Bringer of Storms
As told to the Director of Imperial Affairs, Ganymede Reese, serving under Her Majesty Empress Shashka Augustus of the Golden Lion Throne. Gods save the Empress. My name is Thaddeus Gracius Centus, and this is my official report as the last surviving member of the 17th Imperial Legion.
The beginning of this report has already been submitted at the watch commander of the constabulary in the city of Valencia, as I recovered from my injuries sustained upon the road and my identity confirmed. I will reiterate the fate of my Centurion and the rest of the 17th Legion. We were sent to investigate the destruction of a small village between the town of Crossroads and our posting in Caer MacMorden. Centurion Cato was confident that it must have been a large band of Goblins, likely lairing in the thick forests surrounding the area. Bannock was a small logging village and if the wood cutters had disturbed a large enough nest of them it would wrap up the conclusion quite neatly. Cato was angry that we had been assigned to such a detail, rather than crossing the Crags of Darkness to protect the Heartland from the insurgents, excuse me, Rebels in service to Her Majesty the Empress. He was mistaken that we would make short work of the creatures and be back to Caer MacMorden
The horses became restless when we approached the outskirts of the town, even Fierce who is the steadiest mount I’ve ever owned, seemed to want nothing more than to turn and go back towards the city. My usually stoic warhorse fidgeted and rolled his eyes so that white showed all the way around, the tension in every line of his body matching that of his fellows. In the lead, Cato’s mount Felicitus suddenly screamed and reared as things boiled out of the ruined gates of the village and then immediately out of the woods around us. They weren’t any damn goblin, that was for certain… I wish I could make my report more clear but I have no idea what those things were, nothing human, at least not anymore. Some of them wore clothes such as the people around those parts would wear, bloody and torn to shreds and rotting. The creatures were rotting themselves, bloated and oozing as they launched themselves at our line. It took no time at all for the so called engagement to turn into a route as men screamed and horses bolted, throwing their riders into the claws and jaws of the enemy.
A huge beast bellowed as it shoved its way out of the line of thick trees to the west of the road, and I’ll have nightmares about that thing for the rest of my days. Cato, having been thrown from his mount almost immediately, drew his sword and attacked it madly. I think we all went a bit mad there for awhile. The thing dripped gore and pieces of itself as it reached out a massive fist and slapped our Centurion as if he were nothing of consequence, his neck snapped as it struck him and he was dead before he fell among the hooves of the panicked horses. Five rest his soul and comfort his family and the rest of our men. Being near the back of the line, Fierce nearly bucked me out of the saddle as the creatures clawed at his flanks, and spun about. I tried to control him and turn him back to defend my fellows, but he would have none of it. He ran for miles, sweating and heaving until he collapsed. There was nothing I could do, for him, or for my compatriots. We were no match for whatever horror had befallen that place. Therein is the report of the events that led me to this point…
Six Months Previous
I built a funeral pyre for Fierce. Some might have said it was sacrilegious to offer prayers to the Five for a mere horse but that beast was my best friend for four years, closer to me than most of the men my regiment. When I groomed him at night I could tell him everything, and he wouldn’t judge me. His chestnut flanks and black mane and tail would be impeccable long before I finished telling him my worries. He wouldn’t say I whispered treason when I wondered if the insurgents might have just cause. My father had been quietly contemptuous of the noblemen who flocked to Wotecorix’ banner without so much as offering prayers for our murdered Imperial family and he lit incense for them in a part of our family shrine for a year. He never spoke out against the new emperor, in order to keep us safe he said, but he also told me I should be careful and remember the ethics he taught me when I told him I was going to join the Legion. All of this I could only share with Fierce, my father’s gift to me before I left home.
Many men and women in the 17th spoke out about wanting to go down to the frontier to help squash the insurgents, and they got louder as they began to move up to the heartland. I was grateful, silently, that our orders kept us in the Willem Valley and the light duties assigned to us. To be honest, the Greencloaks are far more useful in country like that; but our Legion was assigned to guard the Consul of Caer MacMorden and there we stayed until call came in about that gods be-damned town. Both regiments of the army were on other assignments, or at work in the city with the constabulary. Centurion Cato said it was time to stretch our legs. Damn it.
It took me awhile to get my bearings, as Fierce had run for a good five hours and then still wouldn’t stop until it was nearly nightfall. I remember crying like a child as I tried to control my friend, knowing he would founder if he didn’t stop and let me see to his wounds. Blood and sweat rolled down his flanks as he finally collapsed beneath me, and I rolled off his back to grab his bridle and stroke the spot just between his eyes like I always did. He shuddered and twitched, claw marks riddled his legs and sides where his barding had been torn away. Small chunks of flesh of the same size as a human mouth were missing in places. It wasn’t until then I realized I was injured, the backs of my own legs unprotected by my greaves had been sliced by claws as well. I ignored my own hurts as I comforted my horse.
