The knights approach the arch of the city gates on foot because they are so exhausted that it is more work to ride the equally abused horses than it is to just drag themselves forward. The only men riding on the animals are the wounded or dead, those who are incapable of walking on their own. Heroes always walk in on their feet, while the defeated need to be carried. Through the field of grass that they are forcing themselves to travel though they see their home in view, a beauty that only the returning victors can know.
Since leaving the battlefield in victory and exhaustion they have been keeping themselves moving with stories of home: family and food and the honor being those who are allowed to come home. The two weeks it took them to come this far was spent beside endless campfires telling stories about this very moment, some of those stories containing graphic detail of lonely husbands needing to return to the always desperate bodies of their wives.
The the city is already preparing for their welcome, they can see people dangling on the bridge over the gate where they will be hanging flowers and streamers, and ready to shout congratulations to them when they enter. Coming out of the walled city is a large tower of smoke fills the sky and tells them that this is more than being welcomed home, the kingdom has made it into a festival.
"They are already starting the celebration!" one of the injured soldiers says from his place atop the back of an exhausted horse. He is as excited as the others, despite knowing that he will have to spend a week in prison for the crime of being injured on the battlefield.
"Well then we begin to sing now." the harsh man with a full white beard and dressed because of his rank he never removes his full armor commands his army. He is walking in the lead, and unlike the others he lets no fatigue show in his stride.
As one voice they begin to sing out their song of returning home from the battlefield, their voices are kept deep and let the fatigue seep in only so far as to give more emotion. It is a song of victory, a song to the sky itself stating that they as men completed their duty and that now they have the right to claim the prize of being heroes. They put their arms around each others shoulders and sing out in tired joy as at last this march comes to an end.
The singing comes to an end as the soldiers begin passing through the gates. It is like a wave that their song turns off, the first to step through to the last, as each one looks up at the gates of their homeland. Their mouths hanging open in the middle of a note.
They look up at the walls that surround the land of their birth, where they expected to see their children dangling off the rafters of the gate throwing flowers down on them or decorating the city in flower chains. Only what greets them is instead three of their children, dressed in their best clothing, hanging from those gates with ropes around their necks. Each child is no older than ten years old and has their necks broken from the fall.
There is no other sound from the city or anyone to greet them home; there is no cheering from the balconies or music filling their ears. There are no streamers falling from the sky or young girls coming forward to give them flowers. The eighty remaining knights are standing alone in their own hometown after years of being gone, and not even a dog is heard. Only three dead children welcome them.
The smiles from their faces fade as they all gather around their leaders, and once all eighty knights are together under the arch the joy of returning home is forgotten and their exhaustion also is driven out by the sight of their city's children dead over their heads.
"Is this our welcome home? Or did our enemy come here as we fought?" asks one of the wounded men sitting atop a horse. He is looking up at the dead children hanging there just over him.
Their commander steps forward, an impressive man who has been fighting at the front lines of this war with their neighbors for decades without rest, his brow crinkled with seriousness and does that which he has always been the best in the world at; he gives his men orders.
"Two groups of twenty men each are to go into the city now and search the city, do not leave the members of your group under any circumstances, and return to us before sun down. The rest of us will leave the city and set up camp there. Only find out what happened here and then come back for us, if that is before sun down then return early." the general of the entire military says to his men. He has terrible images that their enemies left the field of battle to came here to their homeland and enslave their people. It would turn their moment of greatest victory an unrepairable humiliation.
Half of their remaining military separate from the main force in two groups and decide in that instant who is going and which group they are part of. It takes no time to figure this out and all face their brothers with their fists over their a fist over their heart. Then with that they turn away and begin their investigation.
The general leads the rest of his men outside the gates once more as his teams leave into the city, which feels like an act of betrayal to their people. He has a responsibility though to his army, and no matter what is going on here all he knows is that his soldiers are still alive and he plans to keep them that way while finding out what happened to their home.
The twenty soldiers go together as one group while the other twenty go their own way with the commander's own son leading one of the groups. They each take positions so that no part of their group is left unprotected as they have been trained to do since birth. Their nation is a land of soldiers and warriors, all boys are trained to fight and die for each other before they even learn math or reading.
Their designated leader presses his back to the wall of the first building in their city, which after the gate the first buildings are stores such as clothing, bakery, and weapons stores that line both sides of the street. He raises his fist to tell the men to stop, then points at two of his men and the door he is leaning next too.
The soldiers jump forward with no words or even a nod of their heads before one of them grabs hold of the brass handle of the door. He looks at his leader only as his hands wrap around the handle of the door and the other one stands behind him with his sword drawn. He is just there to cover the rest of the team in case something were to come at them from inside.
Their lieutenant commander then holds up his gloved hand and counts down with his fingers while watched by his men. The soldier pulls open the door all the way so he is standing behind it. Then the soldier that was covering him and two other soldiers rush into the building with their swords already in their hands.
The smell hits them before anything else, before even the two men enter. It is a smell as familiar to them as their mother's cooking or a field of fresh grass. The smell of rot and lost lives.
