Everywhere, they called him the Warlord. In some lands he was Eshlaru in others, Issaraym, in others still, Kirnavir. No one knew from where he came. He had a visage marred by strange scars, his scalp always shaved bare; for they said his hair would not grow upon the scars. Some say in a lifetime of fighting under his shadow dragon banner until they turned gray, he’d never aged a day.
Now, even amidst the swirls of falling snow he rides his black horse that haughtily high steps, his barbed blade held straight out in front of him, shield ringed with spikes held at his side as he passes through the ranks of his men all beating their weapons on their shields, howling with bloodlust. His face could just be seen through the sickle-toothed jaws that formed the mask of his helm. The Coalition of the Ascendant had pursued us even here far into the winter wastes of Itlavalus and after months of patient retreat our general had said the time was finally right. All through the long wait to fight some had lost faith and called our general a coward. They had all long since left for warmer climes. Those of us who still remained were the best. We were far outnumbered now, but the repressed eagerness for battle was all the greater. When we had been rallied, an intense silence fell over us. Now, we could hear the massed ululating shrieking of the Coalition as they marched upon us. As they came closer we could see that even now, many of them wore little more than rags that were falling apart. How they managed to survive such privation no one knew for certain. We supposed it was a power which only the High could have bestowed on them. Men and women alike, their faces every hue, hardly distinguishable anymore after all their fleshly bodies had endured, they frantically whipped themselves with lashes, screaming out their devotion against the outlaws of Humanity and their hate of the Hateful.
They were a terrifying force to the uninitiated and before the arrival of the Warlord, Yeleysh Issaraym, they had toppled one rich king after another though they wore rags and swore themselves to lives of humility and victimhood. No one could seem to make sense of it, but now there was no need to. All that mattered now was to crush the life out of them on this battlefield.
The enemy knew a great fury and fanaticism, but it was the fury of the mob, not that of a man himself, or even of a band of men who knew one other. Or even of anyone who had the least in common. That is why we had always beaten them before they had driven us into these arctic wastes with their overwhelming numbers.
We were grim and resolute now as they were fanatical and strident. We wore bulky black armor adorned with spikes, our helmets closed about our faces. Those who had grown strong in the service of the dark powers had eyes that glowed or were black and empty within their facemasks. As terrifying as they were even to us, the Warlord’s presence was strongest as he led us on his black stallion. Our great war drums beat, their bass thrum felt down to the pit of the gut. If we had not been able to feel it, the shrill wailing of the Coalition of the Ascendant might have drowned it out. They rushed at us headlong from over a mile away and somehow, their worn frames had the endurance to sustain the charge. The mass of them had fanned out into irregular tendrils as if to envelop us, prongs of off-white and flesh tones coursing across great mounds of windswept snow. We had formed into our phalanxes in anticipation of this. Black squares that marched methodically across the white waste bristling on every side with wickedly barbed sarissas, needle-sharp lances, and long pikes.
Soon, we were completely surrounded. The only way out now was to fight our way out. We advanced toward their front line which we knew was probably stretched thin after so many had joined in the charge so we thought we might take advantage of their indiscipline. But first, they were closing in quickly on our flanks and soon behind us as well. For every other opponent they had faced, this had meant total disaster within a crushing vice. The armies of great empires had marched forth only to panic as the Coalition had attacked them from every side and then perished as they discovered that the Righteous accepted no surrender from transgressors. Once one had ever opposed them, no abasement or apology could ever appease them.
We knew our enemy, though, and kept marching in formation, even as the first tendrils of their host closed in on us. The keening shriek of Righteous fury reached a peak as they crashed into us. At the beginning of their wave were the strongest and most fanatical, sped on by their superior devotion. The best of them were the first to die. What made them any different from the rest, doomed them to death. It was no accident, it was what they believed was just. Even so, these ones were still the best. The spearman next to me was just a little too slow and one of them got through. One slash of its nine-thonged whip cut his spear into multiple pieces and sliced through his armor with ease. My unfortunate brother-in-arms fell backwards spurting blood from multiple arteries, dead before he hit the ground. I cursed in rage as I felt one of the thongs slice the skin of my forearm. The Ascended fanatic screamed back at me, its pinched face framed by filthy braids of unkempt hair. I brought down my hammer on that contorted visage with its wildly rolling eyes and its rictus of indignant rage and split it into an unrecognizable ruin a few chunks of brain tumbled out of.
