The Risen Army

An Onisahian Cycle Story

Summary: In the hinterlands of the Unbounded Empire, a sworn knight of the Queen and enigmatic scribe uncover how an executed brigand returned at the head of a strange army.

Far south of Onisah and the former Polarian colonies was the Unbounded Empire of the southron lands. Believing itself the world's center, its territory united two oceans and formed the largest polity in the known world. Ironically bound to the north by the Great Channel and to the south by the Devouring Jungle, its cities innumerably drew forth traders, scholars, explorers, and wanderers of all sorts as moths towards flame.

Chief among the border provinces was the northwestern port of Alshattur, where ships found entrance to the Great Channel that bisected the continent like the cut of a divine sword. To the east of Alshattur was the border province of Chalthurnin, the Bastion of the Northern Frontier. Once a bulwark against pirates, barbarians, brigands, and worse, Chalthurnin had lapsed into irrelevance as the younger coastal settlement siphoned trade and commerce. With only the occasional tariff from Channel merchants, the border garrison waned in numbers and training. In time, all that remained of the fabled legions were a token militia and a handful of elite retainers for the Queen of Chalthurnin, the Oathblades.

Like his predecessors and brethren, Athukul Oathblade had surrendered his family name to take upon the responsibilities of his office. His parents' family was honored with an engraving on the Wall of Honor while being generously compensated with a hefty sum. It was a clear and auspicious day that he was ceremonially married to the Queen and pledged fidelity to her, the realm, and the Grand Empress in that order. As he stood dressed in the ceremonial gold-gilded armor of an Oathblade, the young Queen gave him look that immediately removed the trepidation he felt. As he stood in a palace hall illuminated by triumphs of heroes long past, he knew that he was home.

The awkward youth had grown into a strong and handsome man by the standards of the civilized world, and his intelligence brought him captaincy of the Oathblades in short order. His dark black skin shined like polished obsidian, while his brown eyes rested upon high cheekbones. He wore a white robe of silk-steel able to turn aside all but the most powerful weapons or spells, an ancient artifact granted to the most trusted of Oathblades. Despite the trappings of his rank, Athukul's talent for administration and numbers validated Her Majesty's trust in him.

Athukul Oathblade had thrown himself into the droll and thankless task of auditing barge tariffs and Provincial Parliamentary pay before being rudely interrupted. While the Queen was the Empress' official representative and head of the provincial government, locally elected bureaucrats and representatives handled the mundane matters of law and governance in her stead. His talent for numbers and boundless zeal were reasons the Queen had entrusted him with ferreting out corruption.

Athukul felt a simple brigand would threaten the commoners' purses, but a fraudulent official would threaten their entire livelihoods and insidiously invite further contempt for law. He savored the opportunity to punish the corrupt, especially with the edge of his sword, the Glorious Burden. The enchanted weapon had been granted to a warrior of his stature, a curved and narrow thin-blade said to contain the spirits of the Honored Ancestors that decorated the walls of the palace. Upon meditating with it, he was granted the combined expertise of those innumerable Oathblades before him. Despite the constant reassurances of the Royal Theurge, he never put much stock in the legends until they directly threatened his home.

The office in which Athukul worked was a cavernous and vaulted chamber with millennia of history engraved upon the walls. The diligent enchantments and craftsmanship of a long-vanished dynasty kept them immaculately clean for their age. Much of the palace had been converted from a garrison built to house a legion of soldiers, and even the Queen's current retinue of servants only used a small portion of it at any given time. He often felt like a living specter haunting the rightful dominion of ancient ghosts.

Athukul once pretended that the occasional creaking and settling of the vast structure was the ghosts of the Honored Ancestors watching over them, but quickly learned that it was simply an occurrence in all old buildings. Due to his keen senses, he could easily tell when someone was moving within his wing of the palace. The tomblike silence of the outside corridor was easily broken by footfalls on hewn marble.

Paranoia moved his hands towards Glorious Burden as the door flew opened. Athukul's hands returned to his sides as he identified the intruder a split second later. The Royal Theurge's bumbling apprentice, a foreigner with a name nearly unpronounceable in the Imperial tongue, sprinted forth like his brown leather shirt was aflame. The novelty his foreign appearance brought to the court was one reason the Queen retained him, if only to give the backwater realm the illusion of cosmopolitan importance.

Unlike the vast majority of Imperial subjects, the courtier lacked black skin, dark hair, and brown eyes. His fair skin was slightly ruddier than the pale Onisahian sailors that infrequently navigated the Great Channel, his unkempt brown hair gave his head the countenance of a shaggy dog, and his pale green eyes wandered like a skittish puppy. The breadth of knowledge he commanded was impressive, as was the trivial understand of many subjects, from management of unruly spirits to Imperial dynastic history to performance tricks with a strange mechanical weapon with a spinning blade. His command of the written word was unparalleled in spite of his peculiar accent and erratic motivations whimsically shifting between projects.

The bloodshot eyes and excited demeanor of his lanky build quickly dispelled any idea that Kakros Rasukal was in the midst of a tasteless jest. He wore the light brown leather armor he wore in the field along with keeping his odd weapon by his side, as though the object of his insecurities was stalking him. He walked towards the Oathblade's desk, and Athukul correctly anticipated that he would prostrate himself for the resolution of some favor.

