Dainwood Jungle, Sector Two
Wormwrot scouts found the mud totems an hour before dark. Lieutenant Droll called a halt.
The men crowded around to get a look. There were about fifty of the little bastards, pinched from the earth like miniature demons, twisted into positions of suffering, and adorned with all manner of unsettling decorations: Broken fingernails. Shattered bone fragments. Human eyeballs.
The grisly scene made Rigar’s skin crawl.
“Fucking animals,” mumbled their sergeant, Grotto. “Just got no decency at all.”
That meant something, coming from Grotto. Before the reformation of Wormwrot, he’d been muscle at one of Commander Vergun’s gambling dens. Apparently, his favorite punishment for catching men cheating at dice was grabbing their fingers and tearing them off with his bare hands.
“Wouldn’t say they’ve got zero decency,” said Lieutenant Droll, scratching at one of his wild mutton chops, which had streaks of silver amidst the dirty black mane. “They just don’t dole much out to foreign soldiers encroaching on their land.”
Grotto gave Droll a cold look. The men didn’t care for each other, that was known. If the enemy didn’t kill one of them soon, Rigar was fairly certain they’d kill each other.
In that event, Rigar privately hoped that Grotto turned out to be the murdered party. Droll was a strict commander with no tolerance for laziness, cowardice, or panicked behavior during a fight. But he was generally fair with his men, and he’d kept them alive this long. Grotto was plain evil—here for the blood and the violence as much as the money. He’d inflict pain on the enemy when they were available. When they weren’t, Grotto’s ire often shifted to his own men.
“Should we turn back to an extraction point?” asked a new recruit, whose name Rigar hadn’t bothered to learn. He’d only been with them a week. At this point, Rigar didn’t learn anyone’s name unless they proved they could survive for a month in the Dainwood.
Given how bad the last few months had been, half the men in the unit were anonymous to him. They’d most likely stay that way.
“You scared of some mud figurines, soldier?” Grotto asked him.
The recruit shrugged. “Don’t they got magical powers? Or command forest monsters or something?”
“Forest gods,” someone down the line corrected.
Grotto spat. Sighed. “These two idiots.”
Droll stepped in. “They don’t have magical powers. But the fact those eyes haven’t been stolen by crows means they’re recent. That means we stay on the ground till we root ’em out. We’ll head to Fallon’s Roost for the night. Hunker down with the skeleton crew posted there.”
“Fuck that,” said Grotto. “I say we—”
Grotto stopped talking when a long shadow fell over him and stayed there.
Their unit’s acolyte had come up the line, and now towered over them. Horns made from dragon bones jutted from his scalp. His eyes glowed an unnatural, orange color. Apparently, the earliest acolytes all wore masks that hid their disturbing faces, but the latest war models didn’t need them.
Strange as they looked, they all had simple, numeric identifiers. This one was 408.
“What is it?” Acolyte 408 hissed. His voice was raspy and stressed. Reminded Rigar of burnt meat crackling over a fire.
“More of their mud statues, sir,” said Droll.
In general, Wormwrot wasn’t big on sirs and salutes. Long as you followed your orders when the steel was out and the blood was flying, Vergun allowed his grunts to keep things pretty informal. But Osyrus Ward was their employer on this contract, and his terrifying acolytes tended to illicit a stiffer response from the men.
“Figured we’d make for Fallon’s Roost to pass the night, then go searching in the morning,” Droll continued.
Acolyte 408 surveyed the totems on the road for a moment, then stomped through them, flattening a significant number with his swollen feet.
He headed toward Fallon’s Roost. They followed.
The acolytes were a mixed bag in Rigar’s opinion. Terrifying as all hell—and known to murder Wormwrot grunts for no discernible reason. If a man took a piss in a place that an acolyte didn’t like, he could get his head torn off for the infraction. But they were gods in combat. Rigar had personally seen Acolyte 408 send thirty-three wardens down the river—tore ’em apart like chaff with the razor-sharp spikes that popped from his fists during a fight.
The memory still gave Rigar nightmares.
They walked for an hour before Fallon’s Roost came into view. It was one of the largest holdfasts along the northern rim of the Dainwood.
When they got within a hundred strides of the fortress, that same new recruit stubbed his toe on something metallic.
“Ow, shit!” hissed that recruit, frowning at the offending object, which was a bunch of armor balled up around a skeleton. “What the fuck is that?”
“Dead Jaguar,” said Rigar.
The recruit frowned. “How’d he get all balled up like that?”
“You don’t know?”
The recruit shrugged. “Tell me.”
Rigar sighed. The prospect of a night in the jungle behind proper walls had relaxed him enough to tell the story. Which he could do, since he’d been there.
“This here’s the site of the biggest victory we’ve won against the Jaguars to date. Wormwrot took control of the holdfast early in the war and we’d been using it as our forward deploy. The Jaguars took offense to that, and attacked, which was an exceedingly foolish idea, seeing as we had twenty acolytes on the walls.”
“So, an acolyte did this?”
“Well, that’s actually a matter up for debate,” Rigar said, then glanced at Droll.
“There was a sorceress,” Droll said. “I fucking saw her.”
“Sorceress?” the recruit asked.
“Yes. The Jaguars had a woman with them when they attacked. She wasn’t wearing any armor and she wasn’t carrying weapons, but she went charging into the fray all the same. When the first acolyte dropped off the walls, she cast a spell that reduced any man wearing armor into a crumpled ball like the one you just stubbed your toe on. Look around.” He gestured across the field. “They’re everywhere.”
“Why would she cast a spell on her own soldiers?” the recruit asked.
“Well, she obviously fucked it up. But before Fallon’s Roost, I heard acolytes were getting their spines ripped out like fish at the morning market.” Droll spat. “Nobody’s seen her since then, so I’m thinking she killed herself.”
The recruit looked at Rigar. “But you didn’t see her?”
“I was taking a shit when the attack started. By the time I got up to the walls, all the fun was over. Just a smoking crater and a bunch of dead Jaguars. No sign of a sorceress, alive or otherwise.”
“Yeah, but she’d have been pulled straight down to hell by the demons she fucked to get her powers,” Droll said, as if this was common and incontrovertible knowledge. “Plus, there was a whole group of Jaguars who retreated into the woods. We went after ’em, but lost the trail at a river.”
“What happened to the acolyte?” the recruit asked.
“That jumped off the wall.”
“He was just stunned,” said Droll. “The bitch’s magic didn’t take. A few of those soft-palmed engineers with the dragonskin jackets flew in the next day and brought it back to Floodhaven. We stayed in the Roost for another week, but the Jaguars moved on, so we did too.”
“And now we’re back,” said Rigar. “Whole war’s just a horrible circle.”
They finished picking through the balled-up wardens and sounded off to the sentries on the wall. Droll sidled up next to Rigar as they headed into the holdfast and spoke to him in a low tone.
“I’ll need you with me on double-watch tonight. I want my veterans awake and alert once the sun goes down.”
That’s what Rigar liked about Droll. He’d pull you for a crap duty as needed, but he was always right there with you, shoveling the shit.
“You smell trouble?”
“They use those totems to mess with us, that’s known. Most of the time, when you get an obvious signal like that in the road, whatever savages made them are already two valleys over with no plans to return. But this time…” Droll trailed off. Scanned the hills. “Yeah, guess I do smell some trouble.”
Rigar made a show of taking a big breath in. “All I smell is this mud and shit and rot.”
“They tend to be pretty close traveling partners.”
Copyright © 2021 by Brian Naslund