Heartless, Chapter 4

Chapter 4:

Kill maim and burn! Kill, maim and burn you dogs – are you women or Windfangs? Kill them all and burn their precious city to the ground! No surrenders, no mercy! We win or we die!”

– chieftain Urias Krell of the Northman Windfang tribe before the attack on the Dynasty trading post Sallowbrook.

~

Ursid roared again as he charged into the fray, great sweeps of his waraxe smashing aside the pathetic humans all around him. Each blow sheared armour, pulped organs and cleaved bones. No mortal could stand before him and live, his attack savage, inelegant and brutally efficient. He attacked with every step, always advancing, forcing his enemy to respond to him. It was the lesson of his tribe. Seize the initiative and then, never let it go. Keep killing until the enemy broke, or their will did. He’d imparted that lesson to his own troops and they followed his example in battle. Always attack.

Around him his pyre warriors surged into the fray, hissing and snarling with echoes of their Coldblood lord’s battle-lust.

“Come to me!” Ursid called to the living men around him. “Come and face me, warriors of the Dynasty! Show me your mettle!” Laughing, he drove deeper into their ranks.

~

Hel pirouetted, the sweep of his saber taking a pyre’s head off and he lunged forward, skewering another through the heart. The drinker hissed blood at him and the Inquisitor-Captain hammered his gauntleted fist into its mouth, staggering it back long enough for him to twist his cutlass. The creature stopped fighting and went limp, its corpse’s own weight sliding it off his blade. Vampires were harder to kill than a mortal man, but they still died.

A low moan came from behind Hel and the inquisitor-captain jumped back, just barely evading the clutching fingers of a zombie as it lunged at him. It staggered and stopped, briefly confused as to why it did not have warm flesh in its grasp. It paused long enough for Hel to cleave its head in twain with a backhand slash and the creature collapsed like a broken marionette.

Another deafening roar echoed through the miasma of battle and the day’s fading light. The giant Coldblood grabbed one of Hel’s men by the wrists, hauling him up off his feet. He laughed in the terrified soldier’s face as he pulled. The soldier screamed in agony. First his arms popped out of their sockets, soon starting to tear free from the Coldblood’s inhuman strength, fresh blood spurting over and soaking the Lifeless soldier’s already filthy armour and cloak.

“To me!” Hel cried, waving his saber high in the arm. “To me, men!”

There was little more time to rally his men as a Coldblood rounded on him, the dead man’s shimmering eyes savage, his expression cruel. Hel stepped forward to meet the soldier. Coldblood were warriors without equal; strength and speed beyond what they had ever had in life made them formidable enough, but they were the favoured of Nekerya; the undead did not age, did not tire and did not weaken. Their immortality made them even more fearsome; ageless soldiers were given ample opportunity to hone their skills to the level that few mortals could match.

This one must have been newly Reborn: for all the confidence on his face, his step was unsure and he held his sword uncomfortably, unused to wielding such a large weapon. His hesitation was Hel’s advantage and he took the initiative, forcing the undead warrior back onto the defensive. The Coldblood was far stronger and faster than he, but Hel only had to make sure the undead soldier didn’t remember that.

Another animal roar sounded from the giant warrior, again interlaced with a man’s final shrieks of horror and agony, but Hel put it out of his mind. His opponent was not so disciplined and started, his attention drawn towards the huge Coldblood as his master hurled the armless body of the soldier into the Dynasty’s ranks. It was the smallest of openings, but it was enough. The Alvenian officer lunged forward, his blade slashing through his enemy’s unarmoured neck, opening his throat to the bone.

The Coldblood gagged, his sword dropping from his hands as he tried uselessly to stop the tide of purplish blood from pouring out of his lacerated throat. Bad mistake, Hel thought, his suspicions confirmed. To the Lifeless Ones, it was a crippling, but not fatal wound. The sword tip he put through the warrior’s eye was. A skilled enough necromancer could resurrect fallen Lifeless even from that kind of injury, so he twisted the saber for good measure. That was one soldier that would never be resurrected.

