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Dusk and Ash (In Progress)

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Walking the line between grimdark and epic fantasy, this story follows a mercenary named Durmhain, who is pledged to the honor god Akreus. The land has been ravaged by a generations-long war between Elmiar and Nithia, a conflict which has extended out into the world and threatens to engulf the world in carnage. Caught during a covert operation intended to prevent the further possibility of war, Durmhain is thrown in jail and tortured into revealing the location of his benefactors, the Elmiari. Bound by honor, he must escape and warn the Elmiari that war is imminent. But to do so, he must ally himself with that which the Nithians draw their power from, and must sacrifice more than his life to see a broken oath fulfilled.

Fantasy / Action
David Rauenzahn
Age Rating:

Chapter 1

The scarred brand in the shape of two swords over a shield on Durmhain’s left hand was itching. He briefly wondered if it were simply because of the crisp, cold weather of the Northern Reaches, where he camped with the rest of the Broxian Seventh Company. But Durmhain felt it was better not to ignore any sign from his god, Akreus. Though he was not even an Ur’ken, the first of the Four Realizations, and therefore could not even invoke Akreus’ First Blessing, he knew the gods spoke in whispers just as often as rolling thunder.

At the base of the massive pine tree he sat against, the pale light reflected by the snow around him traced the outline of the branches above him. His breath undulated before him like a wave, curling in on itself before the cold took it. Beyond the tree’s canopy, soldiers under his command waited by the campfires which were positioned in the open so as to not make snow on the trees melt and fall. The air was filled with the scent of cold smoke mingling with the decaying bed of tree needles that carpeted the forest floor beneath the snow. Usually, Durmhain would find some comfort in the rich familiarity of those scents and in the flow of his breath, as Captain Virrin had taught him. But today, trying to find solace in them only put him more on edge.

Approaching from the campfires, Virrin weaved her way through the crowd of soldiers, who regarded Durmhain with expressions ranging from concern to impatience. Virrin’s angular face was tinged with red from the cold, her bronze Gulbathi skin a stark contrast to the surrounding snow. Her breath unfolded as a thick current of fog that trailed behind her, framing her short graying black hair, single remaining brown eye, and eyepatch surrounded by scars over her left eye.

“A mark for your thoughts?” she asked once she stood before Durmhain, her face now a silhouette beneath the tree’s shadow to match her black-stained leather armor.

“We shouldn’t be doing this,” Durmhain replied, rubbing the back of his left hand with his right.

Virrin smiled wanly. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised you are tired of fighting, given how badly you want the war to end.”

“I’ll fight this war until the end, hopefully with Nithia nothing more than ashes on the wind. We have proof they are trying to mount an offensive front here and are ignoring the conditions of the armistice. We should just attack them directly and be done with it insteading of acting like a bunch of cutthroats, robbing every merchant who passes by before scurrying off back into the forest.”

“Those are our orders,” Virrin replied. “Besides, we certainly look the part.”

“No. We don’t. We don’t scurry like thieves or lurk like footpads. We’re soldiers. We should be fighting other soldiers out in the open. This is dishonorable.”

Virrin sighed and squatted on her heels to be level with Durmhain’s eyes. “What could be more honorable than helping to end a war?”

“Attacking caravans isn’t going to prevent the war from continuing. It will stall it at best while sending merchants to them empty-handed to be slaughtered. Abyss take us... if they discover the Elmiari are orchestrating this, the armistice will be shattered immediately and the fighting will erupt again anyway.”

“It will be shattered to the Nithian’s advantage if we do nothing.”

Durmhain heard the crunching of snow beneath heavy sabatons and turned to see Qulkest, the Elmiari general leading their sabotage missions. Heavy plate armor was hidden beneath Qulkest’s ragged brown coat which also concealed all but a glimmer of his commander’s blade at his hip.

“Is everything ready?” he asked, his voice as coarse as the stubble and shorn hair framing his tanned and strongly featured face. “The caravan is due any moment.”

“Nearly so,” Virrin replied, rising to her feet, her posture impeccable with her hands folded behind her back. “I am ensuring my soldiers are prepared to be fully present.”

“My troops have been ready for the last hour,” Qulkest said, his dark eyes falling with condescension on Durmhain. “If yours remain unprepared, then it seems the discipline you Broxians flaunt is merely a myth.”

