When I was born, I killed my mother. I killed my father. My nurses. Clergymen offering their blessings of protection. And everyone else in attendance. I was born a Redmarshal; a title that entails a curse of a life and the death of many.
I was seized by the Sect moments after I drew my first breath and put to the brand. Burned and marked like cattle. A necessary sufferance to have the curse of the Redmarshal quelled. We all go through this when we’re discovered. It’s called the First Burning Day, and the brand that adorns us is known as the Soterus. Without it, our curse runs rampant and all magic within living things goes wild in our midst. So much so that passersby can become tangled messes of bone and sinew and all manner of nature can wither and burn. The Soterus keeps it at bay, restraining it to our flesh and weaponizing our touch.
Growing up in the Sect, you begin to fear your subsequent Burning Days. For children, being burned with fiery iron can be as terrifying as death. Our brands never last an entire lifetime. The taint boiling beneath our skin slowly rears its head, bypassing any brand over time. Some Redmarshals go a decade before needing a new one. Some go two days. It’s subjective, and keeps us on our toes; just one more thing for us to worry about. It becomes a lifestyle that you build your world around.
In no time at all, often after no more than a decade of preparation, a Redmarshal is utilized by the military and appointed to a small squadron of their fellows, comprised of no more than five and no less than three. These squads are the ghosts of the military, dealing with what a normal soldier could not so much as hope to survive: Magi. There are three illegal magics practiced throughout the world: Necromancy, the raising of the dead. Ambromancy, prolonging one’s life through the death of others. And Blackchurn, conjuring the essence of disease and the haunting power of hexes. In the Sect, we call them the Three Sisters, and dealing with any practitioners is our duty.
"We are as wolves, hunters of the elusive. Watchful eyes donning crimson cowl so all may know we are brood. We are bane of the dead raisers, of the soul renders, and blackened, begetting them justice through death. We are wardens, woe of mal practitioners and dabblers gone awry. We are brethren of the brand, the “Red Death”. We are Redmarshals, damned and gifted. Henceforth and always bound by duty and curse."
The Redmarshal code, something I subconsciously recite almost daily. It’s become more than an oath at this point. It’s become my life. Ask any Redmarshal, even my squadmates, what their plans are for the week, year, or lifetime, and they will recite it to you with booming fervor.
The lot of us were aboard a rickety seafaring vessel typically tasked with seeing travelers from port to port. Today, as far as anyone else was concerned, we were along for the ride. Ulterior motives tucked silently away. I stood at the stern of the ship, hunched forward and leaning into the horizon while my squad collectively stood around me, chatting away. It was times like these when you really noticed it: just how frightening you were to the world. Every passenger, with the exception of my squad, clung to the opposite end of the deck, piled and huddled into a gob of cautious eyes, staring across the way as if to make sure we didn’t cross an imaginary line. I can’t say I blamed them. Redmarshals are a blight on the living. What an odd feeling it must be to feel protected, and at the same time, threatened, by us.
I take a glance at them over my shoulder. My hair catches the ocean breeze and flutters calmly before my eyes, acting as a dancing, tawny veil that parts the space between us. No matter the words on the tip of my tongue, the fear congested in that mass of people would never fade. This, I learned a long time ago. It was better to be silent and not debate it for their sake or our own.
Auer, the only non-Pitch member of the squad, must have noticed my sudden interest in them. “They’ll sink this thing if they put that much weight on one end,” he growls jokingly. He is Espen, or as much of the world called them, ursa-men. Take a bear, give it a near Pitch-like anatomy, pack on some ridiculous musculature, and you get the brick houses that are Espens: a ferocious people with an equally ferocious natural gift for battle. They’re already a threat to anything that breathes, but Auer, on top of that, is a Redmarshal. Claws and teeth take a backseat to his cursed flesh, and because of that, to many, he is the epitome of a nightmare. To me though, he is the greatest friend anyone could ever ask for. We’d seen a lot together. Maybe we’d even seen it all. He was the brother I couldn’t dare live without.
My lips pull to the right, into a smirk I was trying to suppress. “Leave them be, Auer,” I say. “They’ve a right to keep their distance.”
“Bah,” he retorts playfully. He pulls the hood of his cowl over his head and gives a big scowling yawn. “Better that way, anyway. Safer...,” he says with a grin, his teeth glistening from the dark gaping mouth of the hood, “... I haven’t eaten yet.”
Collectively, the passengers seem to stop breathing and take a step back until they were squished against the edge of the boat, about to topple overboard. Auer just bellows aloud. His joke was apparently over their heads: Redmarshals can’t eat or drink, lest they desire the taste of ash.
“It’s no wonder why you’re the popular one,” says Zeke, the oldest and wisest of the four of us. He was the unofficial leader of our squad. His decades of experience as a Redmarshal earned him that role. Nobody knew his real age, but his graying beard and locks and his worn gear automatically made him “the old guy”. He had been in two squads prior to joining ours, both of which met their untimely ends on the job. Most people would take that as a sign, but we made our peace with it a long time ago. He was seated on the floor of the deck massaging the bridge of his nose. He and Auer had been speaking only moments before I’d taken notice of the passengers; something about our previous outing. “Always leaving lasting impressions.”
