ANNIE VANDERMEER : Designer / Writer / Narrative

(a.k.a. Murderblonde)

The Shrouded

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“I’m sorry, Tribune, was there something you wanted to say?”

 

Torga flicked her eyes upwards at Makk, and realized at once that she’d been unconsciously tapping one claw on the corner of her desk. The other tribune looked torn between annoyance and alarm that he’d nearly missed something – suspicion was very much in the nature of Makk the Silent, and it had gotten him far in the Ash Legion. Torga decided against tricking the younger tribune into a ruse that she’d been testing him, and waved her hand for him to continue.

“I apologize, Makk. I was merely pondering your reports from the front – the tapping is an old habit. Please continue.”

Makk looked mollified, and nodded briefly before he continued listing the various successes and failures of the Legions against their enemies. The missives from the warbands facing the Ascalonian ghosts were largely predictable – not only from the ghosts’ own magically-reinforced routines, but even their surprise attacks drew from military strategies that the charr had been facing for hundreds of years. Not that they couldn’t come up with something new and damaging every now and then, but they were hardly the danger to the true Legions that they had been centuries before, when the nation of Ascalon was filled with living, breathing humans, instead of their tortured shades.

It was the reports of the Flame Legion that had set Torga’s claw to tapping. Makk was pleased with them, and perhaps he had a right to be – he had set a protocol for their Ash Legion scouts that was deadly, and viciously efficient at preventing Flame Legion strikes at territory held by the true Legions. Makk had not earned his nickname “the Knife” casually – his recommended tactics dictated that atrocities be committed against the enemy to meet the severity of their foes. “Zealots may seem harder to scare,” Makk had once growled, “but their hearts are cowardly. Break that faith – that their precious Gaheron Baelfire can protect them – and they’ll run like mice.”

Even the Iron and Blood legions had praised the Ash Legion’s successful efforts – albeit grudgingly. Praise never came easily from one legion to another, even after many decades of reunification. Torga reflected grimly that perhaps it was Makk’s other dictate that won such acclaim – that warbands, when faced with overwhelming numbers, fight to the death at all costs, or even commit suicide to keep themselves from capture. Blood would never think to try and retreat to fight another day, or allow themselves to be captured in order to attempt a later escape. Iron would never let themselves get that near the front, suited as their machines were to allow them to fight from a distance. In Torga’s opinion, both of the other legions were not nearly so well-equipped to deal with the scheming of the Flame Legion… but then again, she had her doubts about her own legion as well.

Makk, for all his successes, was missing something. Fair enough, since Torga had seen fit not to share it with him. Even as his troops relentlessly hunted the Flame Legion on the fringes of their territory, Torga had received a disturbing amount of reports of local bands of the fanatics appearing near the heart of charr lands – and even rumors of Flame operatives appearing inside the Black Citadel itself. And the more Makk listed the Ash Legion’s victories on the front, the more Torga was certain that the enemy was marshalling their forces for a much more damaging strike elsewhere. She didn’t like the crawling suspicion in her that she knew precisely where that attack was going to be.

Torga’s claw had just begun to tap on the desk again when there was a hesitant rap on the metal of the door, and Makk narrowed his eyes, ever suspicious. Torga ignored the other tribune’s rampant paranoia and replied to the knock. “Yes, Fengar? You may enter.”

The metal door irised open smoothly to reveal a young charr – hardly out of the fahrar, by the look of it, and obviously somewhat uncomfortable in his formal Ash Legion gear – standing nervously in the hallway. Next to him stood some kind of a merchant… although to be fair, the stranger looked far more like a beggar, the only thing saving the skinny female charr from this impression being the large wooden cask slung over one lean shoulder.  “Sorry to interrupt, Tribunes,” the young officer offered hesitantly. “I tried to tell this scrapper that you were both busy, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer. Kept saying she had something to show you that you’d both be interested in.”

