Aphelion Issue 265, Volume 25
September 2021
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A Show of Strength

by Grisha Syssoyev

"I am the prophet, the stars behind the night, the nightmare behind the veil, the right hand of the Emperor. To call me a demon is to forget that I was a man, and in my world, Hell will be Heaven and carnage will be an emblem of righteousness."

-Torbjorn of Yishai

From the crest of a distant hill, three men observed the battle taking place in the valley before them. There was a light dusting of snow on the ground, which crunched beneath their boots, and a soft, icy morning wind whistling around them.

Ronen Graves gently adjusted the spyglass, bringing it into focus as he surveyed the battlefield.

"Siege towers approaching the walls," he growled. "One is aflame, the other two on course. Ram destroyed, another being assembled. Casernul will fall, though it will not be quick or easy."

Lothaire Parvaiz extended a hand, and Graves handed him the spyglass. He took his time observing the field before snapping the device shut and stowing it in the inner pocket of his cloak.

"We now await to see how they will react when we breach their walls," explained Parvaiz softly. "If they surrender, then we spare them. If they draw us in, we pull back and release the Demons. If they step out to fight us in the field, we send in the cavalry. Any questions about this plan?"

Graves smiled, narrowing his eyes. "None, Lord Apostle. I can hope they don't retreat into the castle. It's better for them, and for us. We in the cavalry get the glory, and they don't have to face the Demon Army."

The third man on the hill gave out a rumbling growl. A darkly armored giant with clawed paws and the head of a lion, it sniffed at the air, occasionally yawning, mewling, and growling like a hungry beast.

"That's right, Gawain," said Ronen Graves coldly. "You don't get to fight today. When they tell of the Sack of Casernul, it'll be the Red Horseman of Castomir and his bold riders they tell of, not Gawain and his Demon Army."

Lothaire Parvaiz and Graves exchanged a look. The Apostle's burn-scarred face was calm and unreadable. Ronen Graves smiled slightly, and saluted briefly. Parvaiz's eyes widened slightly at the insolent gesture, but he did not speak. The two of them went back to watching the battle. At such a distance, the black-uniformed soldiers of the Castomir Empire looked like a dark, oily mask stretching around Casernul's outer wall. The burning siege tower was a distant prick of light, and the shouts and clamor were a buzz in the background.

"Endless sieges," said Gawain. "Surrenders, and marches. A fire burns in my heart, Apostle. Loose us upon them. Feasting on corpses turns us into carrion birds; scavengers. Do you want wolves, or hyenas?"

The Demon stretched out a paw above Casernul, blotting out his view of the battle. He clenched his claws into a fist, as if he could reach out and seize his foes from his vantage point.

"I want victory," muttered the Apostle, head inclined wearily. "And no arguments. Quiet, Ronen and Gawain. Which one of you I release depends on the circumstances of the battle, as I explained."

Ronen Graves held out a hand, and Lothaire Parvaiz handed him the spyglass. Graves then walked through the snow to Gawain, and handed him the object.

"Have a look," he said. "Watching the battle is surely more entertaining then doing nothing at all, isn't it?"

Gawain snorted furiously, and batted the spyglass out of Graves' hand, sending it tumbling down the hill, where it implanted itself into a snowdrift.

Ronen Graves chuckled. Parvaiz murmured something beneath his breath, and Graves grinned to himself.

A distant crash roused their attention. A section of Casernul's wall had crumbled, and the besieging army was reforming to pour through. Before they had a chance to, the fortresses' gates opened inwards, and a hail of flaming arrows descended upon the new battering ram, setting it alight. A formation of halberd-bearing soldiers in the grey uniform of the Kingdom of Amon marched out, descending upon their nearest foes, and pushing the flaming siege weapon back with the tips of their weapons.

Ronen Graves straightened his back, standing to attention for the command he knew he would soon receive. He could sense Gawain's anger behind him, a boiling, seething resentment held only in check by the will of their master.

"Marshal Ronen Graves," said Lothaire Parvaiz slowly and formally. "I hereby order you to take the Emperor's cavalry, and put the soldiers of Amon to rout. Are my orders heard and understood?"

"They are as clear as the rising sun!" replied Graves in his hoarse voice, saluting the Apostle. "You honor your cavalry, sire!"

"I know," said Lothaire Parvaiz. "But remember, if you fail, it is Gawain who will be sent in to relieve you, and I doubt he has your safety as his priority."

Ronen Graves' and Gawain's eyes met. The Demon gave out a soft snarl, and Ronen Graves snorted with contempt.

"Spare me," he muttered. "The shame of death, followed by the indignity of being saved? I would sooner Gawain stab me in the back."

He strode towards the edge of the hill, but paused, sensing rather then seeing the Apostle's anger.

"You've gotten familiar with me today," said Lothaire Parvaiz in a surprisingly level tone. "Don't forget who we are - Castomir's Sixth Legion. We're not a ragtag band like the Fourth Legion, or mercenary filth like the Fifth. Remember, Ronen Graves, I'm not your friend. I'm the man in whose name you will probably die. I'm the closest thing to a god you'll ever know. Don't you dare salute me except when I give you an order, and do not indulge your rivalries to my face again."

Back rigid and face composed, Graves turned, and inclined his head. "I beg leave to present my apologies with the skulls of your foes."

