Alex Marshall’s Crimson Empire is one of the best grimdark fantasy series to hit stands over the last few years. Deeply imaginative, gritty, and darkly funny, we were excited as all hells to be able to pick up a Crimson Empire novella featuring everybody’s favourite war nun, Portoles. Check out the first section of it below, then grab the rest in GdM#14!
Beasts of the Burnished Chain
by Alex Marshall
Every army needs to eat, and even crusaders like cantaloupe. That’s how simple the thinking must have been. Nothing wrong with a simple plan, so long as it works.
The farmers fled the field as soon as the Agallochian scouts appeared on the road, tarrying just long enough to unhitch their carthorse from a melon-laden wagon before abandoning their harvest. By the time the rest of the regiment caught up with the outriders the sun was high over the sprawling field and surrounding forest. The sweat dripping off the infantry was the first rain the baking earth had tasted all day, and far more sustained than the brief thundershowers that rolled through most afternoons. Summer in the westernmost province of the Crimson Empire was so infernally hot the superiors in the Chainite attaché had given their soldiers dispensation to remove the sleeves from their heavy black habits. Between this concession to the climate and the officers’ insistence that, for the sake of security, the anathemas should go without the black cloth masks the church usually insisted their most wretched servants wear to spare the pureborn from the sight of their sin-twisted features, Sister Portolés felt practically naked.
It was not a pleasant sensation, but that was all right. Pleasant sensations were but snares of the Deceiver, just like the pity she felt for the poor wretches who had tended this field from seed and sprout only to have their regent’s peckish regiment arrive at the worst possible moment. Such impure sentiments must be ripped out by the root before they could grow. Whatever petty noble or local collective owned this field, they owed fealty to the Lord of Agalloch, who in turn gladly served the Burnished Chain. In times of crisis such as this, all true servants of the Fallen Mother should be thankful to feed the righteous army of the faithful.
And if this bounty of ripe melon was grown by rebels who had pledged allegiance to the Crimson Queen instead of the Black Pope and their own liege, then they deserved far worse than empty bellies. Far worse was just what the joint force of Agallochian soldiers and Chainite crusaders on retainer from Diadem intended to pay the guerilla army who hid out here in the borderlands between their native province and the vast Witch Wood. Just as soon as they could find the godless turncoats, that was. Civil war might be tearing the rest of the Empire apart, provinces fighting one another in the name of Crown or Church, but out here in the Imperial boonies the Lord of Agalloch had to take his own traitorous vassals in hand before he could even think about marching on his neighbors. Hence his request for Chainwitch reinforcements—the holy monsters of the mother church could end the insurrection before it spread.
Yet, obvious as such a tactic appeared on parchment, even simple plans can go awry. Thus far the strategy had proven damnably difficult to implement. This was largely due to the cowardly tactics of the rebels, who staunchly refused to engage their far more numerous and better equipped adversaries on the open field. Their hidden stronghold remained just that—hidden and strong. While the fort was presumably tucked away in the depths of the devil-haunted Witch Wood, that didn’t make the task of pinpointing its location any easier. The ancient forest was as vast as it was thick, and save for breathless tales of hideous beasts, the scouts who ventured into its interior returned empty-handed … if they returned at all.
Then there was the further complication that despite all the rumors—rumors the Church did little to dispel—the Chainite troops did not actually seem to wield devastating arcane power. The ominous covered wagons at the rear of their caravan had yet to disgorge an elite unit of Chainwitches, sorcerous artillery, or any of the other potential war-winning weaponry the grunts gossiped about. This begged the question of whether the black-draped vehicles weren’t just an ostentatious but ultimately mundane addition to the regiment’s baggage train. And seeing how many of their holy soldiers fell during the first engagement with the rebels, the Agallochian officers had come to realize the reformed anathemas weren’t actually unstoppable fiends. They weren’t monsters at all. Not anymore. The ecclesiastic barbers had seen to that by removing the manifest corruption of the witchborn with blessed blades and sacramental saws, taking their miserable scraps of humanity and stitching them into something that might actually serve their maker. Any true monsters were beyond redemption and burned accordingly.
