The sourness of burning hair, the crackle of ash settling. These were the impressions the ruined village left on Cabochon.
A dozen or more horsemen encircled him, their mounts stomping and snorting with fear as they were forced to approach the Arachne. Swords were pointed his way, questions shouted, and Cabochon could barely tell their faces apart. To him, they were just a single mass of humanity with many arms and many heads. At his side, the unicorn snorted and bucked its head.
“Who are you and who do you stand for?” Their chief, a man with flowing red locks and a gaunt, cruel face demanded. The sword in his hand was of more interest than him- the blade was made of grey smoke, flowing in the wind but always holding its shape.
“I am Cabochon, and I stand for the Maker.” He answered, calm as stone.
“Bah, religious sentiment. A slave!” The chieftain called.
“Slave!” The entire warband jeered.
With a sudden flash of movement, Cabochon lunged forward, his blade-tipped fingers ripping open the the throat of the chieftain’s horse. As steed and rider toppled, the Arachne stepped forward, seizing the man by the collar- and seizing the man’s wrist as well when the bandit made a clumsy sweep to cut Cabochon’s head from his shoulders with the smoke blade.
The edges of that strange, ethereal sword came to a stop inches from Cabochon’s neck. The world felt suddenly grey, as if everything that mattered and every emotion was being drained away, leaving only a pallid shell of what had been before; smoke and ash.
Cabochon squeezed his fingers down lightly, blood running from the man’s wrist, and pushed the sword away.
Dozens of blades and spears were aimed at his back, the whole warband frozen as he seized their leader, ready to strike if he killed his hostage.
But the chieftain himself simply shouted in defiance, spittle flying from his mouth, “Go ahead, coward! A free man is not afraid!”
Slowly, Cabochon squeezed down harder, until the blade dropped from the man’s hand and landed in the grass, causing it to wither and die to stubs of charred black in moments. The man’s wrist hung at an unnatural angle, cut into brutally by Cabochon’s razor-sharp touch.
“I have no fight with you. I stand for my Maker, the Dungeon, who called my soul from the void and shaped my flesh from a humble spider. I am a visitor here, only observing.” Even now, Cabochon’s unflinching demeanor held strong.
“The Dungeon?” The red-headed man paused, and let out a barking, sudden laugh. “Let me up then, because we’re brothers! We were born from a Dungeon too!”
“You are human.” Cabochon replied.
“In our first life, sure enough, but now? Now we’re so much more. We are Remade, my brother, Remade by the Dungeon of Ash. Let me up, and you can lead me to your Maker.” He grinned, and Cabochon saw the sheer madness in his eyes, the single spark of fanaticism burning in absolute emptiness where sanity and morals should be.
“And why would I take you there?” Cabochon asked. But he did loosen his grip on the man’s throat. It was best for everyone if this situation moved in a calmer direction.
“Because we’re allies! We’ve come to free Caltern from the empire’s grip, to make it a free city!” The chieftain's insistence they were friends, brothers-in-arms, allies- all of it made Cabochon trust him even less. This man was a zealot. Cabochon wanted none of it.
“And if I say we’re not allies?”
“Let me up, now.” Finally the man spoke honestly, a dangerously hard tone entering his voice. “And I’ll explain everything.”
With weapons pointing at him from all directions, Cabochon had little choice. He let go, and the red-haired chieftain rolled onto his feet, walking towards the man Cabochon had beheaded. The corpse was crumbling into ash, a fire flickering beneath the chest.
The chieftain reached down, his fingertips piercing through the ashen flesh and causing it to crumble inwards, collapsing, as he pulled out a stone that glowed with a flickering, angry orange hue. “He died a good death.”
“It would be a shame if more died.” Cabochon said. All around him were men with weapons, but there were few enough places on his body those weapons could actually harm. Ten or a dozen of them would die before they could crush him under their ranks.
“Would it? You’ll find we hardly care. We’re men of smoke and ash, us Remade. We care only for battle.” The man didn’t seem to think much of his own wound, his good right hand hanging limp and loose at his side with ribbons of blood threading their way down the knuckles. “And we fight against the gods, against the Empire, against anything that seeks to control us.”
Cabochon was silent. The Maker was with him now, occupying his mind, peering through his eyes. These intruders were dangerous. The sheer fact that they claimed to be from another Dungeon was worth his Maker’s notice.
“Freedom is the only thing smoke wants for. Hatred is all ash has left.” The chieftain opined. “Do you understand now?” He turned back to Cabochon, that mad intensity alive in his eyes.
“No, I don’t.” Cabochon refused to engage with this madness. “Is that a Dungeon Shard?”
“This? This is an ember. A bit of life for dead men to cling to. Here, you’ll understand soon.” And he turned to his men. “Bring the prisoners in!”
One by one, the townsfolk of the burned village were lined up, forced to kneel. The man lifted his sword of smoke from the ground and walked among them, stepping behind each and turn and swinging his strange blade through their necks.
Most of them toppled over dead on the spot. The blade never cut them, never spilled blood. It passed through their flesh like a ghost. They simply died. But others took the ghostly cut and simply spilled forward, writhing on the ground, their eyes blank and clouded as they thrashed.
By the time the chieftain had reached the end of the line, the first to fall were standing again. The bandits came forward to free them from their bonds, clapping them on the shoulders, greeting them as brothers. The dead men only blinked their lifeless eyes.
“See, the ashen-blade takes away our old life. And the ember…” He stepped back, and cast the glowing stone among the crowd of dead man. Instantly they went beserk, clawing each other’s faces, fighting to be the one to seize it. Two were dead, their throats torn out, by the time a girl not much more than thirteen managed to slip through and force the stone down her mouth.
The light vanished down her throat. A circlet of white fire briefly formed around her head, before fading.
The bandits shoved the rest away, whipping at them with the hafts of axes and the pommels of swords. They clad their new comrade in a cloak of yellow, gave her an old sword chipped and flaked with rust, and passed her numerous flasks, chanting as she drank deep from each. Her eyes had the fire now, the fanatic smoldering energy. She grinned a madwoman’s grin as her comrades embraced her.
“It makes us live again. Remade!”
Swords were lifted to the sky, a cheer going up. “Remade!”
For all their scoffing at ‘religious sentiment’ it was as zealous a moment as any. Cabochon moved to step back, to leave, but the chieftain advanced in tune. “Nah, you ain’t going nowhere. Not until you tell us about your Maker, my brother.”
“I do not think I will.”
“Well, that’s the thing. You won’t have to. Once we Remake you, the new you will.” The chieftain smiled, a gloriously mad smile.
That was when the unicorn let out a whiny, and came charging into him from behind. His flaming eyes went wide as the beast’s horn pushed through his chest, the white horn stained red with gore, his skin turning pale like ash.
And then everything burst into wild, deadly motion.