It was a hot, humid day when Quallet Marshhand walked into the recruiting grounds and claimed the half-rotted booth he’d bought for the day. It was always a hot day in Baleros. At least the winter kept the worst edge of the heat off, but Quallet had gotten used to feeling sweat run down his face long ago.
The booth Quallet had bought for five silver pieces wasn’t worth half a copper one, in his opinion. The humid weather had already rotted half of the woodwork, and he was sure that if he put his axe or helmet on the booth, it would collapse. And scrabbling around in the dirt for his gear wouldn’t do him any favors, especially when he was on a tight schedule.
So Quallet leaned his axe against the booth and kept his helmet on. It was already hot, and at least the helmet added to his presence. He had to compete with the others standing at their respective booths and shouting. It wasn’t like this recruiting ground was particularly large; there were only six or so occupied booths, but the recruiters standing at each one were shouting loud enough for twice their number.
“Any [Mages] are welcome to the Tanglelurk Lights!”
“Roll up and become one of the Virulent Plague! Enlist with a friend and earn double pay for your first month!”
“Join the Raverian Fighters! We’re offering a premium on experienced warriors! Apply now!”
Quallet had to smirk when he heard the last shout. The Raverian Fighters? They must be desperate to be recruiting in the middle of a campaign. Anyone with half a brain would know better than to join that company, especially with how things were going.
Still, mocking the opposition was a pointless endeavor. Quallet was here to recruit, so he drew in a breath and began shouting himself.
“Gravetender’s Fist is accepting new recruits! Join an experienced suppression company and make coin without dying in your first battle!”
Heads turned and instantly, a fair number of the individuals in the recruiting grounds began drifting over in his direction. Quallet let them come, not bothering to redouble his shouting. Instead he stood, arms crossed, waiting.
It was about presence. In Baleros, a company of warriors might live or die based on the efforts of their recruiters. These groups or individuals would go from village to city, sometimes competing against hundreds of other companies to find talent, other times marching through an empty dirt street and shouting by themselves.
It was hard, unrewarding work, and usually given to an unlucky officer or as punishment detail. You’d never see one of the leaders of the Four Great Companies come to this recruiting ground. No, you’d get some unhappy [Sergeant], trying to meet his quota and stay out of the heat.
And that was the mistake most companies made. Because a company was only as good as its recruits, and Quallet had learned long ago that the best recruits were snapped up in an instant. Hence, why he’d come himself.
He was a Level 32 [Mercenary Captain], a seasoned warrior and a powerful leader in his own right. Quallet knew at a glance that he was the highest-leveled individual in the entire recruiting ground, and he had the armor and flash to go along with his Skills.
Thus, the large group of Humans, Lizardfolk, Dullahans and the smaller handful of Centaurs drew closer to see what he was offering. In Baleros, the mercenary companies that fought and bled and died for every petty squabble and major war came in every flavor and kind imaginable. New and experienced soldiers would frequent these grounds, seeking out the best contracts for themselves.
Not that this backwater village had any experienced warriors. It had probably been visited at the start of winter. Now, only unseasoned raw recruits were left, people with no combat classes that probably had never held a sword. Not ideal for company recruiting, but fine with Quallet. Scooping up a hundred such people was his goal today. It would allow him to sell his services in the nearest warzone for quite a bit of gold.
The trick was that he represented a company by himself. As a [Mercenary Captain], Quallet had the Skills to turn the worst fighters into a half-decent force, with him leading them. With a hundred or so fresh recruits, Quallet could advertise his company to the highest bidder at a competitive rate. Just so long as Quallet found a decent pool of people to draw from, and made sure that the best of the bunch weren’t snapped up.
He had an advantage there too. Among the precious Skills that allowed him to lead his company, Quallet had the Skill [Talent Seeker], which allowed him to find the best of any bunch for his company. Assuming the other recruiters didn’t have similar abilities—and it was a good bet this lot were only [Sergeants] and [Soldiers] with few Skills between them—Quallet would walk away with most of his company within the hour.
A decent crowd had gathered—quite a lot of Humans for a village Quallet could have sworn was filled with Lizardfolk. No matter. Him being Human helped in that area as well. He took a breath and spoke at a field roar, making the people closest to him flinch back.
“So you’re in need of coin, eh? Fancy going to war? Running from something, or seeking adventure? You’re in the right place. A [Soldier] lives to fight, and you’ll see plenty of that in Baleros, where the jungles run red with blood!”
That drew knowing nods from several in the crowd, but the Humans just stared at him. They were an odd bunch, dressed strangely with bright clothing. One had a strange, flat object with a glowing light coming out one end. Some kind of artifact? Quallet pretended not to notice. He went on with his little speech, going through the same motions like he had a thousand times.
“Don’t fancy being a [Soldier]? A [Warrior] will find just as much work, and the best can earn a living as an adventurer. Joining up with a company is the right first step. However, what these other companies don’t tell you is that of every ten raw recruits that enlist, six of them will be dead in the first year!”
That rattled his audience. Quallet looked among them. Yes, a group of young Lizardfolk, scales practically fresh. Dullahans with wood armor, all young, most carrying their heads and peering at him uncertainly. The Centaurs shifted from foot to foot and the Humans—still staring.
The other recruiters in the square were now giving Quallet death-glares from where they stood, but he didn’t care. He spoke the truth and every recruiter knew it. But only Quallet could turn that knowledge into an asset.
“Four in ten odds don’t sound good to you lot, eh? It takes a steady hand and talent to survive your first clash. Fancy yourselves natural-born fighters? You, boy.”
He pointed at a pale-skinned youth wearing some sort of hat. It looked like nothing Quallet had ever seen before. The material was bright and there was some kind of symbol on top. A company’s crest? A red bird sitting on an odd bit of wood stared at him over the word…‘Cardinals’?
Never mind. Quallet stared as the young man looked around and then grinned nervously.
“Yes, you! Ever been in combat? Ever killed an opponent? You look sturdy enough. Good with a sword, are you?”
The young man stiffened. He hadn’t, Quallet knew, been in any fights to the death before. He didn’t have the look. And he wasn’t armed. Come to that, none of the Humans were. But bravado was one of the key aspects of youth, so the young man with the odd hat grinned as his Human friends laughed.
“Not with a sword, but…I’ve been in a few fights!”
It took all of Quallet’s willpower not to grimace at the stupid boast. A few fights? He’d heard the same line repeated a thousand times from a thousand soon-to-be-dead faces. A few scraps with fists, rocks, and maybe the occasional dagger wasn’t a real battle. Until they’d survived a Dullahan ambush, or been on the receiving end of a Centaur charge, no one had the right to claim they were experienced.
But it suited his point.
“Good in a fight? Well, perhaps you’d fit in with the Raverian fighters. Or if you know magic, why not enlist with the Tanglelurk company? But if you do, you’ll be on the front, mark me. The first clash will have you going up against experienced warriors. Veterans who’d killed more people than you have fingers. So I wouldn’t bet a ‘few fights’ against a skilled [Halberdier], not for any odds.”
