War Journals 8: A Little Bit of Poison

This world could be a paradise.

If not for the wretched influence of the demons worshipped as the Old Gods.

They offer up to us, and we protect them. United under the light of Benalus.

Much weighted on his mind. The North was an unforgiving place. For every boon it granted, it took something away. It was the way of things here. For the last fifteen years, he had yearned to found an Imperial Order dedicated to the pacification of the North. His home had a stark beauty, but it was fractured. Corrupted. Perverted by the worship of these demonic things.

Solace had had a theory. Prove their false gods powerless and they will turn away.
Ingvar had a different theory. Kill them. They weren’t God. They could die.

Sven liked the knight’s approach better.

Before him lay the corpse of a horned figure. It had been a man once. The muscled bulged grotesquely. One eye was red, the other yellow. Sigils and runes were carved into its flesh. Even dead it seemed fearsome.

One hundred of the Sons had repelled four-hundred of his men in Spring. He had returned with seven hundred this time. There had been no quarter.

“My Lord,” Troels said, rousing the highborn from his gazing. “We have received word the Saenger fort is about to be raided.”

Sven nods. “Right on time.”

“Shall we engage?” his right hand asked.

“They are too far,” the knight replied absently. “We evacuated as much of the populous as we were able. The Saengers are aware of the hopelessness of their remaining position.”

Troels clears his throat and nods, waiting for orders.

“Crucify the survivors,” he said after a long moment. “String these twisted remains up for the world to see. Cut off each one of these fucking runes.”

“That will take time, my Lord,” he answered.

“Have the bulk of our Force erect the palisades and set a parameter,” the knight continued, wondering if the unnatural rage that had infected his soldiers from the Hollow Song had lingered in him. Even crucifixion felt… too kind. “I want to see this done properly. In a few weeks we will ride South and engage the Doghearts. Cowards that they are.”

Troels gave a confused look, “Not the Stormhammers? Won’t they fortify through the winter? And in striking distance of the settlement?”

Sven shrugged. “Can’t be helped. We might be able to push them out. But not before the first winter snow.”

The knight looked up once again, “These Southerners are good at killing, but soft as cheese. How many would we lose to the ice of the mountains?”

Realization dawned on Troels, who struck a sharp salute and nodded before turning and going to issue orders. Lord Sven álfrblóð Brynjar turned and strode towards the men collecting the carving knives and rope. The long nails forged for a single purpose and the long handled hammers to swing them properly. Standing stock still, cloak flapping slightly in the wind, he watched as the men started collecting the brand of the Ulfrandr. As a small collection started to pool at his feet, the rest of the last market filtered through his mind.

A letter from the King saying the very thing Sven had dedicated his life to was about to come to fruition.
A very dear friend called away forever.
A charming walk with pleasant company.
One of the most trustworthy warriors tossed dead at their feet.
Stealing something back from under the nose of the Sons.
An unfortunate series of murders.
This glorious slaughter of the Sons of Ulfrandr.

It was enough to give a person motion sickness. The hammering of vulgar iron through flesh, bone and bark sounded in its oddly muted way through the trees in flapping fading echoes. Further south, he could hear the phantom cracks of cannon, and a part of him wondered how Markus Fafnir was faring against the dwarves on their third front.

“My Lord,” Troels said, holding up a note. “Word from the East. Ragnar Stoneskin’s forces were decimated.”

“Does Stoneskin live?” Sven asked.

“No word, sire.”


War Journals 7: Heretics in the Dark

The runner had approached the mobile camp in a huff. Still pleased with their victories through the Spring, his men were eager for anything resembling action. Blood was in the air. They’d heard rumors of Storm Hammers to the East and Dwarves to the West. More foolhardy than wise, the fighting men and woman of the Obesegrade Krigare were eager for either. But then, that was often the raw vibrancy of youth and a siloed experience. Most had never faced down a line of riflemen, or seen the small metal punching through line and armor like a knife through cheese. The scent of sulfur paired… poorly with the offal of the slaughter it inspired.

“My Lord,” he began having jumped off his horse in short order and performed a sharp salute. Sven turned to the voice, registering the face. Emil. One of the scouts attached to his vanguard, the much vaulted Flamberges, the pride of the Krigare.

“Emil,” he said. “Report.”

“Sir Ingvar rallies for aid,” he said. “Storm Hammers. A thousand or more with cavalry. He’s outnumbered, sir.”

“Well,” the older knight said, pushing himself to his feet from the camp chair. “We must indulge him, mustn’t we?”

Then to the rest of camp.

“Break camp! Sir Ingvar and his men are outnumbered by the Storm Hammer Clan here to make war. There is no malice here. They have invited us to play. Are we to sit back and let the Ice Fangs have all the fun?” his voice boomed across the encampment. His beloved Karls had died some months ago to the Hollow Song. But his levies, the soldiers he had acquired when he first entered the theater, along with a hundred or so fresh men, they had fought and bled with him for well over a year. They were as fine soldiers as he’d ever had the pleasure to serve with.

Freshly rallied, Sven gestured to Troels Hadvarson to oversee the breaking of camp. Another gesture summoned his horse. Hadvar had served his uncle for years, and his son hadn’t left his side for decades. The ease of the military routine settled well on his shoulders, and it was with a happy step that Sven and sundry wheeled their force South, marching threw the woods east of Runeheim. A stretch of trees that had affectionately been dubbed ‘murder alley’ for its tendency to host and hide enemy forces.

Unfortunately for the Krigare, the woods lived to its name.

