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Iron Quill (The Past Reborn): New Soldiers

Hateful Darkblack

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The two sat at a table together, in forced calm, eating their breakfast before battle. Kinji had prepared the roasted chestnuts, and the dried seaweed, and the sour plums, and the tea. Rintaro had found some forgotten sake in a storehouse. They both expected they would probably die that day, but knew that speaking about it would only raise their panic.

They had never hoped to be soldiers, but the family needed them. In younger days, Kinji had promise as a chef: his roasted chestnuts were good enough that he could have opened a restaurant, as his father had almost done, and as his son had almost done. Rintaro had a passion for gambling, but he knew that he was not good enough to make a living out of it. He would have liked to try.

Instead, they were drafted into battle. It was not their place to refuse.

The blades they carried were purchased here in Malifaux, with Guild scrip. They were not the grand weapons of the Three Kingdoms, but cheap and practical weapons that they never expected to learn. Wearing the weapons at their belt was an afterthought: if they ever needed such weapons, they were already dead. Neither Kinji nor Rintaro were glorious enough to bear a true warrior’s sword.

“The sake is good,” Kinji said in gratitude, breaking the silence. He was careful with his words: good, but not great. They had both sampled great sake before, in wealthier times, but to compare this warmed rice wine to what they’d had in the past would be unnecessarily melancholy. It was better to appreciate what they had without illusions. The sake was good, nothing more, and that was worth appreciation.

Rintaro only grunted and let his eyes dart to the door. They were expecting the gentleman of the house any moment now, to interrupt their meal and send them to war. It was his right, of course.

“You shouldn’t be so impatient,” Kinji said, “Try to enjoy your meal.”

“I’m trying,” Rintaro said, “but —“

“Try harder,” Kinji said, forcing a calm in his voice. It was Kinji’s fourth battle, and Rintaro’s first.

“Do you think there will be enough of us?” asked Rintaro.

“The fewer men, the greater share of honor,” Kinji replied sharply.

Rintaro nodded grimly, and stared down at the chestnuts and seaweed. He asked, “Will we be walking on hills?”

“Yes. There is a crag out in the badlands,” Kinji replied, “Our family bought a mine there, cheaply. The Guild decided that the mine was too dangerous to be worth it. Strange whispers have been heard there, and hungry dead have been spotted. We are to clear it out so that mining can begin again.”

“You mean that our Lord must clear it, and that we will help,” Rintaro said in correction.

Kinji frowned a little. He didn’t like being corrected by the more junior soldier. “I have probably told you more than I should. It is not our business why we are there. Why do you ask such questions?”

“I only wanted to know because I do not think my shoes will be good for hills,” Rintaro replied.

Kinji glanced under their table at Rintaro’s shoes. “You are correct. I will lend you my son’s shoes. They will be better for marching up the peak.”

Rintaro nodded. “Thank you very much. I will gladly return them, if…”

He trailed off instead of finishing his sentence. If we survive. They were trying not to be melancholy.

It was of course at that perfect moment that the gentleman came to call. He burst through the door, nearly splintering it with his fearsome strength.

“Yaa!” the Lord cried with hasty admonishment, “Stop sitting around, you two! It’s time to ride!”

None of them had a horse, but Kinji and Rintaro knew what he meant. They stood and bowed and apologized quickly, and hustled to pack and be out the door. Kinji had no time to get those shoes for Rintaro before they were out the door, but at least they did not have to pretend to be calm anymore.

* * *

The walk through the badlands was not so bad, though Rintaro’s feet did indeed become sore with his bad shoes. He knew better than to complain. Instead, the two marched as they could, trying to keep step with the more experienced soldiers.

The crag was beautiful and desolate. It looked like a solemn and noble place to die. They marched along treacherous narrow cliffside trails until they reached the area around the abandoned mine. The Lord rallied the small force to a well-hidden nest a little bit around the peak from the mine entrance. Kinji set down an animal hide on the smoothest rock in the outcropping so that the Lord could sit comfortably. The rest of them stood on hard uneven rock and tried not to let their sore joints show.

“They’re in the mine!” the Lord declared. “You snipers and archers will watch the entrance from the high points of the cliff. There, and there, and there. You torakage will go in to explore. When the hungry dead come for you, do not be proud! Come back out to the entrance. Lure them into our trap out here. The rest of you, stay with me. We’ll sweep up!”

Rintaro watched with admiration as the torakage slipped into the mine’s entrance. They were like scorpions, quick and precise and deadly but so hard to see until they appeared from nowhere. Rintaro had tried to befriend them on the walk out to the mine, but they rebuffed his cheery words and invitations to play tiles after the battle, remaining stony and unresponsive. Being unseen and unheard was their natural state.

They disappeared into the hole and all was silent, anxious minute by anxious minute. Rintaro pulled out his blade in waiting, but no one else did, so he put it away again with an apologetic look on his face, and just waited.