"Leave is granted," replied Parvaiz indifferently, turning his back dismissively.

I'm restless as a wounded wolf today. Gawain's right. Been too long since we've actually fought. It's funny, as my reputation grows, and the Legion's might increases, we see fewer fights. Everybody just surrenders to us. Last real battle we had was Aquerano, and even that was just a siege, followed by another surrender.

Well, it doesn't matter. It'll end today. I'll wet my spurs before the sun goes down, and Gawain can stew and suffer.

This day will be magnificent.

Ronen Graves made his way down the hill, entering the Sixth Legion's war camp. Arrayed in the wide, snow-covered field were row upon row of tents, which made their way around the entirety of Casernul. Most were empty, save for a few guards who straightened up and saluted Graves upon seeing him.

The silence of the camp gnawed at Ronen Graves' soul, and he knew why. There were no wounded men - though the screams and the clashing of steel could be distantly heard from the battlefield.

Two reserve forces had been arrayed on either flank, standing on the slopes of the hill. Graves moved to the right flank, where the cavalry awaited command beside their steeds, but his eyes drifted to the left, to the silent, forbidden formation of nightmarish beasts and soldiers too monstrous to be men. Ronen Graves frowned as he appraised the Demon Army, his mouth tightening with distaste.

As he approached the cavalry, a stable-hand brought forward his horse, a lean, tough-looking destrier with a brown coat that gleamed red in the wintery light. It was a new one; his previous steed had died of an infection.

"Marshal, will this steed bear a name?" asked the stable-hand boldly, his eyes shining with pride.

Ronen Graves gave the animal a disinterested look. "Been years since I named a horse," he replied gruffly. "Once enough die under you, you run out of names."

He saw the disappointment on the faces of the young men who had not ridden with him before. But in the eyes of the veterans, he saw understanding. That was all that mattered to him.

"We ride today!" he bellowed. "We have been given the honor of dealing the death blow to Casernul! Mount up and await my command!"

A cheer was raised, and all around him, men began to climb into their saddles and take up the formation they had been trained to adopt. An aide helped Ronen Graves into his breastplate and greaves, and handed him his plumed helm, which he donned himself. His horse whinnied as he mounted it, pacing eagerly at the snow.

Graves made his way to the front of the formation, where he was joined by foremost squad of cavalry, those men who had been with him the longest. He nodded curtly to Tim Guarin, who held aloft the Sixth Legion's standard, emblazoned with their heraldry, a tree with thorns for leaves, and shared a smile with Nereus Torkel, who bore with pride the standard of Castomir, a black dragon coiled around a sword. Before turning back to Casernul, he made eye contact with Eyvindur Statham, who acknowledged the glance by smirking in the way only the oldest of friends could. They had come far together, and could only find absurdity in the new, somber world of high command.

Turning his eyes toward the crumbling fortress and pitched battle, Ronen Graves drew his sabre, and pointed it forward.

"When you feast in hell tonight," shouted Ronen Graves, "tell the devil you rode with the Red Horseman of Castomir! And tell him we were chosen for this battle above his brethren! So ride today, and know that if you fall, you will be princes among the damned!"

The men roared a triumphant cheer. Graves slammed his visor shut, and raised his sword to the skies. "Long live the Emperor!" he said. "Long live the Empire of Castomir! Glory to the Sixth Legion!"

Ronen Graves dug his heels into the horse's sides, spurring it to a canter, then a gallop. A thousand battle cries rang out behind him, followed by the hoof beats of as many steeds.

They crossed the gap between the hillside and the battlefield quickly. All around them was a wild, tumultuous melee, a swirl of Castomir's black and Amon's grey, but as officers bellowed commands, those in black who could still reposition themselves moved out of the way of the cavalry charge.

At the tip of the spearhead, Ronen Graves saw his foes turn to behold him. The first enemy seemed paralyzed with terror, and the Marshal simply ran him down. Others raised spears to hold him off, but he struck them aside with his sabre, before laying about with the weapon, hacking indiscriminately around him.

Nearby, he saw Eyvindur Statham whirling his flail, before burying it into the throat of a poorly armored foe. Others of his immediate squad fought about him, and none had gone down so far. A few bolts and arrows flew around them and overhead, few hitting their intended targets in the chaos.

Ronen Graves continued to press on, using the bulk and fury of his horse to overbear his nearest foes, saving his sword for those who posed the most immediate threat. He took a wound to the leg, and a wild flail blow knocked his helmet so askew that he had to fling it off. His horse had been stabbed in several locations, and was beginning to panic and buck, nearly throwing him off several times.

By the time he got his mount under control, the cavalry formation had split into a collection of individuals, fighting on their own terms. The infantry had regrouped and joined the furious attack, the ferocity of which was making the enemy line buckle and retreat.

It was not long before the forces of Castomir had reached the gate, only for their foes to make way for a fully armored man on a powerfully built grey warhorse.

"I am Baron Gul Hektor!" roared the man, deep voice muffled through his tower-like helm. "Castellan of Casernul! Let this be settled in honor! Who among you leads this force? I challenge you to single combat!"

"Let me take this in your stead," said Gyles Sharrow, the soldier rode nearest to Graves, in a quiet tone. "No need to risk anything unless you wish to."

