The Return

The Return

Prologue

By Evan McCleskey

Captain Onu Thruul’s hips ached as his horse trotted down a well worn path in the Nogali south lands. More like marshlands, really. Saying it was hot here in the verdant wetlands would be a gross understatement. The air was oppressively thick and one never stopped their sweating while outdoors. And if the humidity wasn’t bad enough -the sun was an angry, relentless bitch that battered the exposed flesh of his face and balding head.

He’d requisitioned a padded arming cap from one of his soldiers to protect his blistered scalp. What that soldier now used to protect his head from his iron helmet, Onu didn’t know and didn’t much care. As far as Onu was concerned he’d just given that young man a fundamental lesson in soldiering. Always carry a spare. Those rules didn’t apply to him, however. As the ranking officer he invariably ended up with whatever he required.

For perhaps the fifth time since rising from his mosquito infested tent he regretted accepting his position as a military commander of men. He’d thought the position would be more impressive than a judicator or an adjutant. Captains were soldiers, after all. Fighters. Not parchment pushers and ink mongers. In the court of nobility his position had seen him in the center of many social circles; regaling his avid listeners with stories of battle that he’d completely made up. Most tales he overheard from actual soldiers and he would simply add his own little flourish to them. Always making himself the savior or the the officer whose genius saw through the enemy’s convoluted snare of nefarious battle tactics. No matter that the Nogali hadn’t known war with a foreign kingdom or empire in nearly a decade. The same couldn’t be said for infighting amongst the twelve provinces of Nogali. Not now, it seemed. No, now he was on patrol in search of an actual devils damned enemy.

When he was given the rank of Officer by his cousin, a Pure Blood and Primus of Dalsim, the provinces had been at peace with one another. A peace of sorts, anyway. There were always assassins in the night carrying out the will of their Lords, but that was to be expected. That clandestine civil war had been waged for generations, but never outright hostilities between the Provinces. Yet, the news coming from the south of the Dalsim Province would prove otherwise. Farms burning, merchant caravans ambushed; the shareholders and guards murdered to the last man. Had one of the Nogali Pure Bloods, the descendants of the last Empress, finally had enough of the war of shadows?

Such ill fortune. I should’ve been a damned judicator.

Oh, the provinces of Nogali had been boiling for years, but Onu never thought he’d live to see the day that the preening peacocks actually took up arms against one another.

His horse shook its head violently as he tried to guide the beast through a rutted out mud pit.

“Captain Onu.” His Lieutenant called from behind. He’d forgotten the man’s name. Dan? Lan? His relationship with the man had always consisted of handing over signed orders from generals or marshals. He’d always been more of a relayer of orders. A finger-pointer.

But when your finger is made from gold and the men who take your orders have fingers stained with pig-shit, well that was another fundamental lesson in the ways of the world.

“Captain Onu.” He repeated.

“I heard you lieutenant! What is it?” He sawed at the infernal beasts reigns and seriously considered laying about the impudent beast’s neck and head with his baton of office.

“Captain, that horse you’re riding is a Feather Roan.”

“Lieutenant!” Onu said, agitation boiling over. “No one told me you were a gods damned Divine Seer! By the gods lieutenant, in unraveling the mystery surrounding what breed of horse I rode -you must have cast such a potent divination as to make the All-Mother herself weep with the knowledge that a mere mortal here in the sweltering pits of the world’s sweating ass hole is her superior in the arts arcanum!”

The man blinked like a dullard.

“As you say, Captain.” Lieutenant Dan said, unperturbed. “Only Feather Roans are show horses, sir. Unaccustomed to riding through-.”

“Lieutenant Dan!”

“Han, Sir.”

“What!?”

“My name, sir. It’s Lieutenant Han. Sir.”

“That’s what I said!”

“Yes, Captain. As you say, Captain.”

“Lieutenant Dan, why don’t you go put those astounding powers of observation to better use.” Onu gestured at a small cluster of rolling hills to the south where he saw some gathering carrion birds -crows, maybe. Hopefully feeding on the carcass of a particularly smelly mammal. “Take a detachment and find out what those birds are so interested in.” He flicked his hand in dismissal.

