Author's note: I've gone back and revised a certain part of the story. it's a small correction.
Major General Eldritch Hammond was leaning over a table in the officer's garrison in Ophem. At six foot six, he towered over the other officers in the room. His build was that of an adonis - his body was a sculpture of rippling muscles. His face followed suit with low cheekbones and a wide, square jaw. His hair was short and black.
Standing to his right with his hands crossed behind him was Lieutenant General Hanz Kinni, wearing his usual stern and glowering look on his thin face. Being around these half-a** officers always put him on edge. He'd swept his red, unkempt hair back at the Major General's request. These yuppees didn't appreciate the look of a true warrior - their kind was always behind the lines, ordering young men to their deaths without regard. Most of them were awarded their positions through corrupt political dealings and had never seen warfare first hand. Kinni tried and failed to keep his distaste off his face.
Hammond was leaning on his hands over a table upon which sat a map of the surrounding city-states. There were pegs of differing colors covering the map, designating the position, strength and commanding officer of several divisions. There were fifteen red pegs covering Ophem, each peg representing one thousand men. This was his division, sent from Drenden to aid Major Richardson in Tyfor. Hammond was expecting a debriefing from Richardson shortly. He scanned the map. There were several smaller orange pegs covering Tyfor, representing Richardson's platoon, as well as several black pegs of the same size. The horde.
Hammond had been dwelling on the news of the barbarian invasion since it happened two days ago. An endless swarm of savage, fur adorned and skull wearing warriors had swept through Tyfor and the sorrounding encampments. Richardson was overwhelmed by their number and forced to retreat up a steep cliff face leading to the aristocratic district. It was there that he had awaited the arrival of Hammond's division.
But then, according to messengers, a single coalition soldier defeated every last barbarian in Tyfor. Hammond didn't believe this for a second. He wondered why a messenger would concoct such a tale.
Though they had attacked with better than 5,000 men, the barbarians had been reduced to a mere three hundred by the day's end. Richardson must have been a hell of a commander, Hammond thought... or he had some very skilled soldiers under him.
"Why don't we take your division straight into Tyfor?" Brigadier Tussian asked. "According to the messengers, there are only a few hundred barbarians left there. It would be an easy victory."
Kinni grimaced but remained still.
"If the barbarians know what they're doing, reinforcements are already en route." Hammond replied. "Major Richardson has set up a defensive position here". Hammond pointed to the aristocratic section of Tyfor. "When he arrives, he'll inform us of the exact situation. Until then, we can't make any concrete strategies."
"There's word that there aren't any barbarians left in Tyfor," Brigadier Shork interjected. "That a lone soldier -"
"I've heard the reports." Hammond cut him off. "There may be gifted soldiers under Richardson, but one man could never defeat three hundred. It's just wishful thinking."
Shork looked abashed.
There were two knocks at the door. It swung open and Major Richardson entered from the hallway. He stopped and scanned the room, finally resting his eyes on Hammond. He saluted. "Sir."
"At ease. Come forth."
Richardson appraoched the table and crossed his arms behind him.
"I'd like to congratulate you on repelling the enemy. You were outnumbered yet you still managed. I know of some officers who could never have pulled it off."
A mixture of puzzlement and shame came over Richardson's face. "Congratulations? Many citizens lost their lives because of my inability to hold the city. I deserve no credit."
Hammond raised his hand to Richardson. "The fact is, you stopped their advance. If you hadn't, Ophem would have fallen as well. Be proud of your achievements."
Richardson looked down at the table, his face becoming red.
"A messenger came to me this morning and claimed that all the barbarians holding Tyfor had been defeated. By one soldier. Why did he make this claim?" Hammond asked.
Richardson's eyes widened and he slowly looked up at Hammond. "Because it's true. I gave that message to the messenger."
Everyone in the room save Richardson started at that, looking at Richardson like he was some exotic animal. The three brigadiers approached the table. "It's true, then?" Shork prodded.
Richardson flushed further at the attention. "Yes. One of my men, who was supposed to be on leave, returned to Tyfor and..." his face became strained. He looked like a prisoner being tortured for information and he was determined not to give it.
"...And?" Hammond asked.
"And he defeated them all."
Richardson ran a hand through his hair and suddenly appeared very uncomfortable. He gulped.
"The soldier... he... he used insects."
The three brigadiers looked dumbly at Richardson, like this was a tactic they'd never heard of. Hammond and Kinni looked fiercely interested.
"Elaborate." Hammond said.