That took the wind out of the young man’s sails. Quallet turned, nodding at the two recruiters he’d just made enemies of.
“They’ll promise you gold for nothing, but it won’t be all of you who see it after months of fighting. Which is why I’m telling you to join my company.”
“And what does your company have that they don’t?”
That came from a brown-skinned Centaur with white fur standing at the back of the crowd. He had a good bit of room, mainly because Centaurs were huge and touchy. The Humans looked especially leery of him. Quallet replied calmly, meeting the Centaur’s gaze.
“I’m the [Captain] of Gravetender’s Fist. Haven’t heard of it? That’s fine. But we’re a suppression company. We don’t go to battle against veterans. We’re night-duty, corpse battlers. You know what I’m talking about.”
They did. The Lizardfolk shifted and some looked back towards the other recruiters. A few Dullahans turned away. The Centaurs were still listening although their faces had twisted with disgust. The Humans were…staring blankly. Did they not know, or just not care? Quallet took a breath.
This was the hard part. Lose too many Lizardfolk and you’d lose them all. The Dullahans were hard to sell to. He could probably get the Centaurs either way, but Quallet wanted all the recruits here. If he got them, he wouldn’t have to go through any more villages and stand in the hot air.
“Not fans of what my company does? I won’t blame you. But we provide an important service, a necessary service for most companies. You’ve heard of the battle between the Razorshard Armor company and the Roving Arrow company, haven’t you? I’m bound for that battlefield after this village, and I’ll be leading my company onto the battlefield each night. It won’t be glamorous—it’ll be muck and death and filth—but it will be safe.”
What an ironic word. But it was true, and it drew attention back to him. Quallet strode back and forth, speaking to the crowd as they watched him.
“Yes, safe! As safe as war can be! You’ll see combat, true enough, but you won’t die like Bloodflies in my company. Eight out of every ten raw recruits that serves under me survives their first month. If you’re new to battle, you’ll gain your first ten levels in a combat class in this company, my oath on it!”
He alone could boast that. Quallet knew, the other recruiters knew, and most of the recruits with a brain knew that signing up with a company meant gambling your life if you were a new recruit. Put your mark with the Raverian Fighters and you’d be fighting on the front lines within the week, and you’d be lucky indeed if you didn’t run up against a high-level soldier, a [Mage], or simply got cut to pieces in the crush. But Gravetender’s Fist and companies like the one Quallet ran were different.
They were safe. For a given measure of safe, of course. And that had an allure that beat out all of the other recruiters’ desperate calls and pitches. Quallet got down to the details as the others stayed. He nearly had them.
“You’ll earn a silver piece for every night you spend fighting, and four copper coins for the nights you don’t. Think its poor pay for a soldier? We’ll give you lot a sword and armor if you don’t have it, healing potions for your wounds, and I’ll be fighting right alongside you all. My company begins leaving tomorrow morning. Ask as many questions as you like. And ask about—I’ll swear to a truth crystal all I’ve said is true. If you’re unsure, ask those other recruiters what your odds are. But if they’re honest, they’ll tell you my company is the way to go for those of you who want to survive.”
Quallet pointed at the haggard [Sergeant] recruiting for the Raverian fighters. The man gave him a haunted look as Quallet raised his voice.
“Over there lies glory. Glory. The glory of the brave and the dead. If you’re seeking battles to test your mettle, sign up by all means. But join my company if you prefer to fight and live.”
It worked. It always worked, especially when you had an ill-fated company you could point at as a reminder of what could go wrong. Tales of glory and fame on the battlefield were all very well if everyone was humming the same tune, but Quallet had learnt to be the one dissenting voice in the crowd. And people listened to the one odd voice.
He didn’t get all the recruits of course. No one ever did. Well, perhaps Niers Astoragon or Valka Cerethrian might be able to pull it off if they walked into the recruiting grounds. But that night Quallet signed over eighty recruits into his company, effectively doubling its size.
It wasn’t a bad haul, all told. He’d gotten the Centaurs—all of them. It turned out the one who’d spoken was a Level 11 [Fighter], and his friends had a few levels between them, which was good. Quallet had a handful of Dullahans, and a sizeable number of Lizardfolk. One of them had a magic class, which was an unexpected little gift.
As for the rest? The Humans had come almost as one entire package. They were odd, and signed their names on Quallet’s enchanted list with odd flourishes and curved writing, as if they were all [Scribes]. Some had laughed as they’d did so, and joked about ‘enlisting’ as if it were a completely new thing.
Odd. Quallet hoped he wasn’t borrowing trouble with their lot. But they didn’t seem like former [Bandits] or troublemakers in the ways he’d learned to watch out for. They were just weird.
He didn’t have to like them, just teach them how to fight and obey orders, anyways. Quallet marched his new recruits two miles out to the camp where he and the rest of the Gravetender’s Fist company was located.
Rows of tents and armed warriors lounging about were what greeted the recruits. Quallet saw two people—a Dullahan [Sergeant] named Xor and a Human [Soldier], Raeh, stride over to meet him. They were Quallet’s acting officers. He didn’t need many, but people who could lead when he was away were important, and he knew both males, having served with them before.
“That’s the rest of our company, Quallet?”
Raeh didn’t bother with formalities. Quallet didn’t see the need, at least between officers. He nodded at Raeh, and the man grinned. He wasn’t a big man, although he was very good with the sword he used.
“Finally. Time to be moving at last. I was getting bored of being eaten by the damn jungle.”
Xor looked disapproving. He did address Quallet formally, as Dullahans tended to do in every situation.
“Captain Quallet, there have been no disturbances in your absence. Would you like me to instruct the recruits, or will you do so?”
“I’ll do it.”
Quallet turned and spoke loudly to the group of recruits. The Humans had been staring around and the Lizardfolk had already sat down while the Dullahans stood at attention. The Centaurs just looked bored at the slow pace. Each race had its peculiarities.
“This is where you lot will sleep tonight! You’re all part of Gravetender’s Fist now, and you’re under my command. I promised you food and a place to sleep—and armor and weapons! You’ll get all that, but for now mill about. Some of you will be called out by these two men—”
He indicated Raeh and Xor.
“They are my officers and you’ll hop to it when they give you orders, just as you would when I tell you to do something! But there’s no fighting tonight. Tomorrow you’ll march and we’ll start training you before we get to the battlefield. You’ll have a good four days to practice.”
Some of the Humans looked dismayed. Quallet laughed.
“Four isn’t enough? You’d rather practice for a month? Don’t worry, we’ll beat the fundamentals into you, and you’ll get a class while marching if you haven’t one already. Your opponents won’t be that dangerous either, as you’ll see. But for now—eat! Food will be passed around shortly. Talk amongst yourselves if you want to, make friends. Everyone standing here will be fighting by your side and might save your life!”
The recruits looked around warily. Quallet wondered if they’d mingle. It didn’t usually happen. He went over a few more rules, trying to get it over with as succinctly as possible.