“You mean a squad, Captain.”

“Lieutenant Lan, if you correct me one more time -in fact, if you so much as utter another syllable in my presence, by the Pure Bloods, I’ll have you clipped and peeled.”

“Ye-.” Lieutenant Lan’s eye’s widened and he quickly saluted. Left hand up, palm forward, head bowed.

“Now fuck off.” Onu said as he tried to force his mount passed the pit once more.

Lieutenant Lan guided his horse through the same pit of mud with ease, five soldiers wheeling out of the column to follow him. Insolent little shit was trying to make a fool of him. He looked back over his shoulder at the dozen or so soldiers left in the column. Were they smirking behind their visored helms? He was tempted to order them removed so that he may look upon their faces. Ten lashes to anyone who smiles. Twenty to anyone hiding a smile.

I should’ve been a gods damned judicator.

Captain Onu looked down at his Feather Roan and suddenly felt ridiculous. The horses his soldiers rode were nearly twice the size, all shod in iron and mail. He would have the stable-hand hung when they returned to Dalsim for allowing him to ride this ridiculous horse. No matter that he’d ordered it saddled over his battle horse, that mean bastard was too gods damned temperamental to ride.

“Water!” He called back. “I need water!” Was he supposed to have brought his own water supply? Gods damn this! Why had his cousin insisted he lead this patrol? And why so far south? So far away from all the amenities he required. There was nothing but marshlands to the south and blight fouled swamplands beyond that. It was a desolate wasteland. If the neighboring provinces of Yanto or Karasmai were sending forces through the fucking swamps just to set fire to some flea ridden farmsteads and spice laden caravans from Miodeggi then they were clearly cowards and certainly lacking in intellect.

A soldier rode up next to him, offering his water skin. Onu was just thirsty enough not to question if the commoner had touched his rotten lips to it. Really, how was this man wearing all that chain armor and not complaining? By the gods, he was in his light, linen robes of office and felt like he would pitch off this absurd horse with heat-touch.

The water was warm, almost hot as he gulped it down and Onu found he was annoyed with this man for it. After nearly emptying its contents he threw the skin back to the soldier and almost scoffed at his attempt to keep the water from spilling into his lap.

That’s what you get for laughing.

“Any news from the other patrols?” He called out to no one in particular. Surely there was a soldier tasked with the responsibility of knowing such things. If not, then he should make one. Any patrolling force would benefit from such streamlined efficiency. He would surely be commended.

“We’ve seen no riders, Captain.” The fool still fumbling with his water-skin said.

Riders? That’s what they were called? How unimaginative.

“Well, find them!” He snapped. There were four other patrols out there he was in charge of. Surely they wouldn’t be that hard to find.

“Rider!” A soldier shouted, lifting a gauntleted hand to point south.

There. That wasn’t so hard.

It was Lieutenant Lan. He was galloping hard and Captain Onu had to admit that the disrespectful little shit could ride. The man better have found something to be returning so soon. Onu saw the soldiers that had followed him appear on the small hilltop, heads frantically swinging back and forth from their Lieutenant to whatever was on the other side of the hill.

Its as if the Crow of Death himself is beyond that rise. Onu mused.

Lieutenant Dan reigned his destrier in smartly, the horse’s iron shod hooves digging furrows into the mud as it bore down on its haunches, rearing slightly and throwing its massive head. It took Onu everything inside of him not to spit on the back of his Feather Roan’s head after such a display of equine mastery.

“What is it, Lieutenant?”

“Captain. Five men over the ridge. Foreigners, sir. Armed foreigners.”

Onu signed in frustration. “Lieutenant Dan, I believe you had six men total. Why then did you not simply arrest these foreigners on grounds of suspicion?”

Gone was the lieutenant’s seeming aloofness from earlier. A clear sign that the man had been putting him on. Something he would answer for upon their return to Dalsim.

“Captain, the men just stared at us.” His face contorted in confusion. “They weren’t afraid, Captain. It’s almost like they wanted to be found, sir.”

