“Death begins the cycle and death ends it. Everyone who fights the undead knows this at some level. If you fall, you become another soldier in their Hosts. Only the final death of the necromancer and his minions will stop them. It is not a conflict over territory or resources; it is a war of survival. Ours.”
– Tactical-Professor Jhim Singh
No sooner did Betrayer step into his tent then a hand connected with his face. “You bastard!” Bekah snapped, winding up for another swing.
He caught the young woman’s wrist in his hand. “Don’t. Do that. Again.”
“Or what?” she spat like an angry cat.
Marcus looked down at Anyka, huddled in the corner, her eyes wide. “Please stay here. Mommy and Daddy need to talk.” With an ungentle tug, he pulled Bekah out of the tent after him. “Walk with me.”
“Where are we-”
“I don’t recall saying that you could speak.”
In silence, Bekah followed her undead master, fear starting to replace her righteous anger at him as she recognized the path they walked; it led to the feeding pits. She opened her mouth to plead, to argue, to say something, anything, but she would not give this monster the amusement of watching her grovel.
They stopped at a small outcropping overlooking the pits. Pyres and ghouls dragged the survivors of the assault on Temple Consect into the cages. Most of the villagers were already imprisoned, staring with hopeless eyes as their sworn protectors were dropped before them, beaten and defeated. A few of the prisoners had long since retreated into madness, curled up in a ball, or rocking back and forth, seeing nothing but the horrors that had broken their minds. “Do you see this?” Betrayer asked the woman beside him. “This is where you were only two weeks before. This is where you can always go back to. Not as a person, but as chattel. Food.” He looked down at his hands. His armour was still stained with blood and gore. He’d already fed, ripping the fading spark from a dying Alvenian pikeman. It had been unsatisfying, but it had been nourishing. “That was your place. It could be again. Don’t ever forget that, mortal.”
“The correct response is ‘yes, my lord’.”
“…yes, my lord.”
“Good.” He reached up and removed his helmet, holding it in the crook of his arm. “I must report to the Harvestman. I can trust you can find your own way back to my tent.”
Bekah seethed, but she nodded. “Yes, my lord.” She turned to go.
The Coldblood caught Bekah’s arm. She froze, her heart skipping a beat and she wondered if she’d pushed just too much, but there was no sign of hostility or anger in the undead’s features. Instead, ther was a surprising earnestness. “Take care of her,” he added, releasing the peasant girl.
Pyre serving girls tended to the Coldblood generals in the necromancer’s tent, removing their armour and cleaning it, save for Ursid’s. The man had sworn in life that he would never wash his victims’ blood from his plate and he kept that decree in undeath, his once-fine armour pitted and stained a filthy brown from his centuries of slaughter and thousands of victims. It reeked almost as badly as zombies themselves. Making the point to Ursid was like telling a wine connoisseur that you didn’t like the aroma of his favourite vintage and he would take great pride in describing the fragrance of his stained army and the many battles and victims that had contributed to it.
Directly opposite Ursid’s view was Canticle, the battle-mage always fastidious over her appearance and the cleanliness of her gear. She kept a watchful eye on the servants as they scrubbed the dirt and blood from her breastplate. Towards the end of the siege she had joined her fellow generals in the Temple’s keep to finish the last batch of survivors, ripping the very souls from their bodies with but a gesture. Sitting beside the other woman, Coryphée rasped a sharpening stone against the edge of one of her vambrace-mounted blades. It was a futile effort for the fell weapons never dulled, but it kept her occupied.
For his part, Betrayer leaned against one of the tent’s posts. He accepted a goblet of wine from one of the serving girls and drank deeply from it, wishing that he could get drunk. They waited on their master’s pleasure, in more than one sense. The Harvestman was enjoying his temporary vitality with the girl he’d chosen from the pens earlier in the day. From the bedchambers came the sound of that enjoyment. His, at any rate.
Ursid smirked around his beard, the Northman well used to such things, not only because he had spent the longest in the Harvestman’s service – he had taken prizes of his own in this manner and still did, though he bored of his living conquests quickly and dismissed them in one manner or another.
Canticle pretended not to be able to hear the warmskin’s cries, alternatively trying to meditate and fussing over the job the servants were doing on her armour, though she couldn’t focus.
Coryphée’s expression was utterly blank, as if her features been carved from marble. She continued to run the whetstone over the edge of her blades, pausing only to slide her thumb against it. She lifted her azure gaze to Betrayer’s face and licked away the drop of lifeless blood on the digit, still with no sign of emotion.
Betrayer, like Canticle, was trying to ignore what was going on in the adjoining room but doing a better job of it. He glanced at Ursid, a fillip of disgust on his aristocratic features for the Northman’s clear amusement. Marcus had led men in battle; he knew what happened when cities fell and armies were scattered. Sardilla had a tradition of discipline in its forces, but there were always those who forgot or ignored it. Slavery, and all that came with it, was a matter of course for the northern barbarians. It was seen as the just due of the victors and Betrayer’s fellow general had never seen the need to question or change that outlook.
