A chorus of dying men disturbed the quiet of the breaking dawn. Their moans and cries grew weaker as the sun rose above the smoke and ash.
Astride his mount, outside the walls of the burning town, the young lieutenant studied the scene from within the deep hood of his thick woolen cloak. The blaze had coaxed the defenders out to the western plains to perish before his waiting army. Ash fell around him with the grace of snow, mixing with the blood and piss that soaked the ground.
The acrid stench was something his years of training did not prepare him for. He supposed that a detail like this might have been insignificant to generations of mentors who hadn't seen battle. Yet he never imagined war would smell so bad. The carnage, stink, and filth soured his mood. Victory? What victory? Who could celebrate in the midst of so much wasted life?
His mount picked its way through the corpses and the groaning half-dead that littered the ground. Tezrin forced himself to look at the butchery to adjust his mind to the horror. A regrettable fact of battle. This was not the seasonal raids the people of this continent conducted against one another, but total war. The empire would conquer the Old World relentlessly. Everyone and everything was expendable to that end.
Once this was all over, he would take the Emperor’s throne for himself. He would do whatever it took to succeed in that ambition. The empire had allowed weakness to grow like weeds in their ranks. He would cut out the corruption.
He found himself smiling amid the wails of fallen men and the cackle of feasting crows. This battle had served as a proving ground, though there was no real contest. These poor savages of the north and their ragtag armies stood no chance against the armaments and discipline of the Ae’lete, prepared during the entirety of the Age of Ice.
Tezrin’s companion from childhood, Gos, strode beside him. The young Premiac, covered head to toe in inch-thick armour, was as broad as a bull and stood tall enough to be level with Tezrin on his mount. When they reached a man struggling to breathe through a wound in his throat, Gos pressed his oversized war hammer against the wounded man's helm. The helmet stoved in, imploding the skull beneath with a grating of crushed bones. Tezrin looked away. The Saints have mercy. How could anyone consider what he did to be worse than mortally wounding people? Gos seemed unfazed by the gore. His simple mind was its own blessing.
The so-called allies trotted their mounts to catch up. Prince Samrick wore his usual smirk across his irritatingly pretty face. “I must congratulate you on your victory, Lieutenant. Though my men do feel disparaged for being left in reserve. Be sure to include them next time.”
Tezrin clenched his fists inside his leather gloves and kept quiet. The lieutenant’s age and rank seemed to lead Samrick and his people to a false sense of superiority. The prince, supported by an old general, had been offering suggestions with that commanding tone since they met. An attitude that would have to be realigned before long. To the empire, the prince’s kingdom was but something to be quashed. Their status and positions amounted to nothing.
They approached the heavy wooden doors, arched at the top, oiled, but otherwise plain. The gated entrance to the town was still closed and barred from the other side. Tezrin halted his animal with a tug on the leather reins. What did they call it? A horse? It bucked its head and snorted as the peculiar beast often did.
Gos hefted the hammer across his shoulder and turned to catch Tezrin's attention. An unspoken question flickered in his dumb grey eyes. It was never hard to know what the Premiac was thinking. Tezrin gave a nod and Gos marched on, towards the gates.
“I’m intrigued, Lieutenant,” the prince said. “How is it that a young man of your age came to achieve your rank?”
Tezrin couldn't bring himself to dignify that condescending question with a reply.
Gos set his weight on his back leg, raising the hammer in both hands high behind his head. The hammer blurred. Splinters rained as the gates blew apart. Beyond lay a sooty cobbled street, lined with buildings to each side, some broken, and smoldering, some sagging where beams had collapsed as the fire consumed them. Others remained standing, their roofs dusted with coats of grey ash.
The prince sat up, lifting his head to look down his nose. “My my… I dare say, why did you drag my army around in the first place, using up more of my food supplies, when you could’ve just sent that big one to take care of the battle? You do realise they are costing me gold every day they are abroad? Perhaps I should send them home.”
Tezrin kept his focus on the wasted town past the gates. The only thing more irritating than hearing that princely voice was looking at the man’s self-righteous face. “You’re a fool, Samrick. There’ll be no place for fools like you in the new world.”