Like Portolés’s sisters. Even after all the years since she had been saved, she couldn’t stop her treacherous heart from aching at the thought of them. Crossing the cantaloupe field dredged up unhappy childhood memories of gleaning all-but-barren farmlands with her inhuman siblings at her heel. Such desperation and hunger, and always the bestial need to look after her malformed kin. How she wished she could forget those dark days that chilled her even here, under the blazing sun … but everything happens. That is the will of the Fallen Mother. Looking around at her new family, Portolés gave silent thanks to the mercy of her savior. She would protect these spiritual siblings the Allmother had granted her far better than those vile things the Deceiver had burdened her with by birth.
“Broken axle,” Father Noumena observed as they surrounded the abandoned wagon piled high with melons. He snuffled his malformed nose. Even without three flaring nostrils Portolés could smell the sweet musk hanging in the air. “That explains why they didn’t try to make a run for it.”
“Alas for our pureborn betters!” cried Brother Iqbal, mopping his sopping tonsure with the old mask that he now used as a kerchief. “They shall have to march out here themselves rather than waiting for us to drag it back.”
“Alas for Brother Iqbal!” said Portolés. “The exercise should have done you good.”
“Permission to tuck in, Father?” asked Sister Morsest, scanning the bed of the low wagon for the most promising fruit. She licked the ragged scars the ecclesiastic surgeons had given her in place of lips.
“Patience, patience,” said their captain. He hoisted his heavy maul into the heavens, waving it back and forth to give the waiting regiment the all clear. Now that they’d confirmed the wagon indeed held nothing but fruit, the pureborn infantry followed the advance anathema squads out into the fertile field that bordered the northern side of the road. The black Chainite wagons could just be glimpsed at the rear of the convoy. “Back to it, my flock. We secure the treeline before we eat.”
“Begging your pardon, sir…” said Iqbal, nervously eyeing the forest and no doubt thinking of all the songs the scouts had sung of monsters creeping through the Witch Wood. “But don’t Mother Vektor and Father Norther’s squads already have it well enough in hand?”
“The Father gave an order,” Brother Beherit growled. The tense war monk still held an arrow nocked in his longbow, as though any moment a rampaging rebel horde might explode out of the dense wood that surrounded the wide field. “Something wrong with your ears, Icky?”
“Other than the obvious, you mean!” Sister Sylvaine called from the other side of the wagon.
“No need to be rude, dear!” said Iqbal, self-consciously touching one flappy ear. It was a wonder the barbers hadn’t taken them off entirely. Nothing about their sweat-glistening layers and folds appeared remotely human.
“Vektor and Norther may have a head start,” said Father Noumena as the other anathema squadrons fanned out across the field on either side of the wagon, “but I’m confident my stalwart soldiers can outpace them. Double-time, now, these are going to taste a lot better in the shade.”
They obediently hoofed it down the rows between the vines, the promise of warm, moist melon making Portolés salivate. Moving out so quickly also made the rope harness she had secretly donned beneath her robe that morning scrape harshly against her calloused flesh, every rub of the rough hemp both reminder of and reprimand for her base nature. She remembered how Brother Wan had taught her to tie the knots with his deft little fingers back in her cell in Diadem’s Dens during one of their final trysts, before he had decided the carnal transgressions were too sinful to continue. The memory of his rejection turned her stomach, as it always did, yet she found herself unable to stop reliving it over and over again, day after day, night after night. If only the Allmother would let her forget that agony…
Sister Sylvaine claimed such intercession was well within the Fallen Mother’s purview. The warn nun had overheard Mother Vektor and Bishop Lifsins discussing a possible ritual to heal the minds of shell-shocked soldier. They would call on their savior to cut out the offending memories as if they were mold spreading across a loaf of black bread. Portolés fantasized about taking part in this ceremony, falling to her knees in front of her superiors and performing whatever devotions were required to forget Brother Wan’s last visit to her cell.
