This is part 2 of of The Good Soldier. To read part 1, click here.
I should not fear, for Simcha’s word is true. I will return. I will return without losing a single man, as I have always done.Kedeb’s Secret Journal
Trigger Warning: Graphic depictions of violence and mutilation ahead.
A dark fantasy short story featuring Kedeb, a commander in the Simachian Imperial Army. He is on a mission from his god that may prove more perilous than expected. Will he and his men survive or will he find a way through the mountains and elevate his status with The God of Death, Simcha.
©2022 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED James Lee Aarwen LLC.
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The high desert sun threatened to boil the soldiers in their dark armor as they marched over the dust-covered rocky terrain toward the mountains. Kedeb’s gaze wondered to the line of peaks looming on the horizon. They were soon to encroach on the territory of the infamous dragon cities, unannounced. Depending on the mood of the ones they were to encounter, this could be seen as an act of war. One way or another, they would receive resistance. Either from the presiding dragons, the wildlife, or the enemy that lay in the lands beyond.
The shadow warrior, Natä’Kotër, presided over their troop. He stood proudly atop the lead ballista cart. His unwavering armored form was an inspirational beacon to the unquestioning battalion under Kedeb’s command.
Kedeb’s shaky breath echoed through his helm. He would succeed in this mission. If he did, he would stand where his forefather Natä’Kotër now stood, black cape wavering before him as he led legions into battle against the Aluan Republic. He would finally win his right to free will. But the mountains loomed ever closer. The dragons that called them home had felled many a army before him. If he was to survive, he and his men must be absolutely in their resolve.
The engineers Rüakk had provided were manning the ballista diligently, scanning the skies for any signs of dragons with surprising speed and precision. They were indeed a marvel of engineering. Silent in design, agile and painted to match the terrain of the valley floor, they would reach in the days to come. They would certainly pose a challenge to any dragons they encountered.
The terrain had long since turned from the rocky desert floor to the mossy foothils. The ground grew increasingly spotted with various colorful plants and bushes Kedeb knew to be toxic to mortals. They’d crossed into the wild lands at the edge of the dragon’s territory. If they hadn’t been spotted yet, they soon would be.
Kedeb flexed his fists. At least the sky was clear, they wouldn’t be caught unaware. Not until they were closer to the mountains.
“Raise the colors!” Kedeb roared, lifting a hand to signal the order. Several men lifted pikes into the air, each adorned with checkered black and white flags with the symbol of a red crescent moon over the center. Kedeb held what he knew as a vain hope that he would pass through the dragon’s territory uncontested. He hoped the flags communicated as much. A sign of neutrality. One he hoped the dragons would honor.
“Stop here! make camp for the night.” Barked Natä’Kotër.
The wagons pulled to a stop, each man carrying out his predetermined task. Some remained on guard, watching the skies with intent, while others put away their weapons to break open the tents and erect defenses.
Every task was executed with practiced precision and efficiency. Large tents were organized to minimize space and maximize maneuverability. Trenches were dug surrounding the camp with walls of dirt built up on the inner side to keep out the deadly creatures of the night. Guard rotations were set and rations were distributed.
Kedeb stood in his private tent in the center of the camp. Two servants stood on either side of him, unbuckling straps from his armor. They pulled away his heavy plate armor, revealing the chain mail and beneath. He ordered the servants out with a wave of his hand before moving to the tent’s entrance. One of his trusted guardsmen stood at the side of the entrance. His designation was AK22-NK2-10-12-2-10. He was from the same bloodline, only he was much younger and held less ambition than Kedeb. He was one two soldiers Kedeb trusted. One of the few who sought only to serve, never to usurp.
Most of the soldiers were at their stations or asleep. Kedeb closed his eyes, welcoming the peace of the night creatures’ sounds. He gently tied the flaps of his tent together, using the strings he’d sewn to the interior. He didn’t want to be disturbed. Kedeb rolled his shoulders, stretching as he released a yawn. He returned to his cot at the back of the tent, unbuckling his sword and sheath, propping them next to his bed.
Kedeb looked to the tent’s entrance once more. Only the faint light of the half-moon breached the small gap in the tied flaps. He pulled a small book from beneath his chain-male skirt, unbuckling the thick chain that held it in place. Next, from the other side, he pulled a thickly wrapped stick of charcoal he’d carved months ago.
Kedeb opened the book, turning through pages of journal entries as his breath quickened. His hands trembled as he put coal to paper and wrote.
