Good Night, Demon Slayer by Voltaire.
. . . . . At first, the worst part of the swamp was the smell. Not even natives of Zangarmarsh were immune to the fetid, heavy scent of muck and rot. The swamp possessed a decided lack of giant mushrooms as well, which made those same natives of Zangarmarsh very uncomfortable even before the smell. Thick blue fingers pried a clinging piece of rotten leaf from the edge of a trailing sword sheath. “By Velen’s beard, this place is wretched,” rumbled the sword’s owner in the company’s shared language.
. . . . . “We will not have to be here long,” replied one of the two females in the company, her voice deep and rich. “We will find the green-skinned traitors, slay them, and return home through the portal.” Her tone was matter-of-fact, brooking no argument.
. . . . . The company’s commander, Magtoor, chuckled quietly at her assessment of the situation. “Valdiis, your confidence in us is admirable.” He left out the ‘but…’ which probably would have followed the statement. His company may have been nearly all warriors, but few of them were truly stupid. They knew how bad things were. If Valdiis wanted to lift spirits by acting as if they would ever return home, he figured it was best to let her.
. . . . . The company trudged on through the stinking marsh, their hooves affording very little purchase in the muck. The female who had been working to keep up the company’s morale glanced to the large blue warrior at her side again. An ebon-gray tendril beneath her ear quivered – the only betrayal of her genuine mental distress. Her voice lowered, loud enough only for her companion to hear over the squelches and sucking noises of thirty-five soldiers lifting their hooves out of the brackish water and decaying plant life. “Rulaam,” she addressed him, “we are going to go back to that portal. I swear it.”
. . . . . The warrior lifted a hand and wiped sweat from his ridged brow. “Do not make promises you are not certain you can keep, little sister,” he warned her. Unwilling to face her retort, he sped up a bit, leaving her to scowl at his broad back.
. . . . . “Firefly Company, HALT!” came the order from Commander Magtoor. Thirty-four soldiers snapped to attention at the edge of a small patch of solid land at the base of a foothill they had been aiming for. “We will set up camp here. The ground is solid and the steep hill will help guard our backs. Fall out and get to work.”
. . . . . “Yes, sir!”
. . . . . Twenty-eight warriors sat around the campfire, watching their shaman – a pretty middle-aged draenei called Beluuma – turn the spit full of swamp frogs over the fire. She hummed a children’s lullaby as she cooked.
. . . . . “She’s humming again,” Rulaam gritted through his pointed teeth, his head bent low towards Valdiis. “I cannot stand the humming, little sister.”
. . . . . “Why not?” Valdiis ran a sharpening stone down the edge of her blade, for all appearances calm except for the quivering tendrils on either side of her face.
. . . . . “The sound, be damned it! The sound!” Rulaam stared back at the fire, the glow in his eyes dim and unfocused. After several minutes, he spoke again, but the words were strained and disjointed, as if he were trying to catch them like fish swimming by in a river. “It sounds like…as if…back home, she did…the singing too.” He scowled, frustrated by his inability to convey his meaning.
. . . . . A slender, calloused ebon-gray hand rested on his hunched shoulder. “Pause, brother. Give yourself a minute to bring it forward. Do not struggle so hard against it.” Her words sounded comforting, but they were rote – something she said often these days. While Rulaam was looking at the fire, his companion was looking at him. His shoulders had begun to slump, the scaleplates along the top of his forehead were fusing. The luxurious, thick tail of auburn hair he wore in a braid down his back was looking ragged and shedding clumps. His forearms looked swollen. A furrow of worry formed between her eyes as she squinted at him and waited.
. . . . . Several minutes passed before he collected enough of his thoughts to put them together. “Beluuma hums a lullaby. It sounds like the one Habii sings to our daughter to convince her to go to bed: ‘Good night, demon slayer, good night… Now it’s time to close your tired eyes.’”
. . . . . “She made it to the ship, brother,” she reassured him. “They all made it to the ship. Do not worry so.”
. . . . . The warrior grunted at her and stared into the fire.
. . . . . Commander Magtoor looked at the remains of his company. Twenty-one men and one woman stood before him, at attention as best as each of them could. One of the warriors, an older draenei male with much fighting experience, kept jumping and looking behind him. His deeply sloped shoulders and warped hooves marked him as likely the next to run off. Magtoor sighed but did not allow his men to see the sorrow and regret in his expression.