"Honorable Athukul Oathblade, I have returned from the assignment," Kakros said in a tone verging on theatric exaggeration.

"Speak quickly, Kakros. I am no mood for tales now."

"I've returned from the north of the Great Channel with grim tidings."

Athukul struggled to remember what the scribe's latest assignment had been. While a lowly courtier, the Queen had requested his presence as a surveyor for an expedition into the Trackless Wastes north of the Channel. No plants would grow in that blighted desert of sun-scorched sand, and only the most desperate bandits and outlaws fled there. It was said the deepest regions were ruins plagued by necromantic abominations, embodied spirits, and far stranger things defying classification.

The exact breadth of the region was unknown, as the few sane explorers that returned gave contradictory accounts. The breadth of the wasteland was at least the size of the Unbounded Empire, if reliable accounts were to be trusted. He recalled significant protest at the suggestion of establishing a garrison on the opposite bank of the Channel. The Queen had reserved her final judgment until Athukul had given his begrudging support to the concept. A tinge of guilt and immediate regret hopped through his mind.

"What happened to the colony?"

"Burnt to ashes and the ruins occupied by that brigand chief that you executed last month, Tiamul the Scarred."

"Are you sure? While it is tempting to think sorcery was involved, could it not simply be an imitator or disguise?"

"Yes, I'm sure. I saw him leading a group, far larger his earlier gang. He stood at the front of a host of at least a hundred strong."

"How did a hundred mangy brigands manage to utterly annihilate a colony that our greatest engineers and magisters helped establish? What of the militia contingent?"

"To be honest, I'm not sure. I was leading a scouting party towards a ruin we reported, but we saw smoke billowing over the fortress. We approached the walls, but barely escaped with our lives thanks to my illusion spells. We saw Tiamul at the top, personally swearing revenge would come."

"Interesting, but are you absolutely sure it was him?"

"I witnessed your execution of him, and he had the same two scars across his face and the same grating voice. The main only change I noticed was a line of red across his throat where your sword cut his head off. The other survivors, including some that never saw Tiamul, witnessed the same."

"Perplexing, and it sounds as though magic is involved. Perhaps some of his new allies are necromancers or rogue magisters?"

"I thought the same, but my divination found no necromantic energies. Tiamul's grave was also consecrated against necromancy. The Royal Theurge confirmed this. While small in number, they attacked without regard for their own safety. Even the mortally wounded tried killing their attackers if they could."

"What were they equipped with and what did they look like?"

"They had an unfamiliar style of spears and swords, and each was clad in a suit of black scaled armor. Oddly enough, they had a pale skin tone to them."

"Like Onisahians or wherever you're from?"

"No. Like animated marble statues that bled as black as their armor. None of us saw their faces beneath their peculiar helmets."

"Perhaps I should have been more diligent than heaving the body in a shallow grave. I shall make other inquiries before dealing with the manner."

"Her Majesty ordered me to help you however I can. We took one of the ferry boats in our escape, but we left the other on the northern bank."

Athukul muttered curses under his breath. Tiamul and his reconstituted army now could raid across the Channel whenever they wanted. He cursed his own insistence that the colony be constantly supplied. More disconcertingly, if Kakros was nescient of their origin, then these enemies could be from an unknown foreign land. His mind wandered towards an improbable scenario involving long forgotten nations dwelling beneath the Trackless Wastes, similarly to the vault-cities of the Gorti Protectorate in the far northwest. For the moment, there was one figure that could answer more of the questions swelling up from his head.

The Minister of Agriculture, Gurat Urarthat, had gained a reputation for his thorough knowledge of all aspects of food production, but especially reveled in its consumption. His considerable girth was a testament to that fact, as were the crumbs that cascaded down his flowing red robes. His head was a ball of fat set with two beady black eyes. While his title was pedestrian, guests to the court were often surprised to learn he was a magister of no trivial power.

Unsurprisingly, Athukul found Gurat was in his private wing of the palace kitchen. Space was easily given away, and the feast-hall that had once fed a legion now barely fed a fraction of its former capacity. A group of chefs, alchemists, and apprentices flitted around the spacious dining hall as their murmurings and footfalls were echoed by the acoustics of the airy chamber. Like a fat sun, Gurat sat at the center beside a bubbling cauldron with a large ladle in his right hand. Lowering the utensil into the vessel, he paged through a tome that could be a grimoire, cookbook, or combination. He sampled a sip of the concoction before sprinkling an unidentified powder into the admixture, causing it to hiss and bubble.

"Seeking answers about Tiamul the Scarred, Oathblade?" Gurat asked as he churned his mixture. "If only the Honored Ancestors could tell you. Who knows what lore was forever lost before they invented their own souls?"

"Minister, I come only asking advice. You wanted that outpost built, and I only want to protect Her Majesty's subjects."

"Ever the dutiful dog, Oathblade. That is why you are still around."

"Minister, you obviously know of what has happened, so-"

"I know only what my auguries have shown me and what that fool Kakros keeps blathering to everyone in the palace."

"Elaborate."

"Curious visions of something underground, of cavernous halls of forbidden machines and eldritch magic. A deep and terrible secret with a slumbering army beneath. Blood and steel intertwined."

"Such as a ruin or necromancer's doing?"

