“I stared into the abyss and found what stared back… wanting.”
– Translation of the Kabbalis Book of Darkness, widely attributed to the young Dead King
The flesh parted under her teeth and she drank deeply of the warm blood before tossing away the little man’s corpse. The cattle were screaming, trying to flee, but tonight the streets belonged to her. The Cursed fell back on four feet, shaking her fur with a howl of glee. Already she was matted with red, the smell of it all over her gloriously intoxicating. One of the things thought itself brave and stood against her, sword raised. It smelled of fear. She pounced, claws ripping through armour like parchment and that little toothpick falling uselessly to the ground with the arm that held it. They were so small, so weak. Her fangs tore off its face, leaving only bone and ripped muscle as she swallowed the flesh greedily. There had been fifty of them when she’d… she couldn’t remember. There had been fifty, and now only thirty were left. The Cursed was still hungry, and so she prowled the cobblestones of Ater.
Bolts thudded into her back, some punching through the armour still hanging off her frame, but they were as the bites of insects. Claws sinking into stone, she leapt onto the wall of the house they were hiding on top of and pulled herself up on the roof. They tried to flee but it was much, much too late. Red in tooth and claw she fed on their fear and flesh, slaughtering the dozen like the panicked animals they were. Too soon she was the only living thing on that rooftop, fur glistening in the moonlight. She sniffed the air, finding the trail of the others. They thought that scattering would save them. As if anything could hide them from her. Leaping back into the street, she went on the hunt again.
Behind walls they huddled, but she burst through the stone to partake of the feast inside. Into the maze of streets they ran, but she could hear their heartbeats like the thunder of drums. She found, and fed. In the dark they hid, thinking themselves beyond her sight, but the darkness was an old friend. Their screams rose up to the sky, and neither desperation nor the courage of men proved shield against her wrath. She grew. Claws sharpened, her bones cracked as her limbs lengthened and the hide under the fur became harder than iron. She was larger than the armour, even with those clever straps, could handle. The plates fell to the ground as the Cursed licked her chops, tearing out the last man’s innards to slurp the noisily. There were no more. Corpses, but no feed. She sniffed the air. This district was empty, but others were not.
She was hungry again.
She ran west like the wind, stone cracking beneath her weight. The Cursed slowed as the she came to the boundary, smelling magic-trap-forbidden. There were two cattle-dangerous standing there. She knew them. Tall, thin, two swords. Ranger. Amused, beard, magic. Apprentice. They were in her way.
“Gods, she ate all of them didn’t she?” Ranger sighed.
“Is that sympathy I hear, my dear?” Apprentice said. “Anyone stupid enough to provoke her enough for… this is clearly too stupid to live in the first place.”
Two-swords looked at her. The Cursed pounced but there was a wall-not-wall. The light hurt. She howled.
“Is the ward going to hold her?” Ranger asked.
“She’s been a this for almost hour and ate, what – two full patrols? Last time she got in this deep she ripped her way through a full company of devils, courtesy of my old teacher. If the boundary lasts for half an hour I’ll count myself lucky.”
“Never seen a werewolf get this big before,” Ranger said, cocking her head to the side. “I mean, she’s taller than the houses.”
“She’s not a lycanthrope,” Apprentice said. “As far as I can tell, a Warlock put a curse on her bloodline a few centuries back. And this, kids, is why you put an escapement when you cast a blood ritual.”
“Praesi,” Ranger said, shaking her head. “How long until Amadeus gets here?”
“Depends on when the messenger finds him,” Apprentice replied. “The Tower is beyond my ability to scry.”
The Cursed pounded at the wall-not-wall, ignoring the pain. The cattle was not fleeing. Insolence.
“Talking to Alaya again, is he?” Ranger said, disgruntled.
“Gods, am I ever not getting involved in that mess,” Apprentice said, smirking at two-swords.
“I’m not jealous,” Ranger denied immediately. “And your ward’s breaking, you smug Wasteland throwback.”
“I’ll add another layer,” Apprentice frowned.
“Don’t bother,” Ranger said. “Make me a gate. I’ll keep her busy until he gets here.”