“We have made camp at the edge of dragon territory. The standards of peace have been flown, but we know not of their reception or if we’ve been seen. Tomorrow we will reach the valley’s entrance. We will know then if they’ve honored our request. If the answer is no, I fear—”
Kedeb’s hand tightened around the coal. His mind ached with the echoing words of his god. He wasn’t to question Simcha’s orders. Simcha knew what lied ahead. He wouldn’t send someone as valuable as Kedeb to die like some grunt. He wouldn’t send such a valued shadow warrior as Natä’Kotër if they weren’t expected to survive.
Kedeb’s hands trembled again as he fought to resume his work.
“I should not fear, for Simcha’s word is true. I will return. I will return without losing a single man, as I have always done.”
Kedeb released a heavy breath. The words weren’t entirely his, but he’d done what he could. He’d kept his promise, as he did on every mission. Even with how great a risk it brought.
Armored footsteps called from outside Kedeb’s tent. Kedeb cringed at the presence invading his mind. The journal fell to the floor by Kedeb’s feet. He breathed deeply, focusing on his boots as he pulled them off. His fingers fumbled their ties in panic. He fought to keep the journal out of his mind.
“Those of my blood should know better. Destroy that thing, least you dishonor us all.” Natä’Kotër’s growl reverberated through Kedeb. His heart fluttered with fear and shame. He looked at the small book he’d involuntarily picked up. His arm raised to the flame of the candle by his bed, holding the thin pages to the fire. “Tears won’t be shed for such petty grievances. We never saw this book. You never made that promise.”
The beginnings of tears dried in Kedeb’s eyes as he dropped the now flaming book to the damp ground. He watched in indifference as the fire consumed his documented memories, the last piece of his birthing matron. His last remaining ties to the moments of free will he had grasped as a child. As the flames died to ashes, memory of the book faded from Kedeb’s mind, replaced by the forced study of survival techniques previously unknown. Techniques specific to lone survival in the wild forests of the dragon fang mountains.
The hair on Kedeb neck stood on end as the distinct but distant roar of a dragon echoed through from the mountains to either side of Kedeb. A thick covering of clouds loomed above, concealing the mountaintops. The sides of the valley they had entered were steep, closer to a cannon than a valley. Yet vegetation clung to the cliff sides, blanketing them in greenery. They were less than a thousand feet from the concealing coverage of the mighty red-wood trees. Once underneath their canopies, they would have some measure of protection from the skies. The dragons wouldn’t risk burning their own home. Still, they had been spotted; Kedeb was sure of it. Only time would tell if their banner of peace would be honored.
“Slow and steady, arms at the ready.” Kedeb called. “No hostile movements.” A cool breeze blew down from the deeper in the valley, seeping through the cracks in Kedeb’s armor. It was a welcome change to the dry heat of the wasteland they’d left. Kedeb’s archers loaded varying weights of crossbows while soldiers took up defensive positions around the caravan.
Kedeb scanned the skies nervously. He knew the line of trees ahead of them was much too far away for them to reach, should a dragon decide to attack now. One could lurk in unseen caves on either side of the cliff, ready to pounce. The thick cloud covering overhead could easily conceal a number of dragons. This was far from an advantageous advance. Should he be attacked, this was a deathtrap.
“To our left!” cried an engineer from behind the lead ballista. He held his hand to the sky, clearly pointing to a spot near the base of the cloud cover on the clifside.
“Hold!” Kedeb held his breath as he looked where the engineer had pointed. There, sitting along an outcropping, was a four-legged dragon. Its brass scales shimmered in the dulled, cloud-concealed light of the noon sun. Long, threatening spines ran along it’s back. It’s angular snout was turned toward the party. The dragon’s wings were securely folded to either side, its rope-like tail flicked behind the dragon in irritated motions that stirred small rocks into rolling down the mountainside.
“Are you in range?” Natä’Kotër asked the engineer in a whisper, almost too low to hear.
“Hard to say at that distance, but I’d wager not.”
“Your call commander.” Natä’Kotër nodded to Kedeb, stepping off the ballista.
“Steady,” Kedeb held position with his men. There were only two reasons for that dragon to be sitting in the open. “Forward.” Kedeb gulped, taking the dragon’s inaction as permission to continue.
Kedeb closed his eyes. His chest burned with regret as the dragon standing on the cliff roared. Rearing his head and releasing a small torrent of flame.
