This is the continuation of a fantasy project I was commissioned for not only didn’t get picked up but that I hated writing from the first word, outside some details. I’m going to level with you: I haven’t read it since I finished it, and that was two and a half years ago, so I don’t even remember much of what’s here. Anyway, you can find the earlier entries at A Captain’s Duty Part One and A Captain’s Duty Part Two.
The air smelled of citrus. Oranges, specifically, though he couldn’t place the region. It hung around them, clung to their clothes, but it wasn’t unpleasant. It served to mask the pungent smell of kraga grass, though the second-hand effects from the smoke weren’t at all diminished.
He squinted through the haze, ignoring the voluminous figure in front of him in order to take in the interior of the tent. The walls were alternating patches of red and bruise-purple, not that they were easy to see. Tables and crates were piled high with riches and artifacts of all kinds. Piles of elaborate finery were heaped messily on the floor and the occasional chest. Ornaments dangled from the coned ceiling; he had seen plenty of the gamla dream-snares before, though he had never laid eyes on any of the nomads who made them before leaving Mekan.
“You can’t possibly keep track of everything here. Aren’t you worried about any of this stuff going missing?”
“I’ve got four guards outside and two in here,” said the figure splayed out on his sea of cushions. “Who’s going to take something? You, sultani? This is the closest thing humans have to a real city, and they’re making the most of it. Anyone with pointed ears would find themselves in a precarious situation should I give so much as a whistle.”
“That’s quite the influence. You said this was the human’s city, such as it is. What gives you so much authority?”
“If you want power over people, Captain, you have to have what they want. I have everything. Everything, including the most important commodity of all.”
“And that is?” he asked impatiently. His head felt light from the kraga smoke.
“It’s the one thing everyone can use, of course: I have information.”
His eyes opened to the stars above. A deep breath pulled in through his nostrils and swelled his lungs. He stayed like that for several heartbeats and then pushed himself up into a sitting position.
Darian Andigar sat on the opposite side of a dying fire. He broke sticks in half between his thick, calloused fingers and tossed the pieces into the smoldering red. His eyes were shadowed. They looked right through him.
“Does your whole friendly little mercenary band have problems with watching people sleep, or is it just you and Bren?” Korkarin asked.
“It looked like you weren’t sleeping too good, Captain. ‘scuse me for being concerned.”
“It’s well. I wasn’t sleeping well.”
“I was always better with my hands than my words.”
Korkarin grunted as he pulled himself free from his sleeping roll. Bren still lay prone in her own nearby, back turned to both of them. He could make out her soft snoring. Andigar pointed to her and the unconscious Kolter and put a finger to his lips.
“Quiet, huh? I don’t remember her being such a light sleeper.”
“Used to sleep together, did you?” Andigar grinned.
The captain scowled back. “Not like that. We used to camp when we were younger. Back before…”
“Before you got a stick lodged?” Andigar laughed and when Korkarin looked fit to snap, he waved the man’s anger down. “I’m just playing, Captain. Bren, she keeps to herself most of the time. She likes to joke around with us guys. She likes to fight occasionally, too. She’s a scrapper, that one. But talk? She prefers everyone else’s stories. She likes to hear about everyone else’s lives, keeps us together that way. When she does talk, though, rare as it is, you usually pop up somewhere in there.”
Korkarin said nothing to that. He scooted closer to the dimming fire and moved the remains of the rabbits Bren had shot for dinner out of the way. He held his hands over the embers to warm them.
“I don’t think she mentioned you by name,” Andigar continued. “Or if she did, I missed it. She definitely didn’t say you were a city guard, though she’d drop hints at connections in Mekan. You could tell, though, from what little she did drop that your friendship was something important to her.”
“You can go to sleep, Darian. I’ll take my shift from here.”
“Ain’t your shift, Captain. Not for a couple hours yet. Your nightmares woke you early.”
“Then it’s your lucky day. Take advantage of the extra rest.”
“I ain’t tired, neither.”
Andigar leaned into the fire and blew softly, coaxing a little more life into the pit. Korkarin sighed and rubbed at his eyes. The last few dreams he’d had refused to fade away peacefully, and they were making him irritable.
The first day’s ride had come and gone without incident. The captain had resisted looking back at Mekan when they departed, though his companions had assured him no one was following. That didn’t mean an ambush didn’t still lay ahead, but they were outside of the city now: nothing prohibited his use of daevas out here. He knew the baunkar had a relationship with the spirits as well, and Bren was a capable fighter in her own ways. That should have put him at ease. It did for a while. All it took was one more weird dream to get under his skin.