A few days from Runeheim, as they trekked through the woods, calls and screams started to sound from deeper in the woods. Confusion yielded to an ambush. From the darkness leapt dozens of figures. They had horns and spikes and their flesh was adorned with horrid jewelry and scars. They fought savagely.

At first, Sven thought the Hollow Song had returned, such was their ferocity. But as they fought a hurried retreat, the sigils adorning the flesh of their foes was more abundantly clear. These were the Sons of Ulfrandr.

Amid the chaos, they were pushed back and well and truly routed. Four hundred veterans repelled by a hundred or so enemies. Ingvar’s attack when unaided. He was likewise repulsed. A flurry of letters back and forth to coordinate another attack on the Stormhammers, but by then they had bunkered down and were able to repel the combined forces of the Knights Fenris.

Retreating together, a dark glow settled on the pair of knight’s shoulders.

“I am going to kill every one of these pieces of shit, and anyone that has given them aid,” Ingvar fumed. To which the older knight simply nodded.

“No quarter,” he agreed. No quarter.

In the Shadow of Leaves 8: On Being Human

The swamp was always a strange place when the seasons changed. It was never quite as cold as the rest of the region. Pa had said it was related to all of the stuff rotting beneath the water. Corpses had their own heat, he used to say. Something his pappy and his grandpappy had said before them. Corpses had their own heat. Their own life. They moved through the motions, the same as the rest of us. Just usually less talkative. Idly, the old friar wondered if their swamp being so close to the kruzy-more swamp had caused some of them Gothics to rub off on his own little tribe. Maybe. Pa had a morbid streak, no denying that.

It hadn’t been until they were gone that the friar had given consideration to the nature of his parents. When they had been alive, they’d been towering figures. And when he’d been small, they might as well have been gods. Powerful, wise, patient, fearsome. That’s probably a very… human thought, the preacher reflects. Exalting one’s parents. When you’re small, they are your whole entire world. Then as you turn from them, you see more that surrounds them and they become smaller. Eventually, he reasons, there comes a time when you can look back and see your parents as human. Hopefully kind and well meaning, but human regardless.

His father had been a brave man, though his mother was the fearless one. The preacher remembering his father well, though if he was being honest, the father he remembered was the one of his youth, not what he’d been at the end. Not that he’d been wretched or anything, just that when the preacher closed his eyes and thought on his pa, his hair was chestnuty, his beard thick, and his back unbent. In his mind, he could remember the old man’s smile, or how he smelled on the hunt. He could remember with startling clarity, his pa’s hands. Their myriad of little scars, and the strange hash pattern skin makes when it gets all crinkly. The cleverness of the fingers as they tied a knot, or the way they could just scoop him up like he weighted nothing at all. They were good thoughts. But of all the things he remembered about his father, the thing that kept coming back to him was how his eyes, blue as a clear sky, would seem to flex when he was afraid, and pushing that fear away. When the food stores were slow in winter. Or when one of the highborn had a demand of the house. Or when his uncles were fighting over petty things. Those blue-blue eyes would turn from joyous to concerned. Nothing else would change, just the eyes.

Henri wondered the last time he’d felt afraid. Or hurt. Or weak. Or frail. There were… so few clear recollections of those moments. Perhaps the Mists had taken them. Or perhaps they’d never been. Its not like he could ask those that had known him best; they were all dead and buried (now).

A sigh escapes the lips of the fellow, and he resumes his work. A series of leather thongs that he was braiding into long strands. Something to keep his hands active while his mind processed the events from earlier that day.

Cole had come down in a lather. She’d been frantic, saying the guards were slaughtering Theo and Alphonse. The preacher made a mental note to discuss her habit of fibbing with her later. Regardless, she’d been quite upset. And, likewise regardless, his personal feelings on Theo or Alphonse was immaterial. They were a part of the Community. His Community. For all their flaws, they didn’t deserve to be killed in such an ignoble fashion. Though… part of him wouldn’t be surprised if Theo did die eventually to some overly zealous guard.

So up the hill he’d huffed and puffed. There’d been others that had answered the call, but they’d been slow, or wanted to gather something up first, and he hadn’t waited. If Cole had been right, they’d be dead when he got there, but maybe he could drag them back to Sophie for stitching…. actually… best not to dwell on that. When he’d crested the hill and seen them, there were no corpses, just two figures shouting at each other while two other figures sort of watched. The guard had a gun leveled at Theo, who was holding a dagger of some sort. The grip was odd, it was hard to say if it was a brandish of the dagger or just holding it, but neither individuals seemed peaceful.

As he’d gotten closer, the heated argument became clear. Theo was demanded that those two guards return with him to Delphine. Lately folks had taken to listening to Delphine more and doing what she said. Which, the preacher supposed, was all well and good. Though part of him kept circling back to the nagging argument of Friar Bullet. Why did we even have nobles if their sole purpose was to protect folk from other nobles? It did sort of seem like hiring bandits to protect you from bandits without really addressing the bandit problem.

A thought to pursue in another moment.

The preacher had slowed to catch his breath and his bearings as he’d approached. The guards were refusing to come, stating something about the Owl’s Nest needing to remain guarded. Which on its surface seemed reasonable. But honestly, it seemed like the crux of it was that Theo was Theo and the guard didn’t seem to care for poor folk. The priest had inserted himself into the conflict, hoping to buy time for the rest of the supporters to land on the scene. And perhaps to defuse the situation.

The guard had shifted his pistol from Theo to himself. Holding out his palms to show he was no threat, but also clearly stating he wasn’t leaving had gotten him nowhere. The guard was incandescent and indignant.