Richardson sighed deeply and seemed to gather himself. "He used a large number of insects that sought out the flesh of the barbarians. Most were killed that way."
Hammond could see that this was the truth simply from the awkward way Richardson had said it. He could also see that Richardson was holding something back. Something that terrified him.
"Brigadier generals Shork, Tussian and Furl, please give us some privacy."
"I hardly think -" Furl began, but when Hammond looked looked at him, there was no give in his face. Furl nodded. "Sir."
The three brigadiers left the room. Now it was only Hammond, Richardson and Kinni.
Hammond walked over two a pair of wooden chairs and sat in one. He offered the other to Richardson, who knew what was coming next and slowly seated himself. Hammond crossed his leg and reached into his vestment, producing a flat container. He opened it and offered one of the cigars it held to Richardson, who graciously accepted. Hammond struck a match and lit Richardson's stogey, then his own. He held the case out to Kinni, who was now facing them. He continued glaring at nothing in particular. Hammond nodded and returned the case to his vestment.
Hammond and Richardson both took a deep drag, waited and slowly exhaled. Richardson seemed much more at ease now, with less brass around and some tobacco to enjoy. Hammond looked seriously at him. "What happened in Tyfor? Leave nothing out."
Richardson looked shyly back at him, then nodded. "When the soldier entered the western gate, he was covered head to toe in blood. The barbarians had sent two parties out to meet him, which never returned. I assume he killed both of them."
"Do you know who this soldier was?"
"There is a famous infantryman in our garrison that carries a greatsword. Adre, his name is. He had slain many barbarians during their initial strike, but was wounded badly and left the battlefield soon after. I believe it was him that returned the next day, only..."
"...He was different when he returned. Different from us, I mean, humans. I witnessed his face change from that of a man's to that of a demon's. He didn't bring the insects with him, either, he summoned them from the ground with his sword. Thousands of... beetles, I think they were, came out from the ground and attacked the barbarians. Ate them. All except one, whom I assume was the commander. Adre fought him personally, and when he defeated him..." Richardson again gulped and said with a flat inflection, "He ate his brain."
Hammond had been leaning forward, elbows on his leg, listening intently. Now he leaned back and dragged deeply from his cigar, looking reflectively upward. Kinni was looking at Richardson as though he were a lying child.Hammond exhaled smoke through his nostrils, then looked back at Richardson. "I believe you." Richardson looked supremely relieved. Kinni's gaze locked onto Hammond, his eyes widening.
Hammond smiled, still looking at Richardson. "I know my lieutenant is probably thinking I've gone soft in the head, but yes, I believe you. There have been stories about such creatures dating back many centuries, and you described it perfectly. A demon."
Hammond looked at Richardson seriously. "You're an honest man, and I trust you, Major. What I'm about to discuss with you doesn't leave this room. Understand?"
Samuel Inari followed the soldier's progress through the desert. He wore his mask, even though there was no one out here to see his true face. He felt the mask was his face these days, and the thing beneath was just an infected tumor, something that needed amputation. His tan cloak covered his head and body, only his dark gauntlets and war boots showing. He smelled blood up ahead, a lake of it. He thought if he didn't intervene soon, that lake would lead to an ocean.
Depsite the heat of the desert, Samuel was perfectly cold, as always. It always surprised him that he had gotten used to it. Besides the cold, there was the hunger. The endless, powerful hunger for human flesh. He hadn't entered a populated area in many moons for fear of indulging this hunger. His body didn't require it - he was addicted to it, like a chewer of devilgrass.
He plodded on, not hurrying, not loafing. The voices of all those in Hades rang in his ears, a distorted choir of pain. He'd learned to tune this out for the most part, but sometimes it returned.
Adre... he could still save himself, just as Samuel had. He still has time. But with every soul he takes, he brings himself closer to Hades.
The smell of blood was powerful now. He was nearing the site of Adre's latest slaughter. He uses his inhuman vision to scan the horizon - and saw bodies. Thousands of mangled, half-exploded bodies. His mind was briefly cast back to his days as The Sharptooth Slayer, but he put this from his mind quickly. He scanned further and caught sight of his quarry. He was strangling an old man - a shaman, clearly - in the sand of the desert. Sh*t, if he kills him... he raced at full speed to the soldier.
Adre leapt from Kintz's corpse and landed upon the shaman. He grabbed his throat and shook violently. "Bastard! You f*cking bastard! Is that what you do with those you murder!?" Adre slammed the shaman's head onto the hardpan and heard it crack. The shaman coughed and hacked, struggling for breath. When he caught it, he began to cackle wildly, smiling widely. He said in a weak voice, "Yes, demon, your daughter is imprisoned. You could kill every last one of us and never see her again."