He didn’t know what made him look up then, a flicker of peripheral movement, the hand of fate or simply a veteran’s intuition, but he cast his eyes up towards the breach in Temple Consect’s wall just as a shape, all teeth and claws, slammed into him, sending him toppling down from the rubble around the hole, his armour clattering on the ground like a puppet in a comedy show. Without thinking he lashed out, and it was well he had, his saber passing just beneath a drake’s eye, the creature intending to bite him. He didn’t know if his armour was proof against the foul reptile’s dagger-sized teeth, but he was just as glad not to find out.

The drake reared and yowled with pain, nearly unseating its rider, but the Coldblood managed to stay in the saddle, bringing his greatsword down, the runes etched in the hateful weapon sparking like molten fire as it met Hel’s cutlass. As the Coldblood rose the blade for another strike, the Inquisitor-Captain scrambled to his feet, dodging a sweep of the drake’s claws. Hel fell back as the rider pursued him, the drake frothing and hissing at this difficult prey, its rider’s sword ready to strike again.

The battle raged, rising in tempest as a trumpet sounded and two thousand pikemen lowered their weapons, steeled their resolve and charged, skewering and trampling everything in their path. Rotting corpses were crushed under their boots, vampires were impaled on the tips of their polearms and the undead’s advance faltered. The Dynasty soldiers were howling as they pushed the flow of invaders back towards the breach, sweating, bleeding and cursing with every step forward they took. For a moment it looked like they were taking the initiative back.

Until Ursid and his hand-picked soldiers exploded into their ranks.

~

He remembered his past life, but it was foggy and indistinct, the result of too many resurrections, too many days as a frothing berserker. His name had once been Valter Urias, eldest son of the Windfang’s chieftain. Even as a boy, none had been his equal in battle and he had won his rights as a Spear-bearer of the tribe earlier than any other in history. Fame and fortune had seemed his for the taking as he brought the Windfang glory in every battle against other Northman tribes and the hated southerners. His days had been full of the clamour of battle, his nights with wine, women and song. He had seemed invulnerable, indomitable.

But not everyone had been as pleased with his success as the rest of the tribe; his father’s pride had soured into jealousy and resentment as he saw Valter outshadowing him, his own glories forgotten as his oldest son brought in fresh treasures and slaves with every raid, the younger man’s victories mounting. More and more often it was to the son, and not his father, that the tribe’s men raised their tankards and drew their blades. To the son and not the father, that went the glories and honours.

Ursid remembered waking one night, his father standing above him, the old man’s features drawn and comtemplative. Almost remorseful. Not until the moonlight glinted off its handle did the younger man notice the knife buried to the hilt in his chest. He looked again at his father and tried to speak, but nothing came. The last memory he had of his life was of his silent, helpless rage as the life drained out of him.

He remembered the look on his father’s face when he had brought the Harvestman’s force to the Windfang on a “recruitment” drive. None had been spared. That was the penalty for their disloyalty and cowardice. One way or another, they’d all served Ursid one final time. His father, most of all. The very fate that he had been afraid of. To live forever in his son’s shadow. Not even to die and escape that humiliation, oh no. Ursid had asked that his master preserve his father’s mind and make him and Ensnared zombie. Now, Urias Krell shambled amongst the horde of rotting carcasses, unable to die and unable to forget what it was his son had accomplished.

Ursid brought his greataxe down in a single strike that cleaved a warmskin knight from temple to groin, his tainted weapon affording the Dynasty’s finest armour no more protection than a leather jerkin. Bathing in the blood of his countless victims, the Coldblood general rose his axe into the air, laughing ever more fiercely with the exultation of battle as more frail living meat rushed towards him to die.

~

Anyka’s head was buried against Bekah’s chest as the sounds of battle washed over the undead’s camp, the clash of steel and screams drifting through the stagnant air, the young woman doing her best to stifle the girl’s sobs, but there was little she could do. Even from here, she could hear the thunder of cannon and the rancor of steel on steel and even the screams of the wounded and the dying.

“It’s all right,” Bekah tried to lie comfortingly, but the words sounded hollow even to her. It wasn’t ‘all right’ at all, but she was trying to be strong for the girl shivering and crying in her arms. “It will be all right,” she said instead, trying not to think about the good men of the Dynasty that were dying even now on her “master’s” blade or at the hands of his army. Ambre give us your light, she prayed. Let it shine now more than ever against this darkness. She prayed for the souls of the soldiers dying, she prayed that this Host be destroyed and she prayed for herself and the little girl in her arms.