Then came the rest of them all at once in a great press. The odor of their masses, pungent even in the cold. These we held off with our outer ring of spears and began to steadily plow through them. First the spears pushed them back and we advanced another few steps, those who tried to break through that outer barrier were slaughtered by the rest of us waiting for them just within. And so it went all day. Like the rhythmic cries of galley oarsmen we bellowed in chorus every time we thrust with the spears, pushed further ahead, and then locked shields again. We advanced at a steady pace no matter how the mob pressed and pounded on us from all sides and all they had to show for it was a trail of corpses clad in bloodied rags trailing nearly a mile behind us, already stiff and well-dusted in snow.
We finally reached the center of the Coalition army and before us was no longer a rabble of fanatics but several orderly cavalry regiments stiffly at attention in resplendent white armor, riding pure white horses. At their head was a grave figure, wearing an ornate plate of alabaster armor, with his silver scimitar raised in the air, his complexion almost ebony in color, his features narrow and aristocratic, his gaze fixed and intense. Jazan Gur had led the pursuit for months and now he was there before us, under attack by those he thought were his quarry. The fanatics were still on three sides of us and as the Coalition general lowered his scimitar, the White Knights began to approach at a trot, swiftly gaining a rumbling momentum. Jazan Gur gave out a harsh cry and the fatiguing fanatics came alive with a new buzz of fervor. They completely surrounded us again and this time they threw themselves screaming onto our bristling hedge of spears, pikes, and lances, faster than we could dislodge them, though we tried as the charging knights bore down on us. Too late. The White Knights crashed into us with hardly any outer defense to oppose their passage into our ranks. The impact sent men flying everywhere in a great sickening crunch. Their momentum soon began to stall and they fought from horseback their silver sabres flashing back and forth. This strain was too much for the formation to hold and now the fanatics poured in through the gaps on all sides. All discipline was soon gone, our fates to be decided in a general melee. Our now-useless polearms were dropped to the ground, everyone wielding their swords, axes, maces, hammers, and studded gauntlets at close quarters.
I saw one knight turn away from me as he slashed down with his sabre on his other side. He started to turn back toward me but my hammer crushed him out of his saddle. With a great overhead swing I shattered his panicking horse’s spine and stepped past its twitching bulk to find its rider still stunned on the ground. I, in my black armor of spiked, overlapping plate with a great wolf’s head carved in steel on my chest, the mask of my helm wrought with snarling fangs, was the last thing he ever saw.
I see a flicker at the edge of the vision my helm allows me and I swing without thought, honed instinct guiding my instant reaction. A fanatic with a rusty kris knife upraised to strike flies backwards with caved-in chest and bloody mist spraying in a single burst from its upturned mouth like a profusion of scarlet fungus spores. It was female, I think.
Then, the Warlord and his entourage of lesser demoniacs enter the fray all at once. Moving with animal quickness even in heavy armor they dart in and out among the White Knights leaving corpses of man and steed as fast as the eye can follow, their victims often left cut cleanly in two by a single stroke. The knights soon begin to panic and those not trapped begin to flee. Those left behind are torn down from their saddles and disappear into a dark mass even as they frantically try to slash with their sabres. The demoniac acolytes turn on the fanatics now but the Warlord himself walks in front of the army alone and points with his gauntlet adorned with razor-like projections and attached below his right wrist a crude black blade of what might have been volcanic glass but did not shine. He bellows out his challenge to the enemy general in his harsh voice.
Jazan Gur solemnly dismounts his steed and approaches the Warlord with his silver scimitar. The Warlord rushes towards him and soon their weapons meet in a clash that can be heard against the clangor all around. Jazan Gur moves as swift and sure as a serpent but the hulking Warlord keeps up easily with the blinding speed of his attacks. While they fight, a hunched over figure approaches them with the simplest of daggers. I rush towards the fray of those far greater than me to prevent this crass interference. As I face the interloper, I see it is of indeterminate sex, with eyes that flash with feminine fury but with a hairy upper lip, with a matron’s flabby forearms and sagging shapeless breast tissue yet with a barrel chest and narrow hips. I move to cut down the impudent Hag, or whatever it is, but I am stunned when the point of its rusty dagger stops my hammer as if I had struck a castle wall. As I nearly lose my balance the sneering creature slashes at me and I yell to lower hell as it somehow cuts through my armor and into my thigh. I tower over my opponent that has just wounded me and yet it continues to attack quite confidently. With a loud ping I find the solid steel handle of my hammer has been severed from its head. In the next moment I am thrown aside somehow into the snow as if I were but a feather. I look up from the ground and to my dismay the strange Hag and the general Jazan Gur are attacking the Warlord together. Now, he is barely able to fend off their combined attacks.
