“After all, rarely do the men who orchestrate wars find themselves holding the instruments. It's those holding the instruments, you see, they go and they die, they die at each others hands, and all their familiars and relations they weep and they cry revenge, and then the whole thing's sunk. Then the whole thing is personal, and if it lasts long enough it is cultural, and then for all the original maestros may wish most dearly to cease the thing it is too late, don't you see. The match is lit, the throat, is slit.”
Private Lanson squirmed, still adjusting to his heavy standard-issue boots, belts, and helm. The drawling voice in the shadow had been going in this vein for a good ten minutes and it hadn't helped him settle into his uniform one bit.
“Wars are fought for other people. For crowns and cravats who failed to keep the peace with words. And also for the dead. Funny thing, that.”
A pebble whizzed from the shadow, expertly pinging off a shop sign and into a tin bucket on the curbside. A snort of satisfaction. Lanson looked back at the figure he was terrified and disbelieving to have found himself in conversation with.
Lanson, like a great deal of Helleckens, knew the infamous being on sight. He was a crooked fellow, every angle of him seemed twice broken, from his heavy nose to his restless talons to his wicked, wicked mouth. Desperately thin, his dark, ragged garb hung from him like swamp moss off a dead tree. He lounged easily in the recess of a boarded-up window, long legs crossed, bare feet against the dirty bricks, displaying highly unpleasant clawed nails unfortunately near the private's head.
“Well, soldier? What are you serving time for, eh? Love of king? Of country? The dead?”
Lanson swallowed. “Dropped out of too many schools, sir. Father says the ranks will set me right, sir.”
The man laughed like an angel being washboarded. “Oh did he? Oh, that will be the last thing it will do, boy, the last thing...”
For all he wasn't excited to be shot at, Lanson had rather invested hope in his father's suggestion that armor might suit him better than a scholar's robes. The past four weeks' training in the city had been wet, shivery, chafing, stinking and ill-fitting, but he'd been assured it was not like this Afield, where there was space and clean air and it was all like a more exciting sort of camping, really, Afield, and that he felt he could do. Cringing as he was, his underdeveloped pride was ruffled by the man's lack of confidence.
“But aren't you a soldier yourself these days, sir? I mean, not a soldier but a... you know, a special fighter... person...” Lanson's momentary burst of courage crumbled like cheese as the red-green eyes of the man narrowed lazily at his flexing fingers.
“Royal Mercenary, I'll think you mean.”
“But you just told me,” Lanson's voice lowered furtively, “that all nobility are junk and we shouldn't fight their battles and call them by titles. Sir.”
“AAALL NOBILITY ARE JUUUNK,” the man sang out grandly still admiring his talons, “WE SHOULDN'T FIGHT THEIR BAAA-TTLES AND CALL THEM TIII-TLLLES.”
Lanson had all but sucked up into his helmet with shock. His wide eyes flicked up-down the street, empty save for pigeons spooked into the evening air.
“Speak up when you speak what you mean, Private, lest your superiors begin believing they are. Oh, I have little love for the powers that be, and this they know beyond doubt. Consider that I may find myself, temporarily in their service for a very good reason, hm?”
The man's voice had taken on a edge. Lanson stood very still. A ruddy eye swiveled to his.
The warlock had only struck up a conversation with the poor lad because, well, to be honest he was bored. But the young man had also seemed bored, and anxious, and the burst of golden hair escaping from under his foul helmet had quite reminded him of his brother.
Despite the countless counts of gleeful arson, theft, murder, general terrorism, and most inconceivable cheek which had made him an international boogie man and ultimately grounded him in blatantly unpenitent servitude of the Kingdom of Tresin, Master Shapeshifter Morgan Daubenmire had an enormous soft spot for children. Of course he did! His miraculous ability to twist into any shape at will was something that unnerved and frightened adults, who never knew what to make of him, but kids knew what to make of him instinctively.
And literally. The game that without fail brought joy to even the most timid child was the classic animal impression romp. Only, no one does impressions quite like Daubenmire. For children, the monstrous shapeshifter would become bouncing hamsters, colorful parrots, a warm ball of bunny, or a terrible lion or dragon which would roll on its back like a fool until the smiles came. To children he was a one-man menagerie and a thing of wonder, to adults he was a weapon and a criminal. To in-betweens like Lanson... perhaps he could still sway opinion.