Ankya whimpered as a battery of cannon crashed once more. She wanted her mother and father back, she wanted to go home. Daddy had tried trying to keep the bad men out of her house and Mommy had tried to keep her safe, but both of them had failed. She’d heard them die, heard the voices, heard the awful whispers and chittering as it got closer and closer. Her parents had promised. They’d promised.

It wasn’t fair of her to think like that, but parents were supposed to protect their children. And they hadn’t. She would have burned to death if it wasn’t for Marcus, something – someone – that she had been told to fear since she could remember. He’d saved her. He’d protected her. And now… and now…

And right now he was out there, everything that she had been told he was. Anyka bawled into Bekah’s arms. She didn’t know what anything was anymore.

~

The Harvestman sat in the Summoning Circle, his eyes closed as he mumbled forgotten incantations and prayers to a thirsting deity, though his lips did not move in time with the words that came forth. He could feel it, all of it. The life that filled the Temple beyond his army’s lines, the desperation and fear as the humans battled the inevitable tide of his army. He reached out with his mind and smiled; the other Hosts in his army were progressing just as well in their own assaults. The Alvenian border Temples would belong to the undead by dawn. And from there, the province. And from there, the Dynasty.

As it should be, of course.

~

Hel’s cutlass skirted along the edge of his foe’s greatsword, keeping it from taking his head off, but the force of the blow toppled him. Raising his weapon for a killing strike, the Coldblood whirled as a pair of Hel’s men charged, the undead effortlessly shifting his greatsword to his right hand like a dagger and plunging it through the first soldier’s breastplate, into his heart and killing him instantly.

The second man wasn’t as fortunate. The Coldblood staged him back with a kick, pulling his sword free from the soldier’s wilting confederate. Hel gaped. At the touch of the cursed blade, the man’s flesh had begun rotting to ash and his corpse fell to the churned earth, skin and meat sloughing away until only a pile of armour and bone remained.

The sword came around, nicking the second soldier’s cheek. In an instant, the corruption spread. Skin dissolved as did the muscles beneath. Blood and fluids from dissolving tissues ran down the man’s face. He choked on them, trying to scream as the taint spread his vocal cords and robbed him of his voice. An eye withered and drooled out of its socket. The soldier fell to his knees, twitching and making hideous sounds as his face eroded. He didn’t suffer long, his remaining eye rolling up his head and a liquid gargle dribbling out of his rotting mouth. In moments, there was a second pile of cloth and bone beside the first.

The Inquisitor-Captain had no idea what happened next, only that he had somehow gotten to his feet. His vision turned head, he screamed a challenge and flung himself at the dead thing, catching him by surprise and knocking him from the saddle. The two officers rolled through the blood-churned mud, weapons forgotten as they grappled and beat at each other, Hel driven past the point of rationality as he ignored his foe’s hammering blows, trying to send his foe back to the hateful bitch-goddess who’d spawned him.

All around them the living and the dead were locked in a duel to the death, swords and axes rose and fell, clubs and hammers struck shields and flesh, spears were thrust and arrows flickered back and forth. It was chaos, madness. For instants, Hel still believed his men could win, but for every skeleton hacked to pieces, every zombie decapitated and every pyre skewered through the heart, one of Hel’s men shuddered, stiffened and rose back to his feet, attacking his former comrades with weapons or even hands and teeth.

A standard bearer gargled a shriek as his musician rose from death, threw him to the ground and tore his throat out. The drummer’s reanimated corpse ripped more chunks of meat from the dying soldier before another man straddled the feeding zombie and rammed his sword into the back of its head.

A horse whinnied and screamed in panic, trying to raise itself up, but it kept slipping on its own spilled entrails. A sergeant tried to rally his men, until half a dozen fleshwalkers overwhelmed him. He went down fighting, cursing and slashing at his foes.

The giant Coldblood was hacking his way through the pikes, the knights following in his wake, overrunning Hel’s men-at-arms in an unending, unstoppable hurricane of fell steel and spurting blood.

Atop the ramparts, archers gibbered and died as the enemy arrows skewered them, or as they were burned into nothingness by the enemy’s magics. It was a slaughter. Past the point of rationality, Hel beat on his foe with his fists, clawing for a weapon, any weapon to finish his enemy. Reaching for a discarded cleaver, the Inquisitor-Captain let his attention slip for an instant and the Coldblood cocked his fist back and hammered the human in the face, skewing his helmet over his eyes.

