Tales from Tsukikage: The Legate and his Shadows








    The Legate and his Shadows





                    Arngrimur rued the day he ever heard of Fort Hazir.


                    Set smack in the middle of the Alik’r, the fortress was a monstrosity carved out of sandstone and granite. Worse, it was also a miniature city that housed underground Dwemer ruins. The Thalmor had somehow managed to get the still-functioning automatons to fight for them. Probably got their hands on the master control rod.


                    The siege had dragged on for well over a month. Fighting on the sandy dunes was exhausting, and the sapping heat didn’t help. The steel plating on his Legionnaire armour was hot enough to cook with.


                    His troops were lined up in the west flank of the Fort, with the afternoon sun at their backs. It would make little difference on their opponents, though.


                    His lieutenant was standing rigid next to him. ‘Are the archers ready?’ Arn asked, his voice cracking in the dry air.


                    ‘All in position, sir.’ By the sound of it, Sergius’ throat was in worse shape than his.


                    Arn sucked in a deep breath. His fingers reached instinctively to his neck, where a locket of Valesse’s silken black hair was hanging. It shamed him to have a weakness like this, but simply knowing it was there, that a part of her was always with him, calmed his racing heartbeat.


                    He let his breath out and took another.


                    ‘CHARGE!’ Arngrimur roared a Thu’um-infused roar. The two thousand men of the Sixth Legion echoed his cry. Hearty, strong men, though even their voices combined failed to match their Legate. The Imperial minstrels blew their bugles, his fellow Nords pounded on their hide drums, the Redguards hooted their war chants, and like a crashing wave they rushed towards the fort.


                    The gates did not open in answer. Instead, from the walls a series of circular holes opened, and gleaming golden Spheres rolled out, unfurling into the shapes of humanoid warriors. The automatons extended their right arms. By now the Legionnaires knew how deadly the crossbows mounted on them were. Even if Arn hadn’t given the order, they would still have raised their shields. A hail of bolts rained upon them, slowing the warriors’ charge.


                    From behind the front line, the archers made their reply. Arrows sang over the Legionnaires’ heads and struck the Dwarven Spheres with harsh tongs. The automatons swayed but did not fall – Dwemer metalwork was too strong for normal steel arrowheads. The volley had bought enough time for the Legion to close the distance, however. Arn motioned with his sword, and the warriors formed a phalanx. The Spheres switched to blades.


                    The automatons railed on them with strength disproportionate to their size, but the Legionnaires were strongest fighting together. The shield wall warded off the strikes, and the moment there was a lull in the Spheres’ offensive, the men stabbed forward with their gladii as one, the short swords extending from the phalanx like the spikes of a porcupine. Three out of ten of the automatons caught in the thrusts fell, steam rushing out from ruptured piping.


                    Guard, hold, thrust, repeat. Tactics drilled into every Legionnaire from day one. Their training held true, and as the enemy forces thinned, Arngrimur’s men advanced.


                    The phalanx moved forward slowly but surely, crushing the now disorganised Dwemer Spheres under their boots. Arn felt a twinge of excitement. This was the closest they’d ever gotten to the fort before. Perhaps they were finally exhausting Fort Hazir’s forces.


                    The few remaining automatons retreated to the gate, which slowly opened.


                    The hiss of steam blurred its form momentarily, but the heavy footsteps and the groan of metal was unmistakable. The steam cleared and Arngrimur cursed under his breath.


                    The Dwemer Centurion marched out of Fort Hazir, a towering twenty feet tall. The gates closed, gears locking it in place.


                    Holding their breaths, the Legionnaires stopped.


                    Without warning it struck, its gigantic arm a battering ram chewing into the front of the phalanx. It was as if a child had taken a bite out of a wafer. Men were flung into the air, some screaming, others already dead. The Spheres surged into the gap they left, their blades flying. The Legion scattered, and the battle devolved into a loosely strung-together series of skirmishes.


                    Arn clenched his fist, frustrated. The gates were a mere thirty feet away.


                    I had hoped to save the Voice for the gates, but at this rate we’ll never reach them.


                    He drew in as much of the arid desert air as he could, feeling the rush of energy into his veins.


                    ‘TIID KLO UL.


                    A Legionnaire caught an automaton’s slash on his shield, then returned a slash of his own and lopped off its arm, only to see the Sphere level its other arm at his exposed chest, the arm with the mounted crossbow. At this range, his steel plate was useless.