"Perhaps, but it is most certainly involved with your friend Tiamul and the assault on my colony. Chalthurnin is an old land, with foes untold eons old that would see us annihilated."

"Who would bear a grudge that long?"

"The types of beings that can afford to," Gurat replied. "Now, to answer your next question, search what remains of the outpost for your answers."

"Can't you just tell me?"

"A man's answers, like his favorite meal, depend on the man," Gurat said as he sipped a taste of his meal from the spoon. "Good hunting, Oathblade."

"And good stirring, Minister," Athukul said as he took his leave of the magister. While Gurat could be insufferably vague, his advice always proved useful. He could not shake the suspicion of something big the Minister had omitted, or simply not seen. Whatever he would encounter, his answers would be his own.

Athukul gathered Kakros and a handful of militia before departing for the other shore. Given the launch they used could only hold a small number of occupants and potential for the bandits to raid across the shore, he took only a small squad with him. They were clad in the bright red and white striped uniforms of the Chalthurnin militia, far more festive than militarily pragmatic. Nonetheless, he drew attention as he led the procession down the marble stairs of the sprawling palace complex behind him.

Like the expansive citadel behind them, the soldiers Athukul led were naught but part of the public spectacle that was forming in the streets. Already, some townsfolk were beginning to cheer, as though they had already won the battle that undoubtedly awaited them. Over the long years of Chalthurnin's martial atrophy, their token militia had been reduced to an honor guard for the Queen's public appearances and victory parades after they defeated the occasional brigands or necromancer, with Oathblade support. The tall woman leading them, Captain Unshurthal, was a competent but unremarkable commander. He had tasted enough battle, unlike the fresh-faced souls behind him, to know that a professional Imperial army would be their best bet. However, he doubted such a force could be mustered in time, even in the unlikely event the Empress decided to send it.

The buildings of the main avenue were scaled, humbler versions of the palace down to the gilding and gaudy decorations. They bore the angular, scaled walls and rounded, golden parapets of the Queen's palace, but lacked the veritable hillock covered in winding stairs before them. As the meager procession of soldiers continued down the street, drunken patrons emerged from the pubs and restaurants to cheer at them as though they had returned from the Imperial Games as triumphant athletes. Athukul ignored them as best he could, for departing for war was always easier than returning.

The docks were always an underwhelming affair compared with the elaborate décor of the palace and main boulevard. Rows of xebecs, flat-bottomed barges, and galleys bobbed gently in the tideless waters of the Grand Channel like water fowl. Athukul could see the other bank when he squinted his eyes, but knew that would change soon. As he piled into the waiting launch with his comrades, he hoped he would return to his home. The thought of landing on the opposite bank filled him with more trepidation than normal. He knew he would soon find out why.

During the transit over the Grand Channel, black smoke billowed up from the opposite bank. Athukul's heart sank ever lower when he noticed it originated exactly over their destination. He falsely hoped that whatever doom had come to the colony had left only ashes and cinders, annihilating any taint that had come with them. As he grew closer, Kakros pulled out a spyglass.

"Oathblade, look at the top of fortress," Kakros said, handing the glass over as he pointed to the source of the smoke. "That's him."

As his eyes focused the telescope on the smoldering ruins of the colony, Athukul saw the improvised fortifications still stood. Instinctively searching for survivors first, the rest of the colony was not so fortunate. The remaining structures had been looted and set alight, with their valuables undoubted moved into the makeshift fortress. The defiled corpses of militia and colonists had been heaved unceremoniously onto a pile beside a mound of debris and broken garbage. Curiously, Athukul noted a pyramidal pattern to the corpse pile, with the largest ones on the bottom and smaller ones towards the top. The spirits in his sword immediately drew upon the dispassionate and disconcerting analogy of stacking firewood.

Athukul had recalled the only defensive structure that had been present at the colony when he had visited had been a blockhouse with a watchtower above it. A company of fifty militia was stationed within, but the lodgings could easily hold twice that if required. Empty space and privacy were luxuries constrained to the southern bank of the Great Channel. The hundred bandits had erected a ramshackle palisade around the blockhouse, giving the structure a more imposing appearance than it previously bore.

On the watchtower's balcony, Athukul saw the man responsible for the garrison's fall, and he had no doubt as to the identity of Tiamul the Scarred. His face bore the color and texture of a flaking scab, but his throat still bore the telltale scars of where Glorious Burden sliced so neatly. One feature that stuck out at Athukul's awareness was the black hair that looked too neatly groomed for a bandit that had crawled from the grave. He had never known Tiamul to care for his appearance, but much about him did not make sense.

The black armored men that flanked him to other side were Athukul's more immediate concern. They patrolled the fortress with a distinctly martial rigor and precision completely absent among the band of outlaws Tiamul had led previously. They patrolled the perimeter and set defenses that would render a frontal assault a suicidal prospect. While Athukul was tempted to temporarily retreat and return with reinforcements, the realization that the rogue army could follow them back across the Channel and ravage the undefended coastline convinced the Oathblade to terminate the threat posed by an unknown army camped out near the land he had sworn to protect.

"Kakros, I need you to work an illusion once we land," Athukul said before explaining his plan.

"Sure thing!" Kakros raised both of his thumbs, a curious gesture from his homeland.

