Heartless, Chapter 2

Chapter 2:

They came at first light, unafraid of the sun’s rays. Ambre above, the stench that wafted to us as the day rose hotter! Vile birds circled above their ranks, eager for carrion, but not daring too close, lest rotting fingers and gaping mouths full of worn teeth snatch them from the air.”

-Ten Arthur Gavinson’s report of the fall of Sekon

~

Their master came to visit them in the mid-afternoon, as fleshwalkers, ghouls and pyres dug earthworks and readied row upon row of cannon for the siege of Temple Consect. He studied the legion before him, the elite of the Seventh Host on bended kne. His honour guard surveyed the milieu around them with trained killers’ eyes, considering everything and everyone a potential threat to their liege – most especially his own generals. Fell weapons gleamed as the praetorians’ sapphire eyes appraised each of the four kneeling supplicants in terms of how they swiftly they could be dispatched. Their caution was not without reason: hatred, impotency and cold, shivering rage bled from the generals. Each of the four would have killed their leader were they given the chance. They were denied that, but the guards watched them all the same.

Several moments passed. None of the commanders spoke. Each of them was familiar with this game and each of them waited for it to end. Finally, their master’s amusement was satiated and his will relaxed. He called himself the Harvestman, self-aggrandizingly styling himself as the reaper of the living. He’d defied the will of the Triumvirate in launching this assault on the world of the living, but he was enjoying his army’s early successes, gloating and arrogant over their victories over border Temples and farming villages.

A single withered hand gestured. “Rise,” an ancient, reedy voice whispered. Betrayer and his comrades did so in unison, like puppets on a string. The lower ranks of Coldblood soldiers rose after their leaders in turn, not daring to look the Harvestman in the eyes as their generals did. Beyond the ranks of Coldbloods, row upon row of pyres still knelt before the necromancer, not yet deemed worthy to stand. Their master passed by Ursid with a sneering grin, letting the large man stew in the dismissal. The brutish general had fallen from favour and their master enjoyed reminding him of it, enjoying the Northman’s inability to act on his anger. “You continue to serve me well,” he said. “All of you.”

Betrayer felt his master’s attention and met the old man’s smirking arrogance with icy indifference, still and posed at ease like he had done before commanders and superiors in his previous life , but there was no respect there. Only service. He wondered if their master could tell the difference. The old man’s face twitched. He enjoyed the power he held over his army, but his newest general showed no sign of it. Even the undead’s soul-echo was restrained, flickering dully, with only the smallest traces of resentment and anger. He moved on, barely stopping at Canticle. He disliked the ‘hedge mage’ sorceress. She was powerful, but she had never come to him for further teaching.

A knowing smile wormed across his wizened features as he beheld Coryphée, the general meeting her master’s lecherous smirk evenly. Her soul’s echo was almost as cold and dead as that of Betrayer, but there was a brittle, sharp edge to it, a rage-red tint that was seeping up from where it was buried inside her. He reached out and stroked her cheek. She smiled toyingly at his touch, her eyes glinting and her lips parting slightly with a mimicry of pleasure so perfect it was only by seeing her through the wraith’s realm that one could tell the difference, the sharp-edged red haze of hatred shifting and twisting like a knife in her belly. The old man chuckled and stepped back. “Well then,” he said. “Let’s see how your stores are holding out, shall we?”

To say that the Coldbloods were not entirely happy serving him would be an understatement, but his will held them in check; they could not harm him unless he wished it… or grew inattentive. More than one necromancer had gotten careless and his ‘trusted officers’ had repaid their enslavement with murder. The Harvestman had not built his army by being foolish and he ensured that he never gave his ‘loyal’ subordinates an opening, that his minions never forgot who their master was and always would be.

~

Anyka remained in Marcus’ tent, peering out around one of the door flaps as the old man walked through the camp, laughing and muttering things to his officers. He had a thin, cruel face, Anyka thought, but she didn’t dare get attempt to get closer to confirm that suspicion. She was too far away to hear any of what he was saying, but occasionally the old man would laugh like dry bones rattling against each other. The girl didn’t understand why, but just looking at the distant hunched figure terrified her, knowing that there was something terribly, indefinably wrong about the old man. Marcus had told her to wait here, no matter what, and to stay out of sight. The young girl had thought she had detected worry in his voice, which was strange enough to make her worried. She wanted him to come back; she didn’t like it when he was gone. She chanced another peek, watching the procession vanish into the swarming ranks of the army, thousands of Lifeless Ones. The hunched old man was gone and she felt herself relax. Not much, but some. She’d been with the army for just over two weeks and the horrors of an undead force on the march hadn’t yet become familiar.

