Darly spat, and watched as the languid spittle slowly froze upon the frosted ground, tinted black with tobacco. In the distance, the explosive drum of war sounded in tandem with tremors that shook the distant mountains. That drum, the oscillating din emitted from ground-forged weaponry, was a constant presence in the icy far-northern isles of Ten’griel. War had enveloped these stagnant lands like a shroud, and those few aboriginals that had found themselves amidst the hellish conflict either lay rotting in unmarked mass-graves, or impressed into the miserable hordes of the Cult of Eternal Rain.
The peals of the explosives were closer than usual today. It would not be long before battle swept the very land upon which Darly sat. He shifted uncomfortably, trying to work some warmth into his numb behind. He had never actually contacted hostiles before. Always in the past, he had been a Maintainer, a soldier stationed in recently claimed territory as a warden of peace. The eruption of war in the north had changed all that. Every soldier available had been stripped from their posts, handed weapons they barely knew how to use, and sent to the relentless territories of Ten’griel.
The wiry soldier lit a cigaril from his satchel, breathing in the smokey fumes, gazing at the writhing lights to the north. Darly had been born on one of the smallest islets of Than’rita, and had spent his entire youth dreaming of becoming a soldier. In his immature mind, being a soldier meant exploring exotic lands, sleeping under the twinkling grin of the stars (which were all but invisible in the smog-infested skies of Than’rita), and bringing peace in the name of the Panarch.
Those dreams were fading now, almost unanimously. Only one had been fulfilled, a distant hope to witness the wondrous Lightstorms that were rumored to snake across the sky in the furthest reaches of the world. He witnessed them now, though they gave him none of the excitement he would have felt as a child. Too many dreams had died. Too many friends, companions he had seen rent by the storm called Battle bleached the land with their bones. The cadavers of the past had left Darly a spent man, a husk of his former vitality. They had turned him into a soldier.
The Lightstorm did stir something deep within Darly’s heart as he looked at them now, something distant and faded. Had he been less distracted, he would have recognized a memory of hope, childhood passion. The Lightstorm was a great, tangled mass of intertwining strings of color, vivid upon the blackness of the night, and it writhed about the cosmos with a strangely sanguine radiance. At times, two strings of light would touch, and a brief flash of green would erupt with the contact. It was like a celestial battle fought in the sky, echoing the earthly conflict fought directly below. Or perhaps their own conflict was but a pale reflection of some far greater battle occurring within the heavens. Regardless of origin, the sight of this arcane beauty, which seemed to hold all the more hope when contrasted to the deathmatch raging below, gave Darly renewed energy like a man run through with a Shokar, and he started conversation with his partner.
“Do you believe in the afterlife? Heaven? Your people, I mean?”
Grima twisted his mouth wryly, and he let out a bellowing croak that Darly had come to recognize as the short jungleman’s laughter. Darly flushed under the writhing snakes. Grima’s reasons for joining the army held none of Darly’s romanticisms. He had fled his home at the brink of the southern jungles of Refelia to escape an arranged marriage to the homely daughter of a fisherman. As he was the first to say, a man was born for freedom, not to be nailed to a woman. He was a born warrior: living by the jungle-belt of Refelia meant hunting great tusk-beasts and zoa-bats for food, with the constant danger of invasion from warring tribes. He was hardened, a true soldier of the world, his skin contorting around a thin scar at his neck.
Grima’s tiny home village, quaint and blissfully ignorant of the war in their humble corner of the world, was even further from Miurk than the desolate Tan’griel isles. Grima had once told Darly that to the people of Tanfuuk, the Panarcracy seemed nothing more than a distant presence, as removed and mystical as the sun.
When Grima had escaped his village, stowing away on a trawler in the night, he had definitely discovered the Panocracy to be far more than a distant power. He had begged his way to the Gallacians, seen cities thousands of times the size of his tiny village. Eventually, he was impressed into the army, as so many beggars were. Darly liked Grima, despite his taciturn manner.