Filled with fury even as the wound in my leg throbs with agony, I take the head of my hammer and with a roar heft it with all my might. One side of Jazan Gur’s face collapses like a melon as my heavy projectile hits its mark. He falls instantly, just like a common soldier. The Hag however, fights on, her power inexplicably great. I begin to drag myself toward the fight as best as my furiously burning leg allows. As I draw near, the Hag turns her head a little to take note of my approach. In that moment, the Warlord runs her through with the infamous blade on his wrist. She gives out a shrill, grating scream heard across the battlefield as she tries to push herself off of the blade with all her might. To no avail. It sucks her back in no matter the strength of her struggles like a thirsty man tugging at a waterskin. With each greedy glugging swallow, the contorted, hideous face grows more pale and her struggles more feeble. Finally, the Warlord casts the dessicated corpse sucked dry of life and soul aside. A rising penumbra surrounds him now like a flickering candle flame of negative light that he can barely seem to contain as he strains with his hands balled into fists, his shoulders and chest held back.
He says to me. “You have proven yourself this day. Will you make the Pact?”
I prostrate myself and reply, “Yes. Yes! It is my honor.”
“Good! It’s the only way you live now.”
He walks up to me and lays his hands on my shoulders. In that moment, rivers of raw power he drained out of that terrible Hag flood through me. I can hear her soul screaming with bloody terror and rage as her essence is siphoned away for the sake of empowering everything she ever fought against. She thrashes and scratches with her whole being, until her being is no more. At first I am terrified but then I am able to let go and let the raging torrent all rush into me at once. I am changed forever. Nevertheless the pain in my leg grows unbearable now as I come into my bodily senses again. I have had many wounds and I know something is different and terribly wrong this time. The Warlord himself helps me to my feet and places my arm and my weight on his shoulders.
“Even now, you won’t easily survive that Hag’s venom. We have to get you back to camp.” As I struggle against oncoming delirium, the battle rages on but the White Knights have fled the battlefield and the fanatics have been weakened by the deaths of their leaders. The Dark Army is invigorated into a blood rage and as the slaughter intensifies, the milling swarms of white-winged locusts finally break.
As the pursuit begins, the Warlord sets me aside and gives out a harsh scream that echoes across the battlefield. The nearest drums change beat, then horns blow as the message spreads across the whole army. The Warlord runs in front of his men, waving his sword, bellowing for them to halt.
In less than an hour the entire army is marching back to our camp.
The Warlord again returns to me and again personally comes to my aid, even though he could have anyone else do it. “No sense chasing them now.” I am in no condition to even speak as I feel agony, bitter cold, and delirium creep through me. The brief winter daylight ends but the snowy clouds clear away, the night is more brilliant with the hard, glinting points of frosted stars and shimmering auroral ribbons rippling across the sky. I see my fellow warriors as silhouettes against sheets of snow that sparkle like the stars even in the dark. Somehow, my state of physical shock makes the spectacle even more vivid and otherworldly. Perhaps it is also the senses granted to me through my Pact, all the better to perceive the world’s beauty. The world begins to fragment into fever dreams as I begin to see the travails of war in the shimmering aurora veils, I manage to keep marching through heavy snow until we go over a hill that looks gentle yet concealed all our tents and horses from a distance. The warlord brings me to his own tent in the center of the camp, only bigger than any other tent to allow the officers to confer around the firepit. He has a simple bedroll on the ground like any other soldier, though I hear he seldom uses it. In a hurry, he and a medic help me remove my armor and begin dressing the vile wound given me by the Hag. All they can do is bandage it and hope my newfound resilience can conquer the poison. Wrapped in furs on the Warlord’s own bedroll, there is nothing more for me to do but rest.