The Rider looked ahead, holding the reins in one hand, a torch in the other. The cool wind gently caressed his face as his horse carried him swiftly toward their destination. That job had taken longer than expected; it was past midnight. He’d have to hurry back; if he didn’t get there soon, there’d be hell to pay. He’d only gone off on this errand as a favour, and if the Captain discovered the Rider’s absence, he’d probably be skinned alive.
The Rider shuddered at the thought; the Captain was one man he didn’t want to be on the bad side of. The Captain was always so calm, so stoic, but the Rider got the feeling that there was something else lying beneath the surface: a cruel streak. The Rider felt a chill run down his spine every time he found the Captain’s eyes upon him. He didn’t know for sure; he’d never seen the Captain do anything untoward, but something about the man creeped him out. It was only a feeling, but he didn’t want to test it.
The road lay before him, a gradual uphill slope, the mountains standing firm in the distance, like an elegant painting on the horizon. The Rider was close, but he still had a fair way to go.
Without a word, he directed his horse to increase its speed, the still silence of the night disrupted only by the sound of hooves pounding against the dirt road. The graceful beast seemed to cut through the night air like the head of an arrow, the wind blowing through its charcoal mane, as it did the golden hair of its Rider.
The black horse was covered in matching leather barding and saddlecloth: black, adorned on both sides with a large, red eagle: the Holy Emperor’s emblem. The eagle stood for the ever-watchful eyes of God; the red: blood spilled in his name; the black: what lay without him, as well as the future before any who dared oppose him: nothing.
The farther they rode, the closer they drew. The farther they rode, the taller those mountains grew. The farther they rode, the steeper the road became. The farther they rode, the stronger that scent became; a smell like sulphur, carried on the night wind. The air was thick.
The Rider had a bad feeling, and it only grew heavier as they went. There was a worm burrowing through his stomach, crawling around, wriggling, writhing, thrashing about.
Something was wrong.
The Rider pushed his horse to the limit, galloping full speed ahead toward that fateful village, coming to a gradual halt just past the pair of watchtowers that marked the entrance. It was a poor village; they didn’t have a gate or a wall, in fact they had barely any defences at all, which probably explained their current situation.
The Rider looked around, but he didn’t see anybody about. Even the towers stood empty, unguarded. That smell was strong, permeating the air; so thick, the Rider could have choked on it. There was a fire up ahead, burning buildings. Burning people? The Rider hoped not, but he could hear the unmistakable voices of the villagers crying out, in panic, in terror, in pain. A cacophony of screams and clashing steel.
The Rider dismounted from his horse and rushed ahead, his hand resting upon the hilt of his sword. Who was attacking? Bandits, rebels, or the heathens to the north?
No, the heathen horde would have to cross through the mountains and break past the Imperial fortress at Northgate. They’d never make it this far south, it didn’t seem possible.
It had to be outlaws, then, preying on the villagers. It was just bad timing for them that the army happened to be here… or was it intentional? The Rider had to admit, the timing was uncanny. Perhaps it was a rogue faction, a remnant of the winter rebellion, attacking because the army was here. They were turning this peaceful village into a battleground, its inhabitants collateral damage, undoubtedly caught in the crossfire.
The Rider rushed forward, toward the epicentre of the commotion.
He peered into the morning darkness and saw a figure up ahead. It was a man, his thinning hair and long beard tinged with grey, running straight for him; he didn’t appear armed, but he Rider subconsciously tensed, taking a defensive stance, ready to draw his sword if the man came too close. Was the man running toward him, or away from someone else? Was he the hunter, or the prey? Could he have been one of the Villagers?
The Rider saw a second man, clad in steel armour, chasing after the first. The first man cried out for help between heavy, ragged breaths. He was exhausted, running as fast as he could, desperate to get away. What could he have done to cause the soldier to give chase?
He stumbled, he fell, he landed on the ground, spent, his breathing heavy and ragged. The soldier quickly caught up and stood over him, looking down at the pitiful old man. Without a second thought, without a moments hesitation, the soldier drew his sword and plunged it into the poor man’s back.
The villager’s cries suddenly fell silent. His last ragged, desperate breaths slowed. His head, which had struggled to stay afloat, sunk down into the ground, coming to rest on a pillow of dirt.
He was dead.
The Rider looked upon the scene with wide, staring eyes. He looked to the other man, the one adorned in armour, his armour; one of the Emperor’s men, one of the Rider’s own comrades.