Which just went to show how lost Portolés truly was. A worthy penitent would pray to forget the shame of her many sins, but instead she wished only to erase the memory of her lover’s rejection. Vile, lascivious Portolés—she should cherish the thought of Wan’s rebuff. He sought to save both their souls, souls she had imperiled with her lewd appetites. The pain of remembering, she decided, was not a punishment of the Fallen Mother but another one of her bountiful gifts, a necessary reminder that Portolés must strive against her disgusting nature. Only once she overcame her witchborn blood and acted as a devote Chainite might the Fallen Mother reward her with such balms as forgetfulness.
“Hold!” Father Noumena called from just ahead, interrupting Portolés’s bittersweet daydreams of Brother Wan. The squad’s sandals kicked up a cloud of dust as they slid to a collective stop. They were halfway between the wagon and the treeline.
Portolés chastised herself for letting her thoughts drift. She was on patrol. Her brethren depended on her to stay alert. Yet considering her comrades’ confused expressions, none of the others seemed sure of why their captain had stopped them, either. The next row over, Brother Beherit drew back his bow, eagerly looking around for a target. With significantly less enthusiasm, Portolés hoisted her battleax in both hands. It turned out their captain’s attention hadn’t been captured by an enemy unit, but one of their own. “What have they got there?”
Mother Vektor’s squad had stopped advancing some fifty yards off, gathering around one of their war nuns. She had been crouched over but now straightened up, holding a cantaloupe that must be unnaturally heavy, given her strained expression as she lifted it—
And dropped it, staggering back as a flaming arrow struck her shoulder. Hot black smoke curled up into the sky. All eyes traced its trajectory back to the shadowy wood. A second burning missile arced out. This one fell mercifully short, striking the melon at the war nun’s feet, and—
It was as if the melon had been swapped out with the sun. The flash blinded Portolés. The sound hit her a moment later, a blast so violent the field trembled beneath her feet. The report echoed just beside her, somehow louder this time, and then her ears were as insensate as her eyes. Someone tackled her to the ground. Even with their warm bulk pinning her flat against the warm ground she felt herself continue to spin and spin, spiraling down into the dizzying light that enveloped her. She clutched at the fuzzy vines, trying to arrest her endless fall, and at last her streaming eyes and ringing ears recovered enough for her to again take in the world. She was sprawled amidst the tangled vines with Brother Beherit on top of her. Their commanding officer was shouting.
“Move out, move out!”
“Come on,” Portolés managed, choking on the smoky air that now smelled of grilled pork instead of ripe muskmelon, but Beherit wouldn’t get off of her, the big man’s face so close to hers she could see the blackheads blooming in the depression where his horn had been removed. “You heard the captain, Brother, not like you to sit… to sit…”
Brother Beherit was the most experienced in their squad, a veteran of even more engagements than Father Noumena, and now the Fallen Mother had finally rewarded him for his devotion. As Portolés’s eyes came fully into focus she saw his had been cooked white. The dampness she felt seeping through her robes and into the rope of her hemp harness was not her own sweat, but his boiled blood. Shoving his corpse off her in revulsion, she found his bulk far lighter than she expected, no doubt the result of his missing both legs from the knees down.
A small crater smoldered a few rows over, just by where Brother Beherit had been standing. More explosions echoed through her confused skull. Father Noumena shouted at his squad to move out, move out, and somebody else screamed and screamed. As she struggled to take all that in, another tidal wave of heat and sound broke over her, and Fallen Mother forgive her, she closed her eyes and begged her savior to spare her just a little bit longer, to let her live so that she might yet prove herself to be something more than a polluted waste of flesh and spirit. That she might redeem herself.
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