Two-swords smiled at the Cursed.
“Come on, big girl,” she said. “Let’s go for a round.”
She howled as she broke through the wall, landing on her side. Her back was broken but it reset itself with a snap and she got back on her feet, fangs bared. Ranger followed her inside the house calmly, one sword in hand. Sheathed. The predator-dangerous swung in her direction, too fast, and the wind almost sent her flying. The Cursed sank her claws into the stone and held on.
“So you can still learn even when you’re like this,” Ranger said. “Interesting.”
She stood on two feet and hunched, reaching for the wall behind her. She tore out it out with a grunt and threw it at two-swords, but it was too slow. Boot hit her in the stomach and sent her flying through the house on the street behind. She fell back on all fours, eyed predator-dangerous.
“I’ve broken stone golems hitting half that hard,” Ranger informed her. “You are ridiculously hard to hurt, sweetheart.”
“She ramps up the longer she’s like this,” a new voice said. “Another hour and even you would have trouble with her.”
Another person passed through the broken house. All steel, dark cloak. Sword but no shield. He took off his helmet: white skin, dark hair. Familiar.
“Finally,” Ranger said. “You took your time.”
“I was delayed,” Black replied. “The Chancellor’s work.”
“I can probably knock her out without hurting her too much, if she’s too far gone,” two-swords offered, standing close to the other.
Black’s hand touched Ranger’s shoulder.
“She won’t attack me,” he said.
The Cursed growled. Insolence. All-steel walked to her slowly. He didn’t smell like fear at all.
“Sabah,” he said. “Look into my eyes.”
“Look into my eyes,” he Spoke.
The head of the Cursed snapped up, obeying the command.
“What do you see?” he asked gently.
Pale green. Gears slowly turning, a house of steel that would grind Creation to dust. Death was looking at her through chips of jade. The Cursed shivered.
“Wake up,” Black ordered.
The Cursed twitched. Bones snapped and she convulsed on the stone, feeding back into herself. The hunger was ebbing away, the warmth leaving her. Sabah woke up naked and shivering, promptly throwing up on the ground. The taste of blood and bile mixed in her mouth. Someone wrapped a cloak around her, way too small to cover her properly from the cold.
“Gods,” she rasped. “I lost it again.”
Amadeus knelt at her side, putting an arm over her shoulder in comfort.
“You were meant to,” he said.
Sabah folded onto herself, huddling under the cloak. She could smell Wekesa coming closer with linen in his arms. The acute senses wouldn’t leave her for at least another bell.
“You think someone made her change on purpose?” Ranger said, kneeling on her left and gently patting her side.
“She was meant to rampage through an occupied district,” Black said. “Kill someone important, to give the Chancellor leverage over us.”
“I would have, if they hadn’t stopped me,” Sabah said, throat still raw. “Thank you, Hye. Things got…”
“Don’t worry about it,” Ranger said. “I’ve been itching for a good spar anyway.”
Sabah tried to laugh but it came out half a sob.
“It’s getting harder to keep it under control,” she admitted.
“I know,” Black said quietly. “But I may have a solution. Remember Istrid, the chief of the Red Moons?
“The one who wrestled you?” Sabah vaguely recalled.
“She told me about a place in the Steppes,” he said. “Where those who can’t control the Red Rage go to learn how.”
“The Chancellor told you to go to Stygia,” Sabah said.
“The Chancellor can go fuck himself,” Black replied frankly. “We leave tomorrow.”
It was an old saying among the orcs that hard lands bred a hard people. The Northern Steppes proved the truth of that, particularly in winters. Snow and ice as far as the eye could see, burying the unprepared in vicious and unexpected storms. Wolves the size of a horse stalked the cold, taught over centuries that travellers made for an easier meal than the well-protected orc cattle herds. It had been the better parts of a month since they’d left the territory of the Red Moons behind, following the directions Istrid had given them. Apprentice had gotten progressively more passive-aggressive about their destination as the days stretched, irked by the cold and the lack of decent wine. He’d tried to steal Ranger’s tea this morning and gotten a knife through the hand for his trouble, to everyone else’s amusement.