“She ain’t, by the way,” Andigar said softly.
“Huh?” The comment snapped Korkarin back to their cramped little camp.
“A light sleeper. Bren ain’t one. Us mercs, we’re on the road a lot. We’re in the middle of a fight more often than night. You don’t know when you’re going to be getting your next rest, so when you can nap, you nap hard. The body does the rest. The right word cuts through that, though, pulls them back awake in an instant. I’d tell you what the words are, but…” He nodded over to her sleeping form.
“Right. Tell me later. What about you? Are there different words for you?”
Andigar smirked, though the mirth he had shown earlier seemed to have disappeared. He looked down at his hands. “Nah. I ain’t got any words, Captain. I always sleep light as a feather.”
The fire crackled loudly as an ember found something to feast on. No further words were shared between them.”
Trome wasn’t remarkable by way of appearance. It was a small village of hundreds, the kind where everyone knew each other. It was good when everyone got along and bad when a feud developed, the latter often leading to someone finding a new little town to start up in.
The land was mostly barren when riding down from the north or in from the west. To the south and the east, however, the area was dense with rice paddies. Vegetable gardens existed in large quantities, but these were tucked between the boxing homes that made up the village.
It was the paddy fields that were the most noteworthy thing about Trome, the thing that caught the attention of Mekan’s leader. Rumor had it that they added something to the waters in order to bring out the unique flavors that made their rice so desired. Rumor also had it that herbs and spices were packed into the submerged soil or that daevas were involved somehow. Only the villagers knew the truth behind the secret, and as it was a truth passed down through generation after generation, it was guarded fiercely. Attempts by visitors to find out were blocked at every turn. Even those that had been driven away refused to betray the prized recipe of their ancestors.
According to all of Korkarin’s sources, though the villagers of Trome were firm in their ways, they were also remarkably friendly. It struck him as odd that as he and his companions rode into the main avenue that cut through the village, not a single sultani came out to greet them.
Korkarin and Andigar held their reins in one hand and placed their free hands on their weapons. Bren dropped her reins completely and pulled her bow. She nocked an arrow but didn’t draw it back. Her eyes found Korkarin’s and the captain gestured for her to keep an eye on the spaces between the buildings.
“Hello?” he called. “Citizens of Trome? We come bearing greetings from Mekan!”
“Tal,” Bren said quietly.
She left the question unspoken and he acknowledged it the same way, pointing towards one of the houses on the right. Andigar moved to the left with like intention while the captain stayed in the middle of the road. There was no movement either ahead or behind them. There were no sounds.
Bren hooked her bow over her arm and drew her sword. With her left hand, she tried the door to the home. It was unlocked. Carefully, she pushed it open and leaned inside, leading with the blade’s tip.
“Anyone home?” she called.
The living room was empty. A chair lay on the floor with one leg cracked nearly all the way through. Two plates were broken next to it, the food that had been piled atop them, now smeared and rotting across the floorboards. Two other abandoned meals still sat atop the dining room table. A nearby hearth was filled with dark ash, the fuel for the flames having been consumed entirely.
She stepped carefully through the rest of the house, poking her head into the different rooms. There were no bodies, living or otherwise, though she saw several dried, rust-colored droplets that indicated at least one person hadn’t left easily.
With little else to go on, she exited the house and closed it behind her. She scratched a small ‘D’ into the frame to mark it as searched in case they were to perform a more thorough inspection through the town. She turned just as Andigar was finishing his own mark. Korkarin looked at her for answers.
“It’s empty,” she said. “There are signs of a struggle. Some blood, dried. No bodies, though. Whatever happened did so a while ago. The food is spoiled. Several days, maybe as much as a couple weeks.”
“Same on my end,” Andigar said. “Didn’t see no food or blood, but there are plenty of things smashed all to hell.”
Korkarin dismounted and drew his own sword. Bren sheathed hers but pulled and armed her bow once more. Andigar held an axe, one side curved with a thick, polished edge. The other side held a stout spike sharpened to a wicked point.
As one, they moved through the streets. Their mounts followed dutifully behind; they kept the beasts close in case a hasty retreat was necessary. Still, no one came. Still, the only sounds were the scuff off their feet and the soft clop of hooves.
Andigar pointed out several details as they walked. Smithing hammers dropped away from their anvils. A child’s doll covered in mud at the side of the road. Several deep grooves leading away from the homes, towards the paddies.
