The Chronicle of Exarch Jeruph
Summary: Exarch Jeruph conquers a strange, newly-conquered province, only to encounter a peculiar, supernatural foe.
My pen weighs with regret, as though burdened by the weight of history. Of all the Imperial officers charged with quelling the borderlands, I understand the nobility has branded me responsible for the catastrophic rout at Anea. To this, I can only nod my head in agreement. You may be curious why I take full responsibility for the loss of an unwinnable war, but I have ceased caring how decadent nobles and incompetent bureaucracies label me. I have found other wars, ones worthier of my time.
To the uninitiated reader, the Imperial conquest of Anea would seem an unremarkable event. The Urlish Empire had been expanding on the mainland for decades, and the home islands' insatiable demand for resources was constrained only by the reach of our armies. For those reasons, we fielded a war machine unparalleled in the known world. Our longtime neighbors fell like dominos before our heavy infantry and expert logistics, with our mighty fleets turning the Great Sea into an Urlish Lake. To Emperor Gemi and his court, would not uniting the world beneath our banner be a worthy endeavor?
From such hubris sprang folly. Far to the west was the Ochre Barrens, a wasteland of vast necropoli and barbarian tribes. In the near mythic past, the Barrens were the cradle of civilization. As the rivers dried up, what was left of the population tore each other apart in an orgy of violence that left empty cities and barbaric tribes in its wake, as no explorer ever returned with any records of that era. All that remained were the tribes' oral histories, which included nameless, ancient kings using forbidden magic to cheat the inevitable death that awaited them.
Such tales were dismissed as superstitious hogwash by the Imperial Assemblage of Thaumaturgy, as the tales of a degenerate, delusory people. These were retold with exaggeration, imploring us to rescue these people from their ignorance. It was our responsibility to protect them, and to bring them back into the light of civilization. It was rhetoric I'd heard many times as a young officer, but I never paid them much heed. My job was to ensure my legionnaires arrived back home, and anything that prevented that was trampled beneath our boots.
The Imperial Legions were honed by the crucible of combat against several foes, human and otherwise. We quelled the incursions of the northern Sea-Reavers and slew the berserkers and lycanthropes that led them. We smashed the inscrutable machines of the volcanic wastes, confining them to their chthonic fortress-foundries. We purged the pirates of the Shattered Islands, hunting and boarding their sea monster-pulled chariot ships under a hail of enemy fire and pounding waves. We were the mailed, armored fist that smashed all who challenged us. Lamentably, that even included other legions during the civil wars that preceded the Empire's foundation. Nevertheless, as a tool in that machine, I knew my job, and I took pride in executing it.
Much to my relief, the invasion campaign in the Barrens started not with a desert march, but an amphibious siege. In order to secure passage across the Unbounded Ocean, we secured the city-state of Pyre for their massive lighthouse. It had long laid slightly outside Imperial grasp, but our expeditionary force was well equipped to rectify that. I led a textbook siege, but the leaders of the city surrendered before a proper assault could be mounted. Some of my subordinates were annoyed with the quick termination of hostilities, but I was glad for multiple reasons. We would not be bogged down or delayed, and we'd secured the city with minimal loss of life on either side. Commerce would resume, and more importantly, the city served as the key logistics hub for our real objective. I insisting on accepting the leaders' surrender request, enabling them to remain in power, albeit as Imperial governors instead of petty lords. The garrison we left behind was more than sufficient to deter any rebellion. The circumstances of our later return to Pyre were vastly different than our departure.
Our fleet departed for the Ochre Barrens under Exarch Petros. He'd spent entire nights planning for every possible battle, at least in his own mind. He feared local tribes might use the annoying hit and run tactics of the steppe barbarians, but those lands thankfully lacked for similar beasts of burden. Any civilization worth ruling had long since departed from those lands, leaving only treasure-filled ruins ripe for plunder. I have to give the spindly Exarch some credit, for he was quick to caution against lower ranking officers' insistence on having a pre-emptive victory celebration.
Our first, and most ill-conceived, victory in retrospect was the celebration that followed the capture of Siltbank. Siltbank was a hovel-filled village barely worthy of the name, situated at the mouth of what was once a mighty river estuary. There wasn't even a battle, as the locals simply stared curiously at us as fully armored, foreign soldiers barked orders in a language they barely understood. If anything, they pitied us more than feared us. The river was now reduced to a muddy ribbon of brown water, barely able to support the muddy huts along the bank. Our ships could venture no further upriver, so we celebrated the capture of the "capital" of the Barrens before proceeding on an upstream march.
