There was a clanking sound that rang out into the dark forest as the army moved through shadow and fog on the dirt road. Following their general on foot while he sat on horseback, the men walked five abreast for the six hundred that made up their number. Crimson X on the chest marked each of them as the elite; they were the Crimson Horde, the invincible army of the empire. They had never been defeated and after a long campaign they were a day's march from the capital of Esper, Noble. But even the joys of seeing home again couldn't lift the shadows from their hearts.
The Kingdom of Esper was no longer as safe as it had once been for those loyal to the Emperor. Esper was on the verge of disaster; countless old enemies were massing outside of Esper's borders. Inside more and more of their own people were joining the dozens of different groups rebelling against the Emperor's rule every day. It was only the strength of the Emperor that maintained the fragile balance of Esper's power and stability.
News spread throughout the ranks; whole armies of the kingdom's finest soldiers disappearing one day, only to reappear the next, all on their home soil. The men were bruised and battered, but casualty reports were always different, sometimes the only men dead had been those who fell to their comrade's arrows and spells and other times there were so few dead that it seemed impossible for an army to face such a loss with.
The most frightening of rumors spread quickly around the soldier's campfires. It was helped by the fact that the attacks had been going on for weeks, but the fact of the mysterious enemy was still unknown. Many of the defeated soldiers said they didn't even see their enemy before they were knocked out, and those were the most realistic stories. The others ranged from tales about ghosts of the fallen in the war, to stories of hundreds of thousands of monster warriors whose bodies turned to smoke when they were killed. Not even the Emperor's best questioners and spies could decipher which if any of the stories behind the losses were true. In light of these defeats, by the Emperor's own word, every horde, legion, and battalion was ordered back to the capital city of Noble, in case whatever was devouring armies dared to set its' sights on the Emperor himself. The Crimson Horde's men were not the best trained or the most disciplined soldiers, but through sheer numbers and ferocity they won more than they lost.
Drugan, "the butcher," commander of the horde slowed his horse when they reached a fork in the road. There was a shadowy figure sitting on a rock in the vein of the fork sharpening a sword. The officer was cautious but still called out, "you there peasant," he assumed, "which path is the quickest route to the capital?" Despite his loud bellowing voice the figure ignored him and kept its' head lowered. The officer's face was red; he couldn't be insulted in front of his troops no matter who the stranger was. Calling out once more, "you there ragrat, I am Commander Drugan, leader of the Emperor's mightiest fist, The Crimson Horde. By ignoring me, you defy the Emperor himself. You will show me which path is the shortest and be quick about it." He kneed his horse closer to where the shadowy figure sat to get a better look at him.
The shadowy figure stopped his work; he turned to them without leaving his rock. "Whatever path is shorter has no significance to you. Either way you will not see your precious city tonight."
When he came into view, the soldiers couldn't help but laugh. He was just a boy and a young one by the way his voice sounded. It wasn't the boy's age that made them laugh though; it was the pink rabbit's mask that he wore so proudly on his face that feed their laughter.
Masks with the faces of animals mark those in the kingdom who held the rank of beast master, those who had proven themselves as masters in strength of arms and magic, and wore the faces of animals to match their fury. On the battlefield Beast master inspired fear and awe by tearing through the lines of their enemies with faces covered with the carving of predators or hunters. The boy must have thought that he could bluff his way into a payday by threatening those who passed by this way. Drugan didn't buy the bluff; the boy was a fool though, perhaps he could rob the random peasants for their coppers. Drugan was a nobleman though, he had been taught what the mask symbolized and knew that no boy would have the skill or the ruthlessness to achieve the mask. Wearing such a mask would scare peasants and superstitious soldiers into laying down their coin, but Drugan knew the truth. Even if the boy somehow did truly have the skill of a beast master, Drugan had a number of them under his command in the Crimson Horde. Calling loudly to his men Drugan taunted, "beware men, there is a tiny bunny blocking our path home. Perhaps we should turn tail and run?" he laughed at his own joke along with his men.
The boy in the rabbit mask sat there patiently waiting for the soldier's laughter to die down before countering with his own taunt. "Better to be a little bunny in the middle of the road then a bloated boar crushing his horse." There was a whimsical tone in his voice as he spoke; as if he was a clown performing in front of a crowd instead of a lone boy in front of an army. As the boy rose from his rock, he could be seen even by those in the rear, as he stood up straight he was a good eight feet tall and mountain of muscle; his form didn't match his voice at all.