“You seem incapable of both answering questions and following orders, lieutenant.” Onu collected his reins and attempted to draw himself up as much as he could on his pathetic, little horse. “Let us go see these foreigners that have turned your spine to mud.”

“Captain, we should call in the other patrols. We shou-.”

“Your resolve sickens me, lieutenant. We are not descendants of fearful men.” He looked around, letting his calm assuredness radiate over his soldiers. He imagined himself a monolith of solidity. “Lead us back, now.”

Lieutenant Dan slammed the visored helm back on his head and viciously reined his horse around.

“Uh.. Forward, men!” He ordered and set out behind the frightened lieutenant.

This is what happened in a country devoid of a good conflict or struggle. Soldiers grew weak and the burden was then placed on officers such as he to correct infectious, poisonous behavior that would see the rest of the men soiling their breechclouts in the face of even the slightest adversity. He would use these foreigners to cultivate within his men a stronger disposition that would set them apart from other soldiers. His men would be the new standard, and he would quietly take credit with a knowing smile from atop a warhorse the size of a fucking war-galleon.

Maybe this was why his cousin had insisted he lead this patrol. He recognized the degradation of his own troops and needed a leader of men such as he to correct the wayward soldiers.

So be it.

Onu spurred his horse up the final rise where sat the fear stricken riders who had ridden out with lieutenant Lan.

Former lieutenant Lan. He corrected himself. Such insubordination and malfeasance could not be tolerated within his ranks. He wouldn’t publicly humiliate him. No, not now, anyway. He would give the coward that much. Let it never be said that Captain Onu Thruul was not merciful.

“They haven’t moved, Captain.” One of the soldier sitting atop the hill said upon his arrival.

“They’re just sitting there staring at us.” Another said. “I’d swear at the Crow’s bloody feet they was smiling.”

“Damned unsettling.” Said another.

Captain Onu rode out ahead of his soldiers and stopped. The foreigners were maybe a hundred or so paces away. Four stood looking at them -motionless as stumps, while the fifth appeared to be skinning a stag. They were dark of hair and pale of skin -almost pallid. Tall, broad shouldered but gaunt. Their skin clung tightly to lean muscle or bone with hardly any fat separating the two.

“They’re angry earth-spirits!” A soldier cried.

“Spirits do not feed on flesh! They’re demons!” Another said.

Onu noticed then that the foreigner’s hands and forearms were caked black with dried blood, as were their mouths and chins.

The savages ate the stag raw!

“Enough!” Onu shouted. “On me!” He thought for a moment. “Battle formation!” Yes, that sounded right. As he rode forward his men formed lines out to either side of him -wings, he thought they were called. Swords rasped from sheaths and some men lowered iron tipped lances.

Easy enough. He thought, proud of his performance during his first militaristic engagement. He wished he had brought a sword to draw but swords were heavy and he could cut himself -so he settled instead for his baton of office. He pointed the baton at the foreigners. “Onward!” He shouted and his line of soldiers moved down the small hill at a brisk walk.

He saw the foreigner attending to the stag make two, savage chops -the axe a blurred stain in the foreigner’s hands. Two chops had severed both of the stag’s antlers, each of which had at least a dozen tines. Onu scoffed, unbelieving as the barbarian butchered the trophy stag.

“Halt! Cease! Stop!” Onu couldn’t decide which word to use so he said them all and his soldiers stopped in a ragged line ten paces from the foreigners. The barbarian butchering the stag finally rose -turning to face them and Onu was unable to stop himself from gasping.

A woman. He thought, surprised. She was tall for a woman. Almost the same height as her male counterparts. Her hair was pulled back into a tightly woven mass of braids. A frenzy of white-tipped porcupine quills impaled the braids and protruded from her hair for the entirety of its long length. All of the savages had facial tattoos that looked to be boar tusks -starting at their ears, curving down their jawlines to sweep up at the corners of their lips. Dreadful looking, really. She suddenly spoke in a surprisingly deep voice.

“Hanat und semptu grafal.” The men with her all laughed. A laugh so devoid of worry or fear that Captain Onu felt a spike of uncertainty lance into his gut -like one of those damned porcupine quills.