The fourth and final member, one Myrinne Atrius, stands quietly at Zeke’s side, arms crossed and eyes on the looming span of sea just beyond. She is the greenhorn. Her cowl is still fresh and tidied; a darker red than the rest of ours with little to no fraying. In fact, it was about as weathered as she was. She was younger than I, probably by about five years or so. But like Zeke, there was no sure of way knowing. We’d all been in her shoes: the youngblood trying to prove themselves to their superiors. But the truth of it was, Myrinne had a tendency to act out every now and again. Meaning of course, she would disobey orders to try and make herself shine a little brighter. But in the end, the girl had undeniable potential, hot head or not. She’d been traveling with us for a few years now, and I’ve grown closer to her than anyone could have foreseen. If Auer was my brother, Myrrine was as close to a sister as I could ever ask for. The type to keep secrets from the guys; to laugh at things that would leave the two of them dumbfounded. Our shared moments were treasures.
She reaches behind her head with both arms and gathers her wavy, ebony hair into a ponytail typical of her. It seemed like a tradition before any mission was about to commence. “Not far now,” she says, half whispered. Her eyes bounce between the three of us and she takes a deep breath, shrugging at me. “...Will you be speaking to the Captain, then?”
I take a long look at the Captain who manned the wheel. Like the others, he was watching us. Either that, or he heard Myrinne.
“Yes,” I say. “I’ll handle it.”
As I begin taking my first steps, the sea of eyes turns into a sea of voices. The passengers cling to each other and whisper into one another’s ears. A few wanderers between me and the Captain, strays of the pack, part and allow me to walk through them. The Captain, surprisingly, doesn’t budge as I stop before him. He stares me down. Something pretty rare for people to do these days. I was expecting a flinch or something.
“Captain,” I start, looking out of the corners of my eyes at the strays. I give him a curt salute and he responds with a weak, almost spiteful one of his own.
“Redmarshal,” he says in acknowledgement. “What can I do for you?”
A question with a greater answer than he expected. “...We need to commandeer this vessel,” I say dutifully.
There it is again: the whispering and shuffling about. The Captain looks around at his passengers, his face scrunching up at the commotion.
“I’m afraid that’s impossible, Red,” he says. “This ship can’t go off course. I’m already a day behind, what with the storm that passed over Anurna yesterday. Now, Marshal business or no, I’ve got a job to do and they no doubt have their own business waiting just ashore. They’ve already been waylaid.”
Great. The immovable object. There always had to be one somewhere making things more difficult than they had to be.
“They will arrive at their destination safely,” I assure him. “But this ship must detour before it reaches port. It’ll dock elsewhere, but just temporarily. We’ll set wind to sail in no time.” It was more of a matter of telling than asking. Maybe I’d gotten too accustomed to people being pushovers. Maybe I’d forgotten how to approach things a little more mannerly.
I can feel Zeke’s approaching footsteps on the damp wood of the deck and it wasn’t long before he emerges from behind like a shadow that had been looming.
“You’re obligation isn’t seeing these people safely to port anymore,” he says. “Your obligation is to Sect Law.”
“Unfortunately, sir, Marshal business, as you called it, takes priority,” I add. Not a card I wanted to play, but necessary.
“It’s an easy choice to make, friend,” says Zeke. “I’d hate to drop your name in the debrief, back at the Sect. That usually ends up being a bit ugly. The high and mighty’s start throwing around words like treason or penance. Her giving you fair warning was a luxury, not a necessity. The ship is ours until further notice.”
Zeke wasn’t one to tiptoe through things. His work came first, and he’d been doing it long enough to throw caution to the wind. If there was something slowing the mission’s progress, Zeke immediately saw it as an issue worth addressing. He was quick to measure goods versus greater goods and had no regrets in always favoring the latter.
“Is it now?,” the Captain retorts. He scoffs unto himself. “I’m an old Pitch, Red. The last thing that frightens me is the scorn of politicians. Thirty years I was at sea, rowing to drums and cannons in the wake of the Upsweep. The Sect can welcome me ashore if she likes, and offer whatever meager punishment they desire. A slap on the wrist for an Upsweep veteran, I assure you. I’ve been down this road, Marshal: a small inconvenience fee, an apology to some officers, or my ship being grounded for a few weeks. Those are my most likely options, and I must say, I could rather use the vacation.” He laughs again. … He really shouldn’t have laughed again.
“Thirty years,” starts Zeke, a grin creeping out from within his goatee. “Impressive, no doubt. We all thank you for your service, sir. Ah, yes... a navy man. Then surely you know the formalities? How this is supposed to work? Why go through the trouble?”
“What you call formalities, I call shoving your weight around, Marshal. You can have this ship or another of your choosing once we reach port.”
“...Hmph. Navy man…,” repeats Zeke under his breath.
In a dizzying quick snap, Zeke grabs the Captain up by the collar of his coat and reels him in just inches before his face to get his undivided attention, which, it seemed, Zeke wasn’t getting just yet: the Captain is screaming at the top of his lungs and trying to shake himself loose. The passengers follow suit and begin screaming from what they could potentially be seeing at any given moment: the Redmarshal curse at play. An accidental brushing of cheeks, noses, anything as simple, and the Captain would have been burned and broken from the inside out. “Guess that means you can swim, eh?”
With that, Zeke remorselessly tosses the Captain overboard and laughs as he hits the water. “Nothing personal!,” he yells after him. “If it makes you feel any better, I may get a good slap on the wrist for that one!” With a final, taunting bellow, Zeke slings a buoy overboard for the stalwart captain and tosses him a playful salute with a satisfied toothy grin.
If the idea of noncompliance was sprouting, I’m certain it was just quelled. Z eke had that effect on people. Myrrine and I take a simultaneous glance at the frightened passengers who, again, hug the farthest end of the ship. The next few miles would be fun. Leave it to Zeke to make things uncomfortable.