The Harvestman was no northerner. He indulged himself this way not because of some barbaric cultural more, but because he wanted to. He took the slaves he wanted and made his generals wait like this all for the same reason: to remind them of their place. As subjects of his will, Reborn because of his efforts. They owed him their lives – or whatever one called what they had now. There was no loyalty in that; only his control and many of his officers, certainly the four in this room, would gladly end their ‘master’s’ life. Perhaps not for the same reason, but it hardly mattered in the end.
Many necromancers formed tight bonds with the Lifeless they raised, while others saw them as mere servants. The Harvestman was one of the latter; whatever gratitude his vassals had once had towards him had withered swiftly. His Host had swelled not from loyalty, but from the avarice of his officers and his conquest of other warlords.
He was master of his army because of his power. If it ever faltered, it was likely that one of his ever-so-loyal commanders would bury a sword in him. In nearly three decades, that opportunity hadn’t yet arrived and none of them could so much as lift a hand against him. Coldbloods were power itself. Blessed by the Goddess of Undeath, gifted with strength and resilience beyond mortality and even the most magic-blind of them had a connection to the wraiths’ realm, able to dominate lesser undead. And still in the presence of a necromancer, they were powerless.
As it should be.
Finished with his celebrations, the man once known as Matthias Trevayne – now, the Harvestman – gestured and his bodyguards stepped forward, dragging the naked, sobbing girl back to the feeding pens. It had been enjoyable enough, but he was done with her now. It was time for business. Outside the veiled entrance to his tent’s bedchambers, he could sense the presence of the vampire servants, flickering orange essences shining with the intensity of their ever-burning hunger. Among them, duller but stronger, were the cooler hues of the souls of his generals. The necromancer chuckled.
He knew they were thinking about killing him, that they and many of the other Coldbloods in his army would do it if given half a chance, but he was unconcerned. They were his, bound to him now and forever. It was an irony that Nekerya’s champions could be commanded by the living. Some said it was Ambre’s touch, proving that life was stronger than death. Others that Nekerya did it herself to show that only though the death of all living things could Her children be free. The arguments, theological and scientific, hadn’t yet been settled.
Once, there had been a theory that a necromancer did not need Coldbloods to act in his stead, but that had been a fatal mistake. One necromancer, no matter how powerful, could only control so many undead at a time. A single mortal man, even one gifted by the Pale Goddess, had his limitations. Those who overstepped themselves had paid for it, too often ripped to pieces and devoured by the very creatures that they were trying to command. Better to control a select few Coldbloods and use them to rule one’s armies.
The Harvestman smirked as he pulled his robes on. Coldbloods. A better form of life, if that was what they were. Even necromancer lore was sketchy on their origins; some thought they, like drakes, were the children of Nekerya, the goddess herself bearing the first of their number, their fathers the most worthy of her followers. There were also stories that they were victims of the same plague that created the first zombies, only they had had a resistance that the rest of the infected did not. Instead of drooling, flesh-crazed monsters, they changed into what they were now. Still more tales whispered that they had been created by the first necromancer, Necroanimus himself, as his most trusted vassals.
Even now, five thousand years after his murder, it was said that his severed head still sat on the blighted throne of Nekras, the great city-fortress named for the goddess who had given unlife to the world, cursed to dispense his knowledge to any who survived to speak with him. It was also said that the goddess herself would answer any prayer offered within that chamber – any prayer at all but Necroanimus’ plea for death.
One day, the Harvestman would lead his great army to Nekras’ black gate and seek entry to the Tomb Throne. And he would speak his wish and then… all of creation would quake. But until then, he must prove himself worthy and in doing so, settle his debts. The fall of the Dynasty and the destruction of Ambre’s yapping lapdogs would accomplish both.
His grin widened at the thought; old debts. He chose no generals save for those who died with their souls screaming for vengeance. Ursid, for the people he’d once led to greatness and the father who’d murdered him. Canticle, for the ignorant villagers who burned her and the thousands of other men and women who died screaming atop a pyre for delving into ‘evil witcheries’. Coryphée, for the love that had turned to hatred and what had followed and Betrayer… ah, Betrayer.
He’d been known by that name long before the Harvestman granted him Rebirth. The Sardillan was a brilliant strategist, but that was not the reason Trevayne had chosen him to lead his army. There was a darkness in that one, radiant and terrible. His rage was deeper and purer than all the others. Beneath that cold façade, the Harvestman knew no humanity remained. Of all the tools the necromancer had at his disposal, Betrayer was the most finely-honed. Every step the Harvestman took now was one step closer to Necroanimus’s secrets. Trevayne tasted power every day and once the Dynasty fell, he would bathe in it for all time.