A powerful smell began to assault them as they neared. It was musty and reeked of spoiled meat. The air above the field was thick with flies and weevils, creating a soft roar as they worked at satisfying their insatiable hunger. At the forefront of the crop, a trench had been dug. It was long and deep and the cloud of bugs was thickest in and around it.
“Stay here,” Korkarin told the others.
Bren complied, keeping watch. Andigar ignored the order and walked to the pit beside the sultani captain. They both had an idea of what they would find. It didn’t make it any easier to actually see it.
“Reaper’s breath,” Andigar gasped. A pressure swelled in his chest and pounded behind his eyes. His hands tightened around his axe.
Bodies were stacked upon bodies, hundreds of them in varying states of decay. Their clothes were torn and soiled, though it was hard to pinpoint which holes had come from weapons and which had ripped open from being dropped in the cold, wet ditch. It didn’t matter what had killed them in the end. The result was the same: far too many bodies, in all shapes and sizes. Bodies that came far too small in some cases.
“What is it, Tal?”
“It’s-” His voice cracked. He cleared his throat and turned away. “It’s them. It’s the village.”
Bren let his words wash over her like a coat of ice. “Even the-”
“It’s all of them, lass,” Andigar snapped. “Every last one.”
“By the Ebb,” she said. “Those poor babies.”
“There isn’t anything that can be done for them now,” Korkarin said. “The paddy field is ruined. Murdering an entire village seems excessive just to keep the grain from the Singer’s mouth. This is a much more serious message.”
Andigar huffed in frustration. “From who? Saying what?”
“That’s the question, isn’t it? We’ve still got some light left, so let’s see if we can drum up an idea of what the real goal was. Maybe they left some equipment behind. Maybe we missed some kind of note.”
“Maybe they ain’t trying to be figured out, Captain,” the baunkar said. “Maybe they didn’t leave no note.”
“It might be that’s the case. If so, tomorrow we’ll start heading east. Wrane is several day’s travel from here and we’ll want to get there as quickly as possible in case they’re being targeted as well.”
Korkarin’s horse whinnied and stomped its front hooves. Bren transferred her bow and arrow to one hand and grabbed the mount’s reins in the other. The beast shook its head in dismay.
“What’s wrong with your horse?” she asked.
“I’m not sure. Something’s upsetting her.”
“We’re all upset, Captain,” Andigar pointed out. “There’s a bleedin’ mass grave right there.”
“No, it’s got to be something else. She only gets upset around…” He narrowed his eyes at Andigar. The baunkar noticed and narrowed his eyes right back.
“Around what, Korkarin? Your animal has been just fine around me since we set out.”
“Are you using a daeva right now?”
“What purpose do I have for-”
“Be honest with him, Darian,” Bren said.
“I am being honest with him, blast it. My daeva ain’t exactly-”
“Then we’re not alone,” Korkarin interrupted. He turned away from the bodies and began to scan the houses he had thought empty.
Shadows seemed to flicker at the edges of the buildings, in the open space between them. It started back near the entrance to Trome and worked its way closer. The pattern was unpredictable, sometimes moving in a straight row down only to suddenly appear across the street. The faintest outline of a body could be seen in the midst of the swirling darkness.
Korkarin’s head moved in an almost imperceptible nod. Bren’s arm pulled back swiftly. Her fingers released the bowstring and the arrow flew free into the shadows. A loud curse rang through the air and a single man stepped into sight, one hand half-raised and the other clutching at the thin cut the arrow had sliced into his shoulder.
“Whoa! Hey, hold on. Hold on, I’m not here for trouble.”
“Human,” Bren sneered.
“If you’re not here for trouble, why didn’t you approach in plain sight?” Korkarin asked.
“Using the shadows is quicker. The page back in Mekan sold me a sick horse. Damn thing died three-quarters of the way here and it’s been hell trying to catch up since. He sighed and muttered, “I knew I should’ve waited for the stablemaster.”
Andigar stepped forward briskly and slammed the haft of his axe into the center of the man’s chest. The stranger hit the ground with a wheeze and took his hand away from his wound long enough to beg the baunkar off. Andigar’s nostrils flared.
“Who are you with? Why are you following us?”
“I’m not with anyone, I swear! As far as I know, I’m the only one who lit out after you.” He glanced around and his forehead creased in confusion. “Where is everyone?”
“Never mind that,” Korkarin said. “Answer Darian’s question.”