As soon as the launch landed, Athukul exhaled deeply. On his hips, the Glorious Burden never felt heavier. He meditated for a moment, communing with the legendary forebears within the blade. He knew he had faced overwhelming odds before for his Queen and country, but the total unfamiliarity of the army before him caused his stomach to twist itself in knots. A foe unknown to the Honored Ancestors was truly a terrifying prospect.

As Kakros slipped into position behind a pile of rubble, Athukul forced himself to summon up whatever courage he could muster. The men and women of the militia assembled behind him, and he placed himself in their forefront as a commanding officer should be. With the row of shields, polearms, and crossbows behind him, he felt as though no foe under the Pillar of Heaven could stand before him. He told himself that he would take his place amongst the Honored Ancestors if he fell, his spirit telling his successor how to fell Tiamul's minions even if he should fall to them. Dust marred the militia troops' clothing and reduced one man to a choking cough, but he cleared his throat once they advanced.

Athukul knew there was no turning back now. Murmuring to himself, he activated a defensive ward with Glorious Burden's own arcane powers. A horn sounded out from somewhere within the converted blockhouse as the enemy made ready to meet them. Black armored pikemen and archers swarmed to the defenses like hornets, preparing to lose their weapons upon the paltry assemblage of militia before them. Their heads were all concealed by insectile visors, preventing Athukul from guessing their origin by the cast of their faces.

"I am Athukul Oathblade, representative of the Queen and the Empress," he said as he strode forwards, giving a moment for the enchantment he had worked to cause his words to resound with power. "And surrounding our property are my invincible soldiers. Isn't that correct, Captain Unshurthal?"

The largely unprepared female officer behind him nodded in agreement, so slightly Athukul thought the enemies would not see. He did not care if they did, for the focus of the next act would be elsewhere. He clasped his hands with anticipating around the hilt of Glorious Burden, keeping the blade drawn but pointed downwards. He whistled and waited for Kakros to play his part in his desperate gambit.

No sooner could Athukul blink than he saw the swirl of eldritch energies twisting upon themselves in his mind's eye. Kakros had signaled the spectacle was ready. From behind burning village came rank upon rank of militia. They marched with dust-parched uniforms but spotless weapons. They lacked the inhuman perfection Athukul had first thought they would possess, but lazy disregard for clean ranks and uniform distances gave credence to the new arrivals as militia soldiers.

As all eyes from the fortress were fixed upon the show, a third group erupted up from the desert sands as though they had waited there for the right time. In lieu of standard militia uniforms, they wore earthen-colored cloaks rough and coarse as the ashen sands. Like their allies to the south, they had weapons polished and reflecting the light of a killing sun above them.

"We will never surrender!" came a grating voice from the watchtower that could only be Tiamul. "Kill them and feed their corpses to the machines! For blood and steel!"

A desert wind blew an ochre cloud of dust before them as Athukul signaled the charge of the two newly arrived regiments. The bandits unleashed a volley of arrows, javelins, and quarrels on the advancing lines of infantry, only for them to pass harmlessly through as if air. With Kakros' illusionary forces drawing both the ire and fire of Tiamul's minions, Athukul sounded his own charge.

"Finish them!" Athukul bellowed at the top of his lungs as he raised Glorious Burden above his head. Behind him, the militia raised shields and arms. He sprinted with the blade drawn above his head as the reassuring metallic clanking of ranks of armored soldiers resounded behind him. Ahead of him, Athukul saw the overstretched defenders half-heartedly raising weapons in their own defense as he brought his own sword down.

Adrenaline surged through Athukul as Glorious Burden separated an arm from a torso and thrust through armor like wet paper the following strike. The desperate defenders moved to encircle him in a wall of pikes and tower shields, but the spirits that helped guide his blade had already foreseen that potential action. An arc of sorcerous lightning blasted forth from Glorious Burden, dancing between the metallic armored men. A feeling of solace as transient as the lightning passed through his mind as he had discovered a weakness on his foes, that their armor was made of an alloy particularly conducive to electricity.

The crossbow bolts, javelins, and arrows of the militia behind him passed unmolested over Athukul's defensive ward and into the chests of the defenders that poured forth from the building before him. The armor deflected many of them, but the saturation of fire was thorough enough to thin their ranks to less than a dozen men at the door to the keep. Flourishing his sword, the Oathblade prepared to carve his way through them.

With ten more lives to end, Athukul charged like a bloodthirsty berserker into their ranks with a bellowing war cry. The thunder of an arquebus erupted somewhere in the battle, temporarily disorienting the men as Glorious Burden's heavy blade cleaved a helmeted head off with a mighty swing. The comrade of the decapitated man smashed a heavy shield at Athukul's own head, but the Oathblade's reflexes terminated the threat with a rapid duck and thrust into the assailant's armpit. Black blood arced through the air as Glorious Burden returned from its fatal trip.

The emboldened militia charged into the gap as Athukul hacked through the leg joint of an unlucky armored man and finished another by cleaving his skull in half. The violent poetry of the Oathblade's work painted the outer walls and palisades with viscous, black blood like ink. The enemy line fell back towards the closest door, only for Athukul to reach it first. The champion in a race for cover, he turned his sword towards the exhausted enemy as the militia's spears ended the last three of them.