The forest was silent save for the creatures scurrying about, not even the wind rustled as the world watched the situation with baited breath. Commander Drugan's thunderous temper was famous throughout the Imperial legion and his men knew that this would not end well for the boy no matter how big he was.
The commander was not a master of magic; he may have been a half decent leader when the orders were to charge, charge, and charge some more, but he didn't have the brains needed to use magic. Like many others who lacked the talent and finesse to wield magic though, Drugan used powerful gems with innate magic to compensate. Reaching into a small pouch that was tied to his belt he and pulled out two large gems, one a pale green stone and the other a dark yellow. He placed the green into a crevice on his gauntlet and the yellow one into the hilt of his sword. His arm glowed a sickening green and the muscles in his arm bulged to inhuman size, with the gem's power he was strong enough to shatter stone. His sword glowed yellow as it transformed and lost its' sharp straight blade, replacing it rough jagged edges, like a saw. It was this combination that made Drugan infamous on the battlefield, the empowering gem gave him the strength to cut through men cleanly and the jagged edges from the yellow made the sword tear through armor and leave the man inside to die screaming. He was aptly named the Butcher because of this technique.
Kneeing his horse forward, Drugan forced his horse to charge towards the boy. The speed he called for would tire the poor creature out after a few minutes, but before now, minutes were all Drugan needed. The commander made a mistake in his judgment of the boy, day he learned a painful lesion, the lack in of age didn't account for a lack of skill. As the horse surged forward the boy somehow ducked his huge body underneath the tearing sword by an inch, dodging swiftly and easily, smoothly brought his own to strike at the commander. The blow struck Drugan squarely in the chest; and though Drugan's breastplate may have caught the worst of the blow, the strength and speed behind his own charge unhorsed him and knocked him to the forest floor.
For a moment time seemed stand still, only the boy in the mask seemed unaffected as he continued forward sword in hand. As if that action alone broke the uncast spell the horde surged forward to with swords and spears outstretched hungry for blood. It should have been a slaughter, no army, much less a single child, could make a scratch upon the Crimson Horde. It was a massacre, but it was the horde that paid the butcher's bill that day.
The idea behind the creation of the horde was a simple one, a single wave of destruction with a single purpose; crush the enemies before them. Every journeyman mage who could control and call the flame, every marksman who could impress their officer with their bow, and every suicidal mad warrior who craved blood; they were the human weapons that made up the Crimson Horde, the first and best of Esper. In a single legion and became the Crimson Horde, the Emperor's Fist.
On the front lines were the kingdom's strongest warriors with enough of the red drink to defeat any foe. The foul concoction of ale and mysterious magic herbs that the mages brewed was the key behind the horde's victory. In the weakest man the brew would give him the strength and rage of ten and render him incapable of harm; for the mighty warriors in the horde, it made them demons. The only drawbacks of the drink was that while it rendered the drinker almost fearless and granted great strength, it also made little more than mindless animals on the battlefield. Each banner of warriors was required to have at least one officer of the horde to command them. Each officer had earned the right to wear the beast mask, the same mask that the boy wore. Only these were suitable to lead the Crimson Horde as an officer on horseback would never pierce the fog of the rage the red water brought about; the masks were different though, as they looked like one of the ancient gods of battle. Even warriors under the red water's spell could recognize and through fear alone obey.
Behind the warriors would be the archers and mages, they were to rain arrows and fire from the sky upon their enemies; never stopping so their enemies would be nice and soft for the warrior's charge hit them. Their enemies would lose heart at the total lack of fear or regard for their allies the horde had and would give the berserkers an opening to shatter the opposing armies' battle lines and cleave the rest of it apart. Fear was the horde's most powerful weapon, one opening was all that was needed to crush any foe before this day.
However, with no fear in his heart the boy instead me the horde's charge with his own. His wiry body moved with acrobatic grace as he jumped, rolled, and dodged away from his enemies' blades while lashing out at knees, elbows, and ankles with his own. For all of its victories, the horde had many weaknesses that had never been exploited together. For one, a wave of destruction's place was the flat plains or charging down from the mountains that separated the kingdom and its hostile neighbors that they had fought on for the past century not a forest. Forests were for birds, rodents, and elves, not a place for a horde, trees all around that the tall boy could use to his advantage and a narrow path that hindered charges; it was like walking into a death trap. Another weakness the horde had was the lack of preparation; the mages needed enough time to concoct the red water to drive their warriors into frenzy, time the boy had not given them. It had been a long time since the Crimson Horde had fought without the aid of the red water and the unfamiliar feelings of fear plagued them. Weapons felt heavier then they truly were, and days of long marching weighted of heavier that the armor they wore.