He held the frozen soldier's gaze. He wasn't doing the best job with this. His once carefully-cultivated reputation as something of a living nightmare had been making his recent attempts to rejoin polite society... uphill.
The reddish eyes shut as if to reset, then opened with a smile. Morgan twirled off his perch and onto his feet, pitching another pebble into the bucket. He saw Lanson force himself not to take a step back from him.
“Where be your station, Private?”
“Limer, sir. Twenty minute's walk and I'm near due to check in, so I'd really best be going, sir.”
“Twenty minutes?” the shapeshifter drawled, rolling another pebble between his fingers. He grinned. “How'd you like to make it in two?”
Morgan Daubenmire. The faceless, omnipresent terror of soldiers across the continent. Three summers ago he rose out of nowhere, an uninvited player in the war, striking either side freely, a single force like no-one had ever seen.
At first they said he was an ancient demon, this thing of a hundred thousand forms, a malevolent spirit of nature awakened by one too many decades of violence. Some said he was a master warlock sent from across the sea to further destabilize the continent. After myriad encounters with the monster, the only widely agreed-on point across all parties was that he was a prick. A gleeful, rotten thing of lazy, self-satisfied malice.
It began with the mysterious mass arson of stockades, bridges, and ferries by a single common lowland drake. Dragons rarely take an interest in methodically cutting vital military supply chains, but it wasn't until soldiers witnessed the beast collapse into a man's shape that the rogue dragon was revealed to be a shapeshifter with a vendetta against humanity.
Also, they were told so.
The threats, although unsettling to some, were ignored. How could soldiers 'just go home?' What kind of simplistic being was this?
A simplistic being that was learning fast. Soon, captains and commanders were in mortal fear of stepping outside their camps lest a chipmunk explode into a hideous monster and spirit them away for ransom. Precious documents, orders, and communication relics were snatched from chests and desks by racoons and birds. Carrier pigeons were being eaten like candy. Untold heaps of woodland creatures were shot on sight by paranoid soldiers.
It was long the shapeshifter's secret that as well as the bodies of beasts he could assume an endless array of human forms, vanishing into the ranks to spread rumors and dissent, delivering false reports, even passably impersonating individuals. This thing was single-handedly snagging incredible knots in the fabric of the fighting, halting a battle here and there, but never the war.
And then people started to die. First there were the odd assassinations. Then the monster got lazy. Great circles would be burned into forests, cruelly spiraling inwards and incinerating whole camps. An enormous winged creature would descend into the flaming chaos and lay about itself, telepathically cackling, screaming, and generally broadcasting its abhorrence, its abhorrence of the violence of men.
Limer Station was a long, squat conjoining of barracks, smithing yard, mess hall, and stables, curved like a horseshoe around a large courtyard. It was housing for both city soldiers transferring to the army and troops returning to city service, so that the two might mix and educate one another on the state of either arena before trading places.
On a warm evening like this, the courtyard was crowded with soldiers. Most were having supper, ladled out of the colossal pot over the central fire pit and tapped foaming from great oak casks. They talked over the heavy tables and wove through the weapon racks which littered the yard. Some sprawled on hay bales servicing their weapons, while others sparred watched by opinionated rings of onlookers.
Just as the sun was falling behind the city wall, all throughout the courtyard certain soldiers, older soldiers, began laying about themselves, hushing their comrades and searching the purpling sky anxiously. Don't you hear it? They hissed. Open your ears, will you, can't you hear it? Gods, don't you hear it in your blood? We are meat, keep an eye on the sky!
Heads were turning west and voices were dropping as the huge, soft sound pulsed nearer. What wa-
Dust and hay exploded into the sky, hats abandoned their owners, a few spear racks toppled over in the sudden powerful, pulsing downdrafts as a thing swooped high above the yard, beating its vast wings, hovering. Soldiers dodged out of the center of the yard as the thing dropped, landing heavily on the stones with a final flap. It folded its wings daintily and flipped its long head over its shoulder as the small figure of Lanson slid down its back, catching him in its tail and depositing him neatly on the ground. It grinned.