To his surprise, the jungle-man answered him. He did not talk often, and when he did, it was usually more expletive than actual conversation. This time, his voice held an alien seriousness.
“Some Tanfuuk believe in the time called Judgement, when the Pan-father will take his chosen children in the arms of his Anlapels, and bring them to the higher lands upon their wings of light.” Grima coughed wetly, wiping his mouth with a grimy handkerchief. He fumbled for a cigaril, attempting to light it with the pronged tip of his concule. Darly gave the squat jungle-man a light, and Grima puffed gritty blue smoke into the wind. “What I say, Judgement has already happened, many moons ago. The chosen have already ascended, and the rest of us are left to deal with rising shadows of the past. We only wait as the Final Night sets upon the land.”
Darly nodded, although he did not fully comprehend. Grima’s theory sounded just grim enough for the situation at hand. Another boom shook the night, closer than the last.
A tall officer with a sharp, cruel-looking face, likely the younger son of a northern Exultant, drew up on his stallion. Seeing Darly and Grima sitting upon the rocky outcrop with their concules lying at angles, he drew up and began to shout. “To arms! All soldiers to arms! Get off your feet, grime. The Eightieth Regiment has been driven back! Its time to meet the dirty bastards.” With that, the officer gallivanted off, like some fool from a child’s tale. He obviously expected Grima and Darly to follow.
Darly sighed, pushing himself from the outcrop with his concule, and putting out a hand to help up Grima. It was beginning to rain, fat drops burrowing into Darly’s exposed arms like tiny balls of searing ice. Had their regiment not been situated so close to the shore, the drops would have been frozen solid. As it was, each sphere of water held an icy crystal center that beat upon the flesh like a miniature bullet.
He clambered onto his merychip, Grima grumbling to himself about the cold as he hopped on his own hairy-fetlocked bay. As they marched in grim silence to join the column, it began to rain harder and harder. Darly cursed as his cigaril went out, flicking the spent smoke to the ground. To the north, the entire horizonline was an oscillating mass of interlapping flares, green, orange and red. Darly had heard that in the south, soldiers wielded weapons that shot charged lightning hundreds of times as powerful as concule blasts, weapons so dangerous they were outlawed anywhere but in the southern isles. He could not imagine such weapons, nor the white arcs of deadly lightning they were said to control, yet the concules were surely terrifying tools in themselves.
Looking at the tip of his own weapon, visibly smoldering with the tiny fire maintained at the fork, he felt as if he carried the sabre of the Deathbringer himself. With a mere tap of the switch two inches from his forefinger, he could unleash a bolt of fire that would lay waste to everything within several spans in a single shot. The Cult of Eternal Rain, of course, had still more terrible powers under their command, unholy ink siphoned from the scourge of the depths, the Kraken.
“Looks like the real thing, eh Grima? The Battle has come.” His voice quivered and broke. He still remembered the tiny boy who thought soldiering a tale of adventure and beautiful women. Darly was still a virgin, of both battle and love. Today, at least, he would lose one. He lifted his concule, mimicking the position of more hardened soldiers at the front of the column. His hands were shaking so bad that it took several moments to remove the silvery safety latch.
The enemy was visible now by the light of the aurora above and the explosions below, a chaotic string of Ten’griellien natives enslaved by the Cult. He looked at the emaciated figures rushing towards them, and realized they were terrified.
They’re running away, Darly thought. Away from what? The band of autochthoni scrambling towards them were no more than two hundred strong, less than half the number of their column, and were wielding nothing more than heavy clubs and hand-made axes. They would not last long against the might of the concules.
While they were still a half-hector away, Darly fired. It was early, far too early to be hoping for an accurate shot at the enemy, but his nerves acted up, trigger finger slipping. The arc of red light skimmed towards the oncoming savages, deathly silent, then landed upon the ground like a flake of ash spewed from a bonfire. Another moment of silence, then Darly’s ears rang as the red sphere expanded to take up an entire span, needles of fire splaying out to pierce the starved bodies of half a dozen natives. Had the hostiles not been slave soldiers, the strike would not have been nearly so successful. As it was, the group continued on, ignoring the cries of their wounded. They were drugged with the foul poisons of the Cult, driven to the brink of insanity by their unseen masters.