"Quickly, into the blockhouse!" Athukul shouted. "Hold the doors. I'll clear the watchtower."

Athukul was satisfied with the vague affirmation of the Captain through a grunting sound beneath her helmet. He looked around the interior of the blockhouse for any stragglers, recalling why he had seized the structure. Ranks of bunk beds were stacked upon each other with the only other furniture being a table in the center of the room. The doors were thick, wood reinforced with steel. A few militia with polearms and projectile weapons could easily hold each entrance, bottlenecking enemies within. He had helped design the place, and fortunately, the remainder of the enemy were still distracted by Kakros' ruse.

Eager to cut the head off the enemy force, Athukul clambered up the wooden ladder in the corner of the room. It creaked precariously as he ascended each rung, and buckled under his weight. Momentarily unsure whether to accelerate or slow his climbing, the trapdoor at the top opened to reveal a brigand aiming a crossbow directly at his head. Athukul swung to the other face of the latter as the quarrel splintered against the floor, but he did not need to let the crossbowman fire again. One of the militia sent an arrow back through the trapdoor, striking the bandit as he slunk back to reload. With only a few rungs left between him and his final quarry, the Oathblade quickened his climbing pace and reached the top.

Athukul stuck Glorious Burden through the trapdoor before sticking his head outside. His blade caught a strike from Tiamul, who swung a scimitar towards his neck. Glorious Burden moved to intercept the strike while the Oathblade leapt off the top of the ladder, ready for offensive action. Tiamul moved to speak something as he circled with his blade drawn, looking for nonexistent openings in the Oathblade's guard. Only a rasping gurgle escaped his throat, as though the revenant brigand were an inarticulate infant. Immediately, they turned into cries of rage.

"My men will gut you and feed you to them!" Tiamul shouted as he wildly swung with his weapon.

"Speak sense and I might take mercy on your pathetic hide this time," Athukul said coolly.

Tiamul replied only with more wild strikes, until Athukul sliced his wrist off in one swift cut. He advanced towards the now-unarmed brigand chief with the point of Glorious Burden pointed directly at the red line across his throat. Seeing as there was no escape, Tiamul shouted as loudly as he could. "Regroup at the tunnel! I'll meet you there!"

Athukul did give him the chance to issue another order, for Glorious Burden's next thrust was into the center of Tiamul's throat. His spinal cord was neatly severed as the point of the weapon erupted out of the back of his neck. With a sweeping motion, the blade severed through half of his neck. Tiamul's head was only kept attached to the rest of his body by a narrow strip of torn flesh. A final cut severed that, and Athukul used the flat of the blade to knock the head into the assembled ranks of the defenders below. He wondered if Tiamul would be so smug now.

Down below, Athukul saw the ranks of phantasmal soldiers closing in on the hopefully dispirited defenders. Instead of charging forward like bloodthirsty berserkers, the black armored myrmidons formed a shield wall to cover their withdrawal. Immediately, the Oathblade knew that the regrouping warriors would lead him towards answers. There was no warning of the figure that burst forth from the ranks of the illusionary army with a distinctive weapon.

Kakros opened his weapon in an overhand motion reminiscent of cracking a whip. A telescoping, segmented metal rod unfurled before the swipe reached its apex, just as the rotating saw blade on the end began to spin. The blade made contact with the neck of an unfortunate soldier before a slight twist of Kakros' wrist brought it straight through the shield of another foe. He wildly swung the weapon at a trio of soldiers just outside his range, only for electricity to spark from the sawblade and electrocute them.

To Athukul, the scribe's motions evoked that of a frantic dancer, some dervish with a whip-sword. Dismembered limbs and mangled body parts fell to the ground in a storm of sparks and black blood. Mounts of shredded body parts remained on the ground as the strange mechanical song of the weapon provided a funerary sonata for his fallen foes. Looking back at Tiamul's army, the orderly withdrawal had collapsed into a catastrophic route.

His faith in Unshurthal had been rewarded when Athukul saw the archers of the militia emerge from cover to fire volleys into the human stampede. From cursory inspection alone, he could see the numbers of the enemy had been reduced to at least a quarter of what they had been. He reflected that while Oathblades had the reputation of being one person armies, they were no substitute for a well-trained and motivated conventional army, but a potent augmentation to it. Without the militia, the spirits in Glorious Burden reminded him would not have been as fortunate as he was.

Athukul descended the ladder after an archer climbed up to relieve him and make parting shots at the fleeing throng, a task facilitated by the lack of cover in the open desert. He allowed the militia to thin their ranks, but he knew a number of them would still make it to the location Tiamul had referred to. With the immediate egress of the colony resolved, the Oathblade prepared to investigate for any signs as to the mysterious invaders or their origins.

Kakros stood in the center of the room with his strange weapon silenced and inactive, but held the severed head of a helmeted soldier in his hands before a curious group of militia soldiers like some grim trophy. Athukul felt like berating Kakros about defiling the dead until he saw the reason for the soldiers' macabre curiosity. In the heat of battle, the Oathblade had never paid attention to what was under the visor of the soldiers he was cutting down. As he examined the cracked visor of the helmet, he saw the unmistakable face of Tiamul the Scarred underneath.

"All their heads and faces are like this," Kakros said. "Here I thought Tiamul getting resurrected once was bad enough."