The Alvenian swore and fell back, trying to right his dislodged headgear, buying himself time by driving his knee up between the Coldblood’s legs. His shinguard impacted with another bit of armour and the Coldblood chuckled, grabbing the human by the throat and lifting him up, the talons on his gauntlet digging into the human’s neck, bubbles of blood welling up from the cuts.

Staring into his enemy’s eyes for the first time, Hel suddenly froze. By all the gods, it can’t be! “You,” he hissed with redoubled hatred.

The Coldblood paused, uncertainty in his expression. “You know me.”

Hel spat on him. “Betrayer,” he said the word as if it were the foulest curse imaginable. “I served in your homeland, cleaning up the war you began. I saw your face. How could I forget the man who broke a nation? You should have been quartered after they hung you, but I suppose not even the Crippled God wanted your soul.”

“He was afraid I’d take over,” sneered the abomination with empty venom.

“What happens now, Betrayer?” Hel hissed. “One more death shouldn’t matter to someone like you. Your soul was tainted long before Nekerya set her hooks into it. One more life to add to the pile, eh?” Spittle ran over his lips. “Do it. Prove what you are.”

“Very well.” The Coldblood tightened his grip. For an instant Hel thought that he saw death, but instead of welcoming darkness, there was a blur of motion and fire lanced across his face. Hel didn’t register the impact with the ground, only his attempts to hold his ruined visage together. The undead’s talons had ripped him open. “You get to live,” he heard Betrayer offer coldly, the undead general kneeling over Hel as the captain writhed on the ground. He reached down and pulled Hel up by the front of his cuirass, looking into his eyes. Around him, a mass of zombies shuffled forward, drawn by Hel’s blood and the hate of their lord. Betrayer raised a hand and the fleshwalkers froze in place, then turned back to the battle.

“You get to ride to your precious Caliphate and tell him that Harvestman is coming. That no force in this or any other world will keep us from his gates. Tell him that Betrayer is not finished. Not yet.” He released Tobias and stood, letting the Dynasty officer sag back into the muck.

Ignoring the pain, Hel lunged for the cleaver again, but Betrayer’s boot landed on it first. “You get to live,” he repeated, the condemnation more cruel than any pronouncement of death. Without further comment, he turned his back on the defeated Hel. The undead horde swarming around the fallen officer made no move towards him, their attention fixed on his men. Betrayer reclaimed his sword, wiping the blade on the sleeve of a fallen soldier before mounting his drake and driving into the fray, killing a man with each stroke of his blade.

The officer watched the slaughter through his remaining eye as he sat in mired amongst the filth of his army, watching them die. He screamed in rage, grabbing the cleaver and staggered to his feet, lashing out haphazardly at the nearest shambling form. It paused, its hungry jaws clacking briefly, but it sensed its master’s will around the wounded shoulder and refused the challenge, turning its back on him.

Hel lunged after it and buried his weapon in its shoulder, the cleaver becoming stuck in the bone. The fleshwalker spun and knocked the wounded man away. It paid no attention to the blade lodged in its back and continued on.

Tobias shoved another lifeless soldier, beating at it with his fists, but like the first, it merely shoved him back. “Nnnnot,” it rasped through a decaying mouth, “yyyyou. Llllord saysss nnnno.” It grinned with half its lips rotted away. “Yyyyou lliiiivve.”

The captain howled in fury, demanding someone face him. No one did. The horde parted around him as if he were a leper in a market square. He had no weapons and his strength was failing as blood seeped out of his lacerated face.

Useless, the Inquisitor-Captain fell back to his knees. He bowed his head as his men died all around him. He couldn’t help them. He couldn’t even die with them, as a man should. Inside he raged, frothed, screamed, but he knew he was done. There was nothing more he could do here. He rose to his feet and ran for the horses, sobbing with shame at his his humiliation and helplessness. That he should live because of an enemy’s whim… he cursed himself as a coward and a failure as his tears mixed with the blood running freely down his face.

~

Betrayer watched as a single horse broke free of the carnage, its rider slumped over the saddle. Several archers raised their bows. No, his command pressed into their minds and they lowered the weapons. Let that one go. He saw the horse and rider vanish from sight and beneath his helm, he smiled.

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