It was a heartwarming thought.
Clad in a sleeping robe loosely tied at the waist, the Harvestman finally made his appearance. Drawing on his power so extensively during the battle had hastened his deterioration; his hair was already starting to lighten, gums drawing back over his teeth and his skin was starting to wrinkle. “What news?” he inquired, seating himself as a serving girl passed him a goblet of wine.
Betrayer straightened and half-bowed. “My lord, we have taken Temple Consect in your name. We lost nearly three thousand soldiers, but we have taken eight thousand prisoners. They can serve as slave soldiers, or be Turned into walkers. There are many that may prove worthy of becoming vampires.”
“If they can survive the burning,” Canticle pointed out. Not everyone infected by a pyre’s blood survived the process. Failed aspirants died outright, or withered into ghouls.
The young man nodded in acknowledgement, but he continued. “To properly garrison the Temple, we will need to leave-”
“We will not leave anyone.” The Harvestman interrupted. “Temple Consect will be razed to the ground and you will continue on to your next objective.”
The Coldblood generals shared a quick glance. Destroying the castle made no sense. It would take time to level even a middling fort like Consect, and time was the one thing they didn’t have. They needed to strike deep into the Dynasty, sever its supply chains, isolate its Temples and cities from each other, not waste time disassembling a minor border post.
The Dynasty was sure to react swiftly to news of the attack. It might take them time to raise and deploy their forces, but once they did, they could put fifty thousand men into the paths of each of the Harvestman’s Hosts and still retain enough soldiers to protect their provinces. Strategic mobility was one of the strengths of Lifeless Hosts. They were slow, but they could keep their pace long after any living soldier had collapsed from exhaustion, and they needed to use that against the Dynasty before it could muster itself. The border Temples were also necessary to secure the undead’s own rear from flying columns and raiders. Should the worst happen and the Host needed to fall back, they would need Consect and the other border Temples to support their withdrawal
“My lord,” Betrayer said. “Are you certain? The Temple will provide several strategic benefits-”
“You will leave nothing in your path,” the Harvestman continued calmly. “No village, no farm, no fortress. No stone must stand upon another after you pass. This is my will, and my command. Do you understand?”
Betrayer said nothing for a moment. His lord’s will was idiocy. He looked to his fellow generals. Coryphée’s expression showed no indication of her thoughts. Ursid’s smirk had only widened at the younger man’s chastisement, and the prospect of unfettered slaughter. Canticle met his eyes, unease in her own. Coryphée was a stiletto blade; Ursid a blunt instrument. Neither had more than a basic grasp of strategy, but the mage did and she saw the same problems as her superior.
“This will slow us considerably,” Betrayer tried a final time to correct his ‘master’s’ folly. “It will give the defences ahead of us time to muster while we chase farmers and bakers. If there is another squall from the Peaks, we could be stalled completely. It would be more strategically sound to focus on enemy fortifications and field armies and leave the rest to our flying columns-”
“I have made my decision,” the necromancer snapped. “This is my will. Carry it out. Purge the cattle from these lands and swell our ranks. Leave nothing for Ambre’s mewling cunt-lickers to build from.”
Betrayer flinched from the compulsion the Harvestman exuded, gritting his teeth against the sudden pressure in his mind. You’re a fool, he thought. “Of course, my lord. It shall be as you will.”
“Very well. Is my caravan ready?”
Canticle raised her head. “Yes, my lord. Draken Ferus reports that Siren and her fellow generals eagerly await you at Temple Edif.”
“I am sure they do.” The Harvestman snapped his fingers and the serving girls stiffened at the unspoken command, hurrying into his bedchamber to pack his belongings. “No stone upon stone,” was his last order as he swept from the tent.
In his wake, Betrayer turned to his fellow nobles. “The Temple falls by tomorrow’s sunset. Let’s not waste more time than we have to smashing rocks.”
It was Betrayer’s turn to stand watch, to keep the undead horde under control for the night as his fellow generals slept. Coldbloods did not need to sleep much, but they did need to. There were still fragments of life in them, reminders of what they had once been. Some useless, some painful. The feel of Alven’s cool autumn breezes was not one of them. Betrayer closed his eyes. Summer was coming to an end and the wind fluttered over the Seventh Host’s earthworks, stirring flags and heralding the approach of Demesis’ cold embrace. The nature goddess celebrated death in her own way, but only as a means for rejuvenation and rebirth. The death that Nekerya brought was eternal. It severed that cycle and Demesis hated her aunt fiercely for it. Her followers were even more opposed to the Lifeless than Ambre’s.