                    Before the automaton could fire, a red and grey blur appeared next to it and the crossbow snapped off, followed immediately by its head. Next to it, another Sphere fell, cleaved in half. The blur zigzagged across the entire battlefield within the span of one second, and every single automaton in the area collapsed into piles of twisted wreckage.


                    The Legionnaires covered their eyes, wincing as a furious sandstorm whipped up in the wake of the blur. When they opened them again, they saw their Legate crouched, breathing heavily, in front of the smoking remains of the Centurion, rent with a hundred deep gashes.


                    ‘The Thu’um,’ one of the Nords breathed, pure awe in his voice. The Legionnaires gathered around Arngrimur and cheered, beating their swords on their shields.


                    ‘Don’t celebrate just yet,’ Arn rasped, massaging his throat. ‘Stand clear and let me reach the gates.’


                    It had been impossible to transport siege weaponry so deep into the desert. Even setting up camp had been difficult enough. But the Nords of old did not need catapults when they had Tongues.


                    Slowly now, regulate your breathing. Don’t rush it. Arn took seven long breaths, filling his lungs to their maximum capacity and exhaling for exactly two seconds, just as he used to do in his lessons with Raeg Nar’ook. ‘A hasty Shout is a weak Shout, boy. Pace yourself. You have all the time in the world.’


                    ‘All the time in the world,’ Arn muttered, placing a hand over his diaphragm, feeling the warmth there, the power. ‘Not here, old man.


                    ‘Cover your ears, men!’


                    The Redguards and the Nords hastily complied, some stuffing rags into their ears, others going prone to avoid the shockwave. A few of the Imperials were of the curious sort, though. They left slits in their hands to hear through.


                    Arngrimur took one last, deep breath and walked right up to the gates.


                    ‘FUS RO DAH.


                    The Alik’r itself recoiled at the Shout, and the resulting cone of compressed air sent the closest Legionnaires sprawling back into their comrades. The Imperials yelped, blood seeping from their ears and between their hands. More work for the healers.


                    Then the dust died down, and the gates were still standing. The speed at which Arn had blasted the sand particles in front of him had left the metal with thousands of miniscule gouges on the surface, but other than that, the entrance to Fort Hazir was untouched.


                    Arn swore that he could hear the Thalmor laughing inside. More holes opened, and another wave of Spheres rolled out.


                    ‘Retreat,’ he called out, motioning with his gladius. ‘Retreat!’


                    He heard curses among the men. I don’t blame them. To come so far only to turn tail and run…


                    But it was useless to try to breach the gates, he understood that fully now. Blasted Dwemer built their cities to last, and this one was no different.


                    The archers covered them with elemental arrows, the frost and lightning arrowheads slowing and paralysing the automatons as the Legionnaires marched back to their camp. The Spheres’ primary objective was to act as guardians, so once they were a safe distance away, they disengaged and returned to the Fort.


                    Arngrimur was not looking forward to returning to the camp.


                    If it’s anything like last time… ah, here they come.


                    They swept upon the Legion like a horde of flies on a corpse, dirtied brown arms and legs grasping at their armour, a writhing mass of bodies, moaning, pleading, each telling a story more tragic than the last. And of course, as Legate, they came to him the most.


                    ‘Bread, good sir, just a bit of bread, won’t ask for anything else…’


                    ‘My little girl is starving!’


                    ‘Water, for the love of the Divines, water…’


                    ‘Mama, mama’s lied down and she hasn’t gotten up, papa says I need to find a healer…’


                    ‘Just something for her belly, milord, crumbs, weeds, even, I beg of you, my nan is dying!’


                    Arngrimur shook his head. Refugees. Most were Redguards, but he saw Bretons, Imperials, even elves in the sea of faces. Race made little difference now; they were all the same, displaced by war, torn from their homes, united under the banner of famine and poverty. Some came from Hazir when the Thalmor took over, others trickled in from the surrounding regions.


                    Some of the Legionnaires had caved, reaching into their pockets, pulling out their already meagre rations and sharing them with the crowd. He saw an Imperial pass a withered old crone a half-empty waterskin, only to have a brawl break out immediately. Children fought each other for scraps tossed on the ground, with either their fists or sharpened sticks.


                    The commander of the watch went up to him and saluted, bringing with him two prisoners. One male, one female, both bound in hempen rope.