"I wish it," said Graves. He rode forward, bloodied sword in hand. "I'll take your challenge, Baron," he announced. "Call off this melee, and promise us Casernul should I emerge victorious!"

"Accepted!" said Gul Hektor. "And what do you offer should I triumph?"

"Why would I lose?" asked Graves.

"It would be too much to assume that your men would honor any promise you made," said the Baron with disgust. "I shall have to be content with your death."

Soldiers from both armies pulled back and formed a ring, observing the duel between their commanders.

Hektor drew his sword, and saluted his foe by banging it once against his shield. Graves slashed his sabre down, flicking droplets of blood before him. The two men spurred their steeds, and galloped towards each other, swiftly closing the distance between them. The Baron raised his blade to strike at Graves' unprotected head. At the last moment, the Red Horseman bent low towards the neck of his horse, slashing down towards the leg of Hektor's mount. His foe's blade whistled above him, and his slashed through the leg at which he aimed. The horse whinnied and collapsed, smashing into Graves' mount, and pinning both riders in a tangle of horseflesh. Graves cried out as something in his leg cracked, and pain lanced through his body.

The Baron's sword was pinned beneath his horse, but he raised his shield to bludgeon his foe. Graves reached up to seize Gul Hektor's wrist, every movement grinding at his leg and causing the two panicking horses to thrash about.

Cold sweat on his brow, Graves reached for the dagger at his belt with a trembling hand. Hektor drew back his shield for another blow, and the Red Horseman of Castomir drew his dagger, stabbing at his foe's eye slit. Instinctively, the Baron put a hand out to intercept the blow, deflecting the dagger on his gauntlet. He swung downward with his shield, and Graves put out his hand, taking the majority of the blow on his wrist, which broke.

Gasping with pain, Ronen Graves heard the soldiers of Amon cheering. No one moved to help him, which did not bother him as much as the fact that he was losing.

Gul Hektor raised the shield for another strike, roaring out a battle cry. This time, Ronen Graves leaned upwards, grabbing the shield with both hands, and trying to rip it from his hand, only to find that it was strapped to his wrist. He launched another dagger strike at the Baron's eye slits, and again, he batted the blow away with a gauntlet. This time, Graves seized his hand, and bent his forefinger back, snapping the bone and causing him to cry out. Before the Baron could raised the shield for another blow, Graves snapped the middle finger, and then the ring finger, and then the pinky, snarling with fury as his foe bellowed with agony. Having run out of fingers to break, Graves seized Hektor's helmet, holding it in place as he thrust the dagger into his eyeball and farther, into the brain behind it. Groaning, Baron Gul Hektor went limp as he breathed his last.

Breathing raggedly, Graves could hear the cheers of his men as if from a great distance, followed by the clatter as the soldiers of Amon dropped their weapons, their morale shattered.

Pain shuddering through his body, Ronen Graves went limp. The corpse of the Baron was dragged off him, and both horses were put down, before being removed as well.

"Let him die with his horse," said a voice from the distance. "Let the Red Horseman of Castomir ride to Hell's gates on the last steed that bore him."

The corpse of his mount was laid to rest behind him.

"Who is so keen to bury me?" asked Ronen Graves in a pained snarl.

Graves heard the rattle of a flail as Eyvindur Statham crouched behind him. He had taken his helmet off, revealing his black hair, flecked with gray before its time, and the hollow pit of his missing eye.

"I could cut my dinner with your leg bone," said Statham bluntly. "Do you plan to ride like that? You know I'd heal you if I could, Ronen, but you're beyond that now. Besides, you know what happens to the wounded as well as I do."

Graves heard someone weeping in the background. "You don't have to cry for me," he remarked. "A Marshal can't afford to cry over his men, and if I know the Apostle, it'll be you who gets the job."

"Then why is it you who is crying?" asked Statham. "Are you that afraid of death?"

Graves laughed raggedly. Before he could respond, Statham stood up abruptly.

"Everybody, back off!" he shouted. "The Red Horseman of Castomir will die in peace!"

Ronen Graves heard the footsteps as soldiers dispersed. Evidently, a crowd had formed around.

"None of these scum have the right to see a Marshal cry," muttured Eyvindur Statham.

"Just make sure I don't get fed to Gawain," said Graves. "If you can, burn my body. It's selfish, I know, but I don't want to be Demon food like the rest. No one deserves that. They get our souls; why should they get our bodies too?"

"I'll eat you myself before that happens," swore Statham. "Do you want me to? I'll put you out of your pain and eat you right here and now, and if Gawain wants a bite, he can swallow my vomit."

Despite his pain, Graves laughed bitterly. "If you're that hungry, go ahead."

"So eager to become Marshal?" asked a quiet voice from somewhere nearby.

Statham stood to attention, and saluted. "Lord Apostle," he said. "Your finest lies dying here, having won you Casernul with his blood."

Lothaire Parvaiz sounded disappointed. "Your life is not something I care to waste," he said. "Casernul was ours to begin with. I will not have it whispered that you died for nothing."

"My lord," said Statham quietly. "I would not have anyone think that I wished to become the Marshal of the Sixth Legion over the body of my friend. Should Ronen Graves die, I would ask you that you chose someone besides me to take his place."