Pushing between him and Samrick, the wiry old general spat and spoke low in his gruff voice. “You ought to watch your mouth boy. You’re talking to the Prince of Turmont. Best remember your place or the next--”
“My place?” Tezrin hissed through clenched teeth. “You fools don’t seem to comprehend what’s happening here. Your kingdom serves as a landing for our legions, nothing more. Your king understood this; that’s why he grovelled at our feet. Otherwise you’d all be dead. The Empire’s mercy is the only reason you’re all still alive.” He eyed Samrick from the depths of his hood. “I’m glad your men are eager to participate, because now’s their chance. Send them in. See to it that every man, woman and child is disposed of.”
The prince’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “What?”
The general grunted. “You already won the day. Why in damnation would you wanna slaughter innocent people?”
Tezrin turned away to look again through the shattered gates. “This pathetic town thought to resist us despite the impossible odds. Their bravery was commendable, but they might have chosen to surrender if they knew their families would be sacrificed. My job is to subjugate the north and pave the way for the legions that follow. I don’t want to have to battle every town I come to. Kill them all. Save a few to run ahead and spread word of the atrocity that took place here. Profuse fear will do half the work for me.”
The prince’s nose wrinkled, nostrils flared “I will do no such thing!”
The general spat again. “Have your own bloody men do it. I ain’t ordering my men to do your dirty work.”
A slight smile pulled at the corners of Tezrins mouth, but he shut his eyes and took a measured breath, clenching his teeth. “It is not up for debate, General. You will do as I bid. Otherwise I have no need for you. Don’t incur the wrath of the empire, or your pathetic kingdom will burn to the ground.”
Steel slid against leather as the general unsheathed his sword. “All that talk ain’t nothing. And your big friend there is not gonna stop me from teaching you a lesson about respect.”
It seemed this entire continent couldn’t fathom what they were up against. So be it. He turned to face the general. Tezrin reached out with his Will and felt the old man’s consciousness, wrapping an unseen hand around it. With a stern pull, he wrenched it from its Seat. They both fell into the void, a black expanse of vast emptiness. His grip still firm, he deftly held the general’s consciousness in place so it would not wander. The old man’s Will was weak, stunned with confusion. Time passed in moments both unending and nonexistent. Tezrin sensed an all too familiar presence draw close, one he had known since childhood. A colossal shadow descended upon them. He let go his grip and quickly slipped out of the void, leaving the general to his fate.
The old man stiffened in his saddle, face warped with terror, jaw stretched open, and screamed, a dreadful, terrible, unending scream.
Tezrin looked to Samrick. With every shriek from the General, the prince’s pallor deepened. The horses nickered and stamped their feet, shaking their heads and threatened to bolt. Tezrin waited a long minute. The piercing shrill eventually subsided into sobs and whimpering.
“So what will it be, Samrick?” Tezrin shifted in his saddle as he spoke. The prince was shaking visibly. "Samrick!" Samrick continued to stare at the general. “What will it be?”
The prince mumbled something incoherent. Tezrin sighed and took that to mean his orders would be followed. It may take some time, but these people would learn.
The General’s whimpering ceased. Drool and snot hung in threads from his chin as he stared at something unseen. Nothing could be done for him now. Many in the academy had tried to find a remedy for those who met what lurked within his void, but all had failed.
Gos approached and reached out, closing a gauntleted hand around the general’s neck. He snapped it sideways, lowered the lifeless body to the ground, then looked at the lieutenant. Gos said nothing, but Tezrin knew it was a look of disapproval.
He shrugged and pulled one side of the reins to turn the horse around. “When you’ve composed yourself, Samrick, go ahead and carry out my instructions.”
Samrick stared at the limp corpse of his general. “What did you do?”
Tezrin looked at the prince squarely, letting a moment pass before speaking. “For ten thousand years and more we have waited in isolation. Secluded from the world since it fell and the ice grew. Now the ice withdraws, as the Saints have foretold. We are the rising tide that follows. We are the flood to drown the world. And the world will be conquered.”
He let his eyes drill into Samrick, wondering if the fool could ever really understand. “This is just the beginning. The long war ahead will be like nothing that has been seen before.”
Note from author: I must make a huge mention for the crew the crew at The Writers Block - Fiction Workshop. They have helped me beyond ways to describe it. Their talent and instruction is priceless. Thank you to @bex-dk, @thinknzombie, @carolkean, @rhondak, and everyone else who jumped in: for all for your great input. This story would not be what it is without you. Special thanks to @bex-dk for all the time and energy she’s given me. Much Love.