“Look, I can’t leave, you need to come with us,” was the last thing he’d been able to say before the pistol fired. The force of it was the most surprising thing. It had caused him to take a step back, but just a flesh wound wasn’t going to slow him up much. Which… the guard also seemed to immediately assess. Moving faster than the preacher would have thought possible, the gun was reloaded and fired a second time. This bullet lodged lower and forced the air from him.

‘Well. I guess this is happening,’ was all that he’d been able to think before Henri reached for the gun, causally tossing it over his shoulder. He’d expected it to end there, but the second guard that had been observing swung his sword, slamming into the preacher’s gut. ‘Still happening.’

It had taken a bit longer to disarm the second guard. By the time the preacher could return his focus to the first, he’d been shot and was on the ground bleeding out. Henri moved to put hands on the guard before his own blood loss caused him to nearly keel over. Alex had been handy with the bandages, and Sophie the needle.

There was a stillness that had fallen over their little group. The guard was ranting about scum this or scum that, folks were arguing back, but the preacher just leaned against a log and looked up at the sky as Sophie stitched him back together.

He hadn’t been afraid. Not when the gun had been leveled against him. Not when it had fired. Not when it had torn through him a second time. No fear. He remembered the glowing eyes of Primus and how so many had stepped back in fear. Or the spiders and their harmless webs. Or the ghouls that would lunge out of the woods. When was the last time he had felt fear?

The needle worked through his flesh. He was aware of it. More the tugging than anything else. The way his skin sort of clung to the needle and thread as it was pulled through him. When was the last time pain had motivated him? Or hunger? Or sex?

It had been a perfectly crystal moment. That guard could have killed him. Probably would have. But he’d not been afraid. He hadn’t felt much of anything, really. A mild irritation that Convocation was delayed. Nothing else.

How much of the human experience was motivated by these basic urges? These… ‘low’ urges? He saw it. It saw it running through his Community every day. Fear was rampant here. Fear of the outside. Fear of the kruzy-mores. Fear of the inkqisishon. Fear of the vecatrians. Fear of the benalians. Fear of the elf. Fear of the mines. Fear of the feasting king. Fear of his child. Fear enough that were it a rising tide, the whole of the community would be swept away and drowned by it.

Yet he felt nothing.

When he’d seen Isabel’s hand mangled, the preacher had taken her hurt onto him. Yet that hadn’t really hurt either. He’d exclaimed more from the surprise of feeling anything than for feeling something bad.

Another braid was done, and he went down the length tying knots at regular intervals.

It was so hard to pick apart what made a person a person. Animals felt pain, but they weren’t people. Maelific felt emotions. But they weren’t people. The elf had all the right cosmetic parts, and yet was also distinctly not human. And the more the old preacher reflected on the essential parts that made a person a person, the more he realized that he lacked them in some raw, fundamental way. It simply wasn’t what he was anymore. Maybe he never had been.

For all the flaws he saw in his Community, he loved them. God help him, he loved each one of them. Even the guard that had shot him. Even his fellow that had stabbed him over and over. Even those in his Community that he knew were quietly betraying their fellows. He loved them all. Which is why the guilt, one of the things that he felt most clearly, was always so telling. He knew, or thought he knew, that what he had done wasn’t a bad thing. And yet, the guilt of it gnawed at him. Like some beetle, burrowing into a tree to consume it from the inside. It gnawed and gnawed and gnawed.

The preacher undid his belt. He lifted his frock over his head. He shrugged out of his jacket. And he discarded his shirt. There was a chill on the breeze, his flesh puckered in gooseflesh immediately. The leather he’d been braiding was added to the others, and the preacher gripped the lot of them, a dozen in all, in his dominant hand. Kneeling on his discarded clothes, he swung the braided leather into his back, as hard as he could. His flesh felt warm. A sensation that might have been pain erupted across him. It did nothing to slow the second blow. Or the third. By the dozenth stroke, the skin had worn away. By the hundredth, thin droplets had arced from the trailing leather, painting patterns of his own blood across the sagging room.

Eventually, the preacher collapsed in a bloody heap, unconscious from his own efforts. It hadn’t been the pain that had stopped him, but rather the maims, in the end.

In the Shadow of Leaves 7: The House of Chasseur

If the old swamp priest was being honest with himself, it had started with Friar Bullet. He knew that wasn’t his name, but couldn’t seem to remember names of late. The old priest had asked him about his conviction, and questioned why he had wanted to give up his things (such as they were) and walk the path of the penitent. Henri hadn’t had a good answer then, it had just felt right. There had been a light, just behind his eyes. A light he could only really *see* when it was dark and he shut his eyes. A warmth that he’d always known but never been aware of. It had warmed him and comforted him, and he’d known that it was the right path for him. Not many had understood it, but it had been more than a year now, and ole Henri, Friar Henri now, wouldn’t undo that decision for all the gold in all the world.

The sun had finally burned away the clouds, lifting the oppressive muggy feel and replacing it with the dry feel of a drafty oven. The sky had been a dazzlingly pure blue. The trees a crisp vibrant green that struck awe into him each time he saw them. A lone butterfly beat its seemingly too big wings and floated in an exaggerated up-down of their bobbing stride. In the distance, melodious windchimes danced in the breeze, their clanging bodies creating wordless music that delighted the senses.