                    Arn closed his eyes, as if it would make the nightmare go away. When he opened them, the couple was still there, the brawl had been broken up and the crone lay dead on the ground, her head staved in, and a child no more than six tore at a loaf of bread like a wolf, clutching a bloodied stick with a deflated eyeball attached to the pointy end, his belly bloated and engorged like a tick’s.


                    The watchman was looking at him, awaiting his orders. He sighed.


                    ‘What is it this time?’


                    ‘Legate, sir. Cannibalism. These two here were caught cutting up their son and boiling the parts in a pot.’


                    ‘Mercy, milord, mercy, he were dead already, milord, I swear on the Nine, he were dead,’ the woman sobbed.


                    Arn closed his eyes again. In a different life, this might have been Ma.


                    But this was here, this was now, and he was a Legate of the Sixth Legion, an instrument of the Emperor’s justice.


                    ‘Twenty lashes each.’ The words made him sick to his stomach, but he said them anyway.


                    The watchman dragged the couple away to the flogging post, both still weeping for mercy. A few minutes later he heard the crack of the whip and their screams.


                    As Arngrimur turned to his tent, his lieutenant walked up to him.


                    ‘Sir, they’re eating through our rations as quickly as we can resupply. If this keeps up, we’ll have to withdraw in two weeks. This cannot continue…’


                    ‘Sergius,’ Arn said, turning to face the Imperial. ‘Are you suggesting we let them starve?’


                    ‘The alternative is starving ourselves, sir,’ Sergius answered, lowering his eyes.


                    Arn was silent for almost five full minutes.


                    ‘Cut the refugees’ share of the rations by half,’ he said, hating himself, and made for his tent.




                    ‘WHAT NOW?’ Arngrimur thundered. The sky crackled and the earth shook, echoing his Thu’um.


                    Sergius clapped his hands to his ears, wincing. Legionnaires and refugees alike scrambled for cover.


                    ‘Sorry, soldier,’ Arn said, regretting his outburst. He waved a hand. ‘Continue.’


                    ‘I-it’s the healers, sir,’ the lieutenant stammered. ‘Our boys need patching up, but most of them are in the refugees’ tents helping with the pox…’


                    Arn felt a sudden weariness in his bones. War has made me a man twice my age. ‘You want me to call them back, is that it?’


                    ‘We need to keep up our fighting strength-’


                    ‘I know,’ he said, squeezing his temples with his thumb and forefinger. ‘Summon them all back to the barracks, but make sure they leave medicine for the refugees.’


                    Sergius opened his mouth, then nodded. There would not be enough to save all of the sick, and they both knew that medicine was a poor substitute for magic.


                    ‘Have the men start working on more graves,’ Arn said softly. ‘If there was nothing else…’


                    ‘None, sir.’


                    Arngrimur nodded and, instead of heading to his tent, began walking to the refugees’ corner of the camp.


                    ‘You look unwell, Arngrimur-ra.’ A cheery, female voice came from above.


                    ‘Unaka-ko, the man does not wish to be bothered,’ another voice chided her.


                    ‘That cannot be helped. Arngrimur-ra needs to hear our proposition.’ A third voice, colder and more measured than the other two.


                    Arn tensed and looked up. Three shadowy, seemingly weightless figures were perched on a line running between two tents like a trio of roosting crows. The sun blazed overhead, and yet they somehow managed to fade flawlessly into the background.


                    The figures half-jumped, half-floated off the line, alighting on the sand without raising a single cloud of dust. Their feet made no prints.


                    Arn tried to recall their names. Unaka, Torako, Mokko. The Legion’s three shadows.


                    Shadeclaws. Jorra’s friends.


                    The three Po’ Tun had arrived at the camp last week, and since then they had done absolutely nothing to contribute to the siege. Instead they stalked around the camp, observing quietly as men bled and suffered and died. Unaka had seemed almost amused, as she was at everything.


                    If they had not been Jorra’s comrades, Arngrimur would have had them forcibly ejected from the camp. What do they think this is, a sightseeing trip?


                    The fact that they could be so relaxed only rankled him further.


                    The heat of the Alik’r bore down on everyone like a suffocating blanket of fire – everyone except the shinobi. To them the scorching desert seemed as comfortable as a field of flowers in an autumn breeze.


                    Rations were running low, and everyone’s hunger was showing on their faces – everyone except the shinobi. Arn had not seen them consume a single lick of food or water in the entire week, yet they looked as content as fat noblemen after a feast.