"And I had hoped this was simply an imposter or novice necromancer with a taste for the theatric," Athukul said with a heavy sigh. "Did you find anything else?"

"Yes, some of the colonists' bodies were stacked in a wagon, as though they were to be taken somewhere," Kakros said. "There was a set of wagon ruts near where the outlaws enemy."

"So they are heading down a well-traveled path they've made in our absence. Unshurthal?"

The militia captain saluted. "Yes, sir?"

"Hold this position and begin evacuating the bodies of the fallen back across the channel. Salvage anything you can from this colony. If Kakros and I are not back by tomorrow afternoon, assume the worst and evacuate."

"Consider it done, sir," the officer said with another salute.

Athukul walked outside, and Kakros followed. The light of the midday sun had waned into dusk, as the solar orb sat perched above the horizon like an overripe fruit. The Trackless Wastes laid naked and unmarred in all directions as they walked from the ruined colony, save the corpse-strewn path cut deep into the crumbling ground. The Oathblade and the scribe traveled with light provisions, believing the location to be within a distance reachable by foot. As they walked, a simoom blew a warm wind towards the duo. The enchantments worked by Kakros made the leagues melt into each other.

"Tell me, Kakros," Athukul said. "You told me they fought with suicidal fervor earlier."

"They did. Maybe they changed tactics, or we interrupted them while they weren't expecting us?"

"They could easily have seen us coming, but they were unprepared to mount a proper defense," Athukul said. "If Tiamul, or this army in his likeness, has a mind like the original, then it is no wonder. A brigand would prefer to flee and rout, not fortify and endure a siege."

"Makes sense. Maybe this second location is easier for them to defend?"

"Perhaps, but I feel they have other plans than retreating to a hideout," Athukul said, pointing at the wagon ruts. "They've been back and forth with cargo several times."

"I'm not sure I want to find out what it is."

"Nor do I, but duty demands it," Athukul said. "Tell me, Kakros, where you are from, what is duty?"

"Like here, there were many kinds: Duty to country, duty to tradition, duty to law, duty to family, duty to friends, and more. But the order that matters the most depends on the person."

"Sounds like it would be an anarchic mess."

"Oh, it wasn't that bad. I miss it sometimes. Being able to travel between two mountain ranges on network of rivers across the continent was an attractive prospect, although far less natural than the Grand Channel."

"Sounds it. What places do you not miss?"

Kakros shuddered briefly. "I still recall the frost-rimed ice tunnels where an undead warrior dueled me. I've been to the seat of a corrupted empire, a marble city upon the seaside cliffs. I've seen the night lands at the end of another world, where the last remnants of humanity huddled from the things outside. I have gazed upon horrors from beyond the stars."

"Quite depressing. Any happier stories you can tell? Something amusing, like your trip to the Pillar of Heaven at the Imperial Capitol."

"How about the one about the eccentric count that used music to warm the hardened heart of a jaded king?"

"You've told me that one twice."

"Oh, right. How about the feuding shape-shifters from across history that united to destroy the devious bandit chief defiling their adopted nation's heritage?"

"Also heard that one."

"Mayhap I haven't told the one involving the estranged couple that reunited while inadvertently rousing the spirits of a slumbering race below their home?"

"You told Her Majesty that one during her birthday last year," Athukul said as he rolled his eyes. "At least you finished that one."

"Oh, your merciless wit has wounded me," Kakros said as he raised his hand in front of his face in a mocking swoon. "Just be glad I don't feel like telling another story about the deranged hoplophiliac sage."

"I've had enough of those trite tales," Athukul said. "Come to think of it, perhaps a silent approach is best."

Kakros nodded in agreement as they continued forwards. Athukul looked out over the sand to see that the wagon ruts and tracks led directly into a furrow before them. An earthen ramp sloped gradually downwards, with the removed soil piled off to the sides. The tracks they followed terminated at the nadir of the pit. The gingery descent terminated at the entrance to a clearly artificial structure. Like the jaws of a great mechanical beast, a dark metal corridor opened at the end of the trench. The only illumination came from the queer luminescent of sweeping metal tendrils that swayed as though blowing in an unfelt breeze.

Athukul stood mesmerized for a second, wondering if he could produce some excuse not to enter the doorway first. He felt as though some aspect of the location was familiar before dispelling the idea. The false bravado of an easy victory left him as he realized just how unprepared he was. As with Gurat's vision, he was dealing with something perverse and ancient. Whatever Tiamul was involved with was undoubtedly something far beyond the kenning of most necromancers. Kakros simply ran down into the door, beckoning the Oathblade onwards. Caught off guard as he was, he would lecture Kakros about the chain of command upon their return to the palace.

"Ready your weapon," Athukul whispered. "I'm worried about worse than outlaws in this fell place."

Athukul drew Glorious Burden and entered the mechanical entrance, surprised that it did not snap shut on him. The lack of sentries posted out front was curious in and off itself, but he had to assume the strange place had more esoteric defenses and alarms. Kakros unfurled his sawblade weapon and walked just ahead of the Oathblade through a corridor bathed by the muted lights. He did not know what magic or alchemy was responsible for the pale illumination, but he knew he would be blinded without it. The resemblance of the ceiling lights to a winding worm defeated any attempts to find symmetry in the design of the tunnel.

