TW: Swearing and violence.
Stepping from the untouched Province of Schneeland into the ruins of Gennadius Province was stepping from day to night. The earth beneath their feet was black charcoal dust. Towering spires of mighty churches had been reduced to charred rubble. Stone had melted in the blast of dragon breath.
The silence of death screamed in their ears.
No wind blew to take away the stink of the burnt towns.
The Nameless Knights wore handkerchiefs over their mouths and noses. Every step stirred black dust. It hung, choking in the air until gravity could coax it back down.
Warriors lay in rows beneath their melted armour. Hollow skulls stared aghast into the blue sky. It had not rained since ruination came. Clouds refused to cross the border. Some tree stumps still smoked weeks later.
Footprints in the black dust were the first signs of life after death. They were not the footprints of boots. They were not the prints of bare feet. Impressions of individual bones in the still dust told the size of each foot.
Sixty Nameless Knights drew their swords and raised their shields. Sir Danielle Longbow led the force. Walking side by side, the knights left a black cloud behind them. Green tabards with the golden Crann Oak were turning black from the bottom up. At the top of a small hill, they saw the scorched dead for the first time.
A dozen skeletons shuffled through the dust below. Black bones held together by nothing more than orange flame moved lethargically.
Sir Lachlan Donaldson coughed. He stabbed his sword into the dust to pull the handkerchief back over his nose. “Sorry,” he said in a voice more gravelly than usual. “We had to fight the bastards eventually though, didn’t we?”
Black skulls with flaming orange eyes snapped around to look at the knights. All lethargy vanished. The skeletons straightened, raised their hands, and ran. Tearing up the hill at unnatural speed, the dead loosened the bladders of many a knight.
Nameless Knights formed a wall of shields. Sir Donaldson’s bore a red wolf on a green field.
“Fuck,” said Lachlan.
“Shields up. Stand together. Swords ready,” Danielle commanded. “This is what we’ve trained for.” Before she could remind them that the silver in their swords would disable the dead, the dead came to test the theory. Sir Longbow held her blue heater shield to cover her body. Her brown eyes peered over the edge of the shield from the slits in her helmet.
Unnerved by the supernatural speed of the creatures, some of the knights broke the line. Two dead leapt through the gap in the shield wall. One was upon a soldier’s back before the man had a chance to turn. With them came an odour of sulphur.
“IT’S BURNING. ARGH. IT BURNS.”
A sword swung through the head of the creature in a moment. The flame died. The bones fell to the ash and soot of the ground.
Danielle, her daughter Sir Nettle Longbow, and Sir Anne Hyland surrounded one skeleton and hacked at it. The success with the first kill proved either to be beginner’s luck or that the burning dead learned. Using their speed, the skeletons dodged stabs and slashes at their heads. A heat haze surrounded the skeletons as they moved.
Danielle watched in horror as the hand she cut from one monster turned to dust, swirled through the air, and reformed where it had been before.
Another fell to a lucky slash. Sir Donaldson roared in victory, thrusting his sword into the air in celebration.
“Eat silver, ya bastards,” said the knight, rolling his r sounds.
When one leapt at Nettle, Danielle stabbed through the back of its skull. Inanimate bones bounced against her daughter’s shield.
Finding their rhythm, the Nameless Knights cut the limbs from other skeletons. When they were less mobile, they were dispatched with a stab or slash to the head. Orange flames in their skulls went out one by one.
“That wasn’t so bad,” said Sir Lachlan. “I was expectin’ more o’ them.”
“Next time, keep your mask up,” said Anne.
Danielle wanted to agree but knew as a leader she shouldn’t. “We should head back to Schneeland for now. First, we’ll tend our wounds and rest. Then we’ll come back.”
“But, sir, we’ve got the bastards on the run. Aye, they’re scary fuckers for sure, but we beat them.” He snorted and spat into the dirt. Soot in his ginger beard fell like rain before he pulled his handkerchief up again. “We need better masks sir. If you don’t mind me saying.”
“And if I did?” Danielle asked.
“Then I’m pretty screwed, I guess.” The crease of his eyes through his helmet said he was smiling.
After a day camped in the relative normality of Schneeland, the Nameless Knights were rested and bandaged.
Setting foot across the border, into the black soot and the white ash, Sir Lachlan started to sing.
“There’s a bonnie lass I ken, fae the bottom of the glen-”
“You sing now?” Anne Hyland asked.
“Why not?” The tallest Nameless Knight shrugged.
“Never knew you had such a pleasant voice,” said Sir Hyland.
“Why wouldn’t I?” Asked the giant knight, in a high tone of offence.