These are businesses, not homes. They are made of one large room with several locked closets lining the back of the room so the owners can store their supplies at the end of the day. The front of the building opens with a wooden canopy so the store is opened to the street as its owners conduct business.
There are three bodies in the store, two women and an old man. The old man has a sword driven into his throat with his own fingers wrapped around the hilt. The little girl who isn't even five years old yet, has multiple stab wounds throughout her entire upper body from a small dagger she is holding, and the adult woman who is most likely the mother of the girl has stabbed herself in the stomach with a broadsword. This was a weapons store.
The two soldiers do what they can not to stumble out of the building and vomit, or flee the city. They are not new to death, but this close to home makes it different.
"They murdered themselves!" one of the soldiers exclaims as he looks over the body of the child.
The leader comes inside the shop and looks at the bodies as well, though he trusts his soldiers to make proper observations. In a city of soldiers, of war makers and heroes, the act of taking ones own life is the worst of all possible sins, a blasphemy to the sword. Each soldier that sees these bodies is more disgusted by this then by the death itself.
"We hurry then to check the homes." their leader says, his sword being returned to his sheath as he sees nothing here can hurt him.
He turns and leaves this family to rot alone in this room. There is a deep sadness in his soul that starts picking at him with shame. His kingdom died without him here to protect them, his own family he left behind was here and he could do nothing.
He leaves the building in a hurry and marches his twenty men through the empty streets of the city he spent his life fighting for. Not even a bird can be heard, or an insect seen fluttering through the air. The other search party is also here but is traveling the opposite way.
They come out of the market and face the landmark of their kingdom, a building that is only second in size to the castle itself, which fills the entire backdrop of the city and makes up the walls that surrounds it. It is the government building and it is three times taller than all the other buildings in their city. An architectural experiment called a skyscraper, used to hold their government offices. The castle is for the military, the skyscraper is for the government. It has windows lining the face of it but it is made entirely of dressed brick and steel beams that support it's massive structure.
Each window is shattered and the bricks are chipped, and at the base of the building, spread out around the feet of the soldiers are thousands of dead birds. All of the birds of this massive pile have had their necks broken. The twenty men stop when they see this and stand there looking at them with their faces shocked. The world growing more hopeless as they start to understand the meaning of what they see. The birds are not alone, there are also several bodies of humans who seemed to have jumped off the roof and joined the pile of dead birds, and there is not one insect here to take advantage of this feast.
"We wont find a single living thing here." one of the soldiers says with a grave voice.
"We keep searching though. We might at least finds the reason for all this." their leader says as he makes himself turn away from the sight.
When they get to the homes, the place that should be the safest place in the world, they have given up on finding anyone alive. All the blocks they walked they only saw death and emptiness. People drowned themselves in the fountains or just crouched to their knees and smashed their heads against the brick until they died. Wherever people or animals were they simply stopped and killed themselves in whatever way they imagined.
There is smoke coming from the center of the city so they have decided to go there. Though a still burning fire means that all of this happened recently, which has added to the shame and sadness running through these soldiers' imaginations.
Inside the first home they found that the entire family hung themselves from the rafters, together in the dark they all swung. The second home they slit their throats at the kitchen table. At the third house went against nature and drowned themselves in the bathtub.
The entire population of their nation committed suicide for no reason they don't understand. Even babies and livestock took their own lives.
When they get to where they saw the smoke they understand where the pervasive smell of cooked meat came from. Two houses broke down their homes and created a massive pyre from the boards, and then just stepped inside the flames. The bonfire is filled with dogs and cats and other animals. Even as they stand there looking at the site, slugs and worms squirm along the ground into the fire that still burns.
"Our entire homeland, while we fought for them in the field, was here killing themselves, every living thing." says their leader with a haunted voice.
One of the soldiers, not having an idea what he is suppose to do be doing, reaches down and scoops up one of the worms crawling towards its death. If he couldn't save his family and the people he would have himself died for, at least he will do his best to keep one living thing in this world. As he holds the worm it keeps trying to get away from him in whatever way a worm possesses, thrashing around like in pain.
"Even the plants are drooping. Whatever happened here truly effected everything living." another soldier observes.
"We must get back and report this to my father. He will know what to do." the leader says, breaking the rules by calling the commander of their military his father, which shocks his men standing with him; they didn't know he could become that emotional. They all feel it though, the loss of everything.
Looking over the bonfire that was used to take so many lives for one last time so they can remember the dead, they all turn away from it and head back to their general and the rest of their brothers. The last people remaining in their kingdom.
Now as they leave the city the silence is no longer eerie, it instead makes them sick and confused. Each house, schoolyard, whorehouse, or hospital are nothing more than large coffins filled with bodies left rotting by their own hands.
"What are your ideas Lieutenant?" the man who saved the worm asks. It had escaped at some point,which he feels guilty about that.
"I can only think of two things that could do this. I heard that the kingdom of Alum was developing some kind of biological weapon that used smell or sound to kill people. I think they either tested it on us or some other force came in and killed everyone themselves and made it look like suicide. Either way we will have our vengeance." He says while making a fist hard enough to make the armor along his fingers crack.