“You’ll each get one meal and one alone. There’ll be no stealing, or fighting of any kind in my company. I’ll personally see to that. If you can’t stand someone’s guts, keep away from them and pray they get killed soon. But cause trouble and I’ll thrash you myself. You’re soldiers in a company now, not children.”
That was it. Quallet let the recruits disperse, mingling with the few veterans and other new soldiers from other villages he’d already found. It was rare for most of his soldiers to stay more than a few months in Gravetender’s Fist. Quallet had grown used to new faces coming and going.
“Let’s feed them.”
He grunted to Xor and the Dullahan helped him unload the bags of holding that helped make Quallet’s company. They had been very dear to buy, but it allowed Quallet to do away with a lot of expenses for wagons, instead bringing out preserved food to be shared around by soldiers under Raeh’s watchful eye.
Recruits ate, recruits talked, some bragging nervously, others swapping tales or just keeping to themselves. Quallet watched as he chewed down some sour-dough bread and cheese, biting into one of the fleshy Picta-fruits and washing it all down with warm water. He swatted at insects as he saw each of the four races sticking to their groups for the most part.
It was good enough. It was like normal. Quallet went to his private tent as the new soldiers slept in the mostly insect-proof tents. The experienced [Captain] listened to the dull roar of the jungle’s wildlife, the occasional breeze blowing through the area, and the sound of snoring. He slept.
The next day, Quallet rose just after dawn, and with his two officers, got his soldiers up. They awoke, scratching at bites, moaning, probably regretting ever wanting to be a soldier.
That was normal too. Quallet fed them, showed the new recruits how to break down camp, stored it all in the bags of holding, loaded the heavy artifacts onto the lone wagon his company used, and moved out.
His routine was simple. Quallet wished he could follow it in his sleep. After he recruited his company back to a good strength, after buying supplies to last for weeks or months and cramming them in the bags of holding, filling their enchanted capacity to the brim, he took his command and headed towards the closest battlefield, or the one he’d been contracted to.
This time he was headed towards the place where the Razorshard Armor company and the Roving Arrow company were fighting. A Dullahan-led company and a Centaur company, respectively. They were fighting over land, or maybe it was some old feud. Gold? Quallet hadn’t heard the details from the other [Mercenary Captain] who’d tipped him off. All he knew was that they could use another suppression company. The fighting had been fierce, apparently.
March his recruits. Arm them with cheap weapons scavenged from the battlefield or bought en-masse from the war vendors. Train them.
That came at the series of breaks to let the weary soldiers rest their feet. Quallet first distributed armor, letting the recruits fight over who got what, and then arms. For some reason, all the young men seemed to fancy themselves swordsmen, for all that there were perfectly good axes. Quallet eyed his new command again.
Lizardfolk, Dullahans, Centaurs, Humans, he all had in various numbers. But the largest influx of Humans had come from that odd group of strange-dressed young men—and young women—who’d come with him on the latest recruiting drive. They were…strange.
For one thing, they all seemed to know each other. If not each other by name, they shared some kind of connection Quallet couldn’t fathom. Some had very strange clothing, quite inappropriate for Baleros’s weather and stinging insects. Any fool knew to cover skin rather than flaunt it, but this lot had been practically devoured by the biting insects the first night.
Too, some of them had odd artifacts that were clearly magical. They made noise and light, and Quallet had seen more than one Lizardfolk edge over curiously. The Humans were very protective though, and didn’t show them to anyone.
Were they rich? Or were the artifacts cheap toys to make sound and light? Either way, it was strange. The Humans stared about at everything as if they’d never seen a real sword before, or another species. Still, they were hardly worse than any other recruit, which was why as the sun rose to midday, Quallet decided to start instructing them how to use the weapons he’d given them. Some of the young men had cut themselves, a few badly, by mock-fencing with the swords they’d been given.
He looked across his command and found one of the Humans who caught his eye. He stood out, mainly because everyone else who’d joined out had pale skin, tan skin, brown skin, or dark skin…this young man who was a bit older than most had dark black skin, like charcoal. Quallet called out to him.
“You there! Black-skin.”
The young man stiffened. He turned as Quallet strode towards him, looking surprised. And for some reason, angry.
“What did you call me?”
He was taller than Quallet, a giant, at least six feet, possibly six and a half feet tall. He had long arms, and a muscled body, although he seemed not to be at all comfortable with the mace he’d been given.
“I said you. You with the black skin.”
Quallet spoke calmly as the young man seemed to grow angrier. He pointed at the group of resting Humans milling about.
“Get some of your friends together. Twenty of them. We’re starting arms drills now.”
What was wrong? Quallet had given an order. He hadn’t insulted the young man, but in some way, he had. The black-skinned young man looked upset. Was it because Quallet’s skin was light, tanned from days in the sun? It didn’t matter either way. Quallet stared up at the younger man, adding a touch of [Commanding Presence] until he backed down.
“Yes sir. I will do that just now. Sir.”
Perhaps it was the way he had said it—he spoke as if he didn’t understand the common tongue quite right, which was incredible in itself—but Quallet watched as the young man walked off. Apparently, ‘just now’ didn’t mean much to him, because he took his sweet time before obeying Quallet’s orders.
It turned out his name was Luan, and he did eventually bring some nervous, giggling young men to Quallet for a demonstration.
“Here’s how you hold those shiny weapons you’ve been given. You lot—take out your weapons. Not like that! Watch me, now. If you’re taking your axe out, or your sword, you’ll want to do it fast. Like this.”
He demonstrated and made the young men do everything from take out their weapons to hold them correctly. Then Quallet had them swing at the air, at trees and stumps, making them get a feel for how the weapons moved and how to strike.
The Lizardfolk, Dullahans, Centaurs…it was the Humans who were the problem. Again. The young men that Luan had gathered treated Quallet’s orders like a game, laughing and slashing the air with wild cuts that wouldn’t have killed anyone. One of them, standing down the line as Quallet shouted at Luan—who at least had a good grip and stance—was swinging his sword around and laughing at the others.
Quallet turned to address this idiot when the young man’s hands, sweaty from the heat and exercise, slipped on the badly-wrapped leather hilt of the sword. He lost his grip and there was a scream from one of the young women as the sword went flying through the air. People scattered out of the way as the sword landed in the dirt. The young man who’d been holding it grinned nervously.
Some of his friends laughed, but Quallet’s eyes narrowed. He crossed the distance between him and the young man in an instant. The young man didn’t see the gauntleted fist before it split his lip and sent him tumbling to the ground.
The laughter stopped. Quallet heard the young man swearing and stood over him, one hand on his axe. Everyone else watched as the young man stared up, suddenly afraid. Quallet shouted at him.
“This is not a game! When you’re fighting for your life, having a proper grip on your sword will save your life, and the lives of the soldiers around you! If you cannot take this seriously, I will leave you in this forest to rot!”
The pale-skinned youth flinched from his words. Quallet turned and faced the rest of his company.
