The boy died with a scream and Allam knew he had made a mistake. But as he stood by with clenched fists, listening to that final, wordless expulsion flee into the night, he wondered what choice he’d had. Everyone heard the coughing, they all knew what it meant. Right up until he’d watched the trio of Loyal Officers, each decked out in their full battle dress despite the lingering heat, frog-march the kid out of the barracks, Allam entertained the idea that maybe his intervention was saving a life other than his own.
When the Captain himself drew his ceremonial blade, the reality of the situation hit Allam with the scouring force of a sandstorm. He had known from a young age what the Legion did, what it was, had learned the rules firsthand during his perfunctory recruitment phase. In an odd way, the Legion represented a kind of hope for the truly damned. Now, confronted with the consequences of failing that second chance, Allam wondered if there was any truth to it at all.
He felt the eyes of his fellow Legionnaires boring into his back, their silent judgment telling him he had exposed himself. And by doing so, Allam squandered what little planning for getting through this tour he’d actually done.
It was just a cough, the result of spending too much time down here in the Glass Desert. This place got into the lungs, they all knew it. Allam felt it starting in his own chest, the added resistance, the slight shudder of the deeper breaths after a long march. It would get him, too, if he couldn’t find his way back to the cool, clean air of Helmis City before it was too late.
The Captain used a rag torn from the body’s stained robes to wipe the blood away from his black blade. He said nothing, and though Allam couldn’t bring himself to raise his gaze above the old man’s knees, he knew the Captain watched him along with the rest. And damn him for that, thought Allam. He didn’t have to wait until everyone gathered for the evening’s motivational sermon before acting, he didn’t have to make a spectacle of it.
What would happen to Allam when his own cough left the same freckles of blood in the palm of his hand? Who would rat him out? As it was now, who wouldn’t? How could he keep his head down when he was busy looking over his own shoulder? Prying his eyes away from where the kid’s skeletal body slumped to the smooth, hard ground, Allam found the distant glow of Helmis City hanging in the dark sky above them. They hadn’t even escaped the sight of the place yet and things were already falling apart.
I really am going to die down here, thought Allam.
“A dignified death,” said the Chaplain, the words too loud for the vast and brittle silence that had come over the camp. After a long exhalation, he continued at a lower volume. “The boy retained his essential humanity, and can be proud of that.
“He had a name,” muttered one of the Legionnaires.
Something small and soft hit Allam in the back. He did not reach for it. It wasn’t the first time he’d been spat upon and he expected that was the least of what he had coming to him now. Watching the Captain’s face, Allam tried to spot a reaction. For a moment, he thought he caught a slight head movement, maybe a nod, but the craggy features never changed and Allam couldn’t be sure it was anything more than shadows dancing in the firelight.
“We all have a choice,” said the Chaplain. “Because the options are not pleasant does not change that. Really, those are the most important choices we can make, yes? Think about that tonight. Reflect on your own nature as human beings–our own nature, for we are still one and the same. Your own ability to make choices. Free will is what separates us from them.” The Chaplain shook his head, “No bad thing happened here.”
During the customary response period, Allam heard a few of the men behind him whispered to each other. Their words were unintelligible but clear enough in intent to start a cold sweat on the back of his neck. No bad thing had happened here yet, he amended. There was still the rest of the night for him to get through, and there were fates worse than death. That was the point of the Legion, after all.
“I take your silence as agreement,” said the Chaplain at last. “Go now, and continue to strive for the better tomorrow.”
“The better tomorrow,” repeated Allam and the other Legionnaires.
The men began to drift away. Still used to city crowds and enclosed spaces, Allam’s instincts told him he needed to blend in, let the human tide carry him along to the safety of anonymity. But besides the low, twisted shell of a building that served as the camp’s overnight barracks, the same flat, desolate terrain surrounded them in every direction. Beyond that, the black ring of night waiting at the firelight’s edge, serving better than any cage at keeping him trapped. There was no escape route in that darkness. Even if he did get away, did survive until morning, and the morning after that, he couldn’t go back home, back to Helmis City. Not as a deserter.
“Good to know some of us can still keep our heads up,” said the Chaplain as he came up beside Allam., who found himself staring at that distant light again.
Seeing the slight smile on the younger man’s lips, Allam shrugged. “There’s not much else to look at.”
“No, I suppose there isn’t.” The Chaplain chuckled. “Tell me what you see, Legionnaire.”