Ronen Graves closed his eyes, moved beyond words.

Parvaiz laughed quietly. "You honor all of us, Eyvindur Statham," he said. "But you should know by know that all magic comes at a price."

The air grew very chill, and Ronen Graves could hear a haunting song in the distance. Fiery warmth flooded his veins, and he heard two cracking sounds, followed by a scream of pain.

Despite a sudden wave of exhaustion that claimed him, Ronen Graves found that he was able to stand up. The song he had heard faded away, and he swiftly forgot the words. Lothaire Parvaiz was surrounded by a halo of shadows, and everything nearby was blurry. Soldiers from both armies were watching with curiosity and horror, as the shadows faded and the world snapped back into focus.

Eyvindur Statham lay on the ground, groaning. His leg was snapped and twisted, and his hand broken, in the same places where Graves had been injured.

Graves' eyes widened in horror.

"Let him die with his best friend's horse," said Parvaiz in a gentle tone. "Lord Marshal," he added. "Your finest lies dying here, having won you your life with his blood. In accordance with your wishes, he will not be fed to the Demons."

Ronen Graves shuddered, but Statham laughed harshly.

"Enough guilt," he said. "If I can stand over you without blinking an eye, you can do the same. I'll gladly die, if that's what it will take for the Red Horseman of Castomir to wade his way into Amon through rivers of blood."

Turning his eyes to Lothaire Parvaiz, Statham continued. "Last request, Lord Apostle. It was your magic that broke me; let it be you that finishes me. Let me die to an Apostle's blade."

Parvaiz held out a hand, and a soldier ran up, handing him a notched scimitar. Smoothly and deliberately, he slid the blade into Eyvindur Statham's throat, pinning him to the corpse of the horse behind him. The soldier gurgled and spat blood.

"A soul is lost so another may endure," intoned the Apostle of the Sixth Legion. "The balance of life and death is preserved. Hell shall have its due."

As Ronen Graves stood next to the Apostle, he felt his body grow chill as the wind cooled his sweat. For the first time, he saw something in the eyes of his men that was not respect - but fear.

I should never have let Eyvindur die for me. In a way, I myself died that day. At least, the part of me that was still an ordinary man, back when he and I rode with the Falk Company. He was the last man besides me to remember those days, when we didn't have to feed our fallen to Demons, and when we fought for gold and glory, rather than the dark schemes of a demonic sovereign. That is, perhaps, why I hate Gawain and the other Demons so much - they represent the man I will become - nay, the man I have already become. Who this new man is, I do not fully know, save that he will either be remembered as one of humanity's greatest heroes, or a soulless butcher. The only consolation is that my legacy will be determined by the outcome of our war, and war - war is something that I understand.

Ronen Graves woke to an unfamiliar room, tired and drained from the previous day's battle. It took him a little while to recall that he was in Casernul. Rising from his cot, he saw that someone had left a note on the night table beside him.

Make yourself presentable and join me in the gatehouse. The Third Legion approaches.

-L. Parvaiz

Graves crumpled up the letter, and threw it in the ashes of the fireplace. He walked over to the basin of water that had been left on a stool, and washed his face and hair, before shaving and dressing in his black ceremonial uniform. Taking a brief glance at his reflection in the water, he was disturbed to see streaks of grey in his lank black hair, and lines on his face that had not been there the last time he had looked.

Of course, it had been over a year since he had last bothered to look at himself.

Or did the Apostle's magic take a deeper toll than he had previously assumed?

With these questions occupying his thoughts, Ronen Graves made his way to the gatehouse. A fresh snowfall had blanketed Casernul in white, though the entire fortress was a hub of activity, with teams of soldiers shoveling snow and making repairs. They saluted him as he passed, and the Marshal saluted them in return, although there was some wariness in the way they looked at him, as if a sacred trust had been violated.

In the wide courtyard before the inner gates of the castle, several dozen soldiers, stripped of armor and clothed, had been chained to posts. Some of them were half frozen from the wintry cold, while others hurled taunts and mockery. A few even wept quietly, their tears freezing on their cheeks.

The gatehouse itself was empty, but a guard silently pointed outside. Mounted on a grey horse, hood thrown back despite the wind, was Lothaire Parvaiz, his back to Casernul's walls. As always, Gawain stood by his side.

Before Ronen Graves could announce his presence, the Apostle spoke.

"In your time, have you ever fought beside the Third Legion, or met any of their officers?"

"No, Lord Apostle, I have not," said Graves. "I know only of their reputation."

The guard who had been standing on the gatehouse came out with a large, reddish-brown horse that could have been the brother to the one that had died beneath the Marshal a day ago.

As the Red Horseman of Castomir mounted, the Apostle continued.

"Their Apostle, Torbjorn of Yishai, comes with all his forces," he explained. "Why, I do not know. I have heard no word of this intention, until a messenger arrived this morning, bearing news that the Prophet wished to meet with the Empire's newest Apostle."

Parvaiz spoke the word prophet with an unusual degree of contempt.

"Lord Torbjorn calls himself the Prophet," said Gawain. "His followers consider him to be the Emperor's chosen hand on this world. He and Ragnvaldr are the only two Apostles who had ascended to demonhood, and he marks that as a sign of favor."