“Mark me, this is not a joke. You are learning how to fight! Hold your weapons properly, get a feel for them. Because you will be seeing combat this week!”
The young man got up, pale-faced and bleeding. No one spoke. Quallet pointed.
“Pick up your blade and keep practicing! You! Yes, you lot! Don’t just stand around! Get moving! I want to see you—all of you—practicing!”
He made the rest of his company do the same, feeling the eyes of the Humans and Luan on his back. Now they feared him, which was fine. A [Captain] could be feared. Quallet was just glad he’d had the opportunity to impress on them that this wasn’t a game. With luck, he’d have another opportunity before it came to battle as well. Every time he showed these raw soldiers what fighting was like, was another life he’d save when it came to their first night on duty.
“You! Wood-armor. Yes, you. Get the tents set up. Get as many hands as you need, but until they’re up, you lot don’t sleep!”
Quallet barked orders as his weary and sore company rested for the night. He made them set up camp, pass around food, and then let them pass out in their tents. Quallet slept easily, woke up the next day and began it all over again.
Train them, march them, feed them, and then let them rest. On the second day, Quallet began to lecture his company on their duties and had a nasty surprise.
“You mean you don’t know what Gravetender’s Fist does?”
He stared at the group of Humans in disbelief. They looked ashamed, but it was true. To everyone’s astonishment, it seemed that while the Humans had understood what being in a mercenary company meant, they hadn’t known what a suppression company—which was what they were in—did.
Quallet’s eyes narrowed as he looked at the rows of faces, trying to see if they were playing a prank on him. But it didn’t look like they were. The other species were giving the Humans very odd looks too.
Greener than he’d thought. Or maybe from another continent? But why would they be stranded all the way out here, then? Either way, Quallet amended his time-adhered to speech.
“If you signed up without knowing exactly what Gravetender’s Fist does, well, you should have figured it out from the name. Alone. Grave tending. Gravetender. It’s not exactly hard to see the connection. Understand?”
Blank looks. Quallet couldn’t believe this.
“The undead! The restless souls that rise from unburied corpses and in places of power! Have you never seen one before?”
They hadn’t. Xor had to actually rub at his head’s eyes with his hands and Raeh looked incredulous. The other Lizardfolk were staring at the Humans as if they were idiots. The Centaurs were making a joke of the entire thing as they laughed amongst themselves.
“The dead rise. Zombies, skeletons, ghouls…they get worse with time and depending on the corpse and amount of death. A [Necromancer] can raise them and command them, but undead will spawn naturally from unburied corpses. That might not be a problem in a quiet village where the dead can be laid to rest—or cremated—but this is Baleros. A place where war is always present! We’re headed towards a battlefield where two companies—with thousands or tens of thousands of soldiers—are fighting each day! What do you think will happen to all those bodies?”
How could anyone ask that like a question? Quallet scowled.
“Of course they do. And they’re not only a nuisance, but a danger. Leave a battlefield full of thousands of corpses alone for a short period and you’ll get ghouls and worse popping up within days. They’ll attack soldiers, spread disease—and that’s where we come in.”
He nodded to Raeh and the man took over.
“Gravetender’s Fist. We are a suppression company. That’s not like a regular company for you new recruits. Suppression companies specialize in one kind of fighting. Some kill Goblins or monsters that make a nuisance of themselves. Others, like our company, kill the undead on the battlefield.”
There were murmurs at that. Quallet watched the Humans warily. If they hadn’t known—how could they not know? But now he had to worry about them deserting too. He spoke crisply, trying to dismiss their sudden dismay.
“I said it was better work than fighting, didn’t I? You’ll be up against zombies and the like mostly. Nothing dangerous. A rotting corpse might be a threat, but it’s better than a veteran with a magical blade. Each night when the fighting stops we’ll go into the battlefield, between the armies often, and handle the dead. The soldiers fighting don’t want to do it—they’re tired, and if both armies are sending troops out it’ll be a night battle against the undead and each other. So that’s why companies like this one are hired.”
“Clean up duty.”
Someone in the crowd joked. Quallet nodded, ignoring the levity.
“We’ll be collecting corpses, burning them, and putting down any undead that decide to get up. It will be dirty work, quick, and dangerous if you don’t watch each other’s back. But the worst you’ll face out there is a Ghoul, and that’s only if you’re unlucky. It beats dying with an arrow in your neck when the real fighting starts in the mornings, mark me.”
The Humans stirred uneasily, as did some others in his company. Quallet raised his voice.
“That’s why we’re practicing! Now, your duties are simple. You’ll be working in teams, spread out to cover ground. If you find a body—you bring it over. Yes, they’ll be rotting, yes it will smell. And you will stab it through the head before you come, in case it’s rising. [Sergeant] Xor’s done this work a hundred times. He’ll instruct you. Xor, show them how to move with Raeh watching your back…”
They met the first group of undead on the road, a day before reaching the battleground. The shambling zombies must have missed the armies somehow, and they were roaming about aimlessly. It was a perfect opportunity, one Quallet had hoped for. He took command and ordered his company to engage them. Not all of course; it was only about thirty zombies, so Quallet took exactly that number out and had them fight.
They were all frightened, most close to wetting themselves as the zombies approached. But Quallet had chosen well, and the Centaur with white fur and the Lizardgirl with magic killed their zombie quickly and efficiently. Watched by Quallet, Xor, and Raeh, the other raw soldiers fought and killed their zombies, hacking away, running back, screaming—
Learning to fight. It was messy, horrible to watch from the eye of an experienced veteran, but it was the first step to forging his company into a fighting force. Quallet nodded approvingly as one young man killed a zombie with an axe.
“A good first step.”
He was one of the odd Humans, the ones with weird clothing. This one was pale-skinned and had odd features. Narrower eyes, black hair—he was a bit short as well and he had an expensive-looking long-sleeved shirt and pants on. They looked like fine material, but they were now covered in guts and gore underneath the battered leather armor he was wearing. Quallet didn’t know the young man’s story, and he didn’t care what his name was.
He’d heard others call the young man Ken, though. Ken…although one of the young women had called him something else. What was it? Ken…Ken…something.
Kenjiro Murata stumbled away as the zombie he’d killed sunk to the ground, its misshapen head collapsing inwards as it struck the ground. It couldn’t really be called a head at all, in fact. Kenjiro, or ‘Ken’ as the others called him, had bashed it so many times with the axe he’d been given that the rotting bone and flesh around the skull had caved in.
He stared at the corpse as it fell, stared at the horrible innards of its head, smelled the rotting flesh, saw some things wriggling in the decomposing corpse’s open mouth. Ken turned, about to vomit, when he heard a familiar voice crying out.
He ran towards the voice, leaving the dead zombie behind. Ken saw a girl with short black hair, wearing a battered piece of armor awkwardly over her jeans and t-shirt, backing away from another dead zombie.
It had a spear lodged in its belly. But it was still trying to move forwards. The girl backed away, screaming, and then shouting at the undead corpse in a language no one but Kenjiro understood.
