The dead had taken to the walls of Soma. Their sightless golden eyes stared out across the barren no-man's land between the city and the Imperial camp. Yussef sat with several of his command on a crag overlooking the pass. He studied the defenses with concern, ignoring the day's heat. The dead had repulsed their every assault at great cost.
“We won't get through,” said Moustaffa Horus, gesturing with his stump toward the dead standing motionless at their posts. “The infidels have broken even their own ghoulish laws. As though their shambling servants are not abhorrent enough.”
“Be resolute, General,” said Yussef. He put his hands on his knees and stood. His staff followed suit, looking to him for guidance. “They cannot last forever behind those walls, and if they sally forth not even their dead can match our numbers. Whatever necromancers hold the walls cannot hope to press-gang many more into their rotten legion.”
Yussef hoped, as he climbed down the long switchback trail from the crag back to the canvas city that was the camp, that he spoke the truth. In the last days of the Thulhun Empire the greatest of the Houses had turned their dead upon each other and whole armies of the living had fallen beneath the boots of the dead like wheat beneath the scythes of farmhands. If Soma's garrison grew stronger, there would be no taking it. At the base of the ridge, in amongst the foothills of Rafiq's Folly where their grooms waited with the galluses, Yussef turned back to face his Generals. Horus met his eyes with steely resolution, gaunt Nephru with reptilian inscrutability and massive Bobek with patience and serenity. “We will take Soma,” he said. That was all.
“As His Serenity commands,” said Nephru, flashing a quick salute before moving to mount his gallus. The others followed suit. They rode back to the camp in silence.
In amongst the tents the mood was subdued. Yussef had ordered the medical pavilions moved to the furthest outskirts of the encampment so that the screams of the dying would not demoralize the men, but the occasional cry of agony still drifted through the silence. The men weren't drinking. They weren't at dice or cards or chess. They sat outside their tents in the midday heat, shirts open and armor removed. Mail cuirasses hung from tentpoles and washing lines. Yussef clenched his wounded hand, feeling the scab across his palm begin to crack.
He must not doubt his father's will.
The officers' latrine pits were located at the camp's southwestern extreme and Yussef chose his path to them with care, assessing along the way the disposition of the camp's beating heart. It was good for the men to see their commander, even if he was on his way to the bogs. Good for them to remember that they fought not for him but for his divine father, the Son of Heaven. Men did straighten when he passed, even if they slouched when he'd rounded the next corner. The enginers, nearly dead center to the besieging army, bent their backs to their work with renewed vigor, stripping parts to build new trebuchets and scaling ladders while others directed teams of hadrosaurs in dragging extant engines into new dispositions. Yussef stopped to discuss the day's bombardment schedule with his chief enginer, a gruff Carnassan-born man called Wooden Surat by his men for his wooden leg and humorless comportment.
“There's cannon coming in from Shibola,” the man grunted as he stumped through the mad tangle, decipherable only to himself and his aides, of the camp's siege battery. “A fifty pounder cracked and repaired during the siege and two twenty-fives made before His Divinity's requisitions. We'll have them scrambling to patch their walls, dead or no dead.”
Yussef did his best to match the one-legged man's brisk pace while around him counterweights the size of millstones swung back and forth like the pendulums of murderous clocks and wooden yardarms dipped, rose and creaked with ferocious rhythm. “I'm glad to hear it,” he said. His bladder was aching, but he could spare the chief enginer a moment more. “As to the dead, I wonder if you might know any way to deal with them. I never expected the Confederates to make the move.”
“Caught with your pants down,” said Surat, limping without comment across a pace of bare earth mounded with hadrosaur shit. He halted and turned to Yussef, spinning neatly on his wooden peg-leg. “I ain't fought the dead before,” he said. “If it were me storming those walls, I'd want the necromancers found and done for. Get them and the game is over.”
“Something to consider,” Yussef said, forcing a smile. “Send word when the cannon arrive.”
Surat tipped his cap and resumed his trek down the bombardment line, bellowing orders and curses with equal fluency. Yussef watched the man a moment, then headed for the latrines.
Flies buzzed in the hot air, thick with the smells of sweetgrass and shit. Yussef pushed aside the canvas flap of his personal stall, unbuttoned his trousers and pissed with considerable relief into the morass beneath the wooden bench with its single round hole. He closed his eyes, letting his bladder's release drain the day's tension from his shoulders. A last few drops spattered the seat's edge and he buttoned himself up, turning back toward the unappealing idea of spending the rest of the day in the strategic tent with Horus and the others. He would see no more men butchered in fruitless attempts to gain Soma's walls.
