20 Abuztua, Summer 848 OEF – Duresh Forest (Mission Phase)
The forests of eastern Aldermark are so serene that you might have forgotten there was a war for the survival of humanity on, if not for the sounds of the undead we can hear in the distance each night. We passed a village that had been set upon by something terrible – living or not, we could not tell – and grown men had been torn in half by giant jaws. The Commander told us to ignore it and press on, though we could not sleep soundly knowing such a thing was sharing this forest with us.
Last night the Ember Wolves, who had been forced into camp guarding duty since they broke during the raid on the fortress six weeks prior, were using munitions to blow up forest animals and were taking bets on which one would go the furthest. The Panyar among our number were clearly irate, and even an old soldier found this too cruel and inhuman, but in the end the veterans of the Legion simply watched it happen. Zora, for her part, joined in the gambling. War makes nutcases of us all, and we’ll be lucky to be any more human than Render or Blighter if we complete this suicide mission and reach Skydagger Keep.
Tof’s been studying the Annals with me, taking an interest in the history of the Legion. It’s rare to see rankers care. Even I only begrudgingly accepted my role as Lorekeeper back when I realized the wasting disease had put my fighting days behind me. Now these Annals are my most important possessions. Time changes us all.
In the morning we discovered that the Kinzig, a great Old Empire dam holding back water flowing down from the mountains to the north, had burst, flooding the road and washing out everything in its path. The forest in front of us is now more accurately a swamp. Azure Surging Tide, he of the Old Empire fetish, suggested we might investigate the Kinzig and see if we could traverse the dam to speed our way through the forest. Otherwise, we’ll have to go the long way around to get back to the path, cutting deep into the head start Falka has bought us.
Zora, meanwhile, is urging the Commander to ignore the Kinzig and has requested a squad from the Commander to go off with her towards some ruins that appear on our map. She won’t say why, but we cannot deny the Chosen. I get the feeling even the Commander is suspicious of her motives now. Certainly the Spymaster does not trust her, but that shifty bastard doesn’t trust anyone. The Marshal sent Bearblood, Tof, and Zayayev with the Star Vipers to accompany Zora on her mission. As soon as she was gone, the Commander ordered the lieutenant, Azure Surging Tide, and Amber Raging Wind to take the Ghost Owls and see if it was practicable to traverse the Kinzig. I’m glad the Commander still has some independent authority beyond the Chosen’s preternatural whims.
25 Abuztua, Summer 848 OEF – Duresh Forest (Primary Mission, Crimson Call – Success)
The Star Vipers returned from their mission with Zora, who was under the care of Tof. Bearblood and Zayayev refused to talk about what happened, other than to say that they had been pursued into ruins by Zenya the Sable Arrow. They had lost two of the Star Vipers, Maleksei Alikovna and Tatinika One-Eye but had accomplished their mission, whatever it was. Zora had fought off Zenya but taken an arrow coated in nightshade venom for the trouble. Tof’s treatments had stabilized her, but it was a wonder she was still alive at all. Even a drop of that venom was deadly to all but the very luckiest, and she had been shot through with more than a drop.
Late that night Tof entered my tent, waking me. There were dark bags under his eyes, and his face looked far more haunted than it had before he had left. Couldn’t sleep, he told me.
In a voice reduced to a whisper, he told me the full story of what had occurred at those ruins. The squad had uncovered a deep hole covered in rubble, but Zenya’s appearance upset the plans. Zora told the Legionnaires to deal with whatever was down there while the Chosen dueled Render’s lieutenant.
On their way down, Alikovna had lost hold of the rope and fallen to her death. At the bottom, they had found a passage of hewn stone unseen by human eyes in centuries. Zayayev had scouted ahead but been driven to his knees by voices he couldn’t understand. They must have been something to drive that cold bastard near-mad. The squad advanced and were assaulted by these ghostly voices but stood their ground. They shone light into the room at the end of the corridor.
I need to make sure I get all of this recorded. On the walls were murals depicting figures in battle, including an army in black with a towering figure that Tof believes could only be Zora. They were facing a fiery crown of ten points. I will look through the annals for more, but Tof suggested this must be from the end of the Old Empire, when records of the Legion – why we turned our back on the Last Emperor – were vague and scarce.