"I think the gods did it," one of the soldiers says. "To punish us for something. Maybe because we didn't go and kill their women and children like we were suppose to, so the gods killed our women and children." the youngest of the soldiers says, he was the only one of their number that has wept.
"There are no gods, this is but the work of cowardly men." their leader says, which gets nods from many of the others.
They get back to the market and walk once again under the gates of their city, built by their ancestors who are now as dead as their descendents. Until they go and get wives from one of their enemies, which will be easy now that they won their war, they will be the last living people to be in this city. The idea infuriates their leader, no soldier should outlive the people they warred for.
Their commander set up camp far enough outside that if an enemy were to come from the city they could come up with a strategy before it got to them, yet not far enough that they could get inside were something to attack them in the field.
The twenty soldiers, exhausted both physically from a decade of war and mentally from seeing that their entire kingdom slaughtered themselves, step close to the camp of their brothers, to see a large camp fire burning. Smoke from it billows up into the air. It feels welcoming to them, it is not the home they desired, but at least it is a place to rest.
"Perhaps they have food ready for us." one of the soldiers surmises out loud, as there is a smell in the air of food.
The lieutenant looks down at the camp of his father the commander, with it's tents already set around the fire. There he sees what is in the fire, and also laying scattered around the camp. The remainder of their nation, under direct command of the greatest military mind in history all lay on the ground with their bodies displayed like the people of the city, some with their weapons driven into their bodies or having dived into the flames. Some far more brutally.
The leader screams a curse and takes off running towards the camp followed instantly by the rest. Their armor clangs and crashes as they run, and their voices yell out in rage and grief.
They come into the camp together and find it the same as the square of the town. Death surrounds them, the air is filled with the smell of their brother's roasting. They are alone now, the twenty of them are all that remains of their entire nation.
They are able to do nothing more then stand there looking around the camp, surrounded in the lifeless faces of the greatest their nation has ever produced, heroes each one of them. The word soldier, once a holy word in their vocabulary, now means nothing anymore.
"Father!" their leader betrays himself and turns away from those who remain. There is not enough space in the camp for anyone to be far away and not have heard them enter the camp, if they were alive they would have greeted or warned them.
It it is the first they have noticed that the air is not moving anymore, and that the grass of the field has all died in just the amount of time it has taken them go into the city and back.
Something moves from the other side of the fire and the soldiers' attention is drawn towards it. It was a small motion and unclear what it was but they all run around to the other side hoping that it was someone from their camp that is still alive. Though they have had hope ripped from them too many times to believe it.
"It's the thing responsible!" one of the other soldiers calls out, though it is mere theory. He is the only soldier that did not run to investigate.
The leader draws his weapon, a sword he was given by his father that has taken as many lives as whatever has done this their nation. The blade is made of Damasks steel and polished to be like a mirror.
The rest of the soldiers, now that they see their leader remove his sword, all draw their own from their scabbards. Together they all draw in close to each other, back to back and get ready for whatever could come for them.
There they all see what they never had in their imaginations before, coming from out of the tent. A woman no taller than three foot tall stands there looking at them. She has a full adult body of attractive proportions in a tiny package. Her eyes are true red and her hair is such a dark black that even the light avoids it. Her clothes are made from strips of other clothes that were poorly sewn together so gaps of pale skin peek through as she just stands there with a flap of the tent resting on her forearm.
Upon seeing her the leader steps backward, which causes all of his men to back up with him, though since they are in battle position they are able to move without getting in each others way.
"You're one of 'them'" the leader hisses at the girl, who just meets his eyes without a word to him. As he says this, and sees one of the boogie men of their ages standing before him, he is imbibed with a retching hopelessness in his heart of hearts.
One of his men breaks his position from the others and dives into the bonfire with no warning. He does not scream as the fire eats him alive, but thanks the fire for giving him freedom. The soldiers who see him do this are not shocked, but are instead jealous.
Another soldier draws his sword across his throat with quiet stoicism. He never said a word, but stands as though all his pride were in that moment, blood gushing from his slashed juggler vein.
Each soldier in turn, with no order to rank or emotional strength takes his own life in front of the tiny woman, each in their own chosen way. She stands there watching them each with full exception of just something normal that happens.
The national hero and leader of men through countless years of war is no different. He lifts his sword and points the tip against his heart, and with joy plastered on his face he falls forward. When he lands it forces his beautiful blade through his back and armor, coming out with the mirror polish stained for the last time.
In just a few breaths each of the remaining people of this nation fall to their own hands, a genocide of self.
Standing there for a few moments just to see if anyone miraculously survived her, the woman sighs and steps out from under the tent while looking at the bodies of men piled around her. She has to step over the leg of one of the fallen soldiers to get by, which at her size annoys her.
"That smell always makes me hungry." she says with a voice that sounds like an adult's, only smaller.
Just leaving the dead where they fell she starts walking away from a city built with pride that became nothing more then a walled coffin where the people chose battle armor for their funeral clothes. Thus is the way of men.
Her name is Korse, a Sorrowmancer.