A canopy of entrails dangled from bare branches over a dark, stinking bog. A chorous of flies buzzed anxiously with the steady beat of long poles plunging into the muck to press a fleet of rafts forward.
An army as disheveled as the rafts that bore them drifted over the gray muck. Rifles in hand, they crouched – scanning the misty horizon for threats. Their uniforms were a ragged assortment of double-breasted grays, browns with brass fittings in the colars, and faded reds with tattered sashes at the waist – hardly uniform at all. Each variation in dress and insignia hinted at the many Houses that these soldiers once served. Not all these Houses survived today.
At the peak of their echelon formation stood the Chieftain. He towered above all others at five feet and three inches and was almost as broad as he was tall. The braided locks of his beard reached nearly to his knees – the hilt of his saber protruding from the unkept hairs. His meaty hand rested on the butt of his pistol which hung in a holster from his chapped leather belt. Thick lines traced thick cheekbones under weary eyes and around his broad nose. Traces of gray peppered his bushy moustache and sideburns. He would soon see the tenth anniversary of this damned war and its wear showed on his visage.
In the eerie silence, the Chieftain found his mind wandering yet again to the memory of the dead. His cousin was among the first and most shocking casualties for himself and all his people. Until that point, they’d believed that the Enemy could be reasoned with. His sister in law was publicly tortured to death soon thereafter. Nobody realized at the time that it probably wasn’t so much a political statement as raw sadism that motivated the Enemy. That was the death that convinced the clan of the necessity of war. By the time his two sons fell, the Chieftain had already grown accustomed to death and his sorrow festered more inwardly.
A similar toll weighed on his nation and every man who now stood in his company. Reflecting upon those bloody days brought a nervous twitch to his bushy eyebrows and he took care to breathe more steadily. A chaiftain can’t afford to let defeat creep into his heart. The Clan had already seen far too much of it.
The enemy was close. Even through the scent of the bog, he could smell them.
The Chieftain pressed his palm into the hammer of his rifle as he raised the butt to his shoulder. A soft “click” informed him that the flint was ready to fly. He spread powder into the weapon’s pan then nodded at the Colonel beside him.
The Colonel raised a hand – a gesture that brought all poles quietly to the rafts and ushered in a chorous of cocking hammers through the symphony of flies. Long moments passed and nary a soul dared breathe. The humid air devoured all attention and its fog shrouded their rapt gaze.
At last, a silent arrow punctured the mist and sunk viceously into the the Chieftain’s neck. His vision flooded white and sudden pain knocked him backward onto the raft. The impact jarred the missile in his neck and ripped it free, spurting red from the tear.
Before the Colonel could finish shouting his order, the thundrous report of compliance drowned him out. Volleys roared, sundered branches and several heavy splashes echoed through the gray vail. The troops scrambled to pry planks off their rafts and form barricades before more arrows burst silently from the haze.
Laying on his back, the Chieftain drew his pistol and fired in the direction of his enemy. He then pressed the weapon’s hot barrel to his neck to cauterize his new wound. Arrows clunked into rafts for several moments before rifles roared once again and then the swamp fell silent.
“Where’s their taskmaster?” The Chieftain whispered to no one in particular. “They would have fled after the first volley without one.”
The colonel beside him silently nodded as they both scanned ahead in utter futility. The hissing of ramrods echoed in the swamp as the army pressed powder, wadding, and ball down their barrels.
With a nod from the Chieftain, the Colonel hissed and gestured for a fireteam to scout ahead. They sloughed off most of their gear and rolled off the rafts to wade quietly toward the enemy’s last known position – rifles held above their heads to keep their shots from soaking and their barrels from rusting.
Before the scouts were fully concealed by the fog, a thick streak of green light burst through the air and landed with a deafening explosion on the center-most raft in the fleet. Its riders flew with their gear and shrapnel in all directions, landing chaotically on those surrounding them.
More soldiers rolled off their rafts to take cover beneath or behind them as another ray of green seered through the air and concussed upon another vessel.
Splashing thundrously through the swamp, enormous footfalls forewarned of the enemy’s “taskmaster.” Its silhouette stood twelve feet tall, goat-like legs and hooves bearing the hulking mass of a muscular, humanoid form. Crowning its head were a pair of curled horns, pointed forward as if made for goring more than bludgeoning. Long stirated arms ended in balled fists clutching a sword in one hand and the limp corpse of a scout in the other. It hurled the body at a raft, knocking a soldier into the muck.
As soon as the figure’s position and profile was known, the army wasted no time. They fanned out to surround the fiend and laid down careful volleys of suppressive fire, while others moved into stronger positions. As they did, swarms of diminutive, red-skinned fiends dropped from the trees to gnaw at necks and claw at faces. The slightest resistance by bayonet, hatchet and saber sent these cowardly ambushers scampering away but it was still enough to disrupt the army’s tempo and rupture a few arteries.
The aerobic task of pressing through muck hastened the loss of blood through the tiny lacerations inflicted by harrying imps in the gut-laden trees. Soldiers slumped helplessly into the bog as their strength drizzled from those wounds.
The Colonel slammed a magazine into a crank-fire gatling, then slapped the back of the man at the trigger. With a turn of the lever, the gun hammered steadily through the air, bidding the trees to crack and tumble and the imps within them to shower onto the swamp below.
An angry roar shook the naked branches of trees and sent the last of the imps scurrying away. Its shockwave blasted fog from the air and drew all eyes to the taskmaster who’d belched it. The Chieftain smiled beneath his frazzled, blood-caked beard.
“I’ve got you now, you old bastard,” the Chieftain rasped through his wounded neck.
The roaring demon flexed every muscle on its red body, brandished the black sword in its hand, then locked eyes with the Chieftain who sneered defiantly.
“Foolish mortal!” The beast shouted. “Thy struggle only feeds my lust for—” but the blast of harpoon guns drowned out the end of the sentence and the teathered spears they launched lanced through the fiend’s throat.
Gushing black ichor, the monster wildly flung green rays from its hands, detonating randomly and harmlessly in the sky. It thrashed and flailed as the army pulled on harpoons stuck in its neck, collectively dragging its mass down into the muck. After several long moments of splashing and gurgling, the heaping mass of red flesh fell still.
The Chieftain waded out to the taskmaster and climbed upon the beast, standing on its chest, and looking down at it helpless but still conscious. Its breath was audible through the holes torn by the harpoons yet it somehow managed to focus enough air to speak.
“Dost thou suppose thyself the victor, mortal?” It hissed.
Striding casually up the red, hulking torso, the Chieftain began to communicate in the only the Enemy understood: Patronizing and gloating.
“I imagine you’re very old – ancient, even! You’ve probably enslaved civilizations for longer than mine’s existed,” he began pacing across broad pectorals and raised his voice to involve his men in the rhetoric, “but today is different. Your intimidation, your murders could not win you the day! For today you fought no ordinary mortals! We are Dwarves of the Earthhewn Clan!”
The army cheered and began chanting the Chieftain’s name: “Lockjaw! Lockjaw! Lockjaw!”
Lockjaw of House Gorgenbrew, Chieftain of the Earthhewn Clan knelt down to whisper to his fallen enemy: “It's true. We may never be victorious. But we can never be defeated.”
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