We need a new kind of hero today, one in keeping with the spirit of the times, a hero with today’s very best virtues. The greatest virtues. Heroic virtues like you’ve never seen.
Let’s call him Sohl, Prince of the Realm…
Gerb, ulster hanging near to the ground, belt undone, and lute at his side, Ringbearer of Gore, Keeper of the Regal Blood Signet, wove a spell of fascination over the new recruits before him. He was theatrical by nature. Coupled with magic, his charms were known to win the hearts of even the most contrary. His voice carried out melodiously over these fresh young soldiers sitting around the campsite as he continued.
“…Sohl, Heias of the 9th Regiment, proud son, distinguished bearer of sword and shield for the Realm. Heias! The dread herald of utter doom to every enemy foolish enough to challenge him! Some call him the Shadow of Death. Others, The Butcher. We just call him Starfish because of the noble birthmark on his face. For him, it as a term of endearment from his men.”
“Am I right boys?” Gerb shouted to be heard over the clamor of the camp.
“Starfish!” boomed the soldiers that heard, and they all stomped or pounded the ground or banged on whatever what was at hand once, twice, three times. A beat later “Starfish!” rolled out of the quickening darkness from all sides from even more voices. Three raucous, clanking thuds rumbled after. Another beat, and “Starfish!” rang from a legion of distant voices and echoed in the dark. Three concussions followed like distant thunder.
Gerb swept his gaze across the assembled recruits.
“Shout his name like you have a pair, or have a fine reason like death to explain why not, else your devotion might come into question. Do you feel that devotion, Skylar?” Gerb thrust his arm out dramatically and pointed and his biggest and best recruit.
“Yes, Ringbearer! Starfish!”
“Starfish!” echoed across the camp again for several heartbeats.
Gerb assumed his most noble posture.
“His mission, given him personally by the king, our cause and our very reason for being is to intercept a horde of Vonuman infiltrators. They’re filthy things, all of them. Golems. Penumbrian golems, at that, the most lifelike of all. Creepy is what they are, if you ask me. These aren’t the ones you might have seen back home in pretty dress at the brothels, or in the livery of their masters. They’re wretched, filthy, disgusting things that look like they’ve slunk the whole way here through a sewer.”
Obvious disgust curled Gerb’s lips.
“They look almost like people, but not quite right. They’re not stitched together grotesquely like your average flesh golem. They look as healthy as you or me, and that’s even more horrifying somehow.”
“They talk like people in that Penumbrian gibberish. Some even learn our more eloquent tongue, thanks to those fools back home who invite them in and coddle them like pets, but they never lose that golem sound all the way. It raises my hackles when I hear them try to mimic the truly living, like some infernal thing had just crossed my grave.”
Gerb stalked back and forth for dramatic effect. “They move like people, but furtively like thieves.”
“Up close, they even stink like people. These animated monstrosities ooze something like sweat that smells like sour bung and fear. If you end up grappling one of the damned things, and that is exactly what they are, damned things, it’s slick, like sweat on skin.”
“Faith! Which is worse, the skin, or that hair! It looks and feels real enough that I still shudder in revulsion when I touch it. Those shifty Penums plant it in that unnatural skin so that it looks like the real thing! Everywhere.”
Gerb’s eyes widened wildly. “And I mean everywhere. It just…”
Gerb stopped in mid-sentence, bent away, threw out a warning arm, and retched. The wave of nausea overwhelmed the recruits so that none of them noticed the faint glow around Gerb’s extended palm.
“Yug! So thought the whole company at Dawliss when they saw me with the last one I caught. Yug! I pulled on its hair to yank its wig right off its filthy head and it tears away, I kid you not, it even tears away like skin!”
Gerb’s eyes boggled as he said “tears away like skin.” The recruits felt a bone-deep horror at what they were being told.
“I don’t know what they’re making golem bones out of, but it isn’t bone, exactly. No human bone like I’ve ever seen. It’s colored like bone. It even breaks like bone. But you’ll know the first time you feel the thrill of crushing one of their skulls. It’s better than crushing a human skull. It’s almost like they were designed to make us want to destroy them.”
“And don’t be fooled by these diabolical illusions. These golems even leak some kind of humor that’s so much like blood you can’t tell the difference, right down to the taste. An animating elixir, maybe? That’s about the only part of us they got right, I think. And their guts. And their muscles.”
Gerb’s nostrils flared and his upper lip wrinkled with extreme distaste.
“They even die like people, if death is what you can call it. I can’t figure it out. Nobody can. No matter how you stab them, or slash them, or smash them, they go down easy, like so many toddlers. No constitution to them at all. There’s just so many of them, like a rat swarm.”
“Their arms and heads lop off just fine. You gut them with your spear right…”
Gerb made a sweeping motion with his lute and struck a discordant jumble of strings.
“…and it’s like actual guts come out. But those villainous Penumbrians couldn’t figure out the most important thing to get right, though. It’s all blood and hearts and guts and that creepy fakkin hair…”
Gerb visibly shuddered. The recruits picked up on it and shuddered in unison, all as one perfectly horrified by hair they haven’t even seen yet.