The officers tried to keep order, but with their minds begging for the red drink the soldiers didn't know if what they were facing was another man behind carving of a beast or if he was some ancient horror from beyond the mortal realm. They were no longer afraid of the officers, without the red drink in their blood the warrior were afraid of everything and lashing out amongst themselves in hopes of stopping the boy's unrelenting attacks destroyed any hope for the officers to restore order.
What truly won the day for the boy was not the boy's own skill with the blade, great as it was, but rather panic and the horde's own archers. While the mages could not have been use their fire in the melee out of fear of cooking all of them alive in the forest, the archers had no qualms about firing their arrows. Being so far in the back gave them little knowledge of what they were fighting and every time they caught a glimpse of what they thought they were fighting an archer would recklessly shoot an arrow, most shots rained down on their own troops. Eventually every man in the horde fell either to their own lashing out and taking out or from the boy. His movements were like a shadow cutting down man after man and then disappearing to attack another far away.
Soon the last man fell to the forest floor unconscious. Not a single man had been slain by the boy's hand; in fact, if the boy hadn't moved to the back to take out the mages and archers the horde's casualties would have been much higher.
As the boy shook his head sadly at the violence around him a voice called to him, "you." It was the Butcher who was back on his feet. Breathing heavily and leaning heavily on his jagged sword Drugan spat at the boy "I'll kill you, you bastard." Letting out a roar he charged towards the boy in the bunny mask with a terrible bloodlust. Drugan's swings were wild, empty of the skills that that an officer of the emperor's army should be able to boast.
If the boy had been an acrobat when facing the horde, against the enraged general he moved like the wind. Now the little bunny was gone, replaced with the inhuman grace of a wolf on the hunt. For all the good it would have done him, Drugan might have well as tried to swing his sword with his eyes closed. Not a single one of his wild blows came close to the boy. After dodging one last attempt at his life the boy jumped many feet away from the commander; after all the fighting he had done the boy showed no signs of fatigue. "Put your sword down commander. You fought the good fight, but it's time to accept that you have lost. Surrender with some dignity," he pleaded. It was no longer the boy's wished to fight the rampaging officer when he was sure he had won.
Drugan ignored his pleads and charged forward with the same recklessness of a wild boar. Letting out a sigh the boy chose to end this farce as Drugan closed the distance; instead of running away he decided to meet Drugan's charge. With a snap of his fingers the boy's left hand cast wide to the side of him; tied to each finger was a length of water thin as wire. The five strands of wire thin water cut cleanly through the trunk of a nearby tree. Too late Drugan saw the falling tree and was crushed beneath it.
Being trapped didn't stop Drugan from attempting to crawl out and attack the boy again, but the trees weight kept him in pinned. Watching the man's struggle the boy sat down cross-legged in front of him and removed his mask. "Fool," Drugan spat, "Now that I know your face now, I will tell the Emperor what you've done today personally and soon every soldier in the empire will be hunting for your head. You'll spend the rest of your life running like a beast; scampering and scurrying about until one of the hunters puts you down."
If the boy felt threatened by the commander's words he didn't show it; in fact after the commander made his threats known the boy let out a huge grin. It was the type of smile that a devil would wear after making a deal. A braver man than Drugan would have soiled themselves at how natural the grin fit on the boy's young face. "What makes you think that now that you've seen my face that I will let you live," the way the boy said it was so calm he may of well been talking about the weather. It was the boy's tone alone that made Drugan stop his struggling; he truly believed that he would die here at the boy's hands, helpless and afraid. Then the boy let out a hearty laugh, "I'm joking of course, not a single one man has died today by my hand and I don't intend to start now. But you should know that I'm not afraid no matter what you do."
The boy stood up and brushed his clothes free of dirt, "Tell the Emperor then, tell him in his throne room that his mighty Crimson Horde was beaten by one man. No, no wait, make that one boy, one stupid little child who was naïve enough of this world to wear a pink rabbit mask on his face as a symbol and trying to playing hero. I'm sure he'll understand of course, because that's what our tyrant of an emperor does right? Surely he would understand the incredible ineptitude of his minions with good humor and understanding." He tossed his head back and cackled that made Drugan's blood run cold.
"What are you?" Drugan whispered terrified.
The boy looked the fallen commander right in the eye, the man could only look back into his eyes, "I am the man who will bring your empire to its knees and return it to the people." His words came out cold and crisp, and after they came out he disappeared into the fog.