“Oh gods,” Lanson said shakily. “Whoa.”
“Bad as you expected?” Morgan the dragon asked.
“Worse. Waaay worse.” Lanson panted. Then his mouth broke into a mad half-grin. “That was... wow, I never imagined I'd... I mean, I can see why you... why you...” He suddenly became conscious that he was being stared at by nearly eighty people. His mouth flapped silently, then he looked up at the big head. “Uh, thank you, sir. For the lift.” At an ostentatiously gracious nod from the monster, Lansen headed towards the barracks.
This wasn't the first or even the fifth time Daubenmire had visited this particular station, and a number of the soldiers turned back to their meals and weapons. The cook, a grizzled, unflappable man with a face cut in more places than a side of ham yelled at Lanson as he scurried past.
“'Ey! O'er 'ere for your supper, lad, or you'll go without.”
The dragon watched the young soldier receive his stew and drink. Lanson shot the shapeshifter one last nervous smile before disappearing into the crowd. Morgan sniffed the air longingly with plate-sized, slightly glowing nostrils.
The cook rapped his ladle clean on the pot. “This's the last batch of the night,” he said, as if idly speaking to himself and not a five-ton hulk of winged dinosaur a few mere meters from his fire. “Won't keep forever, y'know. Might as well finish it off for me, will ya.”
Daubenmire slunk forward gratefully, claws clicking on the paving. He sprawled before the big pot and cracked open his jaws, nearly lowering his mouth over the thing, sighed heavily, flames slithering from between his teeth, and the stew bubbled. He lapped it up happily, eyes roving lazily around the courtyard denizens, all of whom quickly found something to be busy with.
The monster chatted quietly with the cook and the station commander for a while about who was moving out in the morning and where, the prospects of certain contested regions, and which towns had been burned to a cinder recently. Great slitted eyes passed over the soldiers, lit now by ruddy torches and moonlight. Some of these men and boys will be dead next week, he mused, for the thousandth time. Will it be you, there, with the patchy sideburns? Or you, sir, trying to attach your bayonet wrong-way around? Will it be- oh gods- you're only a child, lad, what fate would send the likes of you here? Or...
His gaze ran up against a burning stare. He was accustom to angry faces, but this one was smoldering with above and beyond the malice he'd encountered in some time.
Time to be moving on.
He twirled his long tongue once around the empty pot, licked his chops, thanked the cook, heaved himself onto his hind legs, began to open his wings...
The wings froze.
One big eye peered down from over the dragon's shoulder. “Yeah, I see you, soldier,” he spat. “Shared some battlefield, did we?”
The man, broad-shouldered and black-haired, glared upwards. Two friends stood resolutely and reluctantly behind him. He spoke with a heavy, husky, heaving voice.
“You killed my brother.”
The shapeshifter twisted around slowly, talons wide as tables scratching on the paving. He was a great black towering thing, half-obscured against the night sky, lit by torches below and by the glow down his own fiery throat, a throat that could vanish a horse.
The man nodded tightly.
“Occupational hazard of warriors, dying in wars.”
The two soldiers twitched as their friend nearly stepped forward.
“Here stands the only man to lose family in this war,” the dragon continued lazily to the stars. He cocked his head back down. “Is that it?” The man continued to steam, trembling. “I know. I know how it is. Were I to meet the murderer of my brother I'd not be half as civil.”
The dragon moved to turn away but twisted back quickly, hunched over testily. “Clearly, nothing I could say matters, so I'm not going to beg your pardon.” He dropped his voice to a rumble. “But you have my regrets.”
“REGRETS?!” The soldier erupted. “Your REGRETS? You LAUGHED!” He roared. “With those teeth,” he stabbed a shaking arm at Morgan, “with THOSE TEETH you tore him apart! Arthur died in your jaws, YOU BEAST!”
Onlookers were handling their weapons and backing away. One of the men dropped a hand on the incensed man's shoulder and began to speak, but he shook him off, staring furiously up at his impossible enemy.