“Soldiers, to arms! Engineers, ready your ballista.” Kedeb’s voice roared over his legion. The men raised their crossbows. “Pick up the pace! We need to get under cover of those trees.”
A glimmer from the mountaintop to their right caught Kedeb’s eye. His heart skipped a beat as he turned to look at the mountain behind him. Two enormous dragons, one copper, the other silver, descended from above the clouds. Their shimmering wingspan cast heavy shadows over the cliff side as they drove toward the caravan.
“Take down those dragons!” Kedeb’s command boomed over the men who looked frantically between the two mountains. “Ignore the smaller one!”
“Allow me Natä’Kkotër’s voice was calm and collected. He stepped behind the lead ballista and held one hand over the arrow. “Ve’Kkahab vätta viskka de’tägüka bö” The warrior’s voice echoed eerily across the valley as black smoke flowed from him into the steel bolt. The metal on the arrow rusted, decaying rapidly as it radiated black smoke identical to that which accompanied Simcha on the sacred plateau. “Aim for the bronze one.”
“Fire!” Kedeb ordered. The cart behind him shook violently as the ballista fired its first massive bolt toward the dragon. It trailed a line of dark mist behind it as it flew. The copper dragon lurched upward, roaring in pain before the bolt erupted in a cloud of violet fire. The dragon fell from below the explosion, crashing limply into the cliff side. It tumbled down the mountain, uprooting or breaking trees and dislodging boulders as it fell. One of the beast’s magnificent wings tore away, holding to the mountainside as it’s owner’s corpse fell with the building rockslide.
Time slowed as the silver dragon pressed forward. The bolt from the rear ballista overshot the dragon, kicking a cloud of dust and debris off the mountainside.
Kedeb lifted a crossbow toward the dragon, as did his archers. Each of the bolts from their volley deflected from the dragon’s metallic hide. Kedeb lowered his aim. This was the end. A hand grasped Kedeb’s arm, buckling the steel arm-guard with it’s sheer strength. Fire engulfed Kedeb and the cart he stood beside.
The scream of soldiers was all but drowned out by the storm of flames. To Kedeb’s left, stood Natä’Kotër, stoic as ever. The dragon fire bent around them, held back by what Kedeb assumed was the shadow warrior’s spell. He turned to Kedeb, placing a hand over his chest. Kedeb’s vision blurred. He felt himself fall, hitting the ground before his vision faded to black.
Kedeb woke. Someone was vigorously shaking his shoulders. He was face down in the grass. The soldier’s hand was outstreatched. It was his second in command. The only one he trusted beside his blood sibling. Blood was splattered over the soldier’s face. Kedeb grinned, reaching for his comrade’s outstretched hand.
Something large slammed into the backplate of Kedeb’s armor, forcing his face back into the mud. Kedeb groaned, struggling for breath as he heard the fine steel of his breastplate caving inward. Metal bit into Kedeb’s hip. Warm liquid pooled around Kedeb as something heavy fell over his head, clanging against his steel helm. Then whatever had stood over on his back was gone.
Kedeb coughed and wheezed, aspirating dirt as he flailed his arms, fighting to remove whatever object had fallen on his head and shoulders. He reached under the steel object, unbuckling the straps to his helmet before pulling himself free. He coughed, spitting out dirt and blades of grass. Laying before him was the eviscerated lower half of his second in command.
Kedeb stumbled back, unable to take his eyes away from the fresh corpse. The horrible stench of burning flesh and death filled Kedeb’s nostrils. Kedeb’s stomach churned with bile liquid. He needed to run, to get to safety in the trees, but his muscles refused to move. He stood on an island of unburnt grass. The first ballista was on fire, the second was being reloaded by the engineers. Several dragons circled overhead, taking turns diving for blasts of fire or to pick off a few soldiers. Their meager one hundred were no threat; no match. Kedeb fall backward as a camel-sized boulder fell on the ballista wagon, crushing the cart and it’s occupants. Kedeb lifted his hands to his head, plugging his ears to drown out the screams of his men. Kedeb’s breaths grew rapid and shallow. He looked to his feet. The ground was saturated with blood.
Kedeb closed his eyes and turned away. There was nothing he could do. The forest was only a short distance away. If he could get there, he’d have a chance. Maybe some of his men would follow. He kept to the ground. Indignantly crawling toward what he hoped was safety. Kedeb grimaced. Jagged metal scraped against his hip with every stroke of his crawl. It was slow going, but he was close. If he stood now, he could make a run for it.