Virrin nodded slightly and walked up to Qulkest slowly, half her face veiled in shadow. The commander’s eyes flicked to the captain with a jerk, though he composed himself immediately.

“Your Five gods of Unity are admirable, in their own way,” Virrin said as she stopped a few feet away, looking evenly at Qulkest despite the difference of nearly a head in height. “But our only god, our only way of life, is war. I have seen how you maintain your troops. They are impressive. You have led your armies to many a glorious victory. Your reputation as a strategist and warrior are indeed exemplary.”

“But while your soldiers follow your orders to the letter, my warriors breathe the fires of war. Bloodletting is their prayer, martial practice their meditation, and victory is their benediction. Please, do not, for a moment, judge that because my warriors consider the weight of their actions more heavily than yours do that they are any less disciplined or capable. In fact, I consider them to be more so because of it.”

Qulkest’s eyes fell briefly, his teeth grinding. Then, he returned his gaze to Virrin. “We leave now. I would appreciate it if your company joined us.”

“We will follow presently,” Virrin replied with a slight bow at the waist.

Durmhain rose and bowed as well. When he straightened, Qulkest turned without acknowledging Durmhain and walked back to his troops who were waiting for him just beyond the tree’s branches.

“That general is going to get us all killed,” Durmhain growled as he lashed his sword and other gear that had been lying next to him to the leather armor beneath his own tattered gray cloak. “The Elmiari should stop flirting with war. She is a harsh mistress who does not take kindly to half-measures. If they wish to bed her, they should have brought us onto the battlefield to end this properly.”

“Seek honor above glory,” Virrin replied with a smile, reciting part of the Broxian Creed. “We are helping to prevent this war from claiming more than the two generations who now sleep in the Abyss because of it.”

“Keep vigilance over the weak,” Durmhain rebutted with the next maxim while walking to Virrin. “Not rob them and leave them to face the Nithians empty-handed. The Elmiari are condemning these merchants to death while they meekly hide behind their walls and mercenaries.”

“Stand at the edge of evil to keep it at bay,” Virrin said with a smile. “If there is even a small chance that this could work, it is worth the risk, even if a handful of innocents die as a result. The Elmiari came to us because these tactics go against the alignment of their gods, and the Nithians know the Elmiari would never jeopardize that. If nothing else, they would lose the power of their gods which makes them so formidable. That is why the Nithians are trying to take advantage and are ignoring the conditions set by the armistice. Besides, even if we fail, the Nithians will have no evidence other than a few dozen unkempt and dirty ‘cutthroats’ to blame for their misfortune.”

“And then we’ll all be turned into mindless Husks when they capture us.”

Virrin put her hand on Durmhain’s shoulder. “Then pray you fall to their swords. But if you don’t-”

“I will not accept the coward’s death.”

Virrin breathed in deeply, her expression grim. “I know you believe suicide is a sin, but Akreus will not condemn you if it is done for an honorable reason.”

“I could never forgive myself, even if Akreus himself welcomed me with open arms into his Radiant Halls.”

Virrin’s soft smiled returned. “Still, you should have killed yourself.”

Then, Virrin struck Durmhain’s face, and the hallucinatory recollection shattered. He returned to the dark stone cell, the ceiling of which he was shackled to. The scents of nature in winter were suddenly replaced by acidic smells of blood and human waste. Distant screams echoed down the corridor from the entrance on the other side of the chamber. The thaumatic crystals embedded in the stone walls barely illuminated the two figures standing before him dressed in dark uniforms and aprons stained black with blood.

“Stay with me now,” the interrogator closest to him said as he grasped Durmhain’s shoulder with the bloody hand he had just struck with. His jowls drooped as if to pull his face down with the weight of his nonchalance. Lanky, greasy hair framed a blunted face with dark eyes, bearing the intelligence of efficiency, but not insight. “We have a long way to go yet.”

“I told you,” Durmhain slurred through the blood and bile burning his throat. He bit down on the metal contraption that pierced his cheeks and obstructed his teeth to keep him from biting off his tongue while also holding his jaw only close enough together so that he could speak. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Even if you don’t, I get paid to do this,” he said as he pressed a crystal glowing with thaumatic energy onto the bleeding glyph carved into Durmhain’s forehead.