“Do you speak Nogali?” He was answered with hollow eyes and empty smiles.

“Miodeggi?” Nothing. “Anghin, Helian, Maori, Grahkish, Valari?” The pale foreigners stared back, blankly. Where had these savages come from? Could they possibly be a nomadic people -undiscovered until now? They certainly didn’t appear civilized. He looked at the axe the woman held down by her side -still dripping blood. Blackened iron. They weren’t completely uncivilized then.

“Boglachi.” The woman said it slow -emphasizing each syllable and Onu’s blood went cold.

He snorted a mirthless laugh amongst the hushed whispers of his soldiers. The Boglachi weren’t real. They were a fairytale -a mythical fabrication to bend stubborn children to their parent’s will.

If you don’t do your chores and do them well -the Boglachi will come from the swamps to snatch you up in your sleep! They’ll eat you whole!

Captain Onu had had enough of this charade. They were clearly masquerading as barbarians to protect their true identity. Yes, that must be it.

“Rubbish! Tell me, which province put you up to this? Karasmai? Yanto? Lord Balkan of Restisch?” The strangers just stared back, irritating, half smiles chiseled onto their pallid, tattooed faces. “Very well, have it your way. Lieutenant Lan, have these barbarians shackled. We shall drag them back with us to Dalsim.” He gestured with a circular flutter of his baton at the foreigners. “Time spent under the direct attention of the Hand of Truth tends to loosen one’s tongue.”

When he was answered with an uncomfortably long silence and the snorts of nervous horses he looked over to see his lieutenant, mouth ajar, simply staring at the savages.

“Lieutenant!”

“Aye, Captain.” Lieutenant Han motioned to the five riders who had initially rode out with him and as one they dismounted -each removing a pair of iron shackles from their saddles.

“Lashayn and Monteva.” Lieutenant Han called out. “If these pig kissing barbarians so much as twitch one of those quills on their heads -stick a broad-head in their bellies. Third squad. Reposition to their flank with long-spears and be ready to ride these bastards down in case their feet get excited.” There was a jingle of horse harness and the creak of leather as his soldiers moved into position.

A plan of action, very good. Yes, Lieutenant Nan I now see through your charade of senselessness. Maybe he should keep the lieutenant around for a while longer if only to glean what tactics he could from the coward.

“Drop your weapons!” The lieutenant shouted from atop his horse as he followed behind the line of his approaching men. Onu could no longer see the savages faces but he imagined the lieutenant’s words were met with that same emotionless, little smiles. “Hastavan!” One of the soldiers on foot strode forward providing Onu a better vantage -his sword leveled at the woman still holding her axe lazily down by her side.

There was a flash of movement and a sharp crack. Onu saw Hastavan fall back and crash to the ground in a rattle of iron and chain armor. An axe now protruded from his head. It had bitten down through iron helm and bone all the way to Hastavan’s teeth. The woman stood over the soldier she’d just slain, teeth gleaming in a rapturous smile. Suddenly Onu wished for that other smile to return. This one was worse.

Why wasn’t anyone doing anything? Someone should order the soldiers to attack! Oh, right. He opened his mouth to shout an order and was silenced as an ear piercing shriek split the air. He felt his horse jump beneath him and there was an explosion of pain as the beast’s head came back to meet his face as it reared.

There was a moment of weightlessness before he struck the ground, the air blasted from his lungs. The lone shriek was now a chorus and Onu covered his ears and curled up like a babe.

By the fucking Crow! Those screams were inhuman!

Onu had squeezed his eyes shut but still felt the impact of horse hooves all around him. A part of him wished an iron shod hoof would crush his skull so he could escape the shrieks.

The screams! Silence the fucking screams!

The sound of battle made him aware that the screams had stopped. He blinked the tears away and scrubbed at his face with the muddied sleeves of his robe. His men! His brave warriors were clashing with the foreigners. No! Not foreigners -monsters! A dozen and more of his soldiers completely encircled them, hacking and stabbing. Shouting fierce battle cries and-.

He heard the crack of weapon on bone and saw a man thrown back ten paces, a plume of bloody mist rising into the air in his wake. The force that delivered that blow was not of this world. Another soldier went down screaming and clutching the bloody stump where his arm used to be. Another fell.