“I told you, I’m not… look, my name is Mathias Kolter. Frankly, Captain, I’m here because of you. I want to offer my services to you to utilize however you wish in order to best benefit your career.”
Bren snorted. Korkarin shot her an annoyed look.
“Bind him,” he said.
“Wait, that’s not necessary,” Kolter said. “I’m unarmed.”
“Bind him anyway.” Korkarin shook his head and muttered, “Came after me for a job. Unbelievable.”
“I can help!” the human protested.
“Gag him, too. Darian, start searching houses again.”
Andigar didn’t move until Bren had circled behind Kolter and prepared a coil of rope. The human sighed and placed his hands behind his back.
Viskar sat with her legs crossed and her tail wrapped around her. Her hands rested on her knees, turned upwards. A thin, milky membrane covered her eyes, enough to keep them moisturized, not enough to keep the light of the candles fully out. Dozens of the waxen objects surrounded her, thin flames dancing with a carelessness that escaped her.
Gnash. Tear. Crush. Grind.
She couldn’t feel the heat from the flames. Not through her thick hide. Not with the daeva pressing up against her ribcage. It screamed in her mind. It begged to be released. She promised it would be soon. IN the meantime, all she wanted was a moment of peace.
Bring them to their knees. Drive them forward. Make them crawl. Make them beg.
The shrine to the Eroder was simple, a marble pedestal that started slim at the bottom and gradually grew wider as it rose. The powerful daeva’s symbol – a thin crescent laying on its rounded side – was carved into the surface.
Viskar had always found a greater connection with the Eroder than any of the other major daevas. The Constant was far too passive for her tastes. It didn’t match her vision for the future. Erosion was equally inevitable but far more commanding. It was a force of nature. Something to be respected. Something to be feared.
Break it away. Waste it away. Wear it away.
“No,” she whispered through her teeth.
Hers was a metaphorical erosion. A tearing away of the societal constructs that had kept her people at each other’s throats for hundreds of years. Land disputes and blood feuds. Resource wars and sport killing. Of course none of the other races respected the sobek. Why should they when the sobek tribes didn’t even respect each other.
Until her. Until Viskar united them and resurrected the title of Nebkha. Her power was unmatched. Her ferocity unrivaled. She would usher in a new era of peace, prosperity and recognition for her race unlike anything that had come before.
Yet even as she visualized tranquility for the sobek, for her sister Garrix and herself…even as she saw brighter days and bluer skies, she pictured skulls filled with blood and turbulent airs filled with the wails of the dying. She envisioned viscera dripping from her hands.
Beat them. Bleed them. Slay them.
The daeva inside her gripped at her heart. It kicked at her stomach. It plucked at every nerve from the base of her neck to the tip of her tail. She took a deep breath and tried to calm it, or at least push it down. Her hands clenched, her nails biting into the skin of her palms. She closed her main eyelids to block out the light, uttered a soft prayer and let her hands open one more.
In the few hours that remained before the sun tucked in under the horizon, their search yielded few results, none of which were answers. They found peculiarities instead. Many of the homes had fireplaces, but the tools for them were nowhere to be found. Some places had been thoroughly looted while others had jewelry and other valuable strewn about. The crops were ruined in full. The buildings were largely untouched, save for a handful that had had their sidings stripped. There were no messages of intent nor any list of demands. It seemed to them to be mindless slaughter for the sake of it.
Once darkness fell, the group reconvened and led Kolter and their mounts to a stable they had discovered near the outer edge of town. To their relief, there were no dead animals waiting for them. Whether they had been taken by whoever had laid waste to the village or had managed to escape on their own, they had left the stalls empty. The horses and Andigar’s pony found spaces of their own to relax and some left over grain to feed on. The rest of them bunched into a large stall at the end.
Bren passed out dried fruit and nuts to Andigar and Korkarin. The latter fixed Mathias Kolter with calculating eyes. Kolter, for his part, had stayed quiet at the mention of a gag, though his arms had grown increasingly comfortable from the long hours of being bound. With tremendous reluctance, Korkarin unfastened the rope around the human’s wrists.
“Thank you, Tal. Er, Captain, I mean,” Kolter said. He rubbed at the red marks the rope had left. “That feels much better.” He eyed the food with a hungry glint in his eye. “Do you think… you think I could maybe get a bite or two to eat? Just one bite would be fine.”
“When’s the last time you ate?” Bren asked.
“I finished off the rest of my bread yesterday afternoon.”
“Then, no. You’ll live.”