Her voice was shrill, panicked. There was something insane about what she’d said. Stop. Please, stop. She’d said it to a zombie, but she probably couldn’t believe what was happening. Ken still couldn’t himself.
He ran over. The axe was in his hands. Ken smashed the zombie in the head, feeling a sickening connection. It fell over, and the girl turned away, covering her face in her hands. Ken stepped back, shaking as the second zombie he’d killed fell, twitching and making a gurgling sound. He looked hesitantly at the girl.
She was crying, sobbing, actually, with fear and horror. Ken opened his mouth to say something, and then closed it. He didn’t know what to say, not to Aiko. He wouldn’t have known what to tell himself.
He was in another world, with magic and monsters. And the undead. He was a soldier, and so was she.
They hadn’t known what they were signing up for at all.
Aiko kept crying as the angry [Captain] shouted at the people around them. Ken saw other people, some Humans like him, others wearing strange armor, Dullahans, fighting next to scaly lizard-people as galloping Centaurs ran by, spearing zombies and hacking them apart.
“Aiko-san, are you okay? 大丈夫ですか?”
Ken had a hard time speaking English, so he switched back to his native tongue, feeling oddly formal. He knew Aiko of course, but she wasn’t someone he knew.
She wasn’t a childhood friend, more like a classmate that Ken knew from sharing the same class with for multiple years throughout their junior and senior high school time. They hadn’t spoken much. It was a fluke that had put them together in the airport on that fateful day when they’d vanished from their world into this one.
Now they were alone, and Aiko was the only one who understood him.
“Yes. Yes, I—”
She spoke in English, speaking to Ken and also to the Lizardgirl who’d stopped to see if they were alright. The scaly, frilled head nodded and the Lizardgirl walked on, conjuring a ball of fire to throw at a zombie. Ken watched her with amazement in his heart, and then looked at Aiko.
“Are you okay? Hurt?”
She shook her head, but Aiko was clearly far from alright. She was pale, and as she looked back at the zombie, Aiko’s face turned dead white. She stepped back and put a hand to her mouth.
But she didn’t throw up. Instead, Aiko looked at Ken, a mortal horror in her eyes. He recognized it, because it was the same terrible feeling in him.
Zombies were real. Magic was real. They were in a fantasy world. Only it wasn’t wonderful. It was just as bad as any anime, only worse. Because Ken could smell the rotting corpses. He could feel every insect bite on his body, feel the heat of Baleros’ winter, and know that he had killed two people today.
Maybe they were already dead. But the sensation of breaking flesh and bone was—it was too much.
Aiko gave word to the feeling in Ken’s stomach. He looked at her. She’d said—well, he couldn’t process it in English, only in his native language. It was an expression. It meant, roughly, evil sown is evil reaped. Those who do bad things have bad things happen to them. He shook his head.
She stared at him. Ken felt compelled to explain himself. He looked at Aiko, hesitated, and then spoke rapidly in Japanese.
“If this were karma, surely we’d be punished in some other way. No, this is just reality. It is harsh, but we must survive.”
Ever since they’d come to this world, they’d had to survive. They’d sold their backpacks and luggage, found food and shelter for a few days, but like the others, like everyone from this world, they’d run out of money in an instant. This had been the only work they could take, the only work they could do.
“It is too cruel. I cannot do this.”
Aiko’s eyes were still brimming with tears. She looked at the corpse, gagged. Ken tried to look, and failed. He spoke to Aiko, trying to suppress the feeling in his stomach.
“They are dead, Aiko. If they were alive, I would feel guilty. But they are dead and we are…warriors now.”
He had the class. He was a Level 1 [Warrior]. A voice in his head had told him he had the class last night, and a Skill—[Lesser Stamina]. Perhaps that was why his arms weren’t burning despite chopping at two zombies with the axe?
“I know! I know, but I cannot—Kenjiro-san, why are we here?”
Aiko was distraught. She stared at the zombies, and Ken had nothing he could tell her. He didn’t know. One second they’d been in the Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne, standing around and making awkward conversation as the rest of their group went off to buy souvenirs. Ken and Aiko had been forced to watch everyone’s luggage because they’d lost the straw pick. Some other people had been walking by, and Ken had seen a flash—
The next moment, he’d been standing in a jungle with Aiko and a group of over a hundred confused people, spread out across a mile’s landscape. That had been their first moments in Baleros.
It hadn’t gotten much better since then.
Movement. Something approached out of the corner of Ken’s eye and he whirled, holding his axe like Quallet had taught him. But it wasn’t a zombie.
Someone was coming towards them. Another Human. This young man looked older than both Ken and Aiko, who were both freshmen in university. The tall, black-skinned young man holding a mace and wearing rusted chainmail grinned at them, sweating heavily. There was something stuck on one side of the mace. Ken stared at it, and then at the young man.
The young man grinned and Ken knew he’d gotten the name right.
“Yes, and you’re…Ken. Kenjiro, right?”
He didn’t use honorifics. He wasn’t Japanese, but from somewhere else. No one from Japan had been taken to the other world that Kenjiro had seen. Ken nodded.
“I am…and this is Aiko-san.”
Aiko bowed slightly, and Luan grinned at her. There was so much absurdity to the moment, as the two Japanese students introduced themselves over the corpse of a zombie. But it was normal, so they clung to that.
Luan eyed the dead zombie and then Ken and Aiko.
“I saw you two fighting. Are you alright?”
How could you answer that? Ken hesitated, and then fell back on politeness.
“I am fine.”
“Yes, I am okay. Thank you very much.”
Aiko spoke with slightly accented English, stumbling a bit over the words. Neither she nor Ken were native speakers, although they’d done well in English class. Luan’s eyes flickered to them, and he nodded without addressing their blatant lie.
“I am glad you two are okay. You should stick with me and the others.”
He pointed, and Ken saw some of the other people he recognized, standing pale and sweaty a good distance away from the last zombies as they were put to rest. He followed Luan with Aiko and they heard Quallet bellowing at them.
“Good! We’ll have a break to drink and clean yourselves off, and then we’ll tell you what you did right—and what you did wrong!”
“I hate that guy.”
Luan made a face as he led Ken towards the others. Ken privately agreed, although he wouldn’t have said as much out loud. He nodded awkwardly towards the others as he heard one of them, an American named Johanas, talking loudly.
“We did it! We killed those fucking zombies. I mean, we did it. With swords and axes, like a fucking video game. Does this mean we’ll level up? What hell, man. What the hell is going on?”
That seemed to be the general consensus of the group. Everyone, even the people who hadn’t fought, were pale and shaken. Ken understood.
They’d known they were enlisting to be soldiers, but they hadn’t expected this. Somehow, Ken had thought it wouldn’t be…wouldn’t be…wouldn’t be real. He’d still clung to a hope that this was all a dream, and that having a world with classes and levels and people with Skills meant this was a game, or some kind of dream you could wake up from.