It was a fine day, indeed. His ears still rang from the whispers of divinity that had occupied his evening. He often prayed at night, finding the solitude of slumbering bodies comforting. While others slept, he’d prayed. With all his might, he’d prayed. On the nature of sin, of spirits, of God and gods, on the Forest Folk and their Circle, on Primus the weeping god of the feast, on the nature of choice within sin, and on the truth of Heresy. The humble priest had been brought up in a dilapidated moss covered home in the woods, with its slanting floors and leaking roof. Grand questions weren’t ever anything he’d had to struggle with before. He’d listened to his priest, and prayed, and done as he was told. But the truth of the matter was more complicated. In his heart, he knew that the Church of Mankind had formed a sort of shorthand code for sin, making a complicated, nuanced problem into a stark black and white issue. It was simple and straightforward, something a child could easily understand. But the trouble with childish morality is that it stunted the growth of those that cleaved to it. As a people matured, they found the world full of fine colors, not just this or that. It was better to not live in ignorance, and that choice, of all the choices he had ever made in his life had been the most dangerous by far.

As the ringing in his ears had faded, and the colors and sensations of town swirled around him, Nadja Kroozie-more had leapt into his view. She had seemed frantic, hurt maybe? Her words had come tumbling out. At first, they’d made no sense. The forest hated her because she was a Kroozie-more? That didn’t make any sense. They wanted her blood, or Kroozie-more blood, or noble blood? It hadn’t made sense to him, but it seemed genuine to her.

“How can I help?” he’d asked, once he realized that understanding the actual problem was well beyond him. She had blinked at him and said:
“Can I be a Chasseur?” she asks, reaching out to hold his forearm with both of hers. There had been a genuine pleading in her gaze. She’d come to ask honestly. And how could he say no?

And just like that, he wasn’t the only Chasseur anymore. And then Cadence. And then Milo. He’d been alone, and now he wasn’t, and the world was a brighter place for it. It felt right to be a part of a family and watch it grow. It lightened his heart, as if lead had been pumping through his veins and it had been purged from him. He wasn’t certain how his feet remained planted on the ground.

The peace had stayed with him. As he’d ran through the woods to head-off the red-hued huntsman. As folks had argued about the proper course. When the community marched into the mines, shoulder to shoulder. That peace had stayed like a great fluffy cloak wrapped about him. The blood that had trickled down his leg and palm, the fearsome face of the monster that tossed folk around like so much kindling. The poison spewing tree. The bloody visage of Gabriella. The glowing skull of Primus, sad and rejected, speaking in images and feelings. All the while, calm.

Fortified by family, community, and love, the Friar was centered and the light was pure. The faint red that he knew waited for him there was distant again. Like the layered light of a sunset, the dangerous color was just one of the symphonic voices calling him, the others so sweet.

He walked without fear through the night, though he thought that if he wished it hard enough, he could have flown.

War Journals 6: The Blood of Spring

Two seasons. He’d been trapped in two for two. Damned. Seasons.

They had been productive. In addition to rallying the defense of Runeheim and executing the battle plans flawlessly, he had gruelingly drilled Sir Knut and his men. For months. For months they had drilled. This formation, that formation. The movement, that movement. How the enemy might attack differently. How to leverage terrain better. How to get into and out of kit faster. How to form up lines faster. How to dig ditches faster.

The Lord Marshal’s force hadn’t been green, but they’d been little more. Having avoided the bulk of the fighting, they’d grown fat on the barley and meat of Runeheim. And because of that, they were soft.

So they ran drills. And mock battles. And drills. And mock battles.

He trained the Lord Marshalls troops and the Templar forces. He taught the various commanders how best to leverage their own abilities. He taught the Council how the logistics of war operated. For months, for longer months than living memory, Sven stayed in one place. His battles became negotiations over drinks, politicking in dark corners, clandestine meetings and coded messages.

He made deals for horse. Deals for wars. Deals for archers. Deals for more. Was this a better use of his time than leading from the front? Who could say; certainly not him. What was certain was things were starting to happen now. One of the most prominent commanders of the Cold Hands had joined them, and would in time, fall under his command. Ingvar was ready for promotion. The Branded had unofficially demarked him as their leader. They had a single cause, and so much of the previous miasma of bad blood and foul thoughts seemed to have blown clear.

Things were making a turn for the better… which no doubt meant that something dark and evil was coming. Something unsavory. He could feel it in his bones. With Spring not yet done, he once again made war with a pen. He drafts letters to his Knight Commanders, Vindicta, the King, the Templars, everyone. They’d had a good season, nothing more. No lasting victories had been won. They needed to stay vigilant. They needed to stay thirsty. They needed to keep clamoring for aid and supplies and men. They had a toehold, finally, but little more.

War Journals 5: A Plan Well Executed

The winter was drawing out like a blade. The old knight had had his plans dashed, along with the bulk of his Force, some months ago by the blood thirsty Hollow-Song. They’d come through like a tidal wave, crashing through his lines and scattering his men like so much chafe. Their march back to town had been uneventful, and the rest of the forces of Runeheim, he found later, had all abandoned their individual pursuits to likewise fall back.
He had wanted to winter his men at the land-bridge. To squat there on the maddening shores. To send word to the Overturner about the security of the mythical bridge. To perhaps enjoy a quiet cup of coffee on the hills.
No sense crying over spilt milk, as his mother would say. Sven was stuck in town. And the defenses were poorly maintained. He should have trained the Marshall’s men before leaving the first time. And, squatting in town as he was, he had taken control of the war effort. The commanders had agreed his voice would carry. They had spent weeks going over the particulars of the defensive strategy. They had taken the weakness of the forces into account, the frailty of their commanders, the sum of the tactical knowledge available about their enemies. They had read and studied and prepared. Soon they would take the field.
Though not with Sven himself. His men were… aggressive. And what remained of his center line was Gothic, not known for their snowshoes. So he would stay and coordinate the defensive efforts. The Templars had said they would arrive to our defense come the Spring. They just had to hold the enemy in place. Just… tie them up long enough for hope to arrive. They could do that.

