Rite of Selection

The sky above the battlefield was the colour of a violently churning ocean. Lightning licking along the belly of angry clouds overhead, thunder hungrily rumbling inside of them. The frozen ground was littered with the corpses of hundreds of men, now no more than fleshy bags of broken bones and entrails.

The haunting moans of a handful of survivors could be heard around him as Heron sifted through the detritus of the fight. Even though most of them were hardly recognisable now, he knew he must have known several and had probably fought along side some of them over the last couple of months. His company had parted ways with theirs only an hour before, heading south to Talagbar while they headed north to Palishuk. When a raven arrived bearing news of the ambush, Heron’s commander had not hesitated to turn the company around and march north. They had arrived just in time to witness the last of the Damaran mercenaries being overrun, neither close enough to assist in their defense, nor eager enough to charge forth into the large warband of orks and ogres and the creature of leviathan proportions that had lead them into battle.

“I had heard stories of dragons, but this…” one of the fresh-faced recruits said to Heron, dragonfear stirring in his voice.

Despite being a veteran of countless campaigns, Heron had felt it, too. The sight of the dragon circling above the battlefield as they crested the hill felt like a kick to the stomach, complete with nausea and an overwhelming desire to sink to your knees and double over. Seconds later that nausea made way for a visceral need to put as much distance between yourself and the dragon. The fear, irrational and raw, afflicted all men without exception. The only difference between the men who gave into it and the men who didn’t, was their ability to endure the fear rather than suffer it. It helped that the company was lead by a captain who commanded respect and knew how to inspire his men.

It was as white as early winter snow, its body lithe and as large as Damaran longship, with large leathery wings and a whiplike tail. Its vicious claws had left terrible gashes, tearing through armour and skin like paper. Its breath was icy and could freeze and shatter anyone caught in its path, and it had a cunning command of magical forces that could blast apart any opposition.¬†For reasons that remained unclear, the dragon lead the warband further north and hadn’t engaged Heron’s company.

Heron disregarded the lad and continued searching for survivors. He noticed a concentration of dead orks surrounding a trio of dead humans who seemed to have fiercely defended themselves. The scene was a confusing one; several of the ork bodies were broken and crushed under a great weight and neither of the three defenders seemed capable of inflicting that type of damage. Upon closer inspection, it looked as if two of the men had been defending the third, who by the looks of the armour he wore was likely the company commander. One of the commander’s guards was carrying a long sword and shield, while the other had been fighting with two short swords. The man with the shield had stood over their wounded commander…

Heron was slowly piecing together what must have happened.

“This must have been the last stand, where the last two soldiers had rallied around their commander,” Heron said more to himself than to anyone else.

“I count fourteen orks and one ogre,” he said while sifting through the bodies of the slain attackers. “But how come some of them are so pulverised? What happened here during the last few seconds?” he mused.

Heron ignored the young lad who had mistaken his musings as for an invitation to a dialog and made his way to the slain defender with the two swords. His body had numerous small injuries but was remarkably unscathed. Turning the corpse over, Heron was shocked to find it was almost frozen solid, with frost burns on its exposed skin.

“This one must have been caught by the dragon’s frost breath,” he said as he noticed the bodies of the fallen attackers close by had strong frost burn patterns, too. He walked back to the crushed bodies and finally realised what must have happened. “They had already been wounded or killed as the defenders made their last stand.” He paused before continuing, “and the dragon must have landed right here, its large hind legs crushing these bodies here,” he gestured. “It turned its head and belched fiery ice onto this defender and the attackers that surrounded him, leaving only two.”

Heron walked over to where the last two defenders were laying. “The man with the sword and shield defending his commander,” he said, now completely lost in the romantic imagery of this last stand. The lad walked with him and tried to keep as quiet as possible, not quite knowing what was happening or why this was important, but instinctively knowing it would be best not to disturb whatever it was that was happening.

Heron removed the dented kite shield that the defender had been carrying and revealed the gruesome wounds on his body. The defender’s chain mail had been ripped to shreds by the dragon’s vicious talons, his breeches were torn open and his leg lay mangled and bent underneath him at an awkward angle. Numerous smaller wounds dotted the young man’s corpse and he had lost a lot of blood, even before he was killed.

The young lad started separating the body of the defender from the body of the commander underneath, mumbling something about returning the commander’s body to camp but Heron didn’t listen to him. The only thing he could hear was the roaring of the storm overhead and the potency of what was happening. With great care he unfolded the body of the last defender, removed the sword from his rigid grasp and placed the body on the large kite shield. Others had come to help the lad with the transport of the dead commander, but Heron was feverishly working to turn the shield into a rudimentary stretcher on which he could transport the man.

The lightning storm overhead had picked up in intensity and Heron started to make out patterns and signs in the lightning strikes and rumbling. When he was finally done tying the man down to the shield and latching the shield onto his belt so he could pull it behind him like a sled-dog the storm had started moving west and so Heron started walking. The soldiers he passed on his way off the battlefield asked him inconsequential questions that needed no answers. He had also finally heard His voice over the din of the thunder and he now knew the name of the man he was carrying off to be reborn into His service.


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