle without and his echoing roars, to mortals he truly appeared as his namesake. “The siege train is getting mired in the mud we’re leaving – she’s helping to pull them out.”

“We won’t make it much farther tonight,” Coryphée advised. “I know our lord’s wishes, but it’s better that we start out in the morning with clear skies than get bogged down in this weather.”

The big man grunted again, the only sound he really ever made when not in battle. “Unless that tight-cunted bitch decides to snow us in.” He spat on the ground. The Northmen had little use for the faith of the southern mainland and the praise their would-be targets offered to Demesis for the storms and squalls that sunk Northern raids did little to endear Ambre’s daughter to them. After he’d been Reborn, Ursid had only exchanged Nekerya for the pagan gods of his upbringing, keeping his contempt for the ‘soft women’ that the Dynasty worshipped. “I say we should push on. It’s only going to cost us some bonewalkers and shamblers to keep going – we can replenish them easy enough.”

Betrayer turned his helm towards the larger man. “What does Canticle say?”

The former barbarian snorted. “Even with her spells, her precious armour is covered in mud – what do you think her vote is?”

Marcus considered briefly. “We can’t afford to lose the siege train, not if the Alvenians have managed to make it to Temple Consect before us.”

“If we cut it loose, we can force march through the blizzard – we might catch them before they can bunker up.”

“And if we don’t,” Coryphée snapped, “we’ll have only three thousand of our archers against two thousand of the enemy’s – and all the siege weapons Temple Consect has. If we double back to get our train, the defenders can send for help and without it, we can’t take a Temple!”

“Says you,” grunted Ursid. “Get me to the front gates and I’ll have them down in no time.”

“As I recall,” Coryphée sneered, “the last time you said that, Canticle had to resurrect you and took a dozen arrows in the process.” An ugly little smile crept across her lips. “But maybe you’re right. Maybe you should try that again.” She hated the barbarous Coldblood and each time he flung himself at the enemy, she eagerly hoped that this would be the time that he did not come back. Sadly, Ursid was not only skilled, but on the very rare occasions that his enthusiasm excedded his ability, he remained remarkably hard to keep dead. Nekerya obviously had some plan for Her brutish champion. Either that, or the goddess simply enjoyed the carnage he left in his wake.

Urside growled, rounding on the smaller woman. Rebirth had given her a sharp tongue and she used it far too often for his liking. Not in the way he’d prefer. “Maybe you should try sucking my-”

“Quiet, both of you.” Betrayer silenced his bickering companions with a curt gesture. “We can’t leave the siege train behind. We bivouac. Have the scouts find a suitable location. Coryphée, send one of your riders to inform our lord.” He had no sooner finished relaying his orders than a messenger staggered through the slush; a blood-drinker from Draken Celvin’s company.

“My lord,” the pyre wheezed breathlessly, saluting his liege. The undead had far less need to breathe than mortal men, but drinkers still occasionally needed to respire and even to them, the cold air was unpleasant to inhale. “Draken Celvin requests your immediate presence – he’s discovered something that you must see.” The urgency of the junior officer’s request was a crackling aurora that each of the assembled generals could sense.

“Show me,” Betrayer snapped, gesturing for his fellow Coldbloods to follow. He spurred his mount onwards, Keldare snarling against the cold. Marcus patted the animal on his neck and the drake’s vocal protests dropped slightly in volume.

The snow was thickening and the clouds were tightening, obscuring the few trickles of moonlight that had made it through the forest’s canopy. By the time the undead generals reached Draken Celvin’s position, it was almost impossible to see more than a handspan in front of one’s face, the wind lashing them even more fiercely as if attempting to prevent their progress.

The crackle of flames soon chased away the cloying darkness as the Coldbloods reached their destination, soot and ash mingling with the driving snow. Betrayer climbed off his drake, Keldare hissing as he watched the wind catch a double-handful of burning straw, carrying it into the frigid summer air.

What had once been some quaint, nameless town hidden within the woods was now an abattoir, houses put to the torch, aimless tracks winding back and forth as the inhabitants had run about in blind terror, crimson patches of soil and snow marking where they had fallen. The wind shifted and Betrayer inhaled the familiar scent of death.

He looked over at his companions. “There were no villages on our charts of this area.”

Waiting for his lords’ arrival, Draken Celvin was already dismounted, the pyre officer bowing to one knee before the Coldbloods. “My lords,” he said in greeting, answering Betrayer’s comment. “No, there was no record of this town on any of our maps. One of our scouting parties searching for a fording position along the river became disoriented in the blizzard and stumbled across it. We’ve only just begun securing the area, but so far we have found no survivors.”