“It will be where it will be,” Wekesa mocked for the hundredth time. “They should have called it the City of Vagueness.”
“I’m sure the Clans will rename it, after such a heartfelt plea,” Black said.
“Don’t you get snippy at me, farmboy,” the dark-skinned mage said. “I’m not the one who decided to find a place that’s not on any maps and technically doesn’t exist.”
“Farmboy?” the Black Knight said amusedly. “I was a soldier, after I left the freehold. You could go with that at least.”
“You were a soldier for less than a year and deserted after the only battle you were involved in,” Apprentice said flatly.
“I still got paid once,” Amadeus mused. “It should count.”
Ranger raised an eyebrow. Sabah hid a smile: the half-elf had been ignoring the banter between those two for most of the trip, but she always paid attention whenever anything about Amadeus’ past was brought up. Usually by Wekesa – Black rarely spoke about himself, even among people he trusted.
“You were in the Legions?” she said.
“I enrolled before the Fields of Streges,” he said. “In my mother’s old company.”
“They misspelled his name on the rolls,” Sabah contributed with a grin.
“No doubt the Legions are on the lookout for the wicked deserter Amadous,” Wekesa said dramatically.
Ranger hummed. “I was in Procer at the time, but I heard the Fields were pretty bad for Praes.”
A shadow passed over Black’s face.
“An understatement if there ever was one,” he said. “If there was a stronger word than rout I would use it.”
Sabah had only ever heard rumours about what had happened there, but they all ran along the same lines. The Wizard of the West had apparently whipped Dread Emperor Nefarious so badly the man had taken flight without even getting on a horse. Hadn’t left the Tower since his return to Ater, either. Still, some good had come of the defeat. If the Black Knight hadn’t died on the field Amadeus’ eventual claiming of the Name would have been a lot more complicated. Murdering Black Knights was a tricky business, as they’d spent the last year teaching to half the Wasteland. Eyeing up ahead, Sabah blinked as she found a hut that hadn’t been there a moment ago. Smoke was rising from it through an opening, which they definitely would have seen from a distance. The tall Taghreb cleared her throat, claiming everyone’s attention. She pointed ahead without saying a word.
“Distinct lack of bones, for a place they call the Land of Bones,” Wekesa said.
“They might have wine in there,” Black mildly replied.
Apprentice cheerfully took the lead without any more need for convincing. Sabah had been worried they wouldn’t all fit inside – she was taller than the hut by a full foot – but that worry proved unfounded. The structure was much larger on the inside than it looked from the outside, which apparently was enough to distract Apprentice from his quest to get sauced for a moment as he prodded at the walls curiously. There was someone inside, behind a fire pit. It was hard to make out too much under the pile of blankets and furs smothering the silhouette, but it looked like an orc. A woman, and an old one. Pulling at a dragonbone pipe, the stranger watched them in silence. A hint of fangs and wrinkled green skin could be made out, under sunken yellow eyes.
“You’re not one of mine,” the orc finally said in Lower Miezan when they were all seated.
Wekesa had been about to reply when Ranger discreetly elbowed him.
“I’ve been told this is where orcs come, when they want to learn how to control the Red Rage,” Sabah said.
The creature’s attention fell entirely on her at that. She had an unsettling gaze, and now Sabah wasn’t sure it was an orc at all seated in front of her.
“I see the curse in you, girl,” the stranger said. “It is not the Blessing.”
“And yet,” Sabah said quietly, “here I am.”
“You are not of the Clans,” the creature said. “How do you know of the Land of Bones?”
Sabah glanced at Black and he nodded.
“Istrid of the Red Moons told us the way,” she said.
The stranger scoffed. “She knows not what she has done. Do you know what this place is, southern devil? It is the graveyard of our greatness. These are the holy grounds of the Broken Antler Horde. Destroyed, by the same people whose language you ape.”