The battles had been infuriating. Skirmishes and dread battles happening *miles* away. Scattered reports coming in. Some, finely drafted and proper, as with Sir Ingvar. Others, sloppily delivered vocally, like with the Avalanche. The forces had divided neatly into two. Sven and the Lord Marshall’s forces in Runeheim, along with the mercenary captains forces. They weren’t as well fortified as they seemed, but there were enough bodies on the battlements to ensure the enemy wouldn’t see them as an acceptable target. The offensive force had formed up around Sir Ingvar’s strong center and archers.
Into the woods they had poured. The Hollow-Songs, still reeling from the loss of their commander couldn’t muster an effective assault. They were pushed back twice, deeper into the woods. Sven had summoned back Ingvar’s forces, the design to reclaim the archers for Runeheim in case the Iron Bloods designed to take advantage of their relatively weak defensive stance.
The Avalanche and Stoneskin were left in the woods. A powerful force of Gorm’s Lionslayers was north of the river. Another was in the woods, and they’d lost track of it. The old knight had surveyed the landscape again and tapped an area of plains north of the Land-bridge.

“There’s going to be trouble on this one. Not much in the way of farming up there; if I was in the Rime, I’d have planted something here to hold the line,” he muttered, rubbing his chin. “Tell the Branded to cut off pursuit and prepare to spend the rest of winter in the trees. Those raiders will be back; we need a screen to dissuade them.”

In the Shadow of Leaves 6: Won’t Be Denied


The voice had been so beautiful and loud, his head vibrated and his ears rang. Tears had sprung from his eyes and the ground had suddenly leapt up at his face. He had seen it laid out before him so clearly. Emptiness, endless, unassailable emptiness. Then in that emptiness, he had floated. A light familiar but different, like a brother, had echoed far away. That same light burning warmly within his chest aching to seep from his pores. Cupping his hands around his lips, he exhaled light. It grew to a small candle-light orb, floating above his palm. As he’d moved his hands away, a lantern had formed, then a crook for it to nestle against. And the emptiness parted around him. Behind were shadows, figures without faces, but dressed in familiar garb and manner. He’d seen the fiery hair of a figure he presumed to be Isabel. The veil of Cadence, perhaps? The tri-corner hat of Theo floating above an empty coat. The pale blue bodice with wisps of songs around it that must have been Marinette. They had followed him through the emptiness on a path of light that he left behind him.

The way was fragile, though, and the thing that had broken the world was hungry here. Darkness clawed at it, vengeful and fiery. It grabbed at clothing and tried to pull his flock into the darkness off the path. But he knew- *knew*- that he could guide them. The Mists were no barrier to him. Not anymore. Not with that warm glowing white light held aloft for all to see.


The elf was beautiful, there was no denying it. Dangerously so. Ancient, powerful, and evil beyond measuring. Perhaps its nature wasn’t evil. Perhaps its nature was just so foreign that the concept of Good couldn’t contain it. It had spoken honeyed words and made subtle gestures with its striking eyes and flowing hair. Henri could only remember snippets of the things it had said, so distracting was its features and manner. The alien creature had almost seemed… hurt at his rejection of it, in that dark grove, surrounded by its seemingly mindless guardians.

Then it had moved, slain one of its own, and ate of its flesh. It had shouted words of summoning, and a skeletal stag had appeared. Even the blood running down its chin had seemed as if loving artists had painted it there simply to accentuate the litheness of its neck. As their party turned to ruin and foul magics battered upon them, again Henri had felt that light. He had poured it into Arbor’s lantern, and the battering had stopped. They were safe. And he had waited until the last of them had fled the woods before he had allowed himself to return himself. His flock, they were his flock, and none would be allowed to stray.


The warm white light had flickered in his breast as Cole had shouted her defiance at him. The patience and love that had been so easy to feel, so easy to cling to just a few short months ago wavered. The Community, his Purpose, was fracturing even as it bonded. He could not remember the words, but he had remembered the look of hurt on her features as she’d turned away and the warmth of righteousness had swept through him.

Theo had manifested in his vision, as he swam in the light. The voice had been grating and persistent, a cloud of mosquitos trying desperately to annoy and demean. The light had shifted, turning shades of red. He could see with absolutely clarity phantom flames of black and green lifting from his hands. He knew- *knew* – that all he had to do to silence the annoyance was reach out his hand and touch the human before him. And his Purpose had suddenly felt as if it a lodestone, and the light a lake he was treading water in.

The weight of it would pull him down so far that none would see him again, not as this, not as he was. His eyes would blaze with red and green- all would love him and be terrified of him. Instead of a shadowy elf pulling at their fates from the shadows, they would have a priest in white telling them how to live and how to find harmony. There would be peace, an eternal, terrible peace.

The buzzing had passed and the light was white once more. But he could see the red in it now, just beyond his sight. A red that hadn’t existed before. A light that was so… deeply comforting. So easy to reach for. So. Tempting.

He’d fled to the woods. Deep, deep to the woods. Under a tree, by the side of a creek, he’d sat and shook and wept. Life had been so much simpler in ignorance. With each step down this new path he took, the world grew more complicated, more rigid, more inevitable. What peace was there for him now that he could see his Purpose laid out before him? What escape was there in simple pleasures? What existed for him beyond this thing now?