Lothaire Parvaiz allowed himself a rare grin. "That much I know. What I do not know, however, is why he wishes to meet with me. As it happens, I have no intention of allowing him into Casernul. By conqueror's right, it is my domain. We shall ride into his camp - and treat with him on my terms, not his."

The Apostle spurred his horse, and rode northwards. Ronen Graves followed him, and Gawain loped beside him, sprinting with inhuman speed.

As they slowed to a trot, Ronen Graves spoke up. "Lord Apostle, who were the soldiers chained to posts?" he asked.

"I wondered when you would ask," replied Parvaiz quietly.

"The weak," said Gawain.

Parvaiz turned briefly, his expression inscrutable. "The garrison of Casernul, anticipating that we would need to feed the Demon Army, burned their dead. We were not able to find enough corpses, so I had each Company chose one of their members, by vote. The lazy, the rude, the weak, the unworthy. They will be fed to the Demon Army. It is my right to do so. After all, you remember when the Sixth Legion was formed - every recruit was told that they had to accept that eventuality, or else leave and find service with one of the smaller bands."

"It gives us no pleasure," added Gawain contemptuously. "To devour the brave who die in war - is an honor. To feast upon our discarded allies - is like eating filth. We are not carrion."

Ronen Graves nodded curtly. He was not surprised.

It was late afternoon by the time they came within sight of Torbjorn's forces. The Third Legion marched in a series of columns, banners high and drummers striking a solemn beat. Their Demon Army brought up the rear, and their cavalry rode on the right flank, although Graves was pleased to note that they were fewer in number than his Legion's own.

A pair of scouts rode up beside the trio.

"Halt!" roared one of them, sword drawn. On his breastplate was the black dragon and sword of Castomir, as well as the twisted, two-pronged rune used as the Legion's symbol.

"Is this any way to acknowledge the Apostle of the Sixth Legion?" said Lothaire Parvaiz, fury edging into his voice. "Dismount your horse and get onto your knees!"

Gawain snarled, lips pulling back over rows of thin, sharp teeth.

The scouts flinched, and both dismounted as swiftly as they could, going to their knees.

Ignoring them, Lothaire Parvaiz spurred his horse, riding towards the Third Legion. Ronen Graves and Gawain followed silently, leaving the bewildered soldiers behind him.

"We're going to pull in front of the column," explained Parvaiz as they rode. "They may try to fire at us. My magic will protect you, and I'll demand the hands of any who lift weapons against us!"

"Lord, why are you doing this?" said Ronen Graves. "I thought you hated inter-Legion rivalry!"

"I do," admitted Parvaiz. "Torbjorn began this, by demanding entrance to my fortress! As he fully well knows, he is to push ahead, rendezvous with the First Legion, and press on to take Sarantana. Likely, he wants to take Casernul for himself, and force me back to battle before I have a chance to recruit and re-supply! If he wants to play this game, then I'll play it with him!"

Ronen Graves snorted with disgust, and laid a hand on his sword-hilt.

Parvaiz raised a gloved hand, forming a fist and murmuring something under his breath. The air around them curdled, as if it had been mixed with oil. Sweat prickled on the back of the Marshal's neck, for it had grown unpleasantly hot.

As predicted, arrows descended upon them, but all were turned away and set alight as soon as they struck the barrier. The Apostle rode directly towards the main battle line of the Third Legion, prompting them to take formation and raise their spears. At the last second, he stopped, his horse rearing. Ronen Graves and Gawain ground to a halt beside him, and both had drawn their swords, for soldiers were pouring around, surrounding them.

"Call off your men, Torbjorn!" said Lothaire Parvaiz. "By what right do you fire upon me?"

The men of the Third Legion hastily cleared a path as two soldiers rode up. The first rode a towering beast that looked to be more metal than flesh. Towering over any human, his skin was the color of smoke, and he wore a baroque suit of armor that left his arms bare. A skull mask hid his face, and the amber eyes behind it shone like fire.

"Greetings, Lothaire Parvaiz," said Torbjorn, his voice high and imperious. "We weren't expecting you so soon. We would have prepared more of a welcome if we had known."

The other soldier smiled slightly at the comment. A slender man with puffy features and a long, blond braid, he wore the epaulets of a Marshal, the twins of the ones on Ronen Graves' shoulders.

"You wanted to meet with me," said Parvaiz with harsh smile. The ring of spears had not budged an inch. "I didn't want to waste time, and came as quickly as possible."

Nodding, Torbjorn raised a taloned hand. "Make camp here!" he commanded. "Parvaiz, follow me. Warrick, stay behind, and attend to his Marshal and the demon."

"I stay with the Apostle," rumbled Gawain, his head inclined.

Torbjorn laughed. "Do you really think you could protect him from me, if it came down to that? You know you can't defy me."

"I stay with the Apostle," repeated Gawain, his voice quieter than before. He seemed subdued.

"I won't be separated from my bodyguard in someone else's war camp," added Parvaiz coldly. "If you want to meet with me, Torbjorn, you'll meet with Gawain as well."

"You don't want to listen to them argue," muttured Warrick. "Come with me, Ronen Graves."

Graves nodded, and dismounted. Warrick did the same.