As Kakros led Athukul deeper, he saw the walls glisten with a distinctively organic slickness. The Oathblade was almost tempted to touch the wall with his gloved hand, until Kakros wisely pulled him away. He would have admitted the foolishness of such actions earlier, but the scribe pulled him towards an illuminated alcove in the wall. A casket-like receptacle led through a translucent floor panel into two black grinding cylinders caked in rust. Beneath it was a rectangular device with opaque fluid being siphoned into the depths below.

"I know this machine," Kakros said in a hushed tone. "It's a vintage corpse grinder."

"A what? How?"

"An ancient, perverse machine that reduces organic matter to its raw components, which are pumped elsewhere."

"We don't have a choice but to follow, do we?"

Kakros shook his head with a crestfallen look face answering Athukul's question.

Passing through the antechamber, Athukul and Kakros followed the meandering corridor to a vast chamber of venous pipes and titanic machines. The chthonic thrumming of unseen titanic engines bellowed up from uncounted leagues below their feet. Gill-like growths expanded and contracted in the corners of the ceiling, hissing as they exhaled a sulfurous vapor from beneath them. Kakros chanted softly to himself, and bright white illumination appeared around his closed fist. The organic mechanisms in the room seemed to jerk backwards from the light, recoiling from the mage-fire like vampires. The Oathblade tightened his grip around the weapon as the brightness revealed a stranger aspect of the chamber.

Below their feet was a sinusoidal, webbed grating that revealed the hollow space beneath it. Athukul saw row after row of pods stacked upon each other like the seeds of a germinating plant. Translucent tubes reminiscent of fungal hyphae interlaced neighboring pods, pumping murky fluid into each. The walls undulated like the muscular rebound of a diaphragm. In the reflected light of Kakros' spell, the Oathblade thought he could see the unsolidified contents coalescing into arms and armor. He dismissed such visions until he was unfortunate enough to see the innards of a pod directly below them.

A not-quite human shifted from within as light struck the muddy soup in the artificial cocoon. Athukul tightly clasped his blade, anticipating an attack from any angle as his heart raced. Within, he saw the distinct cast of a skinless face that glared from within. An unnatural purple glow emanated from within as something in a neighboring pod stirred. Unlike the first, the Oathblade could see a visage he hoped not to see within. The contemptuous stare of Tiamul the Scarred radiated hatred at him from within the shell. The pickled revenant slammed a sword-point against the glass, trying to force itself out. If Athukul had not jumped, it would have made him sprint towards the entrance. Gurat's words of blood and steel intertwined now resonated deeply with him.

"Fancy you could join us here," came Tiamul's voice from the other end of the germination chamber. "You know, it was rather fortunate you buried me where you did."

"We will execute you as many times as necessary," Athukul said as he began to consult with the spirits within Glorious Burden. "I will not suffer a paper-skull killer to ravage and massacre Her Majesty's subjects with impunity."

"You still don't get it, do you, Oathblade?" Tiamul said as he stumbled forwards with a drunken gait. "It doesn't matter how many times I die. When I died the first time, I awoke in this wonderful place, only to find my body and mind copied into the army you see beneath you."

"This place is worse than death, Tiamul. You grow these…simulacrums from your victims!"

"Heh, guilty as charged," the brigand said with a theatric bow. "I just have to feed this place enough. Once its belly is full, I'll have enough strength to cross the Channel and burn that harlot's castle to the ground. After what you did to me, it's the least I can do."

"You don't know what kind of powers are involved here, Tiamul. This place is controlling you, not the other way around!" Kakros said as he stepped forwards. "If you have a shred of humanity left, you'll know what I'm talking about."

Tiamul stared blankly at Kakros for a moment, until a realization born of unmistakable terror appeared on his face like an epiphany. "You again! Why did you return?"

"To finish what I should have done a long time ago," Kakros said. "And I don't just mean you, puppet. I'm not what I used to be. I'm better."

"In a few hours, the next batch will be ready," Tiamul said with a grin. "But we still outnumber you, and whatever's left of you will nourish our next generation."

While half-attentive to the idle boasting, Athukul had prepared his defensive wards and then conjured a bolt of lightning to vaporize Tiamul where he stood. While the brigand's skin was blackened and charred, his body still writhed and twisted on the ground. Despite being mortally wounded and wheezing, the bandit's face still bore a coprophagic grin.

"We've also learned since last time," he said with a cough. "Our turn."

Athukul stomped Tiamul's face with his boot while cleaving his head off with Glorious Burden's heavy blade. As the head rolled off to the side, the Oathblade felt a thousand pinpricks at his back. A quick turn of his head revealed a line of a dozen reloading crossbowmen, clad in the ant-like armor characteristic of Tiamul's army. Realizing his wards and armor would not fare as well for a second volley, he took the fight to them.

As his sprint broke into a full charge, Athukul bellowed out a war cry from deep with his chest. The crossbowmen drew shortswords and swarmed him as he closed in. Glorious Burden split one crossbowman from shoulder to spleen, and an opportunistic thrust from the blade slipped into the exposed armpit of the man just beyond him. The Oathblade kicked the body of his blade to pull his sword free, only to be met by a riot of flashing daggers.