Morgan frowned. Soldiers backed out of his path as he dropped to all fours and prowled towards the three, tail weaving behind like a monster python, huge wings lurking over his shoulders. The dragon came up close, more than close enough to see the man's red, red eyes. He began to circle the trio.
“Tell, me,” he said, “soldier, have ya killed anyone? You're a poor hand at your profession if you haven't.” His words dripped from his jaws. “And I suppose those men weren't anyone's brothers? Eh? Or fathers or sons or lovers? But you, you're perfectly blameless, aren't ya?” He reared abruptly onto his hind legs, scanning the courtyard. “Every seasoned soldier here has killed and every one of us murderers deserves to fry. But I,” he spread a talon over his chest, “I am a monster. I,” he met the man's eyes, “am a monster.”
He continued. “General Kerntoat once fought for your enemies, and he's a bloody hero! Colonel Shiner was a weapon-running crook but now it's funny. Defected soldiers who've joined your ranks are welcomed with open arms. But I, I who fought on no-one's side, who fought for myself, not in cold blood for some stranger in a castle, I fight for you now and I am treated like a b-”
There was a sudden racket as Daubenmire's tail upturned a spear rack. A huge eye twitched as he snatched up the offending tail and throttled it. “Blast this infernal...” He threw the tail behind him and in the same motion the tail became part of a sweeping cloak as the warlock shrunk to his human shape. He stalked up to the furious soldier, who was taller than him by a head and twice as broad. The friends were actually gripping his arms now, as he clenched his fists, clenched his teeth, clenched his whole body. Morgan eyed him.
“Would it bring him back?” He said quietly.
His sunken eyes swiveled to the other soldiers. “Let him go.” They did.
The man rolled his shoulders. He inhaled shakily, the stink of dragon still in the air. Abruptly, he screamed and slammed his fist into Morgan face, sending the shapeshifter reeling, thin fingers clutching a gushing nose. Other soldiers rushed to restrain the man, who struggled.
“Feels good, doesn't it?!” He roared.
Morgan chuckled under his hand as he straightened, wincing. The crooked corner of his smile could just be seen under the thick blood.
“Let him go,” he said again, waving his free hand. The other soldiers looked at one another, then back at Morgan. They gripped the struggling man tighter.
⚞ LET'IM GO I SAY ⚟
A thunderclap of telepathy reinforced Daubenmire's command, staggering the closer soldiers. Hands dropped.
The soldier, completely seeing red, seized Morgan by the collar and hair and slammed him against a wall. He yanked his head back. “Arthur! My brother!” Spit flew into Morgan's bloodied face. “We'll never see him! I oughta rip your g'damned head off!”
“If,” Morgan croaked, “it'll bring your brother back, you'd best do it.”
With a roar, the soldier punched him in the gut and hurled him to the ground. He circled him. The warlock sprawled on the stones, forehead resting on an arm, bleeding and panting. The man screamed again and pounded a table, his mouth opening soundlessly again and again, choking. He fell to his knees and sobbed.
The soldiers watched the two collapsed men in silence.
Daubenmire lifted his head to the man, drooling blood. He wriggled closer, holding his ribs.
“Look,” he said, almost certainly audible to the howling man, “I joined this fight when some bastard killed my beloved, I've not been the same since. Because of his death, I killed your brother. And because I killed your brother, you'll kill Poldians in the morning. Can't you see? Can't anyone see... what we're doing?”
Two figures were hurrying across the courtyard with a torch.
“Morgan?” A tall woman in armor called, spying the bloodied warlock. “Oh, shi-” She knelt down and heaved him to his feet. The heavily-freckled man she was with helped support him. The spell cast by watching an ordinary man beat the daylights out of one of the single most powerful individuals in the world was broken, and soldiers rushed in to lead their comrade to the barracks as the two newcomers helped Morgan limp away across the courtyard.
“You're a sorry sight, Morgan.” Kathryn said.
“It's nothing, nothing Magda can't fix,” he coughed. “Some things can be fixed,” he added.
She shook her head. “What did that guy do to you?”
“What did you do to that guy?” Trick asked. “Not a cut on him, only blood on him is yours, and he was sobbin' like a baby!”
The shapeshifter dropped his eyes.
What did I do to him indeed.