                    Disease was rampant given the deteriorating conditions of the camp, and everyone avoided the latrines and the sick-tents and the graves and even each other like the plague, for that was exactly what was spreading – everyone except the fucking shinobi. They went where they pleased, rested where they pleased, touched whatever they pleased. And there’s nothing I can do about it!


                    Rendanshu, that was what Jorra called it. Akaviri alchemy. Potions that mutated the Po’ Tun’s bodies, twisting them into forms that suited the shinobi’s purpose. The process made them stronger than most men, all but immune to poison and disease, thoroughly resistant to the elements – and completely and utterly infuriating.


                    Sweat, gods damn you, Arngrimur raged inside at the injustice of it all. Fall, lie down, grip your stomach, get sick and hungry like the rest of us.


                    ‘I am in no mood for your cloying manners today,’ he said, his voice clipped. ‘What do you want?’


                    ‘Sweet Masser, you’re even grumpier than usual, Arngrimur-ra!’ Unaka withdrew from him playfully. She acted the fool, but Arn had seen her draw the katana on her hip before and knew that the woman was as deadly as the best of the Blades – which frustrated him even more because she refused to take anything seriously. The Blades are gone, exterminated, and I’m left with this giggling idiot.


                    ‘Unaka-ko, please,’ Torako said, his voice pained. ‘The Legate has just returned from a battle; his temper is short.’


                    ‘Speaking of which,’ Arngrimur snarled, turning on him. ‘You lot were curiously absent from the fighting yet again today. I’ve seen you work, I know what you are capable of, so explain yourselves. Men are dying, and every soldier could tip the scale of the war.’


                    Mokko spoke. The shinobi was quiet even for an assassin, and his voice, though never rude, was always tinged with menace. ‘Shadeclaws are not front-line combatants, Arngrimur-ra. We accompanied you on the rushes because we wished to study our enemy. For the past few days, we have been planning based on the intelligence we gathered.’


                    ‘Well, out with it then,’ Arn snapped. ‘What do you need?’


                    ‘Corpses,’ Unaka said, not batting an eyelash. ‘Lots of them. Preferably the ones freshly dead of the pox.’




                    Torako cleared his throat and began to explain.


                    ‘A siege is a battle of attrition,’ he said. ‘The side that maintains their resources the longest is the victor. We should assume that the enemy does not want for food, and judging from waterskins carried by the few Thalmor messengers we managed to track down, they do not seem to be running low on water. Furthermore, analysing the water samples revealed a sizable amount of grit and dirt.’


                    ‘So?’ Arn asked, impatient. The sky was darkening. Yet another day had passed, and they were no closer to ending the battle than they were a month ago.


                    ‘So we concluded that the Thalmor must be drawing their water from underground sources. While you were at the west side of the fort battling the Dwemer automatons, Arngrimur-ra, we went around to the south and discovered a cave, which led to an underground river that flows directly under Fort Hazir.’


                    Arngrimur raised his head. ‘Can we send a strike team through?’


                    ‘Possibly. But unless your men can climb up the slick sides of a fifty-foot deep well in full armour, I am afraid we shinobi are the only ones capable of infiltrating the Fort in this manner.’


                    ‘Well, what are you waiting for?’ Arn said, growing desperate. ‘If you can assassinate the Thalmor commander and open the gates from within, the Legion can take the opportunity to mount a frontal assault and take Hazir.’


                    ‘We will certainly try, but not until we weaken their guard.’ Torako put his hands up in a placating gesture. ‘Not only automatons patrol the inside of the Fort. At least two hundred footmer are assigned to the lower levels, and even shinobi would be spotted instantly were we to emerge sopping wet from the well.’


                    ‘I still don’t see what the corpses…’ Arngrimur trailed off and looked at the Po’ Tun with disgust. ‘You intend to infect the water.’


                    ‘Not as many guards to worry about when they’re busy throwing their guts up and sores are popping up all over their faces,’ Unaka chuckled darkly.


                    ‘Fine,’ Arn spat. ‘You have my permission to go to the graveyard and use whichever corpses catch your fancy. May Arkay forgive your desecration.’


                    ‘I’m sorry, Arngrimur-ra,’ Torako said, and he did sound sorry. ‘But that simply would not do.’


                    Mokko pushed the flap to a sick tent open. A swarm of flies greeted him, buzzed close, then immediately swerved away. Even pests and parasites avoid the Shadeclaws.


                    ‘What do you mean?’ Arn asked, following the Po’ Tun into the tent, wishing just as quickly that he hadn’t.