The Miezans. In Praes the histories spoke of the War of Chains, when the Soninke and the Taghreb had been brought to heel, but little of the war that had come after to force the submission of the orcs. They’d been one of the most powerful nations on Calernia at the time, she knew. They’d ransacked the Soninke kingdoms with impunity and returned to the Steppes with gold and human slaves. Even the elves had tread lightly around them.
“I am not Miezan,” Sabah said. “I come from the same people who rebelled to drive them back into the sea.”
The creature pulled at her pipe, blowing out a stream of red-coloured smoke. The smell of it was heavy, almost like incense.
“There is a truth in that,” she conceded. “Before there was the Tower, Maleficent was Amina – and Amina was a friend to my people. It was not her who broke the promises of the Declaration.”
She cast a look of thinly-veiled hatred at Wekesa, who was the only Soninke in the hut. It was an old story, this one. Maleficent had founded the Empire but ruled it for less than a decade before the High Lord of Wolof had murdered her and stolen the throne. The Soninke nobles would not brook a Taghreb ruler when they were so much more numerous and powerful than the people of the desert.
“For this, you may enter. You and no one else,” the stranger said, then suddenly cackled. “Though you may not find what you think you will.”
“Well, that’s helpful,” Wekesa said. “Clearly coming here was the right notion all along.”
“You can wait in the cold, boy,” the creature said. “As for you, Sabah the Cursed, you must pass behind me.”
There was a flap there in the leather. It hadn’t been there before she’d mentioned it. Why was every otherworldly entity they ran into so bloody dramatic? Sabah looked at the others. Black met her eyes and spoke for the first time since they’d entered the tent.
“Whatever is there,” he said. “Win. Come back to us.”
Nothing more needed to be said. Sabah crawled through the opening. She’d been expecting the cold to hit her in the face but the weather out there was dry. Rising to her feet, the Taghreb took a calm look around. She was in a broad plain of burnt out huts, the ground as far as she could see covered in a layer of ashes. Something crunched under her feet and she glanced down. Bones. Orc, by the thickness of them. They were everywhere, buried in the ashes. In the distance she could see a throne of stone, and something sitting on it. Well. It wouldn’t get any closer if she didn’t start walking. Sabah began the trek across the plain, the remains of dead warriors breaking under her stride. She wasn’t tuned to magic, not the way Black and Apprentice were, but even she could feel something heavy at work here.
She was no longer so sure she was in Creation.
She felt the movement more than heard it, warhammer in hand faster than the blink of an eye. The heavy steel head impacted the skeleton and scattered the bones. The bronze axe it was carrying sunk into the ashes and the Taghreb sighed. It was going to be one of those days, wasn’t it? All around her she heard warriors rise from the ashes, and even more rose in the distance. Hundreds of them. Thousands, even. Gods Below, how many orcs had died here? A swing of the hammer scattered another skeleton when it got close, but this was a losing battle. There would be no fighting her way through this mess with a weapon in hand. Already the Beast was licking its chops inside of her, miffed at the lack of flesh but eager for a fight. Anger brought it out against her wishes, but Sabah had surrendered to the curse of her own will before. Those times were always the worst: when she opened the door herself, it was always harder to close it. There’d be no Amadeus to bring her back here.
“But there’s no one here I care about either,” she told the skeletons. “You’ll regret that, before we’re done.”
Sabah closed her eyes and let out a long breath. The Beast grinned, and the world went red.
The Cursed shook off the spear buried in her back, scattering the dead things with a wild swing. Time had passed. Long. The sun had come and gone several times. Her thoughts were becoming sharp again, now. The dead things still came like a horde without end. Bone-things, and others made of cold flesh and teeth that tore. Nothing she could eat. Someone was ahead of her, on a thing made of stone, but now matter how much she ran she could not get close to it. All there was was the fight. The Cursed roared and tore through the bone-things, breaking them and sinking her claws into warped flesh. Iron was no bane to her and neither was bronze. A sword cleaved the back of her leg and she slumped, slapping away the dead and wildly turning to keep the others away. So many destroyed, and still they came. She was mighty and tall, larger than a tower, but the insects were swarming her. They bit and sliced and held on, trying to bury her with their numbers.