The Marshal of the Third Legion extended a hand. "I'm Innocenti Warrick, Marshal of the Third Legion," he said quietly. "You must be the Red Horseman of Castomir."

As the soldiers around them set up camp, Ronen Graves followed Warrick away from the main body of men.

"It's always interesting to meet another Marshal," said Warrick with a terse smile. "To compare experiences. We need not follow the rivalry of our masters."

Graves shrugged. "You wanted to speak to another Marshal. Here I am. What do you want to know?"

Warrick's frozen smile looked pained. "You don't need to be so curt and polite, Ronen Graves. We might as well be brothers."

Graves' expression was cold. "If it comes down to it, I'm loyal to the Apostle. If he sets himself against Torbjorn, I set myself against you. Who I am as a man and who I am as a Marshal are the same. I learned long ago that I couldn't hide a secret self behind my mask. Is it that you resent Torbjorn? I'm not surprised. I made a choice when I pledged myself to Lothaire Parvaiz. I do not regret it. He is a man worthy of loyalty."

Warrick turned towards the Third Legion. There was no warmth in his eyes, only distain as cold as the winter wind.

"I wanted to be the Marshal of the First Legion," explained Innocenti Warrick. "Lael de Ven, the First Apostle, brought me with him when he came north for the first time. I fought by his side, but his right hand was always Kerwer."

"For good reason," said Graves. "Jed Kerwer is the finest logistics officer north of Sarantana. And I know your tale already. They say you were just a bounty hunter on Torbjorn's tail, until he proved too strong for you, and you begged him for mercy. In a fit of grandiosity, Torbjorn accepted you into his Legion. Is that true? That your entire existence is just to demonstrate a demon's generosity?"

"Yes," replied Warrick without a trace of sarcasm. "Now it's my turn. I suppose I don't even need to wonder whether it's true that you hate demons?"

Graves nodded curtly.

"If Lothaire Parvaiz became a demon, would you continue to serve him?" pressed Warrick.

Ronen Graves smiled grimly. "I… wouldn't be the Marshal to a Demon. I wouldn't wish that on anyone. Ragnvaldr devoured five of his. And you wish you could be anywhere but here. Does that answer your question?"

"What if it's what Lothaire Parvaiz wants?" asked Warrick.

"I'd help him on his quest," admitted Graves. "But I am loyal to the Sixth Apostle as a man, not as a demon. If he ever did achieve immortality that way, I'd take anybody who wished to leave the Sixth Legion, and go my way. Lothaire Parvaiz knows that. I told him so when he was first considering me for the post of Marshal."

Warrick nodded, taking the information in stride. "Fair enough," he muttured.

"If you dislike Torbjorn and the Third Legion, why don't you just flee?" asked Ronen Graves. "You were a bounty hunter. You can take care of yourself, and be free again."

Warrick threw back his head and laughed. He laughed loudly enough that soldiers from the Third Legion gave him curious stares.

"What is freedom worth? I have never been free before. I don't know if it's worth giving up what I have now for something I know nothing about."

Graves smiled thinly. "It's worth it," he growled. "Take it from someone who has been free before, and who will be free again."

"Free again?" said Warrick with a bemused smile.

"Lothaire Parvaiz will be a demon one day," said Ronen Graves. "And as I said, I will leave then. Ride out with my squad into the farthest wastes, where the Sixth Legion will never find me. I will fight my own battles, and maybe I'll even declare myself an Apostle. Who knows, perhaps the Seventh Legion will be the first to have no demons in its ranks!"

Warrick didn't reply. His gaze was curious.

"I've been too frank with you," said Ronen Graves at last. "None of these things will ever come to pass. I will probably die on the battlefield. Lothaire Parvaiz may become a demon, or he may not, but the only immortality I'll ever know is that of the song and the story."

"Now I know why you became Marshal," said Warrick quickly. "Man hungers for immortality. It's that hunger that drove Torbjorn and Ragnvaldr to become demons, and before them, the Emperor. It's the same hunger that will make Valter into a demon, and maybe even Lothaire Parvaiz after him. You want to become immortal, just like, but you have to sacrifice something - not your humanity, but something just as important - your freedom. Is that correct? Do I have you?"

Ronen Graves shrugged, chuckling. "I suppose you're right. I can't say I've ever articulated my dreams that way. Do you do this to every Marshal you meet? Discuss philosophy with them until you've ferreted out their deepest desires?"

Warrick smiled slightly, a pleased expression on his pallid features. "I can't hunt men anymore, so I hunt their dreams," he explained. "And yes, I have spoken to other Marshals. I've met Vik Vandale of the Fifth Legion, and, of course, I've known Jed Kerwer for years, although he's not an easy man to know. And, of course, poor Marquering, who could forget him?"

"Everyone, once Ragnvaldr rewards him for his loyal service, the way he's rewarded every other madman and fool that tried to be his Marshal before him," replied Graves. "Benjaminas Marquering could only be both. A mage of his power could be an Apostle, and even if he feared such responsibility, he could have the pick of any employer he wished. Why would he seek out a beast like Ragnvaldr?"

"If you expect me to answer that, you acknowledge that I have the right to tell him about your longing for freedom, and your plans to abandon Parvaiz when he becomes a demon," admonished Innocenti Warrick, waving a finger chidingly. "Do you?"