But it was all real. And from the looks on the other’s faces, they were beginning to realize this as well. Ken and Aiko stood around with the others, listening to them speak. Everyone was speaking in English, as it was the tongue all of them had in common.
“This is some crazy shit, huh?”
Someone was talking to him. Ken stared at the young man with blonde hair who was speaking, and tried to make sense of what he’d said. Crazy…oh, he was saying this was insane. Ken nodded.
“I think…this is very crazy, yes.”
“I thought this would be different. I thought since we had classes and levels, we wouldn’t actually kill people. Or it wouldn’t be that real. But this is totally like…like Sword Art Online, you know? Sort of like that, don’t you think?”
What had he said? Ken was trying to keep up. He hesitated.
“Oh? Yes? Maybe. I do not know. I am sorry…”
Ken saw the other young man blink in surprise.
“Sorry? No, it’s cool. I mean…”
He trailed off and the conversation ended there. Aiko edged towards Ken and whispered to him.
“What did he mean? What is…”
She hesitated and spoke the words awkwardly in English.
“…‘Sword Art Online?’”
“I think it is an anime.”
“Oh. Did you watch it? Do you know what it is about?”
They both fell silent. It wasn’t as if Ken didn’t watch any anime, and he’d certainly read a few manga over the years. But he was in college now, and watching anime was a bit…well, there was more to do than just that.
He watched the young man with blonde hair move back towards the others. The others like him. It wasn’t that the group of Humans who’d come from another world weren’t all on the same boat, but they were different.
They’d all been in the Melbourne Airport when taken, and so they were all sorts of nationalities. Some big groups of travelers had been caught up, while individual travelers had been seized as well, or parts of groups like Ken and Aiko.
Most of them were either Australian or American, with a heavier emphasis on American, since a huge tour group had been coming through. Other nationalities had come as well of course, but they were fragmented.
Some had already left. In the first moments of confusion when Aiko had screamed and people had cried out and come running, Ken had seen all kinds of faces. But when it had been established that no one know what was happening or what was going on, people began forming their own groups, usually based on shared nationality or some other identity.
When they’d finally gotten a fire going and lit up the jungle with their phones and other devices, Ken and Aiko had stuck with the others, trying to speak English and explain where they were from. A lot of kids from India had kept to themselves and didn’t speak to others much. They vanished on the first day.
In the days that followed as the travelers from another world tried to find civilization, more people left, suspicious or afraid they’d been caught up in a trap. They departed secretly in the night, or openly in larger groups.
A little over half of the original number had stayed together. The Americans, Australians, and some other people from European countries stuck together, and a lot of other people from countries with no friends came as well. Ken and Aiko followed the majority because they had no idea what to do.
Now of course, after deciding as a group to sign up as soldiers in order to eat and survive, everyone still didn’t know what to do. But they did talk among each other anxiously.
“Hey. I have water for you two. Need some?”
The tall young man named Luan was back, with water flasks. Ken thanked him profusely before taking his and washing his filthy hands. Aiko did the same on the spear she’d recovered from the zombie, splashing water carelessly on it until Xor shouted at her not to waste supplies. She jumped, and Luan scowled in his direction.
“Asshole. You know, I haven’t seen him smile once? Apparently all Dullahans are like that. Do you know them? Their legends, I mean.”
Ken blinked at Luan. The other young man was clearly not from America—there was something about the way he spoke, and how he didn’t fit with the other Americans. He wasn’t from any of the other major groups either, because he didn’t talk with them all the time. Ken nodded slowly, trying to reply as best he could.
“I do know. But they are…how can I say this? Fairy tale? They are…not-real things. Stories. Or so I thought.”
“Some of the guys are saying they think they’re like monsters.”
Ken turned and stared at some of the other Dullahan recruits. They had taken their heads off their armored bodies and were pouring water into their mouths. They could take their heads off their bodies, leaving only a glowing light from within. He spoke hesitantly.
“I think they are people like us, but they look so much like—like…Aiko, how do I say—?”
He conferred with Aiko and turned to Luan.
“Like walking armor, yes? Like knight armor, from Western culture?”
Luan’s face lit up and he grinned.
“Oh! Yeah, I get it. I was thinking they looked a bit like Alfonse. You know, from Full Metal Alchemist, yeah? I loved that anime!”
Ken and Aiko stared at him blankly. Ken nodded slowly.
“I think I know what you are saying. But Aiko and I—”
He broke off and conferred with Aiko. She hadn’t seen it either. Rather than be surprised at their lack of encyclopedic knowledge of all things anime, Luan laughed.
“That’s okay. I’m a bit of a weeaboo. Do you know that word?”
Someone obsessed with Japanese culture. Ken nodded and smiled.
“I like anime, but I have not watched many recently. But Aiko and I agree—this is like an anime.”
“A horrible one.”
Aiko’s face was pale as she sipped from the water canteen. Luan nodded, growing serious.
“This is some bad shit, mate. I was worried about you two when Quallet told you to fight, but you did well! You stabbed that guy right through the stomach! Bam!”
He demonstrated and Aiko’s face went pale again. Luan put a hand on her shoulder, making her jump at the unexpected contact.
“Sorry. I know this is all horrific.”
“No, it’s okay—”
She hesitated, and Ken realized she didn’t remember Luan’s name. To cover for her, he hastily spoke up.
“This is Luan-san, Aiko. And I am Kenjiro. I am very pleased to meet you.”
He bowed slightly to Luan, who then smiled and introduced himself.
“I’m Luan Khumalo. You two are from Japan, yes?”
“Yes. Where are you from, Luan-san?”
“You can call me Luan. I’m from South Africa.”
“Oh! What place in south Africa?”
Luan paused, and Ken saw Aiko cover her face and start laughing at him. It took Luan a moment to explain, and then Kenjiro’s face turned red.
“Oh. I am so sorry!”
Ken bowed his head, feeling flushed with embarrassment. But Luan only laughed heartily.
“its fine, it’s fine! I’ve met a lot of people who have no idea South Africa is a place.”
Thus, they became friends. As Quallet stood everyone up and lectured them at a roar on how to fight better next time, and then marched them onwards, Ken and Aiko began talking to Luan as the company moved down the jungle trails.
Luan was the first person they’d really got to know, and he was well-spoken, friendly, and strong. He carried his weapon and walked without succumbing to the heat, which was apparently, aside from the humidity, cooler than back home. Ken felt like he was in Okinawa, and he’d never been to Okinawa.
“Your English is really good. I am very jealous.”
Aiko commented to Luan as they were on the road. He smiled knowingly.
“Yes. It is, isn’t it? I grew up speaking English.”
They stared at him. Luan laughed again.
“I can speak four languages. English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Tswana…you can speak two, right?”
“Yes, but not good.”
Ken was acutely aware of how hard it was to speak with other people in English, and had kept silent up until now because of it. But Luan took the opposite view.
“Even if one is not as good as the other, that should be a good thing, not a bad thing. Most of these Americans can only speak one. If there were other people from Africa around, I could speak about them behind their backs.”