The half-eaten corpse of a camel landed mere feet from Kedeb, splattering bloody mud onto his face. Kedeb froze, closing his eyes as a dragon flew overhead.
Then, the screaming stopped. Kedeb closed his eyes, he slowed his breathing and fell as though dead. Every inch of his body ached as he lay in the mud, covered in blood. Moments trailed as hours. Kedeb forced his eyes closed. He couldn’t think of his men. He had to survive. A soft series of thuds, followed by a gust of air. A beast landed nearby. Kedeb’s chest ached, his breath came in rapid sobs. Soft vibrations rolled through the ground. Growing in intensity. Hot breath trailed over the back of Kedeb’s head, bleeding down his neck and under his armor. A guttural snarl echoed from behind him. Kedeb trembled, his heart racing. He couldn’t move.
Kedeb held his breath. His eyes shot open. A single talon of the dragon’s front leg fished under Kedeb’s chest, turning him over with ease. Sparks flew from his armor as the claw carved into the blood-covered surface. Hovering above him was a dragon of unbelievable proportions. Its head dominated Kedeb’s vision, blocking the rest of the creature from view. It’s mirror-like silver scales reflected Kedeb’s mud-covered face. His wide black eyes flashed between the blood-red orbs and sharply slit pupils of the dragon. Its maw was parted in a toothy snarl, each of the teeth easily the size of Kedeb’s forearm and capped with a needle-sharp point. Kedeb thrashed at the ground at his feet, desperately striving to gain traction.
[You’re the last, worm.] The dragon’s voice echoed in Kedeb’s mind. It carried a powerful feminine tone, dripping with rage and despair. [You will pay for his death.] The dragon lunged; Kedeb screamed. Her teeth dug into Kedeb’s shoulders and pierced the sides of his breastplate. She lifted Kedeb into the air, jerking him to the side. A deafening crack reverberated through Kedeb’s body. Every muscle spasmed, straining against his mangled armor. Kedeb’s throat ached as he fought to scream. Nothing would escape. His vision blurred. He had to breathe.
Kedeb forced his chest to draw in what little air he could. But every subtle motion, every muscle flexed or relaxed, threatened to rip Kedeb in two. The world spun. Whether from the dragon’s movement or his lack of air, Kedeb couldn’t tell.
Why had Simcha forsaken him? He had done everything asked of him. He had performed without question, without fail. Yet here, now, he was going to die. And for what? Rage burned in Kedeb’s cheeks. Tears formed in his eyes as he looked down to see his lifeless legs dangling before him, covered in blood.
The beast slung Kedeb again, launching him toward the forest. Kedeb closed his eyes. He crashed first into one tree, then into another. Steel and bone crumpled against hard red-wood. Everything was numb. The unmistakable scent of unine radiated from the ground beneath Kedeb’s broken body. His ears rang with the rampant throbs of his irregularly beating heart. But he couldn’t feel it. He couldn’t move. From where he lay, he saw only the fearsome silver monstrosity inching closer. Tears streamed from Kedeb’s unmoving eyes.
“Just kill me,” Kedeb weazed, unsure if his distorted voice was even audible to the dragon.
Kedeb’s eyes throbbed with every burning nerve on his face. He still couldn’t breathe. He didn’t know how he was still alive. How he was still conscious. It seemed like forever since he’d taken a breath.
But no, even his chest refused to move. This was the end.
The dragon’s mirror-like scales glimmered with perfect reflections of the serene mountain landscape around him. Inverted clouds parted reveal a clear blue sky and pleasant sun. A single, armored leg dangled from the creature’s mouth. It swung below the dragon’s chin, hanging by the leather pants leg caught on the dragon’s needle-like teeth.
It wasn’t the worst thing to see in one’s last moments. This creature had a sense of fearsome beauty Kedeb admired. He had come so close, surpassed so many. In the end, if he’d only been more patient.
An orange glow grew in the dragon’s throat. It opened its maw, releasing a torrent of flame. Kedeb closed his eyes. His plate armor burned white hot. The steel melted. What remained of Kedeb’s muscles spasmed, pulling Kedeb apart as globs of molten metal mixed with flesh and fell through his body. Then, there was nothing.
“AK22-NK2-10-4-5-1,” Natä’Kotër’s voice rang in Kedeb’s ear as though from a distance. It was his designation, his identity. “You’re story doesn’t end here. Simcha, God of Death and Desire, yet has work for you.”
Kedeb’s story will continue