As his tears dried, he prayed. And the prayers didn’t stop until well after the sun had set once more.

In the Shadow of Leaves 5: Despair

The swamp was silent, absent of the usual whine of bugs, chirps of birds, belching chorus of frogs. There was beauty in the silence, but a pervasive sort of sadness dominated it. Snow didn’t tend to linger in the swamp. The water never quite froze here; the roiling decay of underbrush and plant detritus kept things warmer than the rest of the region most of the year. Still, some pristine white clung to the top of the taller trees. The air had a crispness that was only slightly colored by the undercurrent of scent that labeled the region so very clearly a bog.

For generations beyond counting, the Chasseur family had lived in the depths of the swamp. Most folks tended to consider the area unlivable. It was hard to travel, if you didn’t know the ways, and eking out a living was harder here than most places. The Chasseurs were a stalwart sort of people, though, and rather than working hard against nature, had simply learned to be more content with less. At least they had. The last of them stood muddy on the largest little hill in the muddy region. Houses could be built on stilts, but the family graves didn’t have that luxury. Generation after generation had been laid to rest here. Markers ranged from coarsely chiseled stone to simple woodened planks. Most lacked writing, but had a picture carved or some symbol to indicate who lay buried there. Land was precious, so once the eldest forgot who was buried where, the markers were collected on the edge of hill, and a new body was laid to rest over the bones of the old. In typical times, this was a slow process, as the dead slowly overtook previous generations for dominance of the little hill. Today was different.

Over a dozen plots had been dug. Bones decorated with scraps of skin and hair had been wrapped in rotted sheets and gingerly laid in each their spot. The peat-rich soil had been replaced. A section of relatively clean wood had been carved with a symbol for each person who slept there now. Many had come out to help with the burial; more than had ever come from outside their swamp for a funeral before. More faces than could reasonably be remembered. They were gone now. The only living soul was seated at the edge of the smallest of the plots, legs tucked up to his chest, forehead resting on knees, tears streaming down face.

The darkness of the crypt was clinging, like a cold fog that set everything soaking with icy water. Each step was treacherous and forced a small, almost timid stride. The… *thing* that had spoken from the shadows had been cruel before. It had thrown rocks, or shadowy tentacles, or sharp pains at those brave enough to weather the assault and liberate the souls of the fallen. Henri had gone in several times, shrugging off some of the attacks, absorbing others. It was exhausting work, but Marionette had refused to quit. And Cadence had refused to quit. And Isabel had refused to quit. So Henri had refused to quit. Again and again, he guided someone into the dark, protecting them from what he could, and pulling them out again. The thing had called him light-bringer. The thing in the darkness had hated him. Then it had levied an assault against him that he couldn’t shrug off.

“What do you know of family, outcaste?” it had hissed, while Henri clutched a collection of assorted bones to his chest. “What do you know of a family staying together even in the darkness?”

Then it had grown quiet, mocking sympathy had colored its tone.

“Oh, but you do know. You know what it is like to lose family… and it broke you,” it had laughed quietly then and it was as if someone had ripped a warm blanket from the old man’s shoulders. A comfortable bulwark against the cold darkness had been shredded and discarded. Months of reflection happened in moments. He had been forced to see the truth of things and his own terrible cowardice.

He had seen, in full color and horrid sensation, the plague that had swept the town finally rolling over the swamp. His father was the first to succumb, a man who had never so much has had any sickness worse than a cold, had taken a fever and died within hours. Then his mother. Aunt. Brother. Sister. Cousin. Each had fallen as quickly as the last. Too quickly to bury. All Henri had been able to do was sequester the dead from the dying and pray for any hope of cure or succor to come. Alas, no panacea had presented itself; no divine miracle to save them. As his family fell one by one, his panic had grown, and his efforts to care for the dwindling survivors had grown frantic.

And then the unthinkable had happened. The dead started to return. For three bitter days, the family he had tried so valiantly to save would rise at night to try and claim the rest of their humble clan. His spear and fierce refusal to submit had kept them at bay, but he couldn’t stop the tears as his Aunt’s rotted face had dominated his vision, her boney claw-like hands grasping for her own son and shrieking a non-language at him.

Noémie had been the last to fall. She had been so frail and thin by then. Hollow cheeked, but bright of eyes. Lips chapped. Perfect blonde hair coming out at the roots in clumps. She’d smiled at him as she lay dying in his lap.

“We just need to rest now, Uncle Henri,” she’d said, in a whisper so small he could barely make it out. “We’s tired is all. Just let us rest and we be raat as rain.”

Then her unblinking eyes had stared off into nothing and his wails shook the house.

If only the horrors had ended there, perhaps the old man could have forgiven himself. But that wasn’t the end of it. He could see and not see. He was aware and unaware. The corpses of his family, too many to bury, too many to mourn, had seemed whole once more. They called to him merrily. He had blinked back tears and kissed each one. They were sick, obviously, but safe. They asked him for help, and he put them to bed. Each was tucked in and kissed goodnight. He hunted for turtles and made soup. The thick stew had dribbled down chins and caught in bedsheets.

He saw and didn’t see as his family’s eyes sunk away. How their lips and gums pulled away from teeth. How the flies collected. How they bloated and released their putrescence. He saw and didn’t see how the swamp consumed them. The heat of summer bringing their torrent of feasting insects. How discolored and rotted the sheets and bedclothes became. Every so often, one would rouse itself and attack him in an effort to eat of his flesh. He saw and didn’t see how he laughed at their orneriness, gently holding them until they were still again, and placing their diminishing remains back to bed.