“…perfect to a tee, but you can tell them apart so easily because they just look…different. You know? Different.”
Gerb ducked low, eyebrow arched, and glanced at the recruits as if to impart a deep and terrible secret.
“They are not like us.”
Gerb repeated himself with emphasis and pauses for effect while pumping his fist. Not a single recruit saw the traces of glimmering powder that escaped his fist.
“They. Are not. Like. Us!”
“Not! Like! Us!” roared the recruits. Even Gerb was taken aback. He had outdone himself.
“Now, if the stories I’m hearing are true, the king’s wizard is a betrayer, gone over to the Night. He’s been spreading wild rumors that his magics can detect no difference between us and those…detestable Penum golems. Worse, he’s been agitating the other wizards to speak out against the king. Can you even imagine the audacity? He wants to declare that these filthy Penums are actually people, to be friended and wedded and bedded and bred. Supremians like us!”
The recruits barked and hooted and grunted and whistled in response. The sound was picked up by the next round of soldiers and faded away into the hills and surrounding darkness peppered with campfires.
“I tell you truly, I am not just glad I serve Starfish, our Heias. I am ecstatic!”
A wave of euphoria passed over the recruits and they jerked and spasmed. Only those who had bedded down properly had ever known such bliss before. The rest would never know the like again. Breathless, they composed themselves, shame creeping red up their faces in the firelight.
“No shame!” roared Gerb.
“Proud! Starfish charges into a pack of golems like a devil himself, “For the glory of the king!” and limbs just go flying. When we stain ourselves, we stain ourselves rightly. Our stains are badges of honor!”
Gerb threw open his ulster proudly, hips thrust jauntily forward, his tabard a veritable calico pattern of stains.
“Present yourselves! Be bold! Stand and show!”
As one, the recruits bolted upright, whooping and barking, eyes fixed on the crazy quilt of stains at Gerb’s belt, their own tabards tented proudly, arms akimbo, new shadows on their tabards.
“They even scream like people. It’s unsettling, I tell you, and it just makes me hate them more.”
Gerb’s face took on a nightmarish aspect of utter and complete detestation mixed with rage. The recruits were enraged and started a low growling.
“It does them no good. Every pretense at humanity just makes our blood boil hotter.”
Gerb stomped to his left, his face a mask of hatred.
“We fan out around Starfish, flanking to the left…”
Gerb stomped to his right.
…and the right.”
“’Heias! Heias!’ we shout, and exterminate every single one we can!”
“’Sohl! Sohl!’ we cry, the battle lust takes us, and it…is…glorious!”
“Wait! There he is now! “Heias! Heias!”
The camp roared! “Sohl! Sohl!”
“Starfish!,” they cheer in unison, echoing into the midnight countryside.
“Heias!” “Sohl!” “Starfish!” Three booms and the rolling thunder of utter devotion galloped into the night before fading away.
Gerb’s demeanor changed to admonishment.
“I hope it’s good news about our next mission, but something’s not right. Starfish does not look pleased. Mind yourselves.”
“Listen!” bellowed Sohl.
“Heias!” “Sohl!” “Starfish!”
The last rumble fell into reverent silence.
“We are betrayed! Penums have infiltrated the king’s own court! Worse, my f–, the king’s idiot nephew has the wizards in fits because one of those verminous Penum golems at the palace is…pregnant. Pregnant?! As if! Proof, finally, more like it! They do duplicate themselves by some dark magic! We are vindicated!”
“Heias! Heias!” “Sohl! Sohl!” “Heias!” “Sohl!” “Starfish!” Stomp! Thunder. Silence.
“Worse, they say that…they say that the idiot nephew is my father’s bastard…by a Penum golem! That it, IT is actually my brother!”
Sohl adjusted uncomfortably in his saddle. As his mount stepped and wheeled of its own accord, those around the camp might have seen how shabby Sohl appeared, but would not, and could not, not under the sway of the ringbearing bard.
“The king has been blinded by those, those usurpers! Pretenders! He has called us back to the barracks, back home, to face these Penums and see for ourselves…as though we don’t see them and wade through their stench and their blood day after day for him!”
“Heias! Sohl! Starfish!” Stomp! Thunder. Silence.
“We must save the king, my father! We must save the crown! We must save the realm and all we hold dear!”
“Heias! Sohl! Starfish!” Stomp! Thunder. Silence.
“We must take the battle to Penumbria!”
“Heias! Sohl! Starfish!” Stomp! Thunder. Silence.
A last flickering, ephemeral tendril of arcane numina faded from around Gerb’s fingertips.
And so Heias Sohl, Starfish, the Shadow of Death, stormed across the wastes into the heart of Penumbria with his own legion, to die in glorious battle in defense of the crown or return to his home victoriously painted in the crimson elixir that flowed through the arcane plumbing of his enemy’s hellish automata.
Starfish would make a good hero, wouldn’t he?