Andigar smirked and popped a slice of dried peach in his mouth. Kolter scowled at the baunkar in return but knew to argue was to continue a fight he would never win. He opted to change the subject instead.
“Must we sleep out here? It smells atrocious.”
“It’s a stable,” Andigar said.
“I had managed to piece that together via an assortment of context clues, thank you. What I meant to say is that there are several perfectly good, perfectly warm, unoccupied houses we could be using instead.”
“None of us are sleeping in a dead man’s house,” Korkarin said. “If you’re cold, tuck yourself under some of that hay.”
“Or we could set him on fire,” Bren suggested.
“Or we could set you on fire,” Korkarin said to Kolter.
“It would keep the rest of us warm,” Andigar added.
The human grumbled, “I prefer myself flameless. I’ll… see what I can do with the hay.”
“Tal, what are we going to do with this guy?” Bren asked. “We can’t just drag him along with us. He’s a hindrance as it is, and I don’t trust him.”
Andigar grunted. “We could ki-”
Korkarin cut him off. “We’re not going to kill him. We’ll leave Mister Drunk and Disorderly here in the morning. For now, the three of us will take up watch shifts, same as usual.”
Kolter perked up at that. “Hold on, you know who I am?”
“It took me a bit to place you, but I remember you now. You were the man in the cell when I dropped off that boat thief. If your idea was really to track me down so I would use your services, you had to know that I would take a look at your record sooner or later when we got back to Mekan. What made you think this was actually going to work?”
“I was only drunk and disorderly! That’s nothing!”
“Assault was on your charge sheet, too, I recall.”
“Those charges were dropped,” Kolter said. “I’ve never done anything but get by. Yeah, I’ve made a mistake or two, but you’re going to tell me you’ve never made a mistake in your life?”
“I’ve never spent time in jail for my mistakes.”
The human had a sharp retort itching to leap from his tongue, but he held it in check. Bren settled down onto her side and turned so her back faced the group. Andigar frowned in thought.
“We don’t have time to take the human back to Mekan if we want to get to Wrane in a timely manner, and he ain’t exactly done a crime worth locking him up for anyway. If we don’t kill him, that means leaving him here. If that’s the case, you might consider how he could interpret, you know… the scene.”
“What scene?” Kolter asked. The lack of mills? It’s strange, I’ll grant you that, but I wasn’t going to say anything. Besides, I can get you to Wrane more quickly if that’s where you’re going next. There isn’t any need to leave me and even less to kill me. I can help you!”
Korkarin blinked. “Back up. One thing at a time. What did you say about the mills?”
“There aren’t any. A village like this, with the rice production they’re famous for, it should have at least one mill constructed. Right? Big metal building? Mekan has some grain mills of their own that you’ve probably seen.”
“I know what a mill is.”
“So that’s weird, right?”
Missing tools, missing siding, missing metal buildings,” Andigar mused. “I think I’m starting to get an idea of what they were after.”
“Yeah, but the bigger question is who would need it? Who would kill every man, woman and child anywhere just to get it?”
“There’s someone I know of who might be able to help you,” Kolter said. His face was earnest, his hands open. “If you’re going to Wrane, that’s, what, six days away? I know a path that can get us there in half that. On the way, there’s a merchant I can introduce you to. He knows things. He might be able to give you some answers.”
“Nonsense,” Andigar scoffed. “There’s no passage to Wrane.”
“Not directly, no. It cuts through the Serpent’s Spine. You could probably find it if you really looked for it. Really looked. Once you’re in though… you’d be traveling blind.”
“Why haven’t I heard of it?”
Kolter grinned. “Because you’re not human.”
“I wake up every morning grateful for it.”
“Alright, enough,” Korkarin said. “Get some sleep, Darian. I’ll take first watch. Bren’s already knocked out, so I’ll wake her up for the second.”
“Should I take third or fourth watch, then?” Kolter asked.
“Neither. You’re who we’re watching. I don’t trust you, Mathias. My suggestion would be to get some sleep. If you’re going to try and give me a reason to keep you alive and along, you’ll want to be rested.”
Andigar smirked at the human and settled into the corner. Within moments, he was asleep in a seated position, his head nestled between the walls, his arms resting on splayed legs. Kolter followed suit, pulling hay over himself and muttering about the itchiness.
Tal Korkarin watched until they had all drifted away and then stood to look out over the door of the stall. His knee popped and he considered that he wasn’t as young as he used to be. The sky above was dark and full of pearls. They cast an eerie light over the dead village, like a pack of ghosts or a funeral shroud.