“I’m sorry old friend,” I whispered as I began to pull off his tack. I had some sorry hope of finding help nearby and coming back for the valuable saddle and packs. As it was I could only carry my bedroll and field pack. I tucked the tack away in a crook of rocks and brush at the base of a set of rocky hills where we had ended up. We’d run so fast and hard I could only imagine this was the very edge of the Thermalite Mountains, but I couldn’t tell exactly where I was. It had taken us nearly two weeks on horseback to reach Bannock and I seemed to be even further south from Caer MacMorden, possibly even past Crossroads. I never was as good at reckoning by the stars as I should have been, always relying on others in my regiment to worry about that sort of thing. I’d barely passed that section in my training. The light from the fire was smoky and flared at intervals as it consumed my friend and sent his spirit on its way. I’d heard some of the barbarians in the Valley still buried their dead, saying prayers to the Five but whispering to the ancient Willem Valley gods they had shared with the Forgotten. I shook my head at such blasphemy and said a last farewell to my loyal Fierce.
I walked upwind of the funeral pyre, feeling sweat drying on my skin beneath my shirt and the chain maille hauberk over it as I moved to set my back against a sheered off piece of rock. I sat on the cooling ground and lit my lamp, although I only had a small amount of oil with me I needed to see to my wounds before I rested. The moon was only a thin sliver in the night sky, waning towards the dark end of its cycle. I stripped off my greaves and rolled up the tattered remains of my trousers, hissing as the fabric peeled away from the dried blood. I cleaned my wounds without much fuss, wondering if any of the others had survived and were even now doing the same. But somehow I knew I was the only survivor. As uncomfortable as it was, I re-armored myself and rolled up in my bedroll to catch a few hours of sleep before sunrise. I’d be walking back to the City and had no idea if I’d find any other villages along the way.
The Imperial Cartographers tried to keep up with the little thorpes that sometimes seemed to pop up overnight like mushrooms in the Willem Valley but it’s a chore to track them all down sometimes. Maps of the Valley and the Frontier are more frequently incomplete than Heartland maps. Sometimes it even seems like the little villages don’t even want to be found or put on the maps at all, and some cartographers don’t even want to bother if it’s just a few farmhouses and families all connected by marriage. They just make sure to send the Census and tax collectors in the right general direction and hope they find everyone.
By the time I awoke in the morning it was already sweltering, my wool blanket had been kicked off in the night and sweat rolled down the back of my neck to soak the collar of my shirt. The pyre had burned down and a tear rolled down my cheek as I looked at the last remains of my friend. The fire hadn’t gotten hot enough to burn everything but I couldn’t justify staying long enough to take care of the rest. I said a final prayer and turned away, hefting my pack filled with what I could carry from my saddlebags. A small part of me felt horribly guilty for mourning the death of my horse more than the rest of the 17th.
It took me ten days of walking to reach the farming village of Kilnathen. After the first three days I took to walking in the early morning, resting during the hottest part of the day, and continuing to walk in the afternoon and evening. The heat was oppressive, and water was scarce. I filled my water bottle at every tiny pool or stream I could find and rationed it carefully. I’d heard the southern part of the valley had been having problems with drought for more than six months but I hadn’t been expecting this. As I approached the village near the end of the day I saw that the fields were empty. If things had been normal people would still be working in them, but the soil was sad and dry. The crops, far shorter than they should have been, waved in the dry breeze that did little to cool the sweat on my brow. In the distance I could see a grove of trees centered in the middle of the fields, likely the goats and cows took shelter their in the rain – when there was rain at any rate.
The village was really just a tiny group of now failing farms, the livestock in their pens were as thin and sickly looking as the wheat. The little boy looking at me from an open doorway didn’t look much better. About five years old, with a mop of dirty red hair, he sucked on his thumb for comfort. As I walked toward the house he slipped inside the dim interior and a thought entered my mind that before Wotecorix came to power the Greencloaks would have been patrolling here, and the Office of Imperial Affairs would have distributed food and water rations to the people so affected. Now all the resources were being hoarded in the Heartland, or doled out at the mercy of the local consulate. Mercy was certainly in short supply it would seem. Before I could reach the home an older woman appeared in the open door, a long butchers knife unconcealed in her right hand as she pushed the little boy behind her.
“What do you think you want, pure blood?” she asked in a light brogue, a scowl on her face at the sight of my uniform. I sighed slightly, licking my dry lips before answering.
“Pardon me, madam. I didn’t mean to intrude but I’m looking for directions to Caer MacMorden…and maybe a place to stay the night.” my eyes stayed on hers but I remained aware of the weapon in her hand. I kept my own hands loose at my side in an attempt to appear nonthreatening.
“Awfully far outta your way ain’tcha pure blood?” she continued, her tone still hostile but her shoulders relaxing slightly. The little boy pushed her skirt aside to peer around her hip curiously. He stuck his thumb back into his mouth and watched me with wide eyes.
“Yes Ma’am,” I said, keeping my tone civil, “My horse foundered about five days back from here.” I couldn’t keep the knot in my throat from making my voice sound tight, “And I’m afraid I don’t know quite where I’ve found myself.”