Along another wall of this underground dome were ten skeletons, not undead… but apparently not totally dead, either. They wore black lorica segmentata, the armor of the cohorts of the Old Empire, and on their chests were the crest of the Shattered Lions. My jaw dropped, and he nodded. Lost Legionnaires, ancient brothers. I knew that story. There wasn’t much detail in it; the final days of the Old Empire are as mysterious for us as for any. But the Annals did mention the disappearance of the Lions. It was one of the other times we had dealings with Zora. It fit.
And, as I mentioned, our old brothers and sisters were not apparently entirely dead. Tof, his eyes weary, says there were shadows in the room that no light could reach. The voices seemed to be coming from them. They were speaking Old Imperial, he was sure of it, just close enough to languages they knew that it was familiar but far enough to be incomprehensible to most. But one spoke Aldermani, a language that hadn’t changed much in the ensuing time.
Tof said the shade told him he smelled like her , by which we can only assume he meant Zora. They called the Legion diminished, but greeted Tof as a brother. They asked if the Owls had returned to give them what she had promised them. Tof said they asked what was promised, but the shades would say nothing. They attacked him, their voices breaking into his head. He hears them now, he says.
It was Zayayev who broke the stalemate, firing his pistols at the skeletons in the corner. Their heads exploded, and the shades disappeared. The Vipers had always been the ones to fight unseen enemies, and they had an idea of what to do. They kept them at bay while Bearblood tore heads off and smashed skeletons of Legionnaires long since dead. Tof was not yet fully a Legionnaire, still a surgeon, and he wept as he told me, and even once begged forgiveness. I held him as he wept. Once I was more heartless, but those days left me when the battlefields did.
Tatinika One-Eye died when she was possessed by a shade, Tof says. Zayayev shot her. Living and dead, the Legion swallows its own. She got one shot off, nearly killing another of the Vipers, but Bearblood threw her aside and deflected the shot with his shield. That was all. They emerged back into the light of day and Zora had fought Zenya off but taken an arrow for her troubles.
As Tof left my tent, I wondered if that really was all. Was now-dead One-Eye really the only one who had been possessed by some forgotten brother?
29 Abuztua, Summer 848 OEF – Duresh Forest (Secondary Mission, Western Peak – Failure)
The Ghost Owls made their way into the arcane interior of the Kinzig, but once they reached the breach in the dam that had caused the flooding, they found they had no way to traverse it. Manabur, the lieutenant, made a prudent decision not to risk any further exploration of the Old Empire structure, for who knew what surprises lay in the dark, and the squad returned to camp, unsuccessful in their mission but otherwise no worse for the wear. We were lucky Zora was still confined to her tent; she was none the wiser to realize the Commander had defied her demands to ignore the dam.
Still, Zenya knew we were here, which meant Render knew we were here. The forces of one or both of the Fallen that were chasing us would soon reach us. We mounted our firemanes and took the long way around the swollen gorge. Even with those majestic beasts beneath us, though, we found the forest difficult to navigate without a path and it took much longer than we had anticipated. Along the way, we stopped at villages in the woods, the Quartermaster recruiting any who were willing to abandon their homes and come with us. We couldn’t be choosy. What was left among the Panyar and Aldermani in these villages were those who had been too young or old to fight the undead. Some who we enlisted were just boys and girls barely able to lift a musket. Others were oldsters with nothing left to live for, their children having gone off to fight and never come back.
None of that matters. They took the oaths the Legion’s been taking since the days of Cincinnatus. They’ll die with us as brothers and sisters.
Driven on by Zora’s fervor and the Commander’s steady plans, we had made unbelievably good time across Aldermark. The Legion’s spirits remain high, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the Legion’s deep well of good luck was beginning to run dry as we plunged deeper into the Aldermani forest, the night air taking on a growing chill with each passing day.
Summer was passing into autumn. Our food stocks were beginning to dwindle. Our Chosen was recovering but weak – and we were beginning to wonder if we were trusting one monster to save us from others. We were still so far from Skydagger Keep. It felt like this forest went on without end. The undead were breathing down our backs.
One question assaulted my mind as we rode forward, caught in there thanks to my more poetic instincts: Were these the waning days of the last summer humanity would ever know?