Ken and Aiko laughed, and then immediately looked around to see if anyone had heard. No one had.
The group they were in, the group of people from another world was indeed filled with Americans. They were the majority, and in a way, they’d taken charge. Several of them, mainly guys, seemed to have the final say in what was going on. They’d been the ones to suggest signing up with Quallet, and they were the most vocal, and thus, the most persuasive, members of the group.
They were also the most ready to be fighting. Some hadn’t been bothered at all by killing zombies, talking about this being like a movie or T.V. show, and seemed positively happy about the prospect of leveling up and fighting. By contrast, Ken and Aiko would have loved to de-enlist from Gravetender’s Fist, but they were stuck. Luan seemed to share their opinions.
“What did you two do when you were in our world?”
“We are…were students in university.”
“Oh, right! How old are you?”
Ken was twenty one, Aiko twenty two. Both of them were in the same classes. Luan grinned when he realized they had known each other all their lives.
“You two got into the same university?”
“That’s right. I was studying to be in business and Aiko-san—”
“I was trying to learn to be an artist. Not manga—I do illustrations.”
“Ag, shame! That’s great.”
The two of them looked blank. What Luan said made no sense—until he explained.
“Shame means good in South Africa. It’s like if you said—I found twenty bucks, yeah? Then I’d say, ‘Shame!’”
“Oh. I think I understand…”
Perhaps it was because they were both from different cultures that Ken and Aiko felt at home speaking with Luan. Unlike the people from America, they were alike in how they were all foreigners, outsiders to the main group. Aiko asked the obvious question to Luan.
“What did you do, Luan?”
He grinned, showing them very white teeth.
“Oh, me? I was on my country’s national Olympic rowing team.”
It took a few seconds for Ken to interpret this. When he did, he tripped. Aiko’s eyes went wide.
They stared. It took a while and Luan had to explain himself several times, but the world of Olympic kayaking slowly opened itself up to the two Japanese students.
Luan was an Olympic contender. Not an Olympian—he hadn’t gone to the Olympics, but he would have in 2020. He was South Africa’s first hope for a Silver or Gold medal in his event, the single scull.
He had trained to be part of a Coxless pair, which was a specialized type of boat that allowed for two paddlers to use it at the same time. Luan was usually on the bow side—which was to say, the left side of the boat—and competed with his good friend, Ben, who had the same goal as Luan. They wanted to take home the gold medal in the next Olympics, and had trained themselves intensively until they had become a serious contender, despite South Africa only having ever won one gold medal in the rowing event in the Olympics.
Being part of a coxless pair was extremely difficult, because Luan and Ben both had to balance each other and cooperate to move and row with the same force to go fast through the water. Luan had originally wanted to compete as a single scull—a type of event where only one person rowed with two paddles—but he’d met Ben while training and the two had become instant best friends.
However, because there were already two excellent paddlers forming a coxless pair who’d won a Silver-medal in the 2016 Summer Olympics, Lawrence Brittain and Shaun Keeling, Luan had put his hopes on winning in the single scull event, and his times were good enough for him to seriously aim at the gold medal. He’d been in Australia for a break when he’d been transported to another world.
“You know, it’s shitty lucky, but at least Ben will get a chance to go instead of me, eh? He’s dreamed of being an Olympian as long as I have.”
Luan said all of this so casually that Ken couldn’t believe it. Luan was—well, he was one of the best paddlers in the world. He was an athlete—which also explained why he didn’t seem fazed by the marching or fighting like the others.
Ken had no idea how to behave with Luan, until Aiko pointed out what should have been obvious.
“You are a good friend. I hope we will go back in time for the Olympics, and you can compete and win!”
“Yeah. Me too.”
Luan smiled at Aiko and looked ahead. There was a quiet worry in his eyes, though, and Ken saw it. Luan turned to them, serious, as the final day of their march wound to a close.
“You two should stick together with me. It’s going to be bad up ahead. I don’t think the others realize it, but that Quallet guy and the other experienced soldiers know it too. Our job is going to be dangerous no matter what he says.”
“But he said we will be safe, right? Safer? We will only fight zombies, not other people.”
Ken tried to swallow the fear that had jumped up in his gut. He would have liked Luan to lie in that moment, but the tall South African young man looked down at him. He was older than both Ken and Aiko by several years. He was twenty five, and there was something knowing in his eyes.
“It’s a war, Ken. Believe me, wars are never safe.”
The next day they arrived at the battlefield, a wide valley many kilometers long, where two armies sortied from camps on hilltops and met in the valley floor. Hundreds of bodies fell each hour and the screaming—
Oh, the screaming.
Quallet knew he’d come close when he heard the sounds of mage spells in the distance. There was a rhythmic thump of something extremely powerful hitting the ground. He immediately signaled a halt.
“Raise the banner!”
It was essential to do this straight away. Each company had a banner and raising it was the only way to identify themselves. It might not mean they were safe, but an unmarked group wandering around would definitely be attacked by all sides. Under a banner, Gravetender’s Fist was at least nominally protected.
“We’re headed into a battlefield, but we are not fighting anyone living. The first soldier to draw arms or provoke the enemy I will cut down. Is that clear?”
Quallet addressed the company, impressing on them the seriousness of the charge. Then he had them move out, slowly, the banners waving as he approached the site of the battle.
His company was spotted instantly, of course. The [Generals] and [Commanders] of both sides kept sentries posted for attacks from every direction. In no time, a patrol of Centaurs was racing towards him.
Although suppression companies like Gravetender’s Fist provided a service needed by all sides, Quallet had contracted with the Roving Arrow company, which was mainly Centaurs, although Quallet knew they’d probably hired smaller companies to supplement their forces.
He didn’t get to meet with the company’s [Commander]—in fact, he didn’t meet with any officers. Quallet was instead directed to a neutral zone, away from the fighting and told brusquely that other suppression companies—those hired by the opposing side as well—were there.
This too was a standard practice in war. War vendors, [Merchants] who specialized in sales to an army during a conflict, as well as suppression companies and other independent parties often frequented battlefields. The custom was that there were areas untouched by the fighting, clearly marked as neutral zones where they stayed.
That was the custom. Although Quallet knew that sometimes such companies masqueraded as neutral and influenced a battle covertly—or overtly if they broke the rules of war. It was rare and such a company would be marked for all of time, but it did happen. He only prayed that this battle wouldn’t see such an event occurring.
It wasn’t likely. And everything seemed normal as Quallet found two other undead suppression companies waiting for nightfall in the space already allocated. Rot’s Bane, a small group of experts and Untimely Demise, a large company full of green soldiers much like his own, were already set up in the best spot. Quallet directed Xor and Raeh to set up where they could as he met the two other company [Captains].
“Quallet Marshhand! I told you this would be a profitable battle!”
The first man to stride towards him was a bald fellow named Ulvial. He was in charge of Untimely Demise and wasn’t as good a warrior or leader as Quallet—but he made do with a set of officers that stayed with him.
“Ulvial. Good to see you. Thanks for tipping me off about this battle.”