“This’s Kilnathen, or it will be till it dries up and blows away.” she wiped a strand of greying red hair from her eyes and stepped back into the house. “C’mon in, I been to the city a couple of times so I can tell ya the way.” she paused and added, “I’m Agatha Thornborough.”
“Thank you Ma’am, I appreciate your help.” I noted that she said nothing of offering her hospitality for the night, and I wondered for a moment at the entire village seeming silent and abandoned. The cooler air in the house was a welcome relief and the woman thrust a pottery mug full of water at me. The door had led into a small kitchen with a battered table and stools. She returned to what she had been doing before my arrival, washing dishes, but kept the knife in easy reach by her hand. Sipped the water and a slight metallic taste coated my tongue. It explained why she could waste something so precious in time of drought. Their well must have derived from an underground mineral spring; I didn’t know much of farming but I was fairly sure that some minerals would be good for crops but others would kill them just as sure as no water at all.
“M’ Edoric,” The little boy blurted out, “M’ six,” he added looking up at me hopefully. I finished swallowing the water and thanked the woman as she took it from my hand and washed the cup immediately in the soapy water as if she thought anything I’d touched would be especially dirty. The boy reminded me of my own cousin, although their stations in life were so wildly different. I knelt down so that my head was nearly on a level with his, the jangle of my maille sounding very loud in the small quiet space. Outside a group of men talking urgently in low voices passed by the house, moving toward the center of the village. Agatha looked up sharply and watched them pass by the window and dried her hands on her apron. She looked at me and her expression softened when she saw the boy smiling at me.
“My name is Thaddeus,” I smiled at him, and it felt odd on my face. I’d been grim for such a long time that the corners of my mouth ached from the unaccustomed muscle movement. Outside a bell tolled three times and I wondered if they had a small chapel somewhere in the town center. I hadn’t seen any such building in the distance, but some of the Arcane order’s missionaries built small homes with even tinier chapels in out of the way places like this. Likely it was just big enough to hold the people of the town in the chapel portion of the house with an even tinier part left over for the comfort of the Proctor.
“A’right,” Agatha broke in sharply, “Look pure blood, ya can sleep in the barn for this one night.” her eyebrow raised as if she expected me to protest at sleeping somewhere so undignified and I restrained myself from mimicking her expression. I’d been sleeping on the ground for ten days, any night under a roof would be welcome, especially if it came with directions home in the morning.
“Madam, if that is the call to evening devotionals at a chapel of the Five I would humbly ask to join your folk at them.” I asked hopefully, I desperately wanted to speak to the Proctor. Most missionaries out this far didn’t have much in the way of power so far as being an Arcane went but he or she might be able to get word to Caer MacMorden, or even have maps that would show me the way.
More people passed by the window and Agatha began to usher me towards the back door, “No.” she said shortly “Edoric’ll bring you somethin’ to eat in a bit, rest ‘o the town won’t be so happy to see your face at evenin’ services so you can say your own prayers if you’ve a mind to.”
I suppose that was when I began to get suspicious that something in this town wasn’t right, more so than just the awful conditions of the crops and animals. Many in the Willem Valley would look down their nose at an Imperial Legionnaire, even the Greencloaks who took many of their recruits from the local folk were considered unwelcome in these out of the way places. However, I couldn’t imagine why they would have wanted to deny me the comfort of the Chapel and it’s minister. I was weary enough, and sick enough of my bad cooking, to let her lead me to the almost empty hayloft and strip off my armor.
It wasn’t long before the little boy called up to me from the bottom of the ladder, a small metal pail in his hands. The light outside had nearly faded entirely and I’d lit my lantern to see by. I smiled down at him from where I sat against the barn wall, mending some of the rings of my maille and cleaning it. I climbed down and took the pail from him and lifted the lid to find lukewarm soup. “Thank you son.” He beamed at me and turned, running back towards barn door.
“G’night mister,” he said with a solemn look on his face. “Auntie tol’ me to stay in tonight or the bogles would get me. You should too.” he nodded succinctly and darted off across the yard.
As I ate I considered Agatha’s strange behavior and Edoric’s words. I wondered if perhaps I’d come across a nest of rebel sympathizers, it would certainly explain the lady not wanting me to be seen by the rest of the village in that case. Everyone had heard that some members of the Arcane Order had allied themselves with the rebel leaders and were aiding them, perhaps the Proctor here was cut of the same cloth and thus would not have been happy to see an Imperial soldier on his doorstep. I wondered if Agatha was protecting me, if she was a loyal citizen of the Empire caught between that loyalty and the rest of her village. I wondered what my father would have me do.
As I turned the situation over in my mind I heard a strange sound from outside. There was a small window I’d propped open for a bit of breeze at the end of the hayloft and I quickly blew out my lantern and crawled over to it. Peering out into the twilight I saw a strange procession of people trickling in groups of two and three leaving the houses and walking towards the fields. My heart hammered in my chest. At the head of the procession looked to be an Arcane proctor, pale colored robes billowing around him as he walked. It seemed all of the adults in the village were following him somewhere. Perhaps they had a secret meeting place in the grove of scraggly trees that had likely sheltered their livestock when sent to graze.