The dark spirit in the crypt had taken away the didn’t see. Now he could only reflect on the horrors he had survived and the sad consequence. Noémie’s sweet angelic face had turned pale and translucent, floating after him to speak at times. Other times he had spoken to her bones. Other times to a compelling shadow that had been nothing. He saw himself speaking to the bones of his mother, soup coating exposed teeth, as he had provided her answers to himself.

This was monstrous. He was a monster. It had broken him; he knew that through and through. The tears had blinded him. The sobs robbed him of breath. He wanted to curl up until he was so small he would just disappear into nothing. But Marionette had worked through her blood. Cadence through her exhaustion. Isabel through her fears.

Wiping away his tears and wrestling his sobs to sniffles, he had gone back into the crypt again. And again. And again. One by one, the ghosts had been pulled from the gestalt darkness until only Roger had remained. The door had been nailed shut with spikes of silver and priestly rites. He had gathered his belongings, wounded and bloody, he’d shuffled to the place where he slept to weep until he had no more tears to weep.

There he sat, exhausted and alone, among the buried remains of his family. He’d gone to the other family homes and found them all in a similar state. They’d all been collected and buried. They’d had words spoken over them. They’d had stories told and names remembered, they would for as long as he could remember.

“I’m so sorry,” he muttered weakly against his knees. “Nonna this shoulda happened. Y’all deserved somethin’ better than what I done and what I couldn’t do.”

He’d sleep here tonight, he knew that much. His friends had given him the space that he wanted, but someone would come looking for him if he didn’t go tell them he was alright come the dawn. The exhaustion went beyond the physical- it has soaked past his bones and into his soul. He’d never been so tired in all his life. Shifting, he flopped to the wet moss covered earth and closed bloodshot eyes. Cuddling his knees against his chest, he cried himself to sleep. The morning would be cold, so very cold. But it would also be bright. And with the dawn would come hope. That sweet tingle of God’s light would set him right once more.

In the Shadow of Leaves 4: That Ain’t Raat.

“It was like some oily fingers were all fiddlin’ right under mah skin,” he said with a frown. “You know when yer workin’ da skin off a lapine, an ya slide a finger up der ta loosen da pelt? Felt like dat.”

The room slanted room was cold in the winter air, and the small fire in the hearth did little to banish the chill from the drafty room. Noémie sat with her wide, glittering eyes watching him from her perch by the fire. She wasn’t her usual chatty self, but the family got sedate this time of year. It was hard to shake the oppressive darkness of the woods when the days were so short. The friar understood and continued on, trying to fill the space with his warmth and words.

“Ain’t never felt nothin’ like it,” he said again, brows furrowed. “Like all the beautiful tings on God’s green earth went squirrely all at once. Da preacher man says it something called annie-croix. Gots ta do wit dem wizard folk. Can’t square it in mah brain.”

Reflecting, he could clearly visualize the multi-armed monstrosity. As if a spider had merged with a person, but also weapons, the wall, and the ornery temperament of a bear with a sore tooth. When it had touched him, that oily not rightness had swept through him. Like his bones were trying to shift under his muscle against his designs. It had hurt and caused a strange distress to his stomach he’d never felt before either. It was as if the lunch he’d eaten had wanted to climb out of him. Unsettling and uncomfortable.

“Dun tink Imma go back,” he continued quietly. “Felt… wrong. Da most wrong I ever feel, down der in dat lab. Cadence an dem said it was some sorta body er some tin. Corpse of a witchking? I dunno, didn’t make no right sense ta me.”

A shiver crept up his powerful shoulders. And then when the moss covered mage had ‘corrected’ the problem in his bizarre way.

“The doc say dat it weren’t nothin’. Dat mah body could take reams more before, but I ain’t so sure,” he said doubtfully. “Felt like mah skin was peelin’ off and bones was crackin’. Didn’t hurt so much as felt real… wrong. An’ his boss-man, dat one ain’t all der, I dun tink. Askin’ after my mind. Doc said I was a functional lunatic. Ain’t sure what he mean by dat. Seems rude as hell, honestly.”

With a glance at the pale girl, he blushed slightly.

“Forgive ole uncle Henri, cher,” he said. “I dun mean ta use the vulgars. Anyway. Dat boss wizard did somefin wit his fingers an my body twisted up and smoothed out right. So I guess it all fine in the end. Just… dun wanna go back der.”

It was a strange sensation, when he reflected on the cave. He wasn’t afraid. That wasn’t a thing he’d felt in a long time, if he really thought on it. It wasn’t fear, just a deep abiding wariness. The feeling of being entirely unprepared for a situation and going in there anyway. It just felt wrong was all.

He let out a long sigh and straightened up, dusting the dried and frozen mud from the white of her clergy clothes. Then he walked to Noémie and scooped her up.

“Duncha worry yer pretty head about it, cher,” he said. “Past yer bedtime, and Uncle Henri be jess fine. Dun cha worry none.”

He carried her up to bed, the room cold and quiet, just the occasional sound of shifting bodies to let him know his family was present.

War Journals 4: Rage

A life spent in campaigns and raids, marching through mud and hiding in gore; the old knight had seen losses before. He’d been defeated before. Such things were inevitable, if one was truly honest with themselves. It was impossible to have perfect control of your soldiers. Impossible to know with perfect certainty how a rival would move, or how quickly their troops could muster.