“The dead will come up from the sea.”
Yussef froze. He glanced at the wooden bench. Eyes of emerald green met his. In the filth and muck of the latrine pit lay a crocodile colored so alike with its surroundings its presence would have been guesswork had its eyes not been so striking. No. It was not like-colored with the camp's offal. It was of the same substance. He tried to speak and found his voice no more than a hoarse croak.
“They were banished to its depths,” said the crocodile. It smiled and its teeth were as vivid a green as its eyes. “Banished along with their master who is called the Lord-Without-Mercy-or-Death, Master of Lost Souls and King of Moths. Now they return to herald his coming, and the sacrifice they will lay upon his altar will be the sons and daughters of this land.”
Yussef found his voice. “What are you?”
“I am the deep places,” said the crocodile. Its tail moved lazily from side to side, stirring the shit. “I am the gold-child of the fair departed.”
With frightening rapidity it plunged beneath the surface of the latrine's sluggish flow and, with a flick of its armored tail, it was gone. Yussef stood watching the ripples fade, his heart hammering in his chest. What had he seen? A demon? It had called itself gold-child. But no. The books of the Divided God spoke against that fallacy. Some agent of the Maintainer, that pretender to Machen's heavenly throne. Only when he pushed aside the canvas flap of Horus's tent and saw the puzzlement in the older man's face did Yussef realize he had decided to tell his father's friend.
“Serenity?” the General said.
“In the latrines,” said Yussef. His legs suddenly weak, he sank into a camp chair as the tent flap fell to behind him with a puff of dust. “I saw a crocodile swimming in the shit.”
“A crocodile?” Horus's brow furrowed. “I hardly think-”
“It spoke to me, Horus,” said Yussef dully, knowing he sounded worse than mad. “It spoke of the dead. Of Emperor Azurean's Drowned Legions, I think. The armies he took with him to his grave.”
“Fairy tales,” said the older man firmly. He stood and put a callused hand on Yussef's shoulder. “Serenity, you must be weary. I've seen twenty-year campaigners with the scars to prove it hallucinate worse in better weather.”
Yussef almost gave in. It was so tempting to dismiss the madness of the shit-stinking latrines as heat-shimmers and hysteria. A grave chill settled in his bones. His sister would have called it the bad colds, when she was young and innocent. ...banished along with their master who is called the Lord-Without-Mercy-or-Death, Master of Lost Souls and King of Moths. “No, Horus,” he said. “I know what I saw. Send for a scribe. I will take dictation for a letter.”
Eight days passed before a pigeon returned bearing a message from Carnassa. The heat in the pass had become almost intolerable. The camp followers lolled naked in the sun, taking turns at fanning one another. Custom at the whores' tents was so slack that they took to fucking for water, which was in short supply. The sauropod convoys that brought supplies up from the lowlands had been replaced by infrequent caravans of handcarts, hadrosaur drovers and tinkers. The rarefied air and heat together were too much for the great lumbering beasts.
Yussef took the letter in his tent where he sat shirtless and dripping with sweat, trying to make sense of reports sent by his scouts on the far side of the city. Each passing day brought closer the threat of Confederate reinforcements from Leng. Each night brought fresh dreams of the dead bursting up out of the earth, shit-colored and gold-eyed. The runs swept through camp and city both and soon the smell on the wind was always war's blood-and-shit stink. At least nothing burned. Who would set a fire in summer's worst heat? Awash in reek he could forget the screams of Shibola. He sighed and smoothed the tightly-rolled parchment out on his writing desk.
My beloved son,
Your diligence and courage daily strengthen my heart.
Your vision is cause for distress and moves me to contemplate the bearer, your crocodile, of these messages of import. The spirits of Cthun have come abroad to usher in my reign, but there are dangers to us greater even than Massud Madras. Soma must be taken, and swiftly. I command you to storm its walls on the first day of the month of Light before the sun has set. Do this, holding fast to your faith, and you will be delivered to victory.
In the hand of an unworthy slave.
Yussef closed his eyes and crumpled the parchment in his hand. He pressed it to his sweating breast as though it were a suckling babe. Salvation. At last, salvation. His heart sang. A great weight had been lifted from his shoulders and even the constant headache he had nursed since the arrival of the cannons from Shibola seemed suddenly a distant thing. He felt with shame the salty warmth of tears pricking at the corners of his eyes.