Durmhain screamed as the energy ripped through him. He only stopped screaming because he ran out of breath, and his body convulsed too violently for him to suck in more air. Finally, the man retracted the crystal and Durmhain hung limply in the shackles that chained him to the ceiling. The flesh on his wrists was already shredded from his straining and hot blood made the shackles slick, more of which streaked down his arms, providing some relief from the stark coldness of the dungeon. Durmhain gagged with nausea, both from the pain and from the stench that filled his nostrils of his having soiled himself. He had been tortured before, but he had never experienced the sickening warmth and humiliation of losing all bodily control when under duress for hours on end. Shivering, Durmhain clenched his fist to focus his attention, to bring his mind to a still point beyond where his interrogators could reach him, as he had been trained to do.

It will be over soon, Durmhain told himself. They can only take what I willingly give them.

“You pushed too hard,” the other interrogator sighed as she pushed her companion aside and grabbed Durmhain by the chin, forcing him to look into her green eyes. Her dark hair was tied up professionally to reveal high cheekbones and full lips mutilated by a scar that had taken most of her left cheek, as if something, or someone, had bitten into her face. “We know you are Broxians hired by the Elmiari. Just admit it and tell us where their commander is hiding.”

Durmhain smiled. “Looks like you should have put that mouth to better use than interrogating prisoners.”

“See?” the woman sneered, pointing into Durmhain’s eyes, causing him to squint. “He’s not broken, but we have nothing left to take from him. Death is mercy at this point.”

“Could pull out some veins,” the other torturer suggested as he wiped the bloody crystal on his blackened leather apron. “Put in some borer worms. I think he has a few toenails left we could-”

The woman pulled out a serrated knife at her belt and reached up to Durmhain’s left hand. It took him a blurry and apathetic moment to realize she had and sliced off one of his fingers. From the burning on his hand, he only then realized it was his pointer finger.

“See, you Abyss-addled idiot?” the woman snarled, throwing the bloody finger at her companion, which thumped lightly against his chest and rolled into a dark corner of the cell. “He can barely feel anything anymore. This Path requires precision and patience, both of which you are lacking in spades.”

“He’s just a lieutenant,” her companion scoffed. “Not even an Ur’ken. Anything useful is going to come out of the captain.”

Durmhain couldn’t help but chuckle.

“Care to share something?” the woman growled.

“If you’re waiting for Virrin to break, save both of us the trouble and slit my throat already.”

The woman’s smile returned. “She’s getting special treatment. Few things can withstand Omnox, and a lowly mercenary captain isn’t one of them.”

Durmhain sighed with impatience. “You clearly have never met the woman.”

“Oh, I did. Her eyes were still alight with Akreus’ fire when Lord Jeroth brought her in. I also heard that she left a trail of corpses in her wake during the battle. Rather impressive for a common mercenary,” the woman cooed and she raised her knife and dug it into the ceremonial scars decorating Durmhain’s left arm which demarcated his rank. “Unlike my companion here, I like to take my time. I can wait until you recover and keep you on the brink long enough for you to gaze into the Abyss with open eyes. Wouldn’t that be fun?”

Laughter bubbled from Durmhain’s famished stomach, carrying blood back up his throat to join that pooling from his cheeks, which together dribbled down his chin and onto the floor. “The more suffering we endure, the more glorious is our story in heaven. Honor gives our pain meaning.” Finally, Durmhain met the woman’s eye as mania made his muscles tense. “So please, educate me. Teach me how I can reach new heights of glory.”

“He’s gone mad,” the man said.

“No,” the woman sighed. “This is how Broxians are. This is why they are the most coveted military force in the world. They never yield, on the battlefield or in their minds. Shame they didn’t take our offer first.”

Durmhain spat in the woman’s face. Her shock gave Durmhain the strength and zeal to lean forward and pull against his restraints, causing more blood to dribble down his arms. The glyph on the back of his left hand smoldered with blistering fervor. Even though the crystals embedded in his shackles dispersed most of the thaumatic energy, enough traveled down his arm and into his chest to make his breath and voice sing with power. “We would never have accepted your offer. Lord Broxas only accepts the offers of those whom Akreus has deemed worthy of our strength. You Nithians,” Durmhain hissed the word as if it were acid on his tongue, “would have enslaved us as we walked into the gates.”

“Hardly,” the woman rebutted, wiping Durmhain’s blood from her face. “We would have waited until you served your purpose. No sense breaking you until then. But now you serve no purpose but to hone my skills. I must admit, however, I am surprised you have survived this long. Color me impressed.”