Graves shrugged. "I can't see why I should worry. I answer only to Parvaiz and the Emperor, and Parvaiz knows everything I've told you. As for the Emperor, well, do you think he cares? When was the last time he left Castrivea? I'm one of his highest generals, and yet I've only met him twice. Once was when the Apostle and I knelt before him to formally receive our titles, and the other time was he left his palace to bless the Sixth Legion."

"I am the will of man embodied," said Warrick softly. "That's what he told you, didn't he? He said the same to the Third Legion, when we were formed. Vandale and Marquering confirm that he said the same to Rolf Ainsley and Ragnvaldr when they took their commands."

Ronen Graves nodded. The two of them were quiet for a while; the mention of Castomir's immortal monarch enough to still their tongues and bring disquiet upon their souls. The cold winds rose up, and Ronen Graves suddenly became aware of the vastness of the lands around them.

"You should go," said Warrick curtly. "We Marshals don't talk about the Emperor. Maybe the Apostles do; I don't know. If you ever do become an Apostle, confirm this fact for me."

"He's the one man whose dreams you'll never know, eh?" muttured Graves with a grin. "I'd hope not. What terrible dreams must our demon emperor hold in his heart? Some things are not meant to be known by soldiers like us."

Warrick smiled slightly, before walking away. "We'll see," he replied.

By the time Ronen Graves returned to the camp, Lothaire Parvaiz and Gawain were awaiting him. Torbjorn stood nearby, watching the trio with fiery eyes. The Third Apostle seemed amused.

"They will garrison Casernul," said Lothaire Parvaiz curtly, on the ride back. "And we will join with the First Legion to attack Sarantana."

"How did he force you to accept this?," asked Ronen Graves.

"A demon Apostle can command loyalty from any members of anybody's Demon Army," explained Parvaiz, giving Gawain a cold look. "Only a demon of greater power could override his authority, and who else is there? The Emperor back in Castrivea? Ragnvaldr, the savage beast of the Fourth Legion? The former will not bestir himself. The latter has always under Torbjorn's purview. I had thought it was the First Apostle, Lael de Ven, who had primacy. It appears I was wrong about who pulls the strings around here, but I'll tell you this, Ronen Graves - they don't live and die like the rest of us, and their aims can outlast our lifetimes."

Ronen Graves turned around. Sure enough, the Third Legion was mustering, packing up the tents and supplies they had set out half an hour ago. The columns were reforming, with the cavalry at the right flank and the Demon Army at the rear, arraying like a besieging force. Perhaps that was what they were.

"Know this, sire," said Ronen Graves firmly. "My blade is always pledged to your cause, Legion or no Legion. You can rely on me."

"Is that so?" murmured Parvaiz, a contemplative expression on his face. Suddenly, the introspective expression was replaced with a dark smile.

"If that's the case, Ronen Graves, then you'll be the one who takes our Legion's message back to Torbjorn - kill Innocenti Warrick, cut off his braid, and thread it into the plumes of your helm. No one endangers the lives of my men without giving up something in return. Torbjorn intends to diminish us by sending us to Sarantana in his place - but we shall give him a show of strength that no one can ignore."

Ronen Graves' face tightened, but instead of speaking, he rode onwards.

I should have expected this. The Apostle will nurse a grudge long after his foes forget the cause behind their enmity. He won't forgive Torbjorn for slighting him, and he won't forgive me for joking around with him at Casernul. That's why he's making me do something he knows I'll find distasteful; assassination is not my way, especially not the assassination of allies for the sake of satisfying someone else's vendetta. Although, it must be said, there are no great victories ascribed to Innocenti Warrick's name, and with his death, a good many secrets will follow him to the grave. Perhaps that's for the better - the world does not need a useless man who knew too much. The Apostle is right, as distasteful as this deed is, it must be done.

A snowstorm came in hard on the heels of the Third Legion, blotting out the sky with white dust and howling like the spirits of the slain. The ravaged battlefield was blanketed over, and the damage to Casernul was obscured, making it appear as if there had never been a war outside its walls.

As the sun set and the night came upon them, the soldiers realized that there was not enough room in the barracks for two Legions to fit, so they ate their dinner beneath whatever shelter they could find. The wounded who had escaped notice crawled off to die, and despite the icy chill in the air, the living were invigorated - they had not died, they were one step closer to victory, and the immortality that came with it. Winter's bite was sharp, but it had not come for them.

Ronen Graves had eaten alone, as had become his custom since Eyvindur Statham's death. He did not feel his he could face his squad as an equal ever again, and yet, strangely, this did not bother him as much as he thought it should.

There was one other who was alone that evening. Ronen Graves had guessed that he would be, and it suited him well to find Innocenti Warrick standing on the battlements of Casernul, watching the cook fires with a gleam in his pale eyes.

As Ronen Graves walked up the steps to join him, he stiffened, but did not turn his head.

"I can't imagine you've come for the pleasure of my company," said Warrick nonchalantly.

Ronen Graves did not respond. Instead, he sat on one of the merlons, and brows furrowed and eyes narrowed. One hand rested lightly on his sword.

At last, the Marshal of the Third Legion did turn his head. The distant firelights reflected in his eyes, giving them a feral gleam. One of his hands rested on a dagger at his belt.