* * *

Minutes passed like a loud, slow, ticking clock. The sun was hot. Everyone was sore and uncomfortable and frightened. Kinji did well to look impassive and calm. Rintaro tried his best to imitate that serenity, and found that it did indeed help his own mood, if nothing else.

Rintaro tried to cheer himself up. He thought of the courage of their Master and the hope of the family’s great past reborn, here, in battle. If they won here, there would be wealth, and victory, and triumph. A reclaimed soulstone mine could provide enough wealth to build a proper castle here in Malifaux, or hire horsemen with grand banners to fight these wars, or perhaps to reclaim the family sword that another noble house had taken. Killing the monsters was about more than survival. Even if Kinji or Rintaro died, their deaths would not be in vain: reclaiming this mine would be another step toward reclaiming the clan’s legacy.

Rintaro expected moans or screams or something from within, but there were no such noises. All he saw were the torakage emerging from the entrance, their footsteps silent. Behind them followed a small army of the hungry dead, just as silent. Half-solid corpses wearing rotten miner’s clothing. Bird skulls atop men’s skeletons. Shambling ghosts. The animated bodies of dogs and men, each shuffling forward. The creatures would swing at the agile torakage, but all in silence, like a dancer rehearsing without the music.

A monstrosity burst free from the mine entrance behind the others. It looked like a taxidermist’s nightmare: A stitched dragon’s corpse, with more heads sewn onto its unnatural structure, made to move through some ugly and unholy magic. Bones jutted out in strange angles. Flesh rotted. The thing’s tail was the only part that seemed alive, whipping to and fry, ready to lash forward with what seemed to be a true scorpion’s tail. Torakage threw careful handsful of shuriken backward to slow the great corpse-monster’s pursuit, but the thing continued to stalk forward.

The mockery of a dragon spat forth a black mass of rotten slime, like a coarse soldier spitting off the side of the road. That disgusting dark glob struck a torakage in the back, and the spy stumbled and fell forward — the acid burned a hole in his chest and he died. Still everything was silent. The hungry dead had no need to make noise, unmoved by the passions of the living. The torakage clung to their training, even in death, and died on padded footsteps without a scream or even a whisper.

Finally the stillness of the battle was broken with the Lord’s glorious cry.


Snipers and archers popped up from their hidden positions in perches and behind rock outcroppings. Bullets and arrows rained down on the zombie horde.

Kinji and Rintaro mobilized and jumped into their positions. For all their waiting, when the moment for battle came they were prepared. Thoughts of their own death faded away. Instead, they moved swiftly to follow their tasks with humble precision. It was in moments like these that men truly became soldiers.

Their Lord Fuhatsu rose and screamed out with a bloodthirsty madman’s laughing delight. Rintaro stood behind their Lord and braced his back against the giant to keep him stable, his sore feet pushing against the rocks to counterbalance the immense force of the gatling gun the man carried as lesser men would carry a shotgun. Kinji scrambled around the man, sometimes holding his back leg in place, sometimes scrambling to keep the ammunition belt feeding properly, and occasionally scurrying around to hold Lord Fuhatsu’s belt so his pants would not fall down.

Such was their tiny piece of glory!

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I love the twist this takes at the end, and giving character and nobility to the little nameless guys propping up Fuhatsu is a great call. My one real critique is that there are a few places that feel overwritten, "expected that they would probably die..." for instance might be stronger if you didn't say "probably." There are a few other examples, but since that's a stylistic thing I won't harp on about it - unless of course you want me to.

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I love the twist this takes at the end, and giving character and nobility to the little nameless guys propping up Fuhatsu is a great call. My one real critique is that there are a few places that feel overwritten, "expected that they would probably die..." for instance might be stronger if you didn't say "probably." There are a few other examples, but since that's a stylistic thing I won't harp on about it - unless of course you want me to.


Thank you for reading it, and thank you for the feedback! I was trying for a muted and kind of dignified note on the opening scene, which is why I tried to make the statements a little less emphatic. I'd love any suggestions on how to improve those, though, if phrases come across as awkward or unconvincing.

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Something I've struggled with in my own writing is a tendency to dither. I try to stick to dialogue and description to set tone, I took issue with this passage because it's giving us subtext. We've got two guys drinking sake and talking in very muted language and that's great, tone set. Now the subtext is your opportunity to make that muteness deafening. If these guys know that they're about to die then their restraint becomes noble, painful. That "probably" gives the reader an out, cuts the tension.

Or at least that's my take.

As for other things you might want to clear up... We get that they're trying not to be melancholy just from the dialogue, maybe include it once outside of dialogue but other than that? Trust yourself and trust your readers, we'll get it.

You also hit us with a barrage of simile towards the end, with the dragon. Try playing with metaphor, "it was a taxidermists nightmare." rather than just being like a taxidermists nightmare. I find that metaphor scans better when you're comparing things, and metaphors work better when you're giving surprising contrasts, for instance your beautiful simile in the next paragraph, "spitting rotten slime like a soldier spitting on the side of the road." But again that's a matter of preference.

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