. . . . . “I will be blunt. You deserve it from me,” he said, his voice shuddering on the words. “We have lost thirteen men to this fel taint. We have not yet found a cure. This world is strange and foreign, food is scarce, and the orcs are nowhere to be found.” Were his men at top form, there would be some grumbling and disorder at this bald pronouncement, but there were only weary nods in response. Unbidden, a wash of homesickness overtook the commander; he blinked back tears. “Firefly Company no longer suits us. We do not glow brightly against the night. We are fading into the night…” He watched Rulaam count on the fingers of his left hand twice for no apparent reason. His sister placed a hand on his shoulder and patted him like a mother pats an errant child.
. . . . . “Men, from henceforth, our company will be known as the Broken Exiles. It is time to accept that we will not find our revenge or our way home. Let us resolve to settle here for now. Once we are feeling better and healed from the backlash of the fel energies, we will seek out better land.”
. . . . . Commander Magtoor and his company of Broken Exiles did not openly acknowledge what they all knew – there would never be a recovery, never be a better land. They were stuck here.
. . . . . “Valdiis, come here.” The voice was querulous now, but it still held the air of command Magtoor had been born with. The ebon-gray draenei set down the legplates she had been cleaning – her own by the smaller size of them – and walked over to the commander. Of all of them affected by the fel taint, she was one of only three who had not yet begun to devolve. Her hooves were strong, the scaleplates of her forehead defined, and her shoulders straight. Magtoor placed a hand on her arm, looking forlornly at his own cracked and stubby claws.
. . . . . “It pains me to have to ask this of you, but you are still strong,” he said, looking up into her bright eyes. “The attack on the camp last night...it was not orcs.” He lifted a smooth chunk of tan stone; a pale blue glow, like water over a stream bed, coated the stone.
. . . . . “No!” Valdiis gasped, putting together in a matter of seconds what had taken Magtoor six hours to piece together out of the twisted abyss which had once been knowledge in his head. “It could not have been,” she protested, the tendrils behind her ears quivering.
. . . . . “There is no other answer, Valdiis. Beluuma has been lost to us for weeks. The madness has fully claimed her now.” Magtoor looked so old, so weary. “Valdiis, you are still strong. I need you to find Beluuma and free her from this hell. End her misery, soldier. That’s an order.”
. . . . . A blankness spread over Valdiis’s face, her expression settling into something resolved and terrible and unreadable. “Yes, sir.”
. . . . . There were eighteen soldiers left in the Harborage. Three of them did the majority of the work of keeping the encampment alive – splitting wood, catching frogs and fish, repairing the damage done to the tents after assaults by the Lost Ones. Chasing after the Lost Ones and dispensing a soldier’s mercy…
. . . . . A deep-voiced scream echoed over the camp just before dawn. It was followed by a terrible crash – like a tent being ripped asunder and its wooden poles falling to a heap. As the remaining soldiers dragged themselves from sleep – no longer capable of the alertness to snap to attention like they should have – more noise followed…hooves splashing through the mire and a large body blundering away in the darkness.
. . . . . Valdiis, dressed hastily in the moldering linen vest and pants that were standard attire for the swamp camp, emerged from her tent to survey the damage. The demolished tent was next to her own. “Rulaam…” she whispered, her hand going to her mouth in horror.
. . . . . The sounds of a large warrior blindly charging into the swamp faded as the other soldiers returned to their tents. Valdiis sat on the ground in front of the ruins of the tent, hugging her knees and rocking from side to side.
. . . . . What a cruelty it was to set the morale officer the task of putting down her brothers in arms. But it was so much worse to set her to chasing down her brother of blood. It was not Commander Magtoor who sent her on the hunt for Rulaam when he began attacking the encampment; she volunteered for the duty. It was hard to tell if it was from love, duty, or madness that she asked to do it. Nevertheless, it was Valdiis who set off to find this Lost One and offer him the mercy of a swift and honorable death.
. . . . . “Sodding bastard,” Valdiis muttered. “Go away!”
. . . . . I will not! Making you is who I am, and dancing about the flame we be. A sing-song, androgynous voice gibbered in her head. Without us the low-light night water dance through ended sword!
. . . . . The tendrils behind her ears quivered and lifted from her shoulders, swaying like hypnotized snakes. Valdiis burst into song with her rusty, battered warrior’s voice, attempting to drown out the voice in her head with the lullaby she sang. The song drifted among the dripping moss and creepers, carried through the twisted trees on the wind.
. . . . . Something heard the lullaby.
. . . . . The warrior and the Lost One circled each other. She watched him warily, trying to find some hint of her brother still beneath the stunted, warped creature that grunted at her. There was nothing. It somehow made it easier.
. . . . . The art of the warrior, the beautiful sword dance Rulaam had taught her, was not visible in this thing that leapt gracelessly at her. It wasn’t until the twisted thing’s leap impaled it on the long blade held at ready in her hand that she realized it was humming a lullaby. And smiling at her.