Durmhain coughed forcefully, pooling blood into his mouth, which he spat toward the woman again. However, this time she was ready for him and backhanded him. So Durmhain opened his mouth as she struck and bit into the meat of her hand.

The woman screamed as she wrenched against the device on Durmhain’s neck and slammed her fist into Durmhain’s face, but the blows only fortified Durmhain’s will. He dug his teeth in before pulling back against his restraints. Flesh tore as he jerked his head back and the woman’s blood blossomed into his mouth, moistening his parched lips and tasting of hot iron.

Spitting the chunk of flesh out, Durmhain chuckled. “I would rather paint you red.”

With restrained sobs and cradling her wounded hand to her chest, the woman pressed her serrated knife to Durmhain’s throat with her other hand.

Finally, Durmhain thought to himself and let go.

“Wait,” a calm voice said with finality.

Durmhain opened his eyes and saw a tall figure standing in the doorway. He wore a black Nithian officer’s coat, lined with silver. Long blonde hair framed gaunt cheekbones and gray eyes that shone in the darkness. His grizzled and weathered face bespoke countless battles and schemes, and he seemed to almost be too old to hold himself with such a proud bearing. Tattooed scars in the shape of glyphs covered his neck and encroached upon his pale face as if the black ink were consuming him.

“He will have to do,” the officer said as he walked forward. The shadows around him seemed to pulse and sway with each step.

“Sir,” the woman gasped, pressing her knife into Durmhain’s throat. “He just-”

The man gestured and the glyph at the center of his neck suddenly glowed brilliantly. Shadow covered the woman’s neck and her head jerked violently to the side, causing the knife to dig into Durmhain’s throat slightly. Snaps of her bone and tendons echoed through the chamber. She staggered for a moment and dropped her knife to the floor before she collapsed.

“L-Lord Jeroth,” the male interrogator stammered. “We’ve been interrogating him for hours. He won’t-”

The glyph at his neck still shining, Jeroth gestured toward the other man and shadows from across the room surged forward, pulling the man into a corner. Durmhain could not turn his head to watch because of the contraption, but he winced as the interrogator’s pleading and sounds of strangulation became muffled as he fell. The man’s bones snapped and flesh burst as the shadows crushed him. The shadows returned to their normal state and a pile of loose gore and blood trailed into Durmhain’s vision.

“If there’s one thing I despise in this world,” Jeroth said as he approached Durmhain, the light from the glyph on his neck fading, “it’s incompetence. And I am surrounded by it. Endlessly.”

Durmhain snorted. “You can’t expect a tree to yield fruit beyond its nature. They were one dimensional because that’s all your gods… your demons stand for. Destruction… power without meaning.”

Jeroth muttered to himself as he brushed Durmhain’s blood-matted brown hair away from his forehead. As he did so, one of the other glyphs on his neck shimmered. Then, he snorted. “Baelioz. Typical.”

Then, Jeroth gestured, and a translucent limb of darkness picked up the fallen knife off the floor to his hand. As he pulled Durmhain’s head back and lifted the knife to his throat, Durmhain slumped with relief.

“You make a fair point,” Jeroth said as he began making small incisions into the center of Durmhain’s throat. Before Durmhain could realize what Jeroth was doing through the haze of his numbed senses, Jeroth had already lowered the now bloody knife. “Those who do not believe in something greater than themselves prove superficial and pathetic. And yet, brutality is often the most effective approach. The power from which we derive our strength does have the capacity for endless destruction. But that doesn’t preclude it being without purpose. It is simply beyond your scope.”

Light from the crystals lining the room and the hall beyond seemed to dim as Jeroth lifted his hand. The first glyph that had glowed on Jeroth’s neck shone brightly again and the glyph carved on Durmhain’s neck began to flare with pain and fresh blood erupted from the wound, sending streaks of burning heat down his chest. The surge of energy that had been emanating from the glyph on the back of Durmhain’s left hand receded as if an arctic wind blew through him, and the fire that had raged within him was extinguished. The chill that overcame him cut to the core and made the dungeon air feel balmy against his skin.

“You will tell me where the Elmiari strike forces are hiding,” Jeroth instructed. “And you will do so quickly. I am running out of patience.”

Then, Jeroth pressed two fingers into the glyph and Durmhain felt himself become pulled inside out.

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