“Retreat!” Captain Onu shouted, unable to even rise. “Flee for your lives!” He kept slipping in the muck on legs that wouldn’t support him. Where was his gods damned horse? He didn’t see any of the horses! Had they all run away? Fled at that demonic cry? He elected to simply drag himself away from this. He would let his soldiers hold off the demons until he could get away. “Fight, men!” He called over his shoulder weakly. “Fight till your last breath!”

Something struck the ground next to him in a rolling clatter of iron. It was the lower half of a man, entrails spilling out the top of his hips into the mud.

Crow take me. The soldier had been cleanly cut in half.

Onu’s breath was coming in short, labored gasps and he found he no longer had the strength of body or will to drag himself any further. He didn’t hear the ring of battle behind him and rolled himself over -a morbid curiosity gripping him. Funny how the certainty of death stiffened the spine.

The Crow feasts this day. He thought as he witnessed the carnage before him.

His soldiers were dead. Twenty three soldiers -gone. None so much as twitched in the mud. The lifeless mounds of their bodies dotted the hillside in various states of ruin, the soupy muck around them turning red in ever widening pools.

Four of the Boglachi still stood -chests heaving, muscles shuddering. That’s what they were -Boglachi. He knew that now. Only something out of a fairytale could do something like this. The woman saw him and smiled that damned smile. That smile that said she knew something that nobody else did. But Onu knew what it was now. He knew that smile meant the Crow of Death circled her at all times, waiting to feed. She slowly strolled towards him, stopping to grip the axe-handle that protruded from Hastavan’s head. She resumed her lazy stroll -effortlessly dragging the fully armored corpse behind her for fifteen paces until she reached him.

Her body was a mass of wounds. Slashes, puncture holes, the broken end of an arrow jutting out from her collarbone. She suddenly stomped. A hollow crack and a gout of blood announced the smashing of Hanavat’s skull and the Boglachi freed her axe from the gore. More shadows passed him. The men, porcupine quills arrayed in ridges down the center of their heads forming a blood spattered, macabre mohawk, all paced back and forth like wild animals stuck in the cage -waiting.

Waiting to be let off the leash once more? Freed to slaughter?

He felt the limp form of a body as it was thrown down beside him and looked over to see the fifth Boglachi -the only one who had fallen. An arrow protruded from his ear but more chilling was the smile he still wore upon his face.

Onu wanted to laugh and cry. He wanted to beg for his life. He wanted to order these foreigners into obeisance. But monsters couldn’t be bargained with nor broken into obedience, could they? He wanted to pray for his soul but already the shadow of the Crow was felt. Circling.

The woman knelt down over the Boglachi, producing a forward curving, fat bladed dagger. She pried the dead Boglachi’s mouth open using the flat of her blade. Onu retched as he heard taught muscles, locked in death, stretch then snap. He vomited when teeth popped from the dead man’s mouth like projectiles. The captain closed his eyes, but that helped nothing. Onu was still able to hear the wet slice of a knife through flesh.

He felt gentle pressure on his chest and opened his eyes. The Boglachi woman was resting her bloodstained hand upon him.

“Be at ease, Herald.” She narrowed her eyes on his. “Ah, you now understand, yes?”

Onu nodded his head, afraid to do much else lest the monsters choose to slay him as well. He spared not a thought for how he was able to understand the foreign tongue.

“Horses approach, Sovereign.” A man growled. “More men of iron.”

The woman smiled.

That fucking smile! It was maddening! How could a smile turn his guts to ice?

“Let us awaken our Rage upon them, my Blackened. Let them hear again the cries of the Boglachi. Let the ground drink deeply and the Crow feed til bursting.” She looked at him. “Witness, Herald.” She stood, taking her hand from his chest. Beneath that hand was the severed tongue of the fallen Boglachi warrior. A solid black tongue. “Witness the rebirth of the Boglachi.”

They turned as one at the thundering approach of horse hooves.

No. No! Run you fools!

The piercing shrieks began and above them all -the Crow circled.

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