Coryphée ignored the officer’s report, dismounting her steed and kneeling by a ruined house; it hadn’t been set on fire, but the door was smashed in and the tracks in the snow indicated that someone had been dragged from the building. Copious amounts of blood were spattered across the ground and the scent of it was thick in the air. Behind the nobles, the drakes whined as the wind carried the smell to them. “This village has been here for years,” the female Coldblood observed. “But this slaughter is fresh.” She trailed her fingers through a spray of blood. Even with the cold, it was still tacky. “Less than an hour old. I would guess it ended shortly before your scouts stumbled over it. Tell me,” her voice lowered, growing harder. “How was this not noticed?”

“The forest thickens through this area, milady,” the pyre officer replied carefully. Reconnaissance fell under Coryphée’s purview and if the army’s scouts could miss not only an entire village, but the slaughter of its inhabitants then it reflected poorly on her. “Our scouts were attempting to re-trace their path to the Host when they noticed the fire.” He shifted uncomfortably, anticipating the next question. “They did not see anyone fleeing the scene.”

“Of course they didn’t,” Ursid growled, smirking at Coryphée. “Seems like it’d be too much to ask.”

A quick glance at Betrayer caused the woman to swallow the first comment that came to mind. “What I mean, draken,” she said instead. “That this forest has had traders passing through it for a hundred years and the village isn’t on any map.” She’d studied each and every one of them herself in assisting Betrayer plan for the advance through the region. She’d had Canticle create blood maps from the soldiers and traders they’d captured. Nothing had indicated that there was a settlement here.

“Then we have a mystery,” Betrayer observed. He examined the scene; it was not an overly large village – perhaps a hundred inhabitants, though there were none now. Every house had been dealt some violence, from smashed windows and doors. Torches and lanterns had set fires that even the blizzard was struggling to exstinguish, but if the spread of flames had been done on purpose by the attackers, or was the result of panic from defenders and civilians was impossible to say.

The violence was chaotic, he realized as he lifted a discarded scythe, the hilt of the makeshift weapon smeared with bloody fingerprints. There was no plan, no organization in this butchery, just indulgence. Bandits? This far from the Dynasty’s armies, brigands were known to grow bold and attack villages. The largest of these bandit clans might even lay siege to the smaller Temples, but none of them possessed the skill to elude his scouts, even in a blizzard. So soon after their attack, there should be some trace of the perpetrators, but there was nothing that he could see.

One of the houses caught his attention; several fleshwalkers clustered about it, crude weapons clutched in their hands. A pair of them were scrabbling at the wreckage. They’d caught on fire, too stupid to realize that they had gotten too close to the burning house. With a single sword strike each, he put them down, lest they wander back to their unit and set the rest of them ablaze. Curious, though; they only congregated when they sensed living meat.

He paused, trying to determine what it was that the zombies had spied, but he saw nothing, the fleshwalkers continuing to circle the house in a dullminded attempt to find egress through the flames, thought at least these ones were smart enough not to emulate their fellows. Then, just above the howling of the wind, he heard it – a child’s cry, coming from the second story of the burning building.

When he had been Marcus Levinus, he had not been a particularly expressive person – his friends and enemies alike would have testified to his cold demeanor. Nor did the ‘noble title’ that the Harvestman had bestowed upon him speak well of his actions while alive. Being Reborn had done little to change that. But unlike the gossip and superstition that spread throughout the land about them, Coldbloods did have emotions. It was simply that all too often their past lives and the circumstances of their Rebirth burned it out of them.

He would never know why he did it – whether he was acting upon some impulse from another life or some unseen fate had guided his hand – but upon hearing the plaintive wail for help that would never come, Marcus Levinus, now Betrayer to the armies of the Harvestman and the people of Sardilla, smashed through the dwelling’s locked door.

The flames were all around him, but he paid them no mind. The fire held no more fear for him than had the night’s lethal cold. If he caught ablaze, there would be more than enough time to put it out before he was destroyed. Through the smoke and jumping flames, he could make out precious few details; a window burst inwards and a charred figure slumped against the wall opposite the broken casement, a spear through its chest. The first, and only corpse in the whole of the village so far. Curious. Why hadn’t this one been taken? Not enough time, perhaps?

The cries came from upstairs. Ancient timbers, weakened by the fire, creaked and threatened to buckle under his feet, but Coryphée had been right; whoever had destroyed this village had fled bare moments before Draken Celvin’s scouts had arrived, likely spooked by the undeads’ approach. Marcus’ eyes watered through the smoke, the choking haze making it nearly impossible to see; luckily one of the gifts of Rebirth was soul-sight, the ability to see not as the living, but as specters and wraiths did, through the effects that the living and their works left upon the shadow world. Philosophers – dead and living alike – had debated the reason for this for centuries. The bluntest explanation was that it allowed them to better find and kill the living. A different sugegstion was that it was touch of the divine: to see, even partially, how their goddess viewed the world.