"It strikes me as ludicrous," hissed Warrick with sudden fury. "That after years of serving under that ebon demon, Torbjorn, that I should have to die for him! Explain to me the justice in that!"

As Warrick waited for a reply, his face contorted with rage, Ronen Graves moved swiftly. Before his foe could even draw his dagger, the Red Horseman seized him by his braid, bending backwards, eliciting a cry of pain. One swift slash cut the hair from his head, and another shove sent him sprawling. As he moved to rise, Graves stabbed him in the back, driving his sabre through his body and against the floor behind it.

"You talk too much," rasped Graves. "You're good at reading intent, but you talk too much. You've spent so much time hunting for men's dreams that you've re-learned your instincts. Talking instead of fighting."

"Did… you do this… for Parvaiz?" wheezed Warrick. "Or… for… yourself?"

Warrick coughed, blood spilling into the snow.

Graves cleaned his blade with Warrick's severed hair. "Warrick," he replied in a soft, cold voice. "Why would there be any conflict between our interests?"

The Marshal of the Third Legion only coughed again. He tried to speak, but his strength failed him as he continued to cough up blood.

Graves paused in his cleaning. He stabbed Warrick again, this time with precision and deliberation, through the heart. Innocenti Warrick coughed once more; his limbs spasmed, and he breathed his last.

Leaving the corpse where it lay, Graves calmly walked down the stairs, back to the distant lights where the soldiers feasted in the snow.

The Apostle shouldn't have been surprised when Gawain betrayed us. It wasn't even his fault, particularly. After all, demons have to come running when a greater member of their kind demands it. We took Torbjorn's Marshal, so he took a new one from our ranks. Parvaiz is furious, but I can't bring myself to care. It is amusing, actually - Gawain wanted to lead the Demon Army against Sarantana, but it looks like the honor will fall to me again. The Apostle hasn't said it, but he won't trust a demon with such power again. The Demon Army will fall under my command, which is always as it should have been. There is no reason to use such monsters in battle, unless they are properly enslaved to mortal wills.

Drummers beat out a solemn tune as the Sixth Legion arrayed for its march. Parvaiz and Ronen Graves rode at the front of a long cavalry column, behind which marched the Demon Army, with the infantry forming the rearguard.

Torbjorn stood on the battlements of Casernul, with Gawain standing by his side.

Graves gave Gawain a cold look. The lion-headed demon kept his eyes on the horizon, as motionless as a statue.

Innocenti Warrick's blond braid fluttered in the icy wind, affixed to the Red Horseman's helm as a grisly plume.

Lothaire Parvaiz pressed his fist to his heart in a curt salute. Torbjorn returned the gesture, before stepping forward to speak.

"This morning, the Sixth and First Legions march to Sarantana!" began Torbjorn. "At last, the great bastion of the north shall fall, and the fortress of the Emperor will descend upon the Kingdom of Amon, to take back the world that was denied to us when Cyriacus the Conquerer was betrayed half a millennia ago. Let us take this time to remember that, no matter the rivalries between us, we are brothers in arms fighting against the same foe! So I say now, from the bottom of my heart, glory to the Sixth Legion! Glory to Lothaire Parvaiz, and to the Red Horseman of Castomir! I look forward to seeing your determination, cunning, and strength used against the true enemy; the Kingdoms of Amon and Swartene and the Orders of Aureliano and Calabrese."

The demon paused, silence hanging in the air, tangible and heavy. There was a tension of something yearning to break free, and Torbjorn knew it, savoring his pause.

"I would have you all join me in a moment of silence for Innocenti Warrick, our Marshal, who was slain last night, by Ronen Graves," said Torbjorn with amusement.

Men from both legions gasped and started. All eyes turned to Graves and Parvaiz. The Apostle was motionless, while the Red Horseman of Castomir smiled harshly, keenly aware of the plume that fluttered in the wind.

"We march to Sarantana in your place," said Lothaire Parvaiz. "We die in your place. We reject your false declarations of brotherly rivalry. Do you think we will lie down and smile like good little slaves in the face of your show of strength? This is ours. We will march to Sarantana, and with the First Legion, we will win that battle, and then we will win the war. Once we are done, the two of us will have a reckoning. Until then, Torbjorn of Yishai, keep your claws off my Legion!"

"Long live Lothaire Parvaiz and the Sixth Legion!" roared Ronen Graves hoarsely, drawing his sabre, and holding it aloft. "Long live the Emperor of Castomir! Death to Sarantana and the Third Legion!"

"Death to the Third Legion!" chorused the Sixth Legion, fists and swords held aloft in defiance.

"Sixth Legion, about face!" said Lothaire Parvaiz, turning his horse around with a sharp tug of the reigns. His men pivoted to join him.

"March!" finished the Apostle, pointing a gloved hand southwards.

With the eyes of Torbjorn, Gawain, and the Third Legion upon them, Ronen Graves followed the Apostle southwards, towards Sarantana, and their fate.


© 2016 Grisha Syssoyev

Bio: I am an eighteen year old student in my senior year of high school. I have published two short stories, one for Aphelion, and another for the NYS Summer Young Writer's Institute. In addition to attending the aforementioned institute, I attended the Juniper Institute for Young Writers.

E-mail: Grisha Syssoyev

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