The days that followed melded into the other, each terminating beneath unfamiliar constellations. The days were naught but sizzling, dry heat beneath an unleashed sun. The nights brought with them a cold rivaling even the northern border forts. I tried to keep the enlisted soldiers' spirits up by telling them lies about plunder that surely awaited them. A few days we thought we saw humans, perhaps humans on the horizon, but they vanished before our scouts could approach. As our supplies began to run low, I began hearing plots to desert. I was to the point where was almost ready to join them.
If we hadn't found the necropolis, I had no doubt I would've died in the desert, searching futilely for some source of water or food in lands forsaken by even nomads. The necropolis itself first appeared like a paradise city of marble pillars and flowing fountains, a shared mirage brought on by some residual vestige of prior glory. Like the sweet-smelling odor of carnivorous plant, it drew us in.
Beyond the illusion, it was naught but a sandstone ruin. The immaculate spires and domes were withered mounds of sand-blasted rubble. Where fountains and canals once ran, only rivulets of dust flowed. The shifting sands partially reclaimed a palatial structure, tiered like the ziggurats of the Southlands. The legion's archivist informed me such illusions were occasional, arcane resonances of some past glory. We halted, until infernal greed and curiosity stirred once more.
Captain Sam of the scout unit requested permission to survey the ruined palace. He stated if such visions were of the past, only the dead and sand would guard their treasures. My second-in-command, one-eyed Sergeant Thrace, vetoed that. I overrode his command, and I ordered the sappers sent in. Sam was disappointed by my decision, but I explained my logic to him in private.
The structure looked ready to collapse, and who better to assess if it was worth our time than our siege engineers? Their lives were based around bringing things down, and they, more than any of us, would be able to assess the scenario. Statio lead them in with crossbows and picks ready, and they re-emerged a few hours later. Regarding their debriefing, I feel I must clarify a few things.
I am aware of that fabulist-spun myth about their descent into that silent tomb. Each telling of that horrid falsehood escalated the imagined perils Statio and his companions faced. In those horrid falsehood, Statio wove through salvos of poison darts, ducked bladed pendulums, grappled over bottomless pits, and even battled a legion of ghosts. None came close to the reality, for the only thing down that hallway were dust and unstable ceilings. I know because I checked it myself, after he found a relatively safe path.
We did not have the resources to excavate that horrible palace, but we did find a handful of "plunder." While there are fanciful tales of long-lost treasure hoards, mounds of cursed gold, and other imaginative creations, we found far less useful things. We found shards of long-shattered pottery, of a style used centuries ago. We found a few primitive coins, with unintelligible scripts not even the natives we later interviewed knew. They were of a crude, cheap bronze alloy used by incompetent counterfeiters back home, but we found no other artifacts. Despite this, I do believe our incursion into that city was the direct cause of what followed.
I have no doubt you heard the tales that followed. They were not as dramatic as the apologists for that war would have you believe. After our inglorious return to that mud-striven hovel of a village, we grew bored and complacent. When you have to command the attention of a thousand bored soldiers, distraction becomes desirable. I formally instituted a system of having each company portray a classical play or song to entertain the remainder of our garrison, with informal gambling tolerated (so long as a ranking officer was absent). This system worked well, until the first incursion.
Our first encounter with them was terrifying. On the second full moon after our return, they descended on an outlying sentry tower. I remember the poor youth, a provincial soldier bored out of his mind, shrieking as he leapt from the tower. Despite not launching the signal arrow as his duty entailed, I granted him a reprieve in the post-battle debrief. Unintentionally, he'd still performed his job at alerting the camp to incoming danger. I still credit his ignoble scream with saving my own life. We rallied the legion as the first of them came over the walls.
On first glance, I thought I was battling some necromantic abomination from ancient myth. I still remember their skeletal forms, with moonbeams passing through bone and rusted armor. As I saw one closer in the light of a sputtering torch. The creature was not some animated skeleton, loosed from beneath the sands. Instead, it was a creature born of animated sand, molded by some unspeakable magic into the form of an ancient warrior. I first thought that the cuirass and short-short were made of bronze, but they too were sculpted from sand. It lashed at the nearest unprepared legionary, slashing him across the neck with a single blow. My own will wavered as my training told me to form ranks. To this day, I am glad I obeyed the latter. We didn't have time to armor up, but I was fortunate enough to be standing near the armory. With only my short sword and shield, I faced that single dune warrior. It charged us with no hesitation, and it closed towards me. I thrust my sword into its torso, expecting its sand armor to stop it.
Even I was incredulous at first. The whole figure crumbled back into dust. For a moment I stood there, my own disbelief forcing me to question if I'd fallen asleep on sentry duty. The others behind me were similarly silent, unsure of what to make of it. I was expecting it to rise from the sand once more, to leap from the ground and try to pull us down. Honestly, I'd have been less scared, as I'd my suspicious of fighting an unknowable demon. Instead, though, it seemed like I'd defeated it entirely. The reverie ended with a cry from another sentry. More were coming over the embankments and palisades, and we'd have to fight them.