Makk hissed through his teeth. “Foolish. Would you let in just any beggar off of the Citadel streets? Do you know how eager the Flame Legion would be to get to either Torga or I – let alone both at once? What’s in that barrel of hers, anyway? What if it were a bomb?!” Fengar shrank back a little bit, but Torga held up a hand as she studied Fengar’s nervous face. He was young for an aide-de-camp, but he knew protocol, and he was loyal. There was something about this stranger that had convinced Fengar that her request was important enough to interrupt the meeting of two Tribunes, and she knew he was not a one to be convinced easily. There was something this odd charr knew that made her important enough to listen to. A password? A key phrase, uttered precisely? Or a threat real enough to make Fengar back off and take it to his commanding officer? Either way, Torga found herself intrigued.

“Easy, Makk. We are not cubs, that one charr – even a clever one – would be able to defeat the three of us. And I highly doubt that this stranger’s goods would have even made it into the Imperator’s Sphere without being searched, am I correct?”

The stranger smiled, a dark thing under her masked face, and moved forward into the office, slinging the cask off of her back and placing it on the floor. “Somewhat, Tribunes. I carry whiskey, and that much they detected. But I carry something else with me as well, that I believe you’d like to see.”

Makk hissed again, impatient, and Torga reflected once more that patience was not among his virtues as a Tribune. “I dislike all this exposition – Flame fanatics speak that way. Show us this thing and be done with it!”

The stranger nodded, and wrenched off the lid of the cask, placing it gently to one side. “All right, then, sir. I might ask if you recognize this.” With a single fluid motion, the stranger reached into the cask and pulled out something misshapen and strange, flipping it effortlessly across the room to land with a wet splat directly on Torga’s desk. Makk looked irritated, then noticed what the object was and yowled with surprise and anger, leaping backwards instinctively.

Flay me alive! An arm?! What in the name of the Khan-Ur do you think you’re –”

Torga cut Makk off with a single sharp gesture, her eyes fixed intently on the gruesome object on her desk. It was a charr’s right forelimb, severed just above the elbow, and nearly pickled from soaking in the whiskey for an indeterminate amount of time. The elder Tribune’s nose wrinkled as she gingerly turned the appendage, observing that all hair had long since been burned off of the limb from wrist to elbow, and crisscrossing the hairless patch of skin were an obscene number of small, deep scars. After a through inspection, Torga flicked her gaze to the stranger, who regarded her seriously with intense dark eyes. “Do you know whose arm this was, stranger?” Torga said plainly, and the charr nodded.

“Szazz of the Thousand Scars, Centurion of the Flame Legion,” she said cooly, her eyes never leaving the Tribune. “Once known as Szazz Scorchfur, solidus of the Ash Legion.”

“And how do you know that?” Makk challenged, his composure regained and his paranoia now back in full effect. “Could have been any charr who contributed that arm.” The stranger hardly looked at him to reply.

“The burn happened long ago – in his fahrar days. The skin’s stretched too taut for a recent injury. Scars aren’t recent, either – well, not all of them. At least seven are new.” The stranger’s voice caught a little at that last statement, and Torga raised an eyebrow as the stranger smoothed her voice and continued. “And most of all, I know it’s Szazz’s arm because I cut it off his body after I killed him.”

Surprisingly, it was Fengar who spoke next. “You killed him?” he blurted in disbelief. “Impossible. He was a centurion – he never travelled alone. Our intelligence has given us extensive reports on how large a warband he kept with him at all times, and his familiarity with Ash Legion protocols before he turned –”

“All of which didn’t help either him or his warbands when I poisoned them,” the stranger said simply. “Your scouts should have turned up the signs of a large, abandoned Flame Legion encampment by now – if they haven’t found the corpses, perhaps they’ve found the ruins of a rather large bonfire.” The hatred lurking in the stranger’s tone sizzled through her feigned indifference. “The Flame Legion do tend to burn their dead.”