“Both of you shut up. I don’t want a repeat of yesterday,” Danielle told them.
“We did alright yesterday,” the singer said.
“Sir Ewan Smith has burns down his back that say otherwise.” Her voice was a low growl. Lachlan talked too much and thought too little. As he looked away from her, she saw his eyes roll. “I’ve told you we’re not here for glory. I meant it.”
By noon the sixty knights, including an injured Ewan Smith, found the remains of a church. High walls and a tower had been reduced to waist high barriers. Bodies praying on their knees within took the breath from most.
“Praying,” Lachlan scoffed quietly. “What good did that ever do us. The gods don’t care. Their god didn’t save them.”
“You’re a knight now, Sir Donaldson. Show some respect.”
Nothing was left of the village but burnt-out timbers.
Despite an instinct that told Danielle to take them all back to the border of Schneeland before nightfall, they pressed on.
Dead fish and birds floated on the surface of a pond. Reeking death tried to coax vomit from their stomachs.
When Lachlan began humming as he walked, others joined in. Sir Longbow said nothing to stop them. The noise calmed her nerves as much as theirs. Gennadius was too quiet.
Darkness fell with them walking in two lines of thirty. Glowing on the horizon to the west drew them closer.
Flames of a hundred corpses walked in a mass along a ridge.
“We should go and finish them. Right now.” Sir Donaldson had his sword drawn.
“Not now, there are too many and they have the high ground.” Danielle didn’t want the eager idiot running up the hill screaming, bringing death upon them all.
“We can take them. Nae problem.” He chuckled and then coughed. “Wait. What are the wee ones. Fuck. They’re just weans.” A long breath escaped Lachlan’s mouth.
“They’re what?” Asked Anne.
“Children,” said Danielle. “Weans are children. You thought the dragons spared the little ones Sir Donaldson?”
Though he didn’t speak, the sniffing sounds of crying echoed from the giant knight’s helmet.
“Now you’re feeling sorry for them?” Nettle asked.
“I’d not thought about the children. I just thought-” He paused. “Imperials. The same fuckers who came to kill us all. Good riddance to those bastards. But not children for fuck’s sake. They’re just bairns.” His sword hung limply from his gauntleted hands.
Anne and Nettle gave Danielle questioning looks. “Bairn is another word for child. I can’t believe you city folk never hear these words.”
“Never left Leonor before I knew you,” shrugged Nettle.
“I’ve been travelling more since we met,” agreed Anne.
Planting their shields in a circle on a hilltop, half of the knights slept back-to-back in their armour. The others took watch until midnight then switched.
Having taken the first shift, Danielle was shocked to be woken by the dawn. Stiff as the rest, she stretched.
They marched north. The horde of the dead was gone. A handful remained on the ridgeline they had seen the previous night. Quiet as they could be, the warriors crept towards seven undead monsters.
Danielle positioned her soldiers in a rough horseshoe around the creatures.
At a nod from his commander, Sir Lachlan began to sing. “There’s a bonnie lass I ken, fae the bottom of the glen.
She’s been married now a while, but I kiss her now and then.” Donaldson’s fine voice brought the things running faster than horses could gallop.
Seven dead predators threw themselves at the singer. Two were cut in half by Lachlan’s fellows. He cut the arm from another himself. The other four turned to face the pincer movement on both sides. Shields bobbed into place behind the skeletons, leaving them nowhere to run to.
“STAY TOGETHER. HOLD THE LINE.” Danielle shouted. She swiped at the leg of a beast. Nettle swung through its skull as it fell. When her daughter turned to look at her, no doubt grinning, Sir Longbow yelled. “Eyes on the enemy!”
It was over before any of them knew who’d done what.
“VICTORY,” Sir Lachlan cried. He held up his sword and stabbed at the sky.
“Quiet, fool.” Danielle told him, seeing others about to join the cry. “Every one of those things for a hundred miles will hear you. Sing if you must, only loud enough for us.”
“Aye sir. Sorry sir.”
“Surprise is the greatest advantage in battle.” She quoted a military tactics manual. She’d been reading about leadership before they left Crann Kingdom. They had orders to fight the dead in Gennadius Province of what had been the Empire of the Holy Proclamation.
Further north they came to a ruined city Sir Armin Seppel named as Godswell. He’d defected from the empire but had visited Godswell as a child.
“Here was the market. I ate my first piece of pear here,” said blue eyed Seppel.
Broken walls hinted at windows that were gone. Skeletons of mothers clutched babies and children. Defenders were melted into their armour by a broken tower.