Her leg healed but it was slow. The well was running out. She was getting tired, as she never had before. It was unpleasant, not what the Cursed was meant to be. She growled at the bone-things but they were not afraid, could not be afraid. She stepped on the enemy, breaking them with weight, but another spear was driven into her back. Too many. They were not tired. Letting out a pained noise, the Cursed broke through the mass of dead and again tried to reach the stone-thing and what sat on it. More rose in her path, swifter than she could break them. She stopped even trying, just forcing herself to continue forward as the sharp things tore at her fur and hide. The stone… throne, that was the word. She was getting closer to it now. It was not fleeing her anymore. The Cursed took a spear to the side but leapt forward. More were massing, a flood trying to turn her back.
She howled, but the wall of spears broke her stride. She slowed. Skeletons cut through the back of her legs and they did not heal. She crawled forward, dragging herself through the ash with her front feet. The presence was a greenskin. Larger than any the Cursed had seen before. It was wearing stone and bronze, with eyes like flame and fists like hammers. It looked at her in silence. The dead were hounding her but still she crawled, and reached the steps before the stone. Her claws rose, to tear at the other, but the spears of the dead finally forced her down. She breathed shallowly. There was no more healing. The other looked down on her, face beyond description. The Cursed heaved one last time and folded back into herself, leaving Sabah naked in the ash. Slowly bleeding out from a hundred wounds. Gods, the pain. The pain was blinding. For the first time in her life the curse had failed, leaving only the woman beyond it.
“Do you understand, now?” the other said.
Sabah made a wordless noise.
“There is no winning,” it said. “You cannot beat the Rage. The Beast. You have no control. It was a lie to believe you ever did.”
“I’m still alive,” Sabah managed.
“Yes,” the other said. “You have proved worthy. Rise.”
The pain receded and Sabah managed to push herself up. She rose to her feet unsteadily.
“You are not of the Clans. No matter. We will do great things, you and I.”
Sabah looked into the flames that served as its eyes.
“Great things?” she said.
“You will lead others, assemble the Blessed. And together you will rip out the heart of this wretched Empire,” the other said.
Visions passed through her mind. Herself, bedecked in bronze. Leading a host of humans and orcs, breaking cities and leaving behind only the grass of the steppes. A perfect horizon without end of blue sky without anything to mar it. Glory eternal, a throne of bones raised on the grounds where the Tower once stood.
“Kneel to me, child,” the other said. “I will bestow upon you the control you crave. I will grant you a fate without rival.”
Sabah looked into the flames, and remembered a night years ago. A green-eyed boy in a dark barn, who looked a monster in the eyes and smiled. The dark-skinned boy at his side, more fascinated than afraid. You’re not a monster at all, are you?
“Are you a god?” Sabah asked.
“I am war,” the other said. “I am blood and bronze and glory. I am the horde that was and will be.”
The Taghreb chuckled quietly.
“I already have a fate,” she said. “I know who it’s bound to. I made that choice years ago.”
“You have a greater purpose now,” the other said.
“Greater? They’re going to be legends, you know. My boys,” she smiled. “And I’ll be standing at their side. It’s all right if my Role is a quiet one. I don’t have as much to prove.”
“You will kneel,” the god hissed.
“I take orders from only one person, and he ordered me to win,” she said. “I will Obey.”
She felt the Beast inside of her grin, and this time when the red came she embraced it. Sabah’s body distorted and the god would have stepped back if it could.
“You have something I need,” she spoke through her growing fangs. “Give it to me.”
There were screams this time, but they were not hers.
She parted the flap. The thing in the blankets shrieked at her the moment she came in.
“What have you done?”
The Tahghreb dropped the corpse she’d been dragging by the hair onto the floor. Its ribcage had been ripped open, missing the heart that still stained her lips red.
“You’re going to need another god,” she told the creature. “I broke this one.”
Amadeus was looking at her with a searching gaze. Wekesa was eyeing the god’s corpse like he was debating if he could get away with stealing it.
“Sabah?” Amadeus said.
“Captain,” she replied. “Call me Captain.”