A falling star temporarily frozen in its death plummet, thought Allam. He said, “My better tomorrow.”
“No doubt,” said the Chaplain. “You’ve proved your devotion, Legionnaire. The others will realize that as well, in time.”
“In time for what?” Allam asked, unable to keep a bitter tinge out of his words.
“It’s as bad as all that?” The Chaplain shrugged. “You underestimate the resolve of your comrades. Do you think this is the first Blighted body they have seen?”
Allam looked away and watched a pair of men roll the kid’s body onto a cot. “No,” he said. “But it would be mine.” He frowned. Why had he said that?
“Ah,” said the Chaplain. “That abiding doubt, yes?” Before Allam could reply, the Chaplain called out to the men carrying the body, gesturing for them to bring it closer.
“Sir?” one of the men asked.
“You are taking the body to the burial pit, yes?” asked the Chaplain.
“Yes, sir,” said the man.
“Good,” said the Chaplain. “But would you mind if we inspected it first? Legionnaire Allam would like to make sure, and so would I. That’s only sensible, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Yes, sir,” said the man while he offered Allam a flat expression. His partner muttered something under his breath as well, but Allam didn’t catch it.
Taking out his own black knife, smaller than the Captain’s but as razor sharp, the Chaplain slashed lightly across the kid’s chest, cutting a neat line through the robes from hip to shoulder. “Would you please do the honours?” he asked Allam.
Hesitating only a moment under the glare of the Legionnaires, Allam reached down to pull the fabric away and reveal the kid’s bare chest. Then he nearly fell over in his reflexive need to put distance between himself and what he saw.
The pallbearers sniggered while the Chaplain clucked. “Do you see now?” he asked.
The Chaplain’s blade left a shallow, bloodless line across the pink torso, and almost parallel to that ran a much deeper cut, a valley of open flesh that split the rib cage. A smell of rotting, festering flesh hit Allam’s nose and he knew that second wound was days, if not weeks, old. An injury like that should have been fatal, yet, aside from the coughing, the kid has shown no signs of even minor pain.
“Self-inflicted, as you know,” said the Chaplain.
Inside the thick walls of brown bone and muscle were rows of small protuberances, stubby grey and yellow things shorter than a thumb. Allam imagined them closing up the chest cavity, knitting together like soft teeth as they held the kid together from the inside. Like everyone else, he’d grown up with the stories of the Blight, of the monsters it created. But he had never seen someone so far gone, not even in the sunless guts of Helmis City.
“The price one pays,” said the Chaplain. “The reason he had to die. Proof enough, Legionnaire?”
A few of the small things moved, limp convulsions as they died with their host. Allam turned away, the back of his throat burning with the taste of bile.
“Get yourself a good eyeful,” said the lead pallbearer.
Allam said nothing.
“You may go about your business, Legionnaires,” said the Chaplain and the men took the body away.
It was an odd thing, Allam thought. He’d called the boy out, knew why he’d done it, but confronting the reality didn’t help ease his mind, the tingle of guilt already replaced now by a thudding realization of the situation he was in. The fate he’d been dealt. And the lights of Helmis City kept on shining down at him.
“You think that you were only saving yourself,” said the Chaplain and when Allam still didn’t respond, he continued. “Who is worse, the man who does the wrong thing for the right reasons, or the man who does the right thing for the wrong reasons? Perhaps you will always consider it selfish, but you contributed to the lesser of all possible evils by, as they will inevitably call it, ‘snitching.'”
The Chaplain watched Allam with wide eyes devoid of judgment. An open face, an earnest face. One that wanted him to trust, to confess “He did that to himself?” asked Allam.
“Yes,” said the Chaplain. “It’s the choice everyone inflicted with the Blight comes to in the end. Man wants to survive above all else. We know that. But he is short sighted, and we know that, too. Those little voices, yes? They feed on that insecurity.”
Only the Loyal Officers carried the black blades, with the rank and file Legionnaires issued blunt maces and clubs. Now he understood better why that was, but the Glass Desert did not lack for sharp edges. The image of the boy wandering off during the night to impale himself on one of the crystal dunes filled his mind. Allam shuddered.
“Unable to see the consequences of his own actions–or maybe despite them.” The Chaplain bowed his head. “Confronted with oblivion, he is prone to bargaining with powers that he cannot fathom, let alone control. They only need a way in, you see? Another week and he’d have lost what little humanity he had left to the Blight’s influence. They say it’s like falling into a dream. When it’s that or spitting up chunks of lung under the withering sun, who wouldn’t be tempted?”