Footprints in the ash told of a horde of dozens somewhere nearby.
Somehow a single dandelion had survived in the shadow of a gravestone. Tombs of important families had collapsed. Names etched for all eternity had melted away.
A cave into a catacomb seemed the only possible shelter as the day grew old again. Though her soldiers grumbled, Danielle led them down carved steps into the darkness.
“Solasaich,” she said. A green magical glow from her sword’s blade lit the cramped passage into a world of the dead she hoped were resting.
Not only were the bones in the crypt still, but there were supplies in the depths of the dark. Desperate Godswell citizens had stashed their food where dragon fire could not burn it. Insects were eating anything with an odour. Mouldy bread in a sack resembled the tails of grey cats. The air in the catacombs was stale and dry but less dusty than the remains of the empire outside. Danielle could smell the stone, smell the dirt beneath their feet. She could smell food which needed to be put outside.
“Should we linger here?” Nettle asked. “We could be trapped.”
“We could be surrounded up there in the city. There’s food and a defensible position here. That’s good enough for another night’s sleep. Even discarding the food that’s rotten, there’s enough here to last us a week.” Danielle held up a dry oat biscuit from a box.
“We’re not staying that long, are we?” Anne asked.
“No. I hope not. I want to clear out a few more of the infernoste before we return to Crann.”
“Is that what they’re called?” Sir Lachlan asked. “I was happy to just call them all bastards.” He had his helmet off and the handkerchief mask hanging at his chin. His smile through the orange beard was infectious.
“Call them whatever you like, Sir Donaldson. Just do it quietly.”
“I thought blaze bones fitted them well,” said Anne.
“Or charcass,” Lachlan smiled. “Get it? They’re charred and a carcass?”
“Very clever.” Danielle faked a smile for him. “We all need to rest. Take the rotten food and put it outside. Two guards on watch at the entrance. You watch from inside where nothing can see you. Lachlan, you’re up first. Anne can keep you company.” Both groaned. “Tough. Take watch for half an hour then Sir Hyland will find the next pair to take over. We’ll get up again when the sun rises.”
“I’m thirsty,” said a voice in the dark.
“There’s a keg of something back here,” said Sir Longbow. “We’ll all have a drink before we sleep. If anyone needs to,” she coughed, “relieve themselves, find a passage down here and go to the end. No one goes outside until morning. Understood?”
“Yes. Sir Longbow.”
The beer in the keg was sour. Danielle could feel herself making the same face as the rest of them when she drank it. Standing her glowing sword by the food for the green light it gave off, she tried to get comfortable on the stone floor. She hoped none of the monsters wandering the world outside could hear her soldiers snoring.
“Sir Longbow.” A green face loomed over her in the dark. “Sir Longbow?”
“Yes?” She yawned. It didn’t feel like morning. “My shift on watch?”
“No, sir. There’s something outside you should see.”
Danielle sat up, armour scraping against the floor of the tomb as she did. Blinking away the sleep in her eyes she looked at the knight offering her a hand. Sir Oria Eliana’s leather glove gripped her tight. Despite Sir Longbow possibly weighing twice that of the young knight, Oria pulled her to her feet without a sound.
Creeping over sleeping knights towards the entrance of the catacomb Danielle saw for herself what Sir Eliana was worried about. A mighty orange glow lit up the world beyond the black silhouette of the entrance.
Telling Oria to stay quiet with a gauntleted finger to the mouth of her helmet, Sir Longbow crept closer. On hands and knees, she snuck up the stairs. As her eyes adjusted, the orange light came into focus at the heart of the market square.
A figure wreathed in mighty flames stood on the ruins of a fountain. On their knees around it were hundreds of infernoste. The stink of sulphur wrinkled Danielle’s nose.
Crawling on her belly, the reflection of a human face carved from flame danced on her glittering brown eyes. More skeletons gathered to bow at the feet of their flaming messiah. The face of a woman flickered across a black skull. The spectre of orange hair whipped down the spectre’s spine.
The messiah of fire raised her arms. Her army of puppets mimicked her. Danielle slid back through the ash and soot to the catacombs.
“What is it?” Sir Oria asked.
“A big problem,” said Sir Longbow. Her jaw clenched. The Nameless Knights were her responsibility. She couldn’t let them down. “I have an idea, but we need gunpowder. Gunpowder and a lot of silver.”
“That doesn’t sound like fighting fair,” said Oria. Sir Eliana’s blue eyes flickered with orange light. Danielle was a warped silhouette across those orbs.
“Fighting fair is the best way to die with honour, but I want to live, so fuck that.”