Athukul lunged backwards as he sacrificed stamina for sorcerous might. The mentally draining task of launching a lightning bolt from Glorious Burden caused the spirits to protest against it, but his instinct told him to try it. He lowered the blade from his head for a split second, partially exposing himself. The gambit paid off as electricity traveled down the waiting crowd of dagger-men, their own weapons betraying them. As he had hoped, the blades acted as lightning rods, leaving his assailants motionless on the floor. Finishing them quickly with cuts to the neck, he began to wonder if decapitating Tiamul was starting to become a bad habit of his.

The sounds of Kakros' weapon was enough to turn Athukul's attention to more pressing manners. A mess of mangled clone corpses was enough to convince the Oathblade that Kakros fared better than first he thought. A porcupine-like formation of pikemen bearing massive shields closed in relentlessly, forcing the scribe to retreat. Eager to assist his comrade, Athukul charged forwards with his sword raised over his head, being as conspicuous as he could.

The pikemen braced their weapons to meet Athukul's charge, undoubtedly planning on skewering him. Instead of fulfilling their wishes, he pivoted to the side as they thrust weapons at him, battering the heads off the polearms. Now armed only with sticks, the enemy was forced on the defensive. He thrust into a gap between sheets, and withdrew the blade once he heard someone gurgling. The remaining troops tried to close ranks, but the doomed formation unfurled like regimental colors in the desert wind.

Athukul mercilessly exploited the gap. He saw Kakros' prancing out of the corner of his eye, and the remaining soldiers standing back from the spinning blade. Curiously, he noticed Kakros seemed to be purposefully missing, herding the bandits into exposed positions with each strike. The Oathblade swung his weapon with the focus and skill of a thousand years' of swordsmanship embodied in one man. He lost himself in the well-disciplined swordplay of thrusts, cuts, slashes, and chops. The Glorious Burden had the lightness of a twig in his hands, and felt as warm and nimble as sand in a sirocco. By the time the last of the clones fell, he noticed he saw Kakros no longer.

Instead, Athukul saw the scribe was busy hacking at certain pipes and tubing in the walls with his weapon. Black ichor seeped from the chamber walls in a disturbingly biological manner. Kakros chanted a spell in some forgotten, archaic tongue that simultaneously felt alien and powerful with the utterance of every syllable. An unearthly shriek echoed from somewhere far beneath them. He paid Athukul no heed until he had hewn his way through an orifice in the wall.

"Good think you and my illusionary counterpart distracted them."

"By the Pillar of Heaven, what are you doing?" he asked.

"Giving this disgusting place the send-off it deserves," Kakros said. "We should leave."

"Noted," Athukul said as he wiped the black blood from his sword. Beneath him, he could see more clones trying to smash their way free from their pods with some success. Instead of remaining, he sprinted after Kakros as he heard the groan of metal girders bending above him. He did not look back to see whatever destruction the scribe had wrought in his wake. He sprinted with an unknown reserve of stamina, barreling down the dimly lit corridor as a cacophony of self-destruction echoed behind them.

It was when Athukul saw the entrance that he saw a final obstacle in their way. The mechanical tendrils now coiled around themselves like a tangled tapestry in front of the entrance. Kakros fully extended his weapon as he ran, but the Oathblade saw a challenge.

"If you make it out first, I'll listen to whatever tale you wish to tell," Athukul said. "But if I make it out, you have to remain silent."

"I hope you like tales of the bastard kings!" Kakros explained as he hacked with a renewed vigor.

Athukul said nothing, and instead conserved his breath for the task before him. While winded from his charge, he could see the scribe's weapon struggle to cut through the metallic tentacles. Allowing Glorious Burden's hefty blade to do the work for him, he hacked through the whip-like projections faster than they could tighten themselves. He grabbed Kakros' arm and pulled him through the opening he had created. Together, they ran out of the trench and into the dark midnight desert.

Athukul would have said something, but an unmistakably thaumaturgical sensation raised goosebumps on the back of his neck. He and Kakros uncontrollably looked backwards to see a torrent of bright illumination issuing out of the mouth of the tunnel. The illumination was almost a shade of lavender, but under the naked sky it resembled the scintillating colors of a deep sea predator. Within a split second of emerging from the entrance of the tunnel, the mesmerizing light climbed into the sky, creating a pillar of terrifying intensity that shimmered as high as he could see for a nearly eternal instant. The light vanished behind them, leaving only a scored pile of melted metal slag where the entrance to the ruin had been. His gut told him that Tiamul would stay buried this time.

"What did we just see, Kakros?"

"A signal. A sign that no army of revenants will ever terrorize us again."

"You seemed to know about that place."

"I have heard of places like it, but I never imagined that was the source of our troubles."

"I suppose Her Majesty will want a good explanation of what we have seen. That burst of light could have been seen for many leagues."

"Further. I fear that perhaps it will call worse things than brigands to Chalthurnin," Kakros said with a heavy sigh. "But we should rejoice. It will be quite the tale!"

"That reminds me. I escaped first, so I choose the tale."

"We never officially bet on it."

"Unofficially is fine for now. Now, I want something lighthearted and amusing."

"Did I tell you the one about the giant snake that fancied himself a living god?"

"Yes, but tell me anyway," Athukul said.

Under the brilliant light of the uncharted stars, the duo headed back home.