The Coldblood general stood on a rampart of soil and clay overlooking the army’s siege lines, the undead swarming over Temple Consect like ants, burning the buildings within its keep as miners set charges beneath its ancient walls in order to bring them down. It was not the largest Temple that Betrayer had seen, but it was a fine one all the same, a testament to the works of man. His creativity and ingenuity, his ability to create. This fortress had stood for centuries, built and rebuilt time and again.
And he was destroying it. “Such a waste,” he breathed in the cool air.
“What is?” a small voice asked. The Coldblood looked down, surprised. Anyka was standing beside him, her eyes wide and staring up at him, a jacket two sizes too big wrapped around her.
“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” he asked flatly.
“Yes,” the girl replied, but she made no move to return there. She looked uneasy, wanting to move closer to the undead warrior but scared of him at the same time. “You… hurt a lot of people today,” she stated.
Bertrayer nodded. “Yes.” What else was there to say? They weren’t evil men, they didn’t deserve it. He hadn’t done it for some greater cause or ideal of his own. He’d done it because he’d been commanded to. Then again, the last time he had fought for a cause he’d hardly done better, had he? The soldier curled his hands into fists, putting them behind his back as he struggled to suppress the sudden swell of fury.
The girl’s question pulled his attention back from the past and he let out a soft exhalation, letting his anger subside. “Did you ever have to do things that you didn’t want to, things that your mother and father told you that you had to anyways? Because they said it was for your own good?”
Anyka nodded. “I had to do chores. I didn’t like them, but Mom said everyone does chores. Dad said it built character.” She’d asked her father what ‘character’ was. He’d smiled and knelt in front of her, tussling her dark blonde hair. He’d said it was what good people had a lot of.
A haunted smile wormed its way onto Marcus’s lips. “This is something similar.” He looked out upon the crumbling fortress and remembered a similar view from a different life, remembered the scent of blood, the cries of the wounded and the dying, remembered his own revulsion at what he’d wrought. Now, his dead soul was inured to the horrors of war. He gestured to the army laid out before them. “But there is no ‘good’ in this. In any of it. I do what I do because it is what I am now. My master demanded that those men die, so I killed them. He demanded that we destroy this fortress, so it falls.” He was silent for several seconds. “I am very much the monster that Bekah says I am. We all are.”
He still had no idea why he had rescued her, nor why he had brought her into this hive of monstrosities and terrors. Maybe because it was something that he had chosen to do, of his own free will. The young man almost laughed with bitterness that thought brought with it. The last choice he had made of his own will had led him to the gallows, an entire province screaming for his head, branding him ‘Betrayer’ and rightly so. Now, he was gambling with the life of an innocent. But what was one more to the scores that lay dead because of him?
The young girl stared at the tall warrior for a long moment, bunching her coat tighter as the wind picked up. She didn’t know what to do; part of her urged to her to run, run blindly but as fast as she could away from the thing in front of her. Somehow, she knew he wouldn’t follow her, wouldn’t try to stop her. She looked at him for several seconds. He said he was a monster. But he saved me.
Betrayer looked down in surprise as he felt tiny fingers clutch his hand, Anyka drawing closer to him. The Coldblood reached down and lifted her up into his arms like any father would hold his own daughter, both of them watching the destruction of Temple Consect.
Tobias’s dreams were shapeless and nightmarish, filled with images of slaughter, the scent of blood thick in his nostrils as he struggled against the chains that held him down, naked and helpless as he was forced to watch a play. The theater was full, corpses of men, women and children resting in every seat. Their heads were turned to stare at him. He couldn’t bear to meet their blank-eyed accusing glares, no matter how much he wanted to look away from the performance on stage.
There were no actors, only leering marionettes shuffling and twitching back and forth as unseen hands played with their strings. Those with glowing blue eyes hacked down the rest, giggling like hyenas as they did so, occasionally looking back towards him and pointing, wooden lips moving but no sound emerging.
He wanted to shout and demand the play end, that it was poorly done, but he couldn’t find the words.
Soft, feminine laughter came from beside him and a dainty hand stroked the back of his neck. He looked over at the new presence, saw her long, pointed ears and the blood on her lips. In her free hand was an armoured puppet, subtle movements of her fingers making it raise its sword and bring it down, each time accompanied by a scream that ended as the blade fell. “For me,” she whispered in Hel’s ear, pulling him towards back towards her…. “Do you see?”
Tobias awoke with a startled scream, aware of another moving shape before him and he lunged, wrapped his hands around its throat. “Murderer!” he snarled through clenched teeth, seeing only images of slaughter and hearing only Betrayer sentencing him to live mingled with the woman’s lilting laughter still ringing in his ears. “Die!”
He was only dimly aware of someone else barging into the room, pulling him off the figure. They were speaking, but words that made no sense. He thrashed against the person holding him back, but he didn’t have the strength to resist and he sagged back into the bed, his consciousness slipping away, returning him to the theater of blood and tears.