Torga stood suddenly. “Makk, with all due respect – I believe our discussion is at an end. Fengar, please show the Tribune out. Stranger – you will stay.” Makk nodded stiffly and slunk out of the room, while the stranger stood regarding Torga calmly. She hadn’t even bothered to flick the excess whiskey off of her claws, Torga noticed, merely allowing it to drip onto the rugs across the floor.

“You’re Ash Legion,” Torga said simply. “That much is clear. You didn’t take this evidence” – she gestured to the arm – “all the way to us by random choice. You were a member of the Legion recently enough that you knew our passphrases, or close enough to count as such.

“What I don’t understand,” the Tribune continued, “is why you didn’t identify yourself as such to the two most powerful officers of your Legion that sit within the Black Citadel. Why you have continued to conceal yourself in rags even here, where you would be safe – or close enough to it.” She paused a moment to study the stranger further. “Who are you?”

“A gladium,” the stranger said bitterly, her voice soft. “Those new scars on that arm there is all that remains of the Swift warband, the one I belonged to. The name I have now is Sicaea the Shrouded, and that is all I have. That is all I need.”

Torga regarded Sicaea carefully.”A gladium, then? What will you do without a warband?”

“The same thing I would do with one,” Sicaea said simply, with venom. “Kill Flame Legion. Kill them however I can. Sneak among them, in their stinking clothes, and learn their plans. Cook their food, as I did before, and poison their meat. Sleep in their camps, smell their sulfurous breath, and slit their throats in the dark. I waited so long before I was able to strike, after they killed my warband. I gambled with my life when I disguised myself as one of their drudges, but only Szazz suspected me, and in time, even he was fooled.” The young charr took a moment to steady herself before speaking again, a vicious satisfaction in her voice. “Every moment it took to kill them… I hated it. But it was necessary. And it was worth it.”

There was a long silence then, as both charr females regarded each other carefully. Makk’s orders to his warbands on the front rose in Torga’s mind – suicide before surrender, death before risking the odds of capture. But this lone charr disobeyed them – and killed not only several Flame Legion warbands, but one of their most feared centurions as a result. For Sicaea to declare the means of her success would mean her throwing Makk’s orders back in his face, and the tribune doubted Makk would take to that news too kindly. Finally Torga spoke.

“You are still Ash Legion,” she said slowly, “but there will be no warband for you. You have succeeded where too many within this legion have failed. They want the joy of scouting missions behind enemy lines, the quick vicious glee of an assassination. The ways of waiting, listening, watching… it is hard for the young to learn. Hate for the Flame Legion rages in them as an uncontrolled fire. They do not know how to bank the coals into a low, white-hot burn yet, one that lets them think, plan, and when the time is right, kill.

“Tragedy has taught you how, Sicaea. But I cannot ask you to teach others when I am not entirely certain that anything but time can do that.” Torga paused, taking a long look at the other charr. Sicaea was still young – the tribune could tell that, even under the charr’s ragged mask. Torga wondered if she’d ever chosen a mate or had a cub, what rank she’d been when she lost her warband. For a second, the tribune thought of what one so young would never do with her life if she agreed to the offer she was about to make, and nearly stopped herself from continuing. But it was necessary, and so she pressed on.

“I offer you this, Sicaea. Ash Legion still has a home for you, but few besides myself will know this. You will be my personal spy – hidden in the most dangerous places, the insidious fingers of the Flame Legion that curl even into the heart of the Black Citadel. In time, I know that rage of yours will burn quiet, low, but no less deadly. There will be a great deal of waiting – but hopefully, that time will yield a greater prize.

“No warband. No recognition. No great prizes of war. But instead the responsibility to follow in the steps of those who never imagine they’re being followed, to learn the secrets that they imagine to be inviolate. To unravel whatever web they’re weaving. And when it matters most, to place your blade in the hearts of the zealots who think themselves safe in their schemes. ” Torga studied Sicaea’s face. “The hidden dagger of the Ash Legion.”

Sicaea stood a long moment, unmoving, solemn. Then a smile spread across her face, full of a dark satisfaction.

“I accept.”