One time while Marcus had been sleeping, Anyka had snuck out of the tent to look around the campsite. Some of the zombies had seen her and chased after her, moaning horribly as they’d hooked out their arms to grab her. Then, just as quickly as they’d attacked, they’d stopped, dropping their arms, closing their mouths and shambling away. Coryphée had found her then, grabbing her by the arm and dragging her back to Marcus, hissing that the next time the she was so stupid as to wander around an undead camp when only a single Coldblood lord was on watch, she would let the fleshwalkers eat her.

The young girl knew the woman meant it, too. Anyka didn’t like her, or Ursid. The big man reminded her of some giant monster and he was always sneering at her from behind his beard. The woman named… cantycul? Anyka liked her – she seemed to enjoy having her around and would tell her stories with magic pictures. Papa and Mama had told her about magic, but the closest she’d ever come to actual magic was Old Fat Tobb stories about once being a great wizard. She’d waited for him to cast a spell, but he’d always told her ‘tomorrow’. Now there weren’t any tomorrows for Old Fat Tobb.

There almost hadn’t been for her. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to forget that night. Marcus had asked her and asked her about what had happened, but she’d never told him. She didn’t even know. There’d been the storm, then the winds… then the screaming. Then her mother had come and told her to hide herself away, hide and not let anyone know she was there. The screaming had gotten louder and louder and the winds had been shrieking and someone else had been shouting and there’d been awful noises… she’d never forget them.

-where is she where is she tell us now tell us now-

There was a tug on the young girl’s dark blonde hair, pulling her out of the memory. Anyka looked over her shoulder. Bekah was combing her hair, something that the woman did whenever she was nervous, so Anyka got her hair combed a lot. Bekah was a milkmaid from one of the town’s Marcus’s army had swept through as they marched into Alven. She was younger than Anyka’s mother had been, with orange-ish hair, green eyes and a lot of freckles.

Marcus had freed Bekah from the feeding pens in order to take care of his ward. Even when he had been alive, he had had little experience with children and being a commander of the one of the Harvestman’s Hosts had done little to change that.

“Come back inside, miss,” Bekah urged fearfully, tugging on Anyka’s shoulders, but the young girl shrugged her off, her curiousity keeping her at the tent’s opening. Some nights she would stay awake, sitting just inside the tent and listening to the sounds of the army, as if she’d hear for what she’d heard on the night her village had died. She hadn’t heard it yet. Whoever had come to her home and killed her parents and everyone she’d known wasn’t in this army. She still didn’t know whether that was a good thing. She didn’t think it was. Being rescued by the undead was too much like going from the fire into the frying pan.

She had heard stories of the Lifeless Ones, her mother cautioning her to behave, or the dead would get her. She choked back a sob, but it escaped her anyways. She remembered the last sound her mother had made. It hadn’t been words, just something wet and awful. A person shouldn’t have made it. She’d thought bandits had come, or even the dead. But she wasn’t sure about either of those things. There had been something else, something that had whispered and sang in an empty, hollow rush of words. Anyka didn’t know what it was, what it had wanted, only that it had… it had… she swallowed another sob, trying to push the memories out of her mind.

She’d asked Marcus if he had destroyed her village. He’d told her no and she wanted to believe him, but… she was afraid of him. She knew that he had rescued her, but even as young as she was, she could see that there was something inhuman in him. It wasn’t just being Lifeless, she didn’t think. Papa had told her that only the most evil of people were taken to be Reborn, denied the joys of heaven and given terrible hunger as punishment for their crimes.

Had that been what happened to Marcus? And if it had, if he was one of those terrible men, why had he rescued her? All she had was questions. Questions, and memories she desperately wanted to forget.

~

An army marched on its stomach and this was just as true of the undead as their living counterparts. They needed no forage as horses or oxen did, but their tastes were far more specific. Skeletons, of course, did not need to eat; they were simply cannon fodder animated by the will of the necromancer or the Coldbloods leading the army. Once those leaders were slain, they collapsed into nothing more than useless weapons and harmless piles of bones. Zombies required the flesh of the living to hold off their decay and though driven by the will of the army’s commanders, they were not sustained by it – a zombie acting on its own instincts was a stupid, dull beast that single-mindedly sought out living meat. Without an undead lord controlling them, their formations withered into groaning, shuffling masses without direction or will.

