They were heading north, and Aerol was among them in the group, spearheading the many relaxed lines of his soldiers as they hastily went to work on the bridges, for a reason that he’d not asked about, but he assumed it was the occasion. That was until he saw his soldiers were hastily folding or sliding the bloodied and battered enemy soldiers away, revealing puddles of smeared blood that could not be hidden.
The fallen scarcely had bodies left, crushed as they had been by brutal warfare, caked with blood; bruises having burst to leak with congealing blood spots. The bodies were dotted all over the place, lying in wait. No pattern to the conflict and attack, but whether they’d been cleared away or whether it was the reason for their demise, was to be seen. Their armour, weapons, and possessions had mostly been stripped, and flimsy tunics and the odd weak segment of mail their only protection from nakedness. Their eyes stared upward in shock, the whites of them chilling to behold.
Did soldiers, or any Tekromun, ever really die? There was something ‘present’ about their stillness. A few shifting noises and grunts preceded his soldiers hurling the bodies off the edge of the bridge, falling to the silent all-encompassing black abyss that they called the chasm that was a spectator in this event. Aerol walked to the edge of the twelve-foot wide bridge, and watched the bodies engulfed by the immensity of the blackness, returning to the womb of the world, until a mist flowed over the chasm to hide it from view. He could hear no roaring or see no magical emanations from the chasm at this time. All was dull.
Aerol shook his head, and then noticed General Cress close by.
‘They looked like soldiers, but with cheap armour. Care to enlighten me, General?’ Aerol said.
General Cress who had been issuing orders calmly close by, turned to answer. His squat body still had heavy armour plates on with gaps to allow for movement and skill – important for Aerol’s soldiers. His helmet rose with a peak, and sat on his head like a squat creature, with its narrow nose-shaped protrusion at the top looking down as if to see Cress’ chubby face with emerald eyes below.
‘It was ridiculous, Aerol. There were soldiers, bandits, warriors, and all manner of odd creatures we’d never seen before. We hacked them and hewed them for years but they kept coming. Then, they stopped early this month. We sent scouts in all directions, and the way was safe. Perhaps we finally beat their numbers. We were gaining ground year on year, after all.’
Aerol crouched on the edge and squinted below, looking into the mist where the enemy soldiers had been swallowed.
‘Yes, Cress, but where did they come from?’
‘Our territories are not so great to know that, Warlord Aerol. I assumed they came from the dilapidated structures that are north-west, which are the usual hideouts for warriors, and there are a few theories from the apprentices they came from the under-surface at specific locations. Even the apprentices don’t know why there was a rise in the population of enemies. Now they’ve been culled, it may not matter until we’ve conquered further.’
Aerol stood and looked back the way they’d come.
Behind him were the onlookers outside the West Dominion: soldiers and lines of civilian spectators forming a semi-circle of expectant faces, or the judgemental faces standing above them on higher ledges from the white-robed apprentices with their arms folded and faces held high above to appraise this event. Where they were now, the expressions had become indistinct, and the impressive West Dominion, encircled by rising white-grey walls that curved to conceal rising turrets and structures that belonged to his fortress and the curious habitations of the city that had grown within his dominion.
‘Apprentices … I rely on them too much and they’re overstretched working on demand for the thriving city that my dominion has become. I can’t rely on them much longer,’ Aerol said.
He rubbed his chin with thumb and index finger.
‘Warlord Grin is a Tekromun who has been north, and has seen horrors, perhaps not too dissimilar from those you describe Cress. Could he shed light on this?’ Aerol said.
Cress turned and gave Aerol a bizarre look.
‘You told me his theories were crackpot ones and that he was crazed. We’d give credit to his ravings now?’ Cress said.
‘What choice do we have?’ Aerol said.
‘Inde has travelled further also. Should I bring her on the trip to see what she says?’ Cress said.
Aerol glared at Cress.
Cress shifted back and hesitated.
‘She is, after all, still a member of the War Council. Her contributions may help.’
Aerol let silence be his answer.
On opposite bridges were soldiers going back and forth in lines, idle, and Aerol looked away in distaste at the lack of discipline and orderliness. Their purple forms bobbed up and down, and they passed among themselves trinkets they’d forgotten on previous searches of the bodies, while casting the bodies away, and some of them passed things down the line all the way back to the dominion where eager Tekromun awaited for them. It still seemed strange to Aerol that the soldiers had wives – it had never been commonplace in the past.
‘I’ll bring them both, then,’ Cress said.
Aerol tensed the fingers of his right hand and then clenched them, but didn’t reply.
He gazed north at the mists that hid from view the great spaces that would lead to yet more bridges, destroyed structures of battlefields and even surface platforms, and he wondered how far up he’d continue before reaching the limits of what could one day form part of his new dominion. For now, he brushed away from the soldiers who had surrounded him and were perhaps waiting for new orders in Cress’ absence.