“Hold!” The officer thrust a hand back, looking out at the ever-approaching hoard. Darly lowered his concule. The entire column had halted now, watching the straggling hostiles make their steady way towards them. They must have something truly horrible behind them, Darly reflected. to run so blindly into a fully-armed enemy squadron.
It would not be long before they were in range. They ran without grace, desperate and mad. They were too afraid of what was behind them than to fear death. A hundred spans. Fifty. A dozen. Darly could see the whites of their eyes, tinted red with drugged insanity.
“FIRE!” The command was drowned out almost immediately by the deafening roar of half a thousand concules firing at once. Hundreds of flares blossomed in the ranks of the enemy, throwing out their needles of fire with relentless brutality. Those who were struck by the Conculytes became shrapnel, chunks of their exploded bodies flying into the eyes, chests, legs, necks of their neighbors.
Darly felt hot wind sear his eyebrows. His frozen fingers were thawed before the might of the explosions before him. He looked at his own in fear and awe, unable to comprehend its might. He feared it, and would have thrust it away then, had it not been for his loyalty to the Panarch.
Of the Ten’grielliens, only shattered weapons and a sea of blood and carrion remained. Some of the carrion still moved. Drugged by the unholy fumes of the Kraken, ruinous corpses crawled about, trails of blood and entrails behind them. One autochthon managed to stand up, and began running on bloody stumps towards Darly’s forces. He became as still as the rest as a conculyte caught him in the neck.
Then the horns sounded. From the curtain of foul smog behind the decimated Tan’grielliens came the true nightmares. They appeared from the darkness like demons, the ones that had drove the natives ahead of them in such wild fear. Darly’s groan of dread was drowned by the sharp bray of the Undines’ horns. His hands trembled as he attempted to relight his concule in the icy rain.
“Looks like the Final Night has come at last, eh?” Grima jested grimly. Darly hardly heard him.
Myriads of hairy creatures clambered out of their smokey veil, with heavy, arcing tusks and wetly shining eyes. They emerged into the world with unholy silence, outnumbering Darly’s column and coming still. Black-robed men rode on their backs, wielding the ice tridents of the Undine. It was then that something snapped in Darly. He did not realize what he was doing until he was well beyond the ranks of the Panarch’s legion. He did not hear the commander’s shout. He knew only that he had to keep going, going, going. He did not see the cloaked figure in the forefront of the horde hold up a cylindrical object, black as the depths of the world.
“For the Panarch!” He cried, but he heard not his own voice. Then the bolt struck. A bolt of pure Ink, as thin as a hair, as strong as Nightsteel. It hit him in the shoulder, but it did not matter. Ink would kill, wherever it struck. At that moment, Darly felt the true adrenaline rush he had not felt since childhood. He felt the ground hit his face like Klobin’s hammer, but was numb to the poisons creeping through his veins. He did not hear the dying scream of his horse as it thudded to the ground before him.
“For the Panarch!” He attempted to shout to the writhing snakes above, but something was wrong with his mouth. Only incoherent gurgles poured forth. Dimly, he saw the unholy beasts of the Undine ride over him, ignoring the fallen man below.
“For the Panarch!” Night was closing in. There was a storm coming, peals of inward thunder warped into a mocking cackle, and dark snakes constricted him to the ground. Night was closing in, and he was ready to face it. For the first time in his life, he was ready.
“For the…” The beasts of the Undine passed over him, ignoring he who was already dead. Only after their crossing did a man stop to examine him. A man with a face like the abyss, ragged and rifted and terrible, with a single blind eye breaking white through the sagging flesh. Darly looked into that fearsome deathmask, a drowned landscape of writhing seaworms and weeping sores, and the great trident of the Weeper kissed his fighting eyes.