Ghouls, like their rotting undead counterparts, required warm flesh to feed upon, though being quasi-alive meant that they did not rot without it; they merely starved. They were also undisciplined, cowardly things. Brave in ambush or numbers, they were quick to break and easy to rout in battle without the will of an undead lord pounding in their skulls.

Vampires were the citizenry of the undead realms – they could eat as mortals did, but to retain their vitality and power, they supped upon blood. They preferred human prey, since drinkers who fed too much upon the blood of animals slowly warped into beast-like half-breeds. Quite literally, they were what they ate. Those newly-turned or without restraint would tear their victims open, messily drinking every incarnadine drop that they could, but those who were more in control of themselves needn’t kill or even permanently harm their prey.

The transformation into such a being was called the burning. It was painful beyond measure. Many died; still others were driven mad by their newfound hunger and it was said Nekerya herself chose who survived. It was this searing hunger, the never-quenched predatory drive to hunt and slay, that had given rise to a more colloquial name: ‘pyres’.

Coldbloods had the most rarified tastes of all the undead and though like the pyres, they could eat as mortals could, such meals did nothing for them aside from the pleasure of taste. What provided their vigour were the lives that they drained from their victims. Not the souls, as many wagging tongues claimed, but the vital essence of the person, the energy of life itself. Unlike the feeding habits of the hemovoric lesser kin, a Coldblood would almost certainly kill their prey with every feeding. It was possible for a healthy and strong person to survive the feeding, if the Coldblood was careful, but not without cost. Without this repast, Coldbloods would not die, but they would age, weaken and wither. Though they did not twist and mutate as pyres who’d fed too much upon animals did, lower creatures’ essences remained unsatisfying fare for a Coldblood.

Though an essence doused with abject terror, pain or one caught at climax was a choice delicacy, not all Coldbloods took pleasure in feeding, remembering what it was like to die themselves. Many of these undead sought out dining pleasure from fine cuisine, though they received no nutrition from such fare. Still, Coldblood chefs were among the finest in the world, provided they remembered that certain ingredients, used to enhance flavour or consistency for their Lifeless kin, were lethal to the living.

Living necromancers did not, of course, have any need to satiate any of the same hungers of the undead. Some did, out of faith in Nekerya, insanity or to fuel desires less necessary than hunger. It was the latter that had drawn the Harvestman to the outer edges of the undead encampment, where the army’s livestock was kept.

Ursid smirked around his thick stubble as the Harvestman descended the steps to the feeding pens. At his approach, the pyre guards knelt before the necromancer, rising again at his gesture. Shriveled and skeletal like one of the walking dead himself, the Harvestman remained living still and though he had a thousand ways to cheat death, he was still an old man, feeble and in need of his ornate staff to help him along. His back was hunched and his liver-spotted skin sagged from his bones. He had dedicated his life to the study of the fell arts and the decades of research had taken their toll. His skill with necromancy was not limited to the control of his vassal army, but he had discovered other uses for his craft.

As the gates to the pen creaked open, the terrified mortals within scurried back, but there was nowhere for them to go. There were dozens of prisoners in this cage and dozens more cages, the warmskin cattle packed tight. Desperate men and women tried to worm their way through the press of bodies, to avoid the notice of their captors and hide themselves amongst the herd. There was shouting and shoving, as unlucky individuals were thrown to the ground, scampering and sobbing on hands and kneeds back into the throng, or pressing themselves into the reeking mud, hoping to be overlooked. The necromancer surveyed the antics of his captives, enjoying their panic. He looked through the churning mass of panicked humans like a gourmet surveying a menu.

Finally, he made his choice. One bony finger extended towards a young man. “You,” he hissed through thin lips.

The humans in the pens scattered away from Harvestman’s chosen, someone shoving him forward. The pyre guards marched into the cage, seizing the pleading captive and dragging him before the necromancer for inspection. Though they outnumbered the guards and the necromancer, none of the captives fought them; those who did were fed alive to the fleshwalkers or the ghouls. The terror emanating from the villager was palpable and the Harvestman’s yellow eyes twinkled with hunger, a single pointed nail curling across the warmskin’s face, drawing a thin reed of blood as it passed. The villager trembled under the necromancer’s caress.

“Are you afraid?” the mage hissed through his yellowing teeth. “Tell me, man of the Dynasty. Do you fear what lies beyond? You’ve scorned our goddess with your empire of pauking, sweating, wretched life. Will it be Vasel, or Ambre that takes your soul, then? Are you a righteous man, or have you sinned? Will you sit at Her side for all time, or will you be the Crippled God’s plaything?” He was grinning. “Tell me then, what reward do you expect for your life of service to a distant ruler?”