These were all excuses that he told himself, saddled on his powerfully built warhorse, tromping through the hoarfrost. It had been a slaughter, there was no other word for it. The painted faces of the Hollow Song had come through the woods in a single long line, stretching further than the eye could see. They had been slathering at the mouth, adorned with the flesh of others. The Grym had faced their out runners and scouts in forum. The Hollow Song had refused to stay dead even then. How many had he killed? He’d lost count Their ravening cries between deathblows frantic, without greater purpose. The red haze that had descended across his vision had never truly lifted. [i]Her form had been limp, nestled against the base of the damned menhir. Red wicking through the pristine white of her robes. Her voice weak and sedate as it called to him.[/i]

When an army suffers a grievous blow and is in an ordered retreat, there are sounds one expected. A morose sort of silence. The whimpering of the wounded and the drag of their sleds. The occasional shout of alarm as each branch becomes a new imagined enemy. Curses, both at their ill fate, and also their inept leadership. His troops made little of these. Instead, there were growls, unsettling and deep. There were no curses from them, only demands that their retreat halt that they could return to the hopeless battle. They had been slaughtered when their force was twice this size. Now? They would hardly even slow the madmen. Some dark seed had been planted in them, and Sven, the Elf-Blood, wished to water it. More than anything, he wished to wheel his horse about and ride back to face them.

The painted faces had been goading, by the end. He had been surrounded by a dozen or so dead of their number, a hundred more of his own. They had been grinning, nearly lecherous at them. They flesh adorned men, faces grinning and painted, words oddly encouraging, had made a hole. They’d allowed half his soldiers to slip between their lines. The intentional release couldn’t be ignored; his lines had rolled up like a carpet. They’d been doomed; he’d expected to die with his troops, and they’d let him go.

“How old were you when you killed your first man, Troels?” he asked, not really caring. The commander of his forces said something in a growling voice, but Sven hadn’t asked because he cared for the answer. Sixteen, he thought. “I was nine.”

Eyes glassy, breath frosting and catching moisture in his beard, he stared into the distance. Some memories were burned into your mind for all time, and this one was just as clear now as it had been then.

“My Uncle took me hunting. He wasn’t so much older than me. My father was Earl and had given up most frivolities to focus on managing the house, for all the good it did him. A true Gothic in all but name, father was proud to divest himself of all but his furs. But Uncle Hakon… he was all history and romance for times gone by. He was so proud of his Brand. Hakon Iceblood, the vacant eyed killer. He taught me the trade more than anyone else,” the old knight shrugged. “He would often take me hunting. Sometimes for elk, sometimes for bandits. It made little difference to him.”

He was rambling now, but it didn’t seem to matter. Words were being used as a crutch, and he needed them to keep his men moving away from certain death. The blood in his veins boiled and demanded some sort of satisfaction. To be gratified on flesh.

“Uncle Hakon collected me from the city. The usual excuses were given. He wished the heavy pelts of larger deer in the North. He said we would be gone for a few weeks. It was a long trip. We met his men a few days out of town, and we moved north. A challenge had been issued; I didn’t know it at the time, but someone…” Sven’s features shifted to a frown in though. “I can’t for the life of me remember with who. Someone had challenged someone, and now their small armies were jockeying about to find favorable ground for a battle. I’d never seen such before. Not a real one. Two organized shield walls moving and counter moving. The axes pulling open holes. Spears and blade slashing through the openings. Iceblood won. I’d never seen a man move so fast. I’d stayed back with the followers; the cooks and blacksmiths and wounded too tired to assist materially. Far enough for safety, but close enough to observe”

The scent of the battlefield had been more jarring than the sounds. The slashes of blood making mud of the ground had been greater than any hunt. Nothing in this life smelled like the belly of a man torn asunder.

“When the matter was settled, Iceblood came back, grinning like a loon. He had taken a knee and clapped me on my shoulders. ‘This is mans business’ he’d said. The gravity of the situation was broken by the manic levity painting his face. He taken his knife from his boot. A lovely blade with a hilt of polished horn. He pressed it into my palm,” the knight looked down at his gloved hand as his horse plodded on. He could still feel the small nubs dotting its length and biting into his palm. “He took me by the shoulder and guided me to the field where the wounded lay. Some were crying. Some were dragging themselves off. Some were just blinking up at the sky with bewilderment. Iceblood found a fearsome specimen. Tall as a mountain. Some axe or another had taken a deep wedge of flesh from his side. His hair was the color of embers as they burn low, with a fearsome beard to match. Darker flecks dotted the beard, looking black in the evening’s shimmering light. ‘This is mans business’ Iceblood repeated and just stood there, expectantly. I was confused. I remember looking up at him and wanting to ask what was mans business. But it was the bleeding fellow that brought clarity to me. ‘It falls to the boys to cut the throats of the fallen’ he said. ‘This is our way. Cut the throats of those who will not rise on their own again. Call it a kindness lad.’ But there was no kindness there. I was dizzy and young and had no mastery of the blade. The first thrust hesitated and caught on his rib. It skittered away, sending shivers up my arm. Damnedable feeling, the bone grating against the blade. Iceblood let me stab him three times before he told me where to cut a man that he would bleed out. Didn’t show me, mind. Told me. I never learned the name of that red maned giant, but I remember his eyes still. I cut the throats of six more men that night. Their faces are less clear to me.”

He looked up from staring at his palm to view the woods thinning to plains as they marched towards Runeheim. Word would have already reached the Avalanche and Ingvar of their devastating lost. They would be wheeling their forces about to secure the populace. They were good, moral lads, in their way.

“I don’t know what brought that to mind,” the knight said absently.