Bonewalkers and fleshwalkers – those creatures that were otherwise called ‘skeletons’ and ‘zombies’ – often relied entirely upon this vision, for with rotting or nonexistent eyes they had no other means of sight, though it served them poorly. They were easily confused and without a Coldblood’s will driving them, could miss mortals cowering meters away, though Nekerya alone knew how. Ghouls were better in this regard, though not by much. They used their sight to track their prey across miles, often singling out a specific individual and stalking them to the exclusion of all others.

Pyres and Coldblood had the most refined versions of this gift, able to not only see the warmth of their prey’s bodies, but the changes that different emotions and sensations brought. Fear was the most common and it was fear that guided Betrayer through the wreckage of the collapsing house.

There. Through a locked closet, he could see the flickering embers of a terrified child’s soul. A form lay in front of it, gleaming, but slowly fading with the echo of a recent and brutal death, a sickle buried in its back. Its clothes had caught fire and the smell of roasting meat was thick in the air. It had been a woman. A kitchen knife had fallen from her outstretched hand. She had died trying to keep her attackers from the room.

The closet’s wooden frame was engraved with scrollery of a type the Coldblood had never seen before. Probably a local dialect, prayers of home and hearth to Ambre. The doors themselves were heavy, with a solid lock that would have defied any easy attempts to break in. Someone had tried, though. There were scratches across the surface as if something had tried to claw its way into through the locked doors. Another oddity.

Even stranger was that they hadn’t been able to get through the door. Maybe they hadn’t had the time. The Host’s scouts must have been upon the village by this point. Marking another victim to their tally must not have been worth crossing swords with the undead. Marcus wrappewd his hands around the door handles. The closet’s construction was firm and even with the fire, it would not have bowed easily to any man’s efforts to force it open. Those blessed by Nekerya, however, were given strength beyond what they had possessed in life and with one motion, Betrayer ripped the doors free. Something screamed and burrowed deeper into the closet, a young girl.

Abruptly aware of how he must appear, the Coldblood also realized that he had no idea how to deal with a terrified child. In the most soothing tone he could muster, he reached out his hand. “It’s all right. I’ll get you out of here. Just… come with me.”

The girl’s aura spiked and flashed with terror, her tearing eyes wide as she gaped at the monster that had just appeared before her. “Come with me,” Marcus said. “We have to leave. It’s not safe here any longer. Take my hand.” The next words he said were from another life: “I’ll protect you.”

She had no reason to trust him. No reason not to think that he wasn’t the one who had killed everyone here and set her home ablaze. He’d done far worse.

The girl was frozen for a few seconds, but then she made her decision and crawled towards him, perhaps spurred by the flames eating away at her hiding place. Taking her hand in his, Marcus turned back to the stairs, but before he could reach them, the fire had its say and the staircase collapsed, crashing through the floor and opening a burning hole into the cellar. He could survive long enough to find another way out but the girl was already choking on the thick smoke filling the house.

There was window nearby, the glass cracked and scored from the heat, but still intact. It would have to do. Ripping his cloak from his back, he wrapped her up in it and lifted her, whispering hopefully comforting words. “Hold tight,” he cautioned. Her tiny arms clutched to his armoured chest as she coughed and sobbed. He ran, the floor starting to give way beneath him.

The window shattered. A burst of flame, smoking embers and glass shards followed the Coldblood out into the howling night and from there, down to the hard ground below.

~

Regaining his senses from the impact, the first thing Marcus was aware of was the heart beating against his chest. Not his heart. More dead then not, when it chose to beat, it was never loud enough to be heard or felt. A heartbeat meant life. It meant that the girl had survived.

As he stared up at the glowing orange clouds above the burning village, Coryphée leaned into his field of view. She seemed caught between trying to feign being unimpressed and genuine amusement. “I didn’t know you were that hungry,” she quipped.

“I’m not.” He stood, letting the girl down to the ground, still wrapped in his cloak. She gasped and clutched tightly to his leg upon upon seeing the horde of unblinking eyes staring back at her. The nearest fleshwalker unit moaned hungrily, but did not advance.

Ursid grunted with obvious disapproval. “Well, you’ve gone and rescued a helpless little warmskin babe. Congratulations, Betrayer. What do you plan on doing with her?”

Marcus stared down at the bundle of life attached to his leg, the girl looking up to meet his eyes; there was trepidation and fear in those wide green eyes but, curiously, not the stark terror he had expected. What was he going to do with her?

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