The soldier glanced over to the Rider, eyeing him with an amused grin. “What’s wrong, kid?” he asked, a crude glint in his eye, “never seen a dead body before?”
The Rider tried to speak, but the words caught in his throat. He managed to choke out a strangled, “Why?”
“The hell do you mean, ‘why?’”
“He was… he was unarmed, fleeing… you stabbed him in the back. You murdered him.”
The man let loose a vile laugh. “You don’t murder dogs,” he sneered, “you put them down.”
“But… he was a man.”
“He was a traitor, he got what he deserved. Come on, we have our orders, get to it. Plenty more traitors where that one came from.”
He got what he deserved? Orders? What was going on?
The Rider sensed a presence behind him. He turned around, eyes staring directly into… it was him!
The Captain stood firm, long, platinum blonde hair flowing down his back, cold blue eyes staring down at the Rider, piercing through him like arrows.
The Rider swallowed the lump in his throat, feeling so small and insignificant compared to the man towering over him.
The Rider felt his mouth run dry as the Captain approached. There was a malevolence radiating from the man, assaulting the Rider, sending a chill down his spine. Something was wrong. The Rider was among the most junior members of the platoon. He couldn’t say he knew the Captain personally, but something about his presence felt off. It was as though something had changed within him; he felt even colder than usual. Whatever it was that lay beneath the Captain’s still surface, it had taken over. It stared down at the Rider through cold, menacing eyes, bringing even the air to a still silence.
The Captain spoke, his voice chilling the Rider more than the early morning air.
“What are you two doing standing around? You have your orders, get to it.”
The Rider couldn’t believe it. Part of him had wanted to believe this other soldier had gone mad, but… they were really doing this. Were they really going to burn this town, butcher these people like animals?
“What…?” The Rider hesitated, but swallowed his fear, voicing his question as boldly as he could: an admittedly feeble effort. “What’s going on, why?”
“Why?” the Captain barked. The Rider would say he was angry, had any emotion resided in his voice. “You have the audacity to ask why? You…” he paused, considering the Rider for a moment. “I don’t recall seeing you at the briefing earlier.”
“I… the Sergeant… he told me to—”
“He sent you away, didn’t he?” the Captain cut the Rider off, finishing his sentence.
The Rider looked down; he didn’t want to get the Sergeant into any trouble.
“Look at me, boy! Did the Sergeant send you away?”
“Yes,” the Rider finally answered, meeting the Captain’s cold gaze.
“I see… well,” he smirked. Any kind of smile on the Captain’s face was a strange sight, an unwelcome sight, but this one resembled that of a predator, seconds before the kill. The Rider didn’t like it. “He’s so sentimental. It’s fortunate that you made it back in time, you almost missed everything. None of us would want that, would we? This is the whole reason we’re here. Since you missed the briefing, I’ll fill you in. The wolves that reside in this village have revealed themselves as traitors. They conspire with our enemies, and must be put down for the glory of his Holiness, the Emperor. We can’t have wild wolves running free, biting the hands of their master, they must be culled for the greater good, I’m sure you understand. Suffer not the beast to live.” He gripped the Rider by the shoulders, turning him around and pointing out a small row of buildings, as yet untouched by the blaze that surrounded them, toasting the surrounding village, engulfing it in hellfire. The Rider flinched at the implication. “This is the penalty for treason. Take this lesson to heart, and remember it well.” He raised his arm, pointing out one building in particular. “That house is yours, now get to it.”
“W-what?” The Rider turned to see the sick smirk twisting the Captain’s face, splattering unwelcome emotions on the otherwise blank canvas.
“You heard me. You’ve been slacking; it’s time you got to work. Prove yourself to be a worthy soldier of the Empire. Clear those houses out, and then burn them to the ground, all of them, one by one… but start with that one.”
“Make an example of this pathetic village, turn it into a crematorium. Make it into a pyre, a beacon, a signal, so that all the others will know.”
This… this was madness.
“This is what happens to traitors,” the Captain said, smile fading. straight-faced, he almost resembled his old self. “This is the third crusade.”
This was a crusade? They were murdering civilians, burning them in their homes, butchering the ones they had sworn to protect.
This was too much. The Rider couldn’t face it; his legs gave way and he fell to his knees. The world faded to black, and was ripped away from him.