It was Hakara’s third Wyld Hunt in as many years, and he was forced to admit that being a shikari was not what he had expected at all, though he knew it was a necessary duty. His first hunt, he’d been so keyed up that he’d nearly pissed himself when the man the Immaculate fingered had gone from peasant to Anathema in a single terrible heartbeat, horrible golden light pouring off it in waves as the demon possessed the poor man, screaming curses and blasphemies. Fortunately, Ledaal Hakara had trained at the House of Bells, and though “Now, get ‘im!” was not one of the standard field commands prescribed in The Thousand Correct Actions of the Upright Soldier, it had the desired effect, and Hakara’s infinite jade chakram caught the Blasphemous in the shoulder, distracting it long enough for Sessus Amara and Nellens Jaal to close. A golden fist swung like a pile driver took down Jaal, but Amara got her spear through the thing’s chest before it picked her up, armor and all, and snapped her spine like a twig.
Tepet Garam was still shouting commands, forming up spearmen to protect his archers, and even though most of the mortals’ arrows were bouncing off the anathema’s skin harmlessly, Cathak Taro put her powerbow to good use, and several of her shots found their marks.
It charged them then, plowing right through the spear line, tossing legionaries aside like ragdolls. It grabbed one, and Hakara threw himself to the side. Taro was not so fortunate, as the demon swung the man like a club, crushing the archer to the ground long enough for the demon to pulp her head beneath a sandal-clad foot. Finally, Garam went toe-to-toe with the thing, matching it blow for blow with his goremaul, Righteous Fist of Virtue, while his sandstorm anima banner shredded into the demon-made-flesh. Then it was done, the demon departed, and all that was left was the shell of the mortal, pierced with arrows, cut by blades, crushed and abraded, a mass of blood. Jaal and Taro were dead, along with over a dozen legionaries, and Amara was paralyzed from the neck down, screaming in pain. It had taken less than a minute.
The second took longer. It had taken time for word to travel from Harborhead to the chapter house at Yarrowstalk, and by the time they arrived, the anathema had followers. One village attacked the Hunt mercilessly, then when the fighting went against them, committed suicide. Men, women, children, all turned their weapons on themselves. That really rattled the legionaries. Twice the Hunt brought their quarry to bay, but twice it escaped. The second time it left no trail. The troops quartered the savannah, and V’neef Maala, the All-Seeing Eye’s representative, set out, returned, cursed, set out and returned again. The Immaculate diviners cast their horoscopes for a week, before muttering that the matter was unclear, and the stars said nothing. It was a long journey by ship from Harborhead back to the Blessed Isle.
This Hunt didn’t seem particularly auspicious either. The Hunt was lead by a man named Sesus Lahor, who had openly bribed his way into command, and seemed intent on turning a military expedition into a gala safari. Hakara hated Lahor from his first meeting with the Fire Aspect, and being forced by leadership to cater to the man’s every whim had not helped matters. Lahor had shown no interest in the operational aspects of the campaign, nor even tactics – “What’s there to it?” he’d asked. “If you ask me, you shikari have been pretty spoiled lately, laying down on the job y’know? It’s time a real man showed you how things are done.” Drawing his reaver daiklaive, Combustion’s Profligate Mistress, Lahor had split a desk in half. “Cut through the red tape, man! Do I have to do everything around here? Now look sharp, I want the troops assembled and ready for inspection before we sail on the morning’s tide.” Whereupon the fire aspect had strode out of the office and vanished for the rest of the day.
The dockside had been another fiasco. It had taken all night, but personnel had been recalled, stores assembled and loaded, and the auxiliaries drawn up in open ranks just after dawn, for the tide would turn at mid-morning. An hour later, Sessus had not yet arrived when the first animal cage rolled up, containing an enormous panther, spitting and snarling. Others soon followed: a pair of strix, a clawstrider, ostriches and flamingos.
Hakara had peremptorily ordered them away, only for the handlers to deferentially apologize, claiming they had orders to load their charges on the troopships. Then a richly dressed young man approached, introduced himself as Sessus Cyan, and with downcast eyes explained that his cousin, Lahor, had ordered him to see to the loading of Lahor’s goods. In addition to the animals, which included Lahor’s four favorite racehorses, there was a pleasure pavilion and its staff, who would need quarters as well. The list went on and on.
Hakara was so numb with shock that he almost missed one item. “Reagents? Reagents for what?”
“My lord owns a fuel bolt launcher, sir. He calls it Fell Bane of Anath-“
“He wants to bring firedust and explosive reagents aboard a troop ship?!” Hakara was livid with rage and horror.
And yet load it they had. All of it. Lahor breezed in at an hour till noon, berated everyone in earshot – quite a few – for incompetence, and had three dockworkers flogged for shirking. The ships sailed that evening, hulls so low in the water that they wallowed even through the calm swells. Decks were packed, hatches covered, and the men, not just crew, packed three or four to a bunk. They were on half-rations as well, to keep the courtesans – who no one was allowed to speak with or approach – from going hungry.
If the sea voyage had been miserable, the river journey had been torture. Lahor had nearly sparked a fight with Lookshy, sailing under their walls and shooting off his firewand. At least being near land again meant they could come off rations. Hakara hadn’t had to eat salt pork since he was a cadet at secondary school. He’d taken to eating in his cabin – only the dynasts had that privilege – just to get a few minutes away from Lahor.
The other dragon-blooded had that idea too, it seemed, for he was often joined by one or both of the others. He didn’t begrudge them. He’d known Tepet Kiriel from primary school, where they’d attended the Harmonious Spire Transcendent. Unlike the rest of their small clique, Kiriel hadn’t gone on to the House of Bells. Instead, the water-aspect said she had felt a calling towards something more spiritual, and had gained acceptance to the Cloister of Wisdom. She hadn’t been allowed to take vows, though. Before they’d graduated, the Tepet Legions had been smashed by the anathema Bull of the North, and Kiriel’s family said her services were now required for other purposes, and monastic life was out of the question. She’d spent the last four years drilling troops, honing them and herself. He’d asked why they were allowing her out this time, and she’d replied, “Field experience.”
The final dynast, on loan from the All-Seeing Eye, was something of a mystery. He’d seen action in the threshold, had faced an anathema and lived it was said, although the green jade prosthetic that replaced his right hand testified to how near a thing it had been. Cynis Marad refused to discuss the event, and the other two respected his wishes. For all his taciturn demeanor, he was focused and disciplined.
They used these informal dinner sessions to plan the campaign, such as it was. The Immaculates said there was – or would be – an anathema in a flyspeck of a town called Wangler’s Knob on the banks of the Grey River in the south of the Scavenger lands. The planning helped a little. When they finally disembarked from the ships, their cross-country speed was slowed by the pleasure tents, the camp followers, and the three wagons simmering with alchemical substances whose delicate glass containers were all that held them in abatement from bursting into flame. Sessus Lahor didn’t seem to mind in the least, however, and the fire aspect delighted in demonstrating his fuel bolt launcher on villages that didn’t show him proper respect. He’d razed three so far.
Soon, Hakara thought. Soon they’d be at the Knob. Soon this farce would reach its conclusion, for good or ill. He stared out at the encampment. There’d been another hunt today, and two wildebeests and a parts of a giant crocodile were sizzling in firepits and on spits. Another dozen auxiliary troops were injured as well. Dragons help us all, he thought. How can we save Creation from the Anathema like this?