Allam tried to think of an answer that didn’t feel like an admission of guilt. Unable to, he shrugged.
“A quick, clean death is all the mercy we have to offer,” the Chaplain said.
Allam said, “They will still hate me for it.”
“You Legionnaires have your own ideals, as you will learn,” said the Chaplain. “A certain pride is necessary, keeps the Legion going, but it is double-edged. Disappearing quietly into the night, sparing your comrades that final, tortuous choice, that is how it’s meant to be done. A communion with your conscience in the wild, a test of the limits of honour. It’s admirable, but flawed. Were the stakes not so great, things might be different.” Turning to look up at Helmis City, the Chaplain said, “Down here, all we have are each other, yes?”
The Chaplain left Allam with an offer to bed down in the officer’s quarters, the only room in the barracks with a lock, if he still feared retaliation. But also reassured him of the unlikelihood of anything more than insults and dirty looks. Though he was a new recruit, Allam was still a Legionnaire.
Stars filled the sky and cold crept up from the hard ground. Allam found a spot on one of the sharp dunes to watch the watchers. He considered that, the way threats were external right up to the point where they weren’t. There were no enemy armies out there, no other civilization for as far as any of them knew. But they still posted sentries every night, still had men straining against the dark, listening for what might lurk outside their tiny blip of humanity. Because they were out there, the Blighted. The ones banished from Helmis City, that impossible choice a birthright handed down from generations lost in the distance of memory.
And now Allam was amongst them, cut off from the only world he’d ever known. His comrades watched the night for him, and he was grateful for that, yet how could he trust them? Trust what hid under their robes?
A low, droning hum filled the camp as the generator crew began to crank up the ancient machinery. Pilot lights appeared on the high wires above the camp, a line of elongated stars running out and over the dunes and out of sight. Allam washed his hands three times then found the Chaplain. The small comfort of a locked door bought him a few hours of restless sleep full of formless shapes whispering from the abyss at the edge of his mind.
Allam woke to a commotion, a frantic energy in the camp that he sensed before he’d dressed. Still pulling his belt into place, he emerged into a day so bright and blue it stung his tired eyes. “What’s going on?” he asked the first man who passed.
Without stopping, the Legionnaire called out, “There was a message last night.” Before Allam could find out more, the man disappeared around a corner and a nearby Loyal Officer began to shout orders at Allam.
Fifteen minutes after rolling out of his cot, Allam took his place in the formation. Breaking the camp down for the day’s march took priority over breakfast, so he and the other Legionnaires chewed dry breakfast rations while the Chaplain gave a hurried morning service.
“We press on for the good of mankind,” called the Chaplain from the rear of the column. “The answer is out there.”
During the response period, news spread through the men. The forward camp, the last emplacement before the ruins, sent word of a siege. “That’s where we’re supposed to be,” said a man in Allam’s row. “We’re the relief force for the garrison there, so no wonder the Captain is so pissed.”
“But why are the Blighted attacking?” asked another Legionnaire.
“Fucked if I know,” said the first man.
“Maybe the Legion found something,” Allam said. Nobody replied.
More shouts. “For the better tomorrow,” they all called back, and then the march began.
They kept a double-time speed all morning and for hours the only sounds were the Legion’s crunching footsteps. Allam concentrated on breathing, on keeping his legs moving, letting his mind wander back, looking for memories of cool breezes from his youth. They didn’t stop the heat from soaking his torso in sweat and left him with the strange feeling of something foreign, as if they had happened to a different person, in a different life.
During the quick stop for lunch, Allam crouched in the shade of a high dune. Another rumour swept through the men as soon as they had breath enough to spare. The boy’s body disappeared during the night. Allam chewed more dried rations and struggled to find a comfortable position, but even with his back pressed against the rigid wall of the dune, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was completely exposed. He wondered if he would ever feel safe again.
[Note: This is a simple story based on a simple prompt and the idea that I might write some first chapters for imaginary books to help break open the dam. It shouldn’t require explanation, but the prompt was to write a story set in a world where magic is considered a congenital disease. And it was fun, which is important.]
As always, questions, comments, and critiques are welcome. And you’re also welcome to explore the prompt on your own terms.