“I… I… please don’t kill me I don’t want to die please….”

The Harvestman tightened his hold on the young man’s neck, his bony hands seizing the villager with surprising strength. “Are you afraid?”

“Yes… yes…”

“You should be. I have seen beyond the gates of death, into the abyss that awaits and I know the darkest truth of life. Would you like to know it?”

Betrayer shared a glance with Coryphée; no Coldblood remembered anything of the afterlife before their souls were bound into living death. That did not mean that there was nothing there; philosophers – undead and living alike – debated whether this was because there was nothing to remember or if those memories had simply been lost. An infant did not remember its time in the womb, so why should the Reborn remember what happened before their reawakening?

Looking on the wizened old man with sudden, desperate hope, the villager nodded his head. “Yes… please.”

The Harvestman chuckled, the sound akin to dead leaves rasping across a stone walk, lowering himself to whisper in the man’s ear. “The secret of life… is that it ends.” The captive’s eyes turned on the old man in stupefied horror, his mouth trying to work, to form a final, futile plea for mercy, but nothing came out. Again, the necromancer laughed, bones rattling in a cage. “But fear not, I will keep you in my Host and you shall serve me… for all time.”

The young man screamed as the necromancer’s pointed fingers slid through his temples, shaking in a death spasm as the Harvestman tore his life away. As the young man’s life was taken, the necromancer himself grew stronger. His wrinkles faded and smoothed away, his crooked yellow teeth straightening and turning white, thin grey hair darkening and filling out. When the withered and empty corpse of the villager finally fell to the ground, its lips twisted in a grinning death rictus, the Harvestman stood renewed. His youth had been restored by robbing another being of theirs. This was how he fed, and why. Not to sustain himself as Coldbloods did, not to offer the lives to Nekerya, but for his own vanity.

Shaking his freshly-reclaimed raven-black mane under the noonday sun, the Harvestman stroked his strong chin, looking back into the pens, his gaze settling upon a quaking young woman with a different sort of interest. “That one. Bring her to my tent.” He turned on his heel and stalked out of the pens, each step now sure and certain, his quaking gait gone with the other artefacts of his age.

The guards stepped back into the pen, seizing the sobbing girl. The Harvestman’s eyes followed her struggling form as his praetorians dragged her in his wake. She fought. Ineffectually, but she still made an attempt. She hadn’t been broken completely. Excellent. He did not need to look back at his generals to feel their own eyes upon him, the heartless azure gazes that could break even the proudest mortal warriors. He could feel their disapproval and contempt, but he also knew that they would never speak of it. They couldn’t. He had chosen each of them for his army, stolen them back from death’s unforgiving grip, but if they ever got the oppurtunity, they would gladly kill him.

Not that he ever intended to give them that chance.

~

“My lord.” Bekah bowed as Marcus returned to his tent; he ignored her, instead crouching down to Anyka’s level, brushing a strand of hair out of the young girl’s eyes. She stared at him quietly, like a half-tame animal.

“How are you?”

“She’s fine, my lord. We spent the day going over her lessons. Arithmetic.” Bekah reached down to squeeze Anyka’s shoulder. “She’s doing very well.” In addition to her normal duties, the milkmaid had helped her sister-in-law with her business, selling eggs, textiles and vegetables at the market, so she had known her numbers and letters. I can read! She’d screamed that until her throat was raw, desperate to be heard over the rest of the people in her pen, each of them shouting, begging the Coldblood for mercy, but she’d known that their kind had none. He’d wanted someone useful.

“Good.” A pair of pyre servants appeared inside the tent, so silent in their arrival that they might have simply materialized from the ether, carrying trays containing the warmskins’ supper. “Enjoy. I’ll be back later.”

~

Inquisitor-Captain Tobias Hel of Dynasty took his stock of the men guarding Temple Consect’s walls. The 12th Alvenian Regiment had been marching to Temple Vastat for relief when they had run afoul of an undead army on the march. The very army now camped outside their walls. Had he not fallen back, he would have been surrounded and destroyed in short order.

Fighting the undead was unlike fighting any other foe; if a modern army could be thought of as a pyramid – a single commander at the top and ever-increasing numbers of lower quality troops at the base, an undead force was more like a dumbbell; a great many cannon fodder and elite forces, with very few ‘common’ soldiers in between. The vampires came the closest to the role of a man-at-arms in a deadwalker army and there were never many of them. Instead, the Lifeless Hosts relied on swarming an enemy through the sheer numbers of their zombies and ghouls, followed by the devastating attacks of Coldbloods and pyres.