                    The sight inside could turn the stomach of even the most battle-hardened warrior. With the healers gone to treat the Legionnaires, none were tending to the diseased refugees. The pox marred their faces, pus-filled boils were spreading over their heads and chest, their nostrils and mouths were dripping wet with phlegm, and some of the ones closest to death already had maggots crawling through their spongy flesh. A boy with his face deformed from subcutaneous cysts held on tight to his mother’s arm, smearing green bile all over her skin as he twitched. The smell was overwhelming.


                    ‘The microorganisms that carry this particular variant of pox die out within hours of the host’s expiration,’ Torako said calmly, bending to examine an emaciated old man with a rattling cough. ‘The corpses you already buried will not suffice. As Unaka-ko said, we need the bodies of the newly dead.’


                    ‘Microorganisms? Expiration?’ Arngrimur shook his head in disbelief. ‘Give it to me straight, walker-of-shadows. You want me to let these people die?’


                    ‘You cannot help them,’ Mokko said. Torako winced at his bluntness, but did not argue.


                    ‘The healers left medicine,’ Arn said, his jaw working as he swept a curtain of flies away from a sleeping woman. She moaned and turned over.


                    ‘Then save it for those in the early stages of infection,’ Mokko retorted, pressing a finger on the woman and taking her pulse. After a while, he moved on to several other refugees.


                    ‘Arrhythmia, severe inflammation of the arteries, toxaemia, delirium,’ the steel-grey Shadeclaw said coldly. ‘It’s only a matter of time for these ones. Any further effort you expend on them would be a waste.’


                    ‘If I hadn’t pulled the healers back...’ Arn murmured, stricken.


                    ‘Then your men would be dying of their festering wounds right now, Arngrimur-ra,’ Unaka said. ‘What’s done is done. Will you give us these corpses?’


                    A sudden rage gripped him. ‘You’re talking as if they’re already dead.’


                    ‘We mean no disrespect, Legate,’ Torako said gently. ‘But there is nothing you can do for them. If you so wish, we can at least end their suffering and make their departure painless.’


                    The Po’ Tun slipped a rhombus-shaped blade out of his sleeve. The dagger was a harsh, blackish metal, with a large ring on the end of its cloth-wrapped grip. Jorra had a weapon much like this one, only Arn had never seen it used. It was called a kunai, a weapon exclusive to their order.


                    Mokko produced a kunai of his own, and Unaka placed her hand on the hilt of her katana.


                    Arngrimur felt his anger drain out of him, leaving nothing but a desire to be as far away from this wretched place as possible.


                    ‘Don’t bother trying to fool me,’ he said tiredly. ‘You’re not doing this out of mercy. You’re doing this because you want their bodies as fresh as you can get them.’


                    ‘Got it in one,’ Unaka laughed.


                    ‘Unaka-ko!’ Torako scolded.


                    ‘It’s fine,’ Arn muttered, pushing his way out of the tent. ‘Do what you will. Just bring this siege to an end.’


                    He heard the clean slicks of blades on flesh as he left. Gritting his teeth, he quickened his pace and marched to his tent, pretending not to see the three shadows flicker into the night with their newly requisitioned weaponry hanging limp from their backs.


4 Comments   |   A-Pocky-Hah! and 4 others like this.
  • Sotek
    Sotek   ·  July 2, 2017
    One must always try to chose the lesser of two evils while staying true to our beliefs but when faced with forces and strength, all too often the line we draw wavers.
    Unaka didn't cross the line, she erased it....
    The biggest trouble is it is...  more
  • A-Pocky-Hah!
    A-Pocky-Hah!   ·  June 8, 2017
    Ah the nature of war. It's not just soldiers that die out there.
    I can understand how irritating shinobi are from an outsider's PoV.
    • A-Pocky-Hah!
      Ah the nature of war. It's not just soldiers that die out there.
      I can understand how irritating shinobi are from an outsider's PoV.
        ·  June 8, 2017
      Unaka crosses me as somewhat like Cicero, but without the bat-shit craziness.
    • The Sunflower Manual
      The Sunflower Manual
      Ah the nature of war. It's not just soldiers that die out there.
      I can understand how irritating shinobi are from an outsider's PoV.
        ·  June 8, 2017
      Unaka almost seems like she does it on purpose, doesn't she?

      Good thing Arn mellowed with age, or he might never have taken Valesse to Tsukikage.