As you undoubtedly know that story, we overwhelming won that battle. The others, even hundreds in number, were no match once our armored compatriots arrived. The only person that died the entire night was the unlucky soldier that was first cut down when it arrived. Their sand-swords, while able to affect naked flesh, were unable to penetrate our armor. By the end of the night, we'd found them as contemptible and underwhelming as the Imperial criers claim they are.
The following day was one of renewed vigor and activity. We didn't dare step anywhere without our armor, and we traveled in groups even as we moved to the outhouses and latrines. Much to my dismay, some of the younger soldiers had taken it upon themselves to start torturing clueless, terrified villagers for any information they could. I had them flogged, but I had to do something to diffuse the distrust.
Nevertheless, I sensed they were even more terrified and ignorant of the dune demons than we were. I ordered the villagers be imprisoned for the next ship back to Pyre, where they'd be resettled on the frontier. While an unpleasant fate, the alternatives presented to me by my fellow officers were enslavement and massacre. I did not wish to offend any more higher powers than I already had, but I suppose it was my own conscience weighing on me.
Two weeks after the first incursion, we encountered them again during a daytime patrol. They fell as easily as the first time, despite their arrangement into mines and formations that closely mirrored our own. It was as if they'd seen what a line of armored soldiers was capable of, and they were trying to mimic it, only to be limited by their innate nature as mounds of sand. They did grow a bit more dangerous during that battle, as their swords were a little longer and faster. Despite this, we annihilated them with ease. It was even easier on the third, fourth, and fifth times. A handful of soldiers died in these encounters, but the total casualties on our side were in the signal digits.
The nature of these dune demons, as we called them, vexed us far more than their weapons did. Interviews with the villagers confirmed my suspicion they were even more clueless and confused than we were. The sages we consulted with back home were similarly clueless, and none of the measures they suggested worked to banish them. Their appearances were entirely random, and not in synchrony with any natural cycle proposed: tides, lunar cycles, or the light of some baleful star. All who claimed to be able to defeat or predict them were all revealed as frauds, although the Imperial bureaucracy precluded me from fully ignoring them.
I understood the true reason for my recall as soon as that messenger handled me the Emperor's sealed orders. Emperor Gemi recalled me to the Imperial Court to testify before an audience of jaded aristocrats. I regaled them with stories of the first encounter, but they seem unimpressed. They waited for the Emperor to speak, and ask me how to achieve victory over these foes. I replied frankly, too frankly for a political setting. Needless to say, I was fortunate to only be reassigned to the Northern Frontier after the dust all settled.
Even in that frigid wasteland, I followed news from our newest conquest. One of my successors even declared victory after leading an expedition of sappers into the desert to demolish that ancient city. The dune demon attacks continued nevertheless, and they even learned a few things. Some even incorporated bits of stone into their "armor," making them slightly tougher to take down. When we began using neck guards, they learned to strike at other gaps in our armor. While they lost badly each time, we'd take a handful of casualties in each encounter.
Exchanging a desert of sand for one of snow was a peaceful reprieve after my time in the Barrens. The occasional barbarian raids, wild animal attacks, and bandit skirmishes are the foes I'd spent my life training to combat. Unlike the dune demons, they at least bleed when cut. Even without the expedition to the Barrens, I knew things were getting worse. Over the last year, less money and recruits flowed north, followed by increasingly brutish tax collectors. The treasury's running dry again, and the Emperor was looking for scapegoats. The parade of corpses and wounded soldiers was not enough to deter the Imperial appetite for war. I was the one Exarch that hadn't been forced into exile, retirement, or worse. So, who better to heap his frustrations on than me?
Fortunately, I'd anticipated the unpleasantness that followed. I raised a unit of veterans of that awful campaign, mainly of whom I'd had stationed along the border. Our time in the north kept us sharp and ready. We fell into the Imperial heartland like an assassin's dagger, performing that job they'd prepared us for with even greater efficiency. With some irony, I found the villagers I'd had exiled, and they willingly joined us on our campaign. Gemi had more enemies than he cared to realize.
Now, the Imperial City lies besieged and isolated. Their other legions are stretched thin and no longer responding to Gemi's summons. Once expensive robes are turned into flags of surrender and parley. The nobles first continued pretending nothing was amiss, but they've had to face reality as their servants flee to the countryside. Now, they wear rags and feast upon rat carcasses in filthy streets, as disease ravages them. The main garrison surrendered two days ago, and we are clearing out the last pockets of resistance. As I conclude this chronicle, I have a solution that will end our problem with the dune demons: Withdraw from the Ochre Barrens. I pray the next ruler is open to such wisdom, for nothing good comes of pointless, protracted war for its own sake. I can directly attest to this.