Quallet clasped hands with him and nodded to the second [Captain]. She was a Centaur named Exara. He’d never worked with her directly, but he’d heard her small group was efficient and disciplined.
“A pleasure to work with you, Captain Exara.”
She trotted over to him and gripped his hand in a light handshake. Quallet looked around the open area they’d been assigned and noticed a group of Centaurs staring at them. All of them were armed and alert.
“Not your group, I take it.”
Exara shook her head.
“Guards. They’re watching my company since our contract was bought by the Razorblades.”
That was odd. Normally suppression companies were trusted—they banked their ability to be hired on their reputations for honest work without bias. Quallet frowned, but reassured himself with the knowledge that he was on the same side as the Centaurs. He looked back at Ulvial.
“Your company looks quite large. Expecting a lot of undead to work with?”
“Yes indeed! Haven’t you seen the battlefield? Both the Centaurs and Dullahans are carving each other up out there.”
“What’s the feud about?”
Exara and Ulvial shrugged at the same time. They didn’t know, didn’t need to know. They only had to do their jobs.
“Some land argument? Money? Someone hired them? Either way, we’ll earn gold by the fistful for dealing with all the bodies.”
“It’ll be a chore between our companies.”
Quallet was already calculating the ground they had to cover. The valley was big—he was used to such sizes, but they’d have to work in quadrants, possibly saving some areas for other days if they didn’t have enough forces.
“Oh, we’ll be working into dawn each day. But we’ll be paid for it, and paid well! It’s simpler and easier than dying in this bloodbath, that’s for certain.”
Ulvial laughed and Quallet winced. Suppression companies were indeed paid well, mainly because they were doing fighting of their own, but regular companies resented the need for them. Large ones like the Great Companies made their soldiers do the work, and there wasn’t a regular soldier alive who didn’t resent a suppression company for staying out of the real danger.
Some of the Centaur guards were glaring. To change the subject, Quallet asked about a map and was shown to the one Exara and Ulvial had already carved up into portions. He studied it and tapped a spot as he conferred with the other two.
“We’ll take the west side and work our way in. I’ve a group of new recruits, most of which don’t know a sword from their own arm.”
They nodded, not bothered by the spot he’d chosen. It was off-center from the fighting, which meant Quallet would get less corpses to deal with. Each suppression company was paid by the amount of corpses they disposed of, by fire or sword.
“Fine by me. I’ll take the south, then.”
“And I’ll head in from the east. Just make sure to have your banners up and illuminate yourselves. The soldiers from both sides are on heavy night patrol and they’re jumpy.”
Exara warned the other two [Captains] and Quallet nodded seriously. The last thing he needed was to tangle with soldiers from either side and get any killed. Ulvial grunted in agreement.
“No fear. I’ve seen what happens to anyone who sticks their heads out of the neutral zones. The fighting’s everywhere. Speaking of which, have you heard there’s another independent group out there? Not just the war vendors—some kind of rogue unit!”
That got Quallet’s attention. Rogue detachments of soldiers were a wildcard. They could be a group of warriors or bandits or any number of things that entered the fray on one side or none at all. They were a danger to suppression companies if they attacked while they were working.
“Who or what is it?”
“Not a large group. Not a fighting force.”
Exara frowned as she tapped a neutral zone north of their position. She hesitated.
“I’ve heard it’s a unit that treats wounded soldiers.”
“Any side’s. Apparently there’s a skilled [Doctor] working over there. She appeared when the battle started getting intense and offered her services. It’s caught the attention of both companies, and there’s a cease-fire in agreement in the area she works in.”
Curious and curiouser. Quallet’s brows snapped together. It was Ulvial who asked the obvious question.
“What’s so special about a [Doctor]? Both companies should have healing potions enough. It’s not like they lost their entire supply to raids like the Raverian Fighters.”
The mention of that company’s fate made both Exara and Quallet wince. The Raverian Fighters had barely survived their last engagement, as repeat attacks on their healing potion stashes—and attempts to resupply—had sent the company in full-blown retreat, barely a quarter of its strength.
Exara shook her head.
“I don’t know why she’s here, but apparently this [Doctor] can heal wounds without healing potions—and quickly, too! She’s apparently better than a [Healer] and with potions she can bring soldiers back when they’re considered dead by all.”
“A useful person to have around, then. I’ll watch out.”
Ulvial grunted and Quallet nodded. He doubted he’d need to use her services, but it was worth remembering.
Talk then turned to more practical matters, and soon Quallet was back at his camp.
“None of you are to stray beyond the neutral zone, or pick fights with other soldiers! You’ll be heading in to your first battle tonight. Yes, you’ll be hauling bodies, but you’ll see the undead, and without us to hold your hand this time!”
He needn’t have warned his soldiers. They were staring at the battle between the Dullahans and Centaurs with wide eyes, even the ones who were used to fighting. Quallet only had to glance to his left to see distant shapes battling out in the valley below. There were Centaurs charging at armored shapes, arrows flying, magic breaking the ground, blood—
He looked away. There was no point in watching. But the new recruits had never seen such slaughter, and the Humans were transfixed.
“Dude. No way. This is insane.”
Quallet heard one of them speaking and shook his head. This was Baleros. A country where war was in the blood, just like how Rhir was constantly locked in struggle. And this wasn’t one of the largest warzones. This was two companies fighting, not ten or a hundred.
Still, it was a war, and being so close to it made all of Quallet’s senses sharp. He slept lightly until nightfall, knowing the new soldiers wouldn’t get a wink. It didn’t matter.
As night began, both sides began drawing back, avoiding skirmishing at night to avoid chaos, sending their troops to fight a neutral party—
And to avoid losing them to the undead. Quallet eyed the sinking sun and saw the other companies readying themselves. He had his soldiers gear up, refreshed their memories about who was supposed to do what—
Soon, there was no more fighting in the valley below. The darkness was extreme. The sounds of battle had ended, but now other sounds took their place. Animals calling out, insects—
And the screams of those left on the battlefield. There were wounded there, unable to be recovered or too injured to be saved with healing potions. Some of the Humans in Quallet’s company paled from the sounds. Others threw up.
All normal. Quallet gritted his teeth as he saw Exara bring her small company down the slopes, a shining banner raised and illuminating their forces. He ordered Xor to do the same and turned to his company.
Pale faces and frightened expressions stared up at him. Quallet saw most of the children who’d signed up to fight wavering. Of course they would. But here and there he saw determination like iron in their gazes, unflinching resolution at what had to be done.
The young man with black skin had that look. Strangely, so did the young man and woman, the two odd-looking ones standing next to him. They’d been petrified fighting the zombies, but now they had the look. It was the look that told Quallet they might survive this night.
It wasn’t bravery or bravado. It wasn’t the thrill of battle, but the will to survive. That was what they needed. Quallet looked into their eyes and then drew his axe. He pointed towards the valley below, where shapes were beginning to stand. To rise.
“Gravetender’s Fist…move out!”