Adre shrieked in two voices and slammed the ground with his fist next to the shaman's ear. A spiderweb of cracks ran outward from his fist, and the pressure wave popped the shaman's ear drum. It began to bleed.
Still in that double voice, Adre cried, "Take me to her!"
The shaman coughed again, bloody spittle running down his chin. "I hold the cards, then, demon."
Adre grimaced. "Don't call me that, you vile thing. Take me to my daughter before I squeeze the life out of you!"
The shaman broke out in wild laughter again. Adre raised his hand above his head, preparing to end this miserable bastard's life.
"Adre, no!" he heard a muffled voice call from the distance. He looked up and saw the man he'd seen that night near the apple tree. The one who had choked him. He stood in a flash and looked wildly around for his sword, but it was nowhere in sight. He instead took the ready stance he'd learned in basic training and prepared for a fight.
The grand-chieftain's throne room was a long and dimly lit hall. Banners bearing the clan's crest - a black dragon eating its own tail - lined the walls to the left and right of the throne. Candles produced soft, greasy light that would allow a normal human to just barely see. This was fine, as no normal human had ever entered this room. The grand-chieftain sat upon the throne, one leg laying lazily over one of the arms. He rested his elbow on the other arm and his head on his hand. His build was average, but his muscles were toned and glistening with sweat. He wore no shirt, and his pants were black matte leather. In lieu of human feet, dark brown goat hooves ended his legs. Two short, curved horns protruded from his forhead. They were devoid of earthly dimension, simply absences of reality, and seemed to radiate red luminescence. Hovering over his head was a flaming golden crown. It burned eternally as if covered in oil and set alight.
Next to the throne stood a man whose body was concealed by dark, flowing robes. His bald head was a scorched black with thin red fissures running along it. His eyes were flat red and perfectly round - he had no eyelids. Protruding from his back and folded behind him were two black wings, similar to the ones on the dragon portrayed on the banners. The edges of the wings were crystallized black stone, razor sharp. Samuel Inari would have recognized this one as his former comrade and leader, Sharpwing Slayer, direct subordinate to the Grand-Chieftain. Sharpwing was looking down at one of his current comrades whom was now being heard by the grand-chieftain.
"The progress on your little project is quite promising, grand-chieftain." said Sharpeye Slayer. His eyes were not like the others - they were human eyes, except when you got to the irises, were solid crimson. "He's making his way here as we speak, and becoming more powerful by the day. Seems like you'll have another follower soon."
When the grand-cheiftain spoke, his voice seemed to come from every direction, filling the hall. It was a powerful and resounding voice. "What of our old friend, Sharptooth?" he spoke.
"I'll check on him."
Sharpeye's pupils began to expand outward, until they filled his eyes. He stood for a moment. Then his pupils receded and returned to their normal size.
"He's interfering, of course. Could be a problem if we let him run free."
"Shall I eliminate him, lord?" Sharpwing Slayer asked, facing the grand-chieftain.
"No," the grand-chieftain's voice boomed in the hall. "Hades may yet have use for that one. He's not an obstacle."
"He has a shaman." said Sharpeye.
The grand-chieftain opened his eyes. They were perfectly human, and a deep green. He looked down at Sharpeye without moving.
"Sharptooth was always a bright one."
A silky, sly voice arose in the minds of the three beings.
"Don't worry yourselves over your former brother-in-arms, no, no, I'll handle him, yes, quite! You just concern yourselves with bringing our new brother here safely - those insects in the coalition are stirring and, in his current state, our new brother may be captured. Yes, you just make sure he gets here, and I'll do the rest. Don't fail me, now, my children. You know what I do with failures."
The grand-chieftain closed his eyes. "This new comrade is the last piece on my chessboard. We won't allow the coalition to come near him. Sharpwing."
Sharpwing Slayer walked from the throne like a dark acolyte, his hands clasped together in front of him and hidden by the sleeves of his robes. He walked to the entrance and disappeared out the door.
"Things are getting complicated." Sharpeye said. "First Sharptooth shows up, now the coalition is after our quarry as well."
"Don't fret," the grand-chieftain said with a smile. "That soldier will complete my tribe of Slayers. Once we are collected, not a force on this earth will contend. Just keep your eyes on the situation, Sharpeye, and make sure no further complications arise."
"Sure thing... boss."