They were also slow. Having to move at the same speed as their slowest soldier limited the undead’s ability to outmaneuver an opposing army, but being unable to tire meant that they could keep moving no matter what, giving them a high strategic speed. An undead Host could easily catch up to a fleeing enemy if they stopped to rest. More than one retreating army had thought themselves safe upon outpacing their pursuers only to be slaughtered in their camp as the undead descended upon the sleeping soldiers.

The blizzard would have slowed them even further – even the dead had to bow to the fury of Demesis when she was roused to anger. Tobias did not worship the goddess of nature, but he had offered prayers of thanks to Her nonetheless for the unseasonable snowstorm that had bought his men a few extra days of preparation. Hel had driven his men with all the relentlessness of a necromancer himself to get them to Temple Consect by dawn. They’d burned Fallow Bridge behind them, forcing the enemy to ford further upstream, delaying their arrival even more. Long enough to give the men of the 12th a chance to rest and ready Consect’s for a siege.

Messengers had been dispatched to the Dynasty, warning them of the danger. Only rarely did the undead gather in numbers large enough to threaten the living. Their bitch-goddess despised all life, sulking in her realm of wraiths and echoing soul flames, prowling the edges of creation as she sought a way back from the exile Blessed Ambre had driven her into. The Coldbloods were her children and though they served the goddess of death, they had not the numbers nor the power to bring the Dynasty down. The Lifeless Ones were certainly capable of great evil and vast armies had marched under their banners in days past, but with no more regularity than human princes and warlords had set off a-viking and there was a currently a fragile peace existed between the lands of men and the nation of Naharnas.

When one threw a necromancer into the mix, however, all bets were off. Many would-be warlords, prophets and self-proclaimed masters of death skulked on the borders of the Naharnas, tolerated for the tribute they provided and the devotion they offered to Nekerya. These madmen and women would raid other lands, from the feral tribes to the north, to the Dynasty’s own territories, seeking flesh for their subjects or fodder for their unholy studies. Sometimes they would grow strong enough to launch a full-fledged invasion. These incursions were occasionally halted by Naharnas themselves, breaking any threat to their rule and ensuring that the peace between their nation and the Dynasty remained. Here, they had either failed to halt this necromancer’s rise, or they were allowing his rampage to continue. Whatever the case was, Tobias couldn’t not have said, not that it mattered.

Peering through his spyglass, the Inquisitor-Captain looked over the enemy’s ranks. Thankfully, the wind was blowing away from them, so his men did not have to endure the stench of rotting flesh. The moans of the zombies were another matter, an unending chorus of groaning hunger that had been known to drive men mad. He frowned as his sight passed over several shambling bodies, each of them wearing the armour of the Dynasty and the insignia of Temple Vastat.

One mystery solved.

To his right, siege crew armed a catapult, pouring oil over a stone in preparation of setting it ablaze. Archers did likewise, skewering their heads with cotton or wool where pots of oil were unavailable for the arrows to be dipped in. There was a surplus of fuel, given that boiling oil was no deterrent to undead attacks. Hel cursed again, wishing for the hundredth time that the 12th had had a mage assigned to it; weakening the enemy’s control of their troops would be invaluable.

“Captain!” one of the lookouts called. “A rider approaches!”

Hel leaned over the parapet, focusing his spyglass in the direction the sentry was pointing; a single rider had left the enemy earthworks, riding towards Temple Consect upon one of the foul lizard beasts the drinkers and Coldbloods used. The herald carried a regal battle standard in one hand, the shaft braced in a pocket on the saddle. The flag flapped in the wind, a pair of scythes crossed above a trio of broken skulls, thorns growing out of shattered craniums and empty eye sockets. The rider’s sleek, featureless helmet obscured their face, but the Alvenian’s lips thinned as he nonetheless realized the herald was a woman. Or what had once been a woman, at any rate.

Pausing outside Temple Consect’s gates, the herald raised a trumpet to her lips with her free hand and blew a long note, a call for parley. Hel chewed the inside of his lip. His initial inclination was to fire an arrow into the dead woman’s skull, but that would accomplish nothing. It was… possible that there was a perfectly logical reason for the undead to be so far inside the Dynasty’s borders, one that did not indicate a new war in the making. Possibly.

“Sound parley in return,” he ordered his own herald, the man trumpeting in response to the undead’s call. Straightening his shoulders, Tobias Hel marched down the steps of Temple Consect’s walls to speak with a person long dead about why they should not kill each other.

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