(I always imagined that Carlin would look like Daud from Dishonored. )
Hello all! This is the first entry in my new short story series. This particular blog post takes place before the events of The Sparks and centers around Carlin Filus, before his bloody rise to power.
The Imperial Hunting Squadron rolled into camp around midday. The convoy lurched to a stop and Carlin Filus pressed his hands against the carriage walls to keep from falling. “A pound of gold says that Paul has put us in the same tent.” Carlin was just a sergeant and technically Anthony Celerius was his superior, so he tried to keep disdain from muddying his voice.
“It could be worse,” Anthony replied. “The cadets are bunked ten per tent.”
“It’s about respect.”
“You deserve ten times the respect of a normal soldier?” Anthony was smiling slightly, clearly playing games with his subordinate.
Carlin just grunted. I deserve ten times more respect than you, he thought. After all, Carlin’s father had just become the most powerful man in the realm. They shouldered their way out of the carriage and covered their eyes as they adjusted to the sunlight. They were used to living in a walled city where great stretches of the landscape were covered in shadows, including the outpost where they spent most of their time. Paul Blackmore stood at the entrance to the camp with his arms spread open. His ashen hair and beard shone in the sunlight. “Your papers are waiting in your tents,” he said.
He was swaying as always. The General, Steven Celerius, wouldn’t like it. Right on cue, the man exited his carriage and stepped onto the dirt road. “I see you’ve been indulging yourself,” the General said.
Paul’s face turned defiant, “I did my job.”
He turned and marched off, his cape barely covering his trousers and stained undershirt, clearly out of military dress code. Carlin brushed past Anthony to address the troops. Their forty men stood at attention in neat orderly rows. Whenever he spoke to the cadets, Carlin rolled up his sleeve to expose his tattoo, which read IHS in black block lettering. This was an honor provided to the primary hunters in the Imperial Hunting Squadron: Carlin Filus, Paul Blackmore, Anthony Celerius and his uncle, General Steven Celerius. On this mission, two units of military cadets accompanied the main members, but on less important days it was just the tattooed IHS hunting alone.
“Listen up men,” he demanded. “Ten of you will hunt to refresh our food and water reserves. The other ten will tend to the horses and unload the carriages.”
The men saluted but before they could walk off, Carlin grabbed one man by the shoulder. “I’d like you to bring me back an animal,” he said. “To my personal tent.”
He could tell that the soldier was trying not to recoil. “It will be done, sir.”
He knew that they hated his habits, but he had to make himself at home within the camp. As the men dispersed, he walked through camp after his superiors. As he’d suspected, he was rooming with Anthony Celerius, his old rival. “What do the papers say?” Carlin asked as he removed his sword and armor.
Anthony flipped through the files that Paul had compiled. “Nikolai was supposedly spotted in the area and we are to fan out and search the forests for him. The Emperor’s orders stipulate that we are not allowed to hear his case or listen to testimony. He is to be killed on sight.” He flipped another page. “Wine stain….” he mumbled, trying to discern the words beneath the soiled area. “He might have grown a beard to cover his face, but his size will give him away.”
Carlin growled in frustration. Briefings on Nikolai Taurlum were always like this. They were vague and unlikely to yield any results. Unfortunately, Nikolai was the Empire’s number one target and every sighting had to be taken seriously. After all, he’d assassinated Carlin’s grandfather, the old Emperor. All the stops had been pulled out again. The seriousness of the mission had been reinforced by the presence of General Celerius. Carlin didn’t know why, but the sound of Anthony flipping pages made him equally as upset.
Carlin stripped down to his undershirt and pants and then waited impatiently for the men to return with his prize. Anthony meditated and wrote correspondence when he was bored, but Carlin just stewed. Until the men returned with an animal for him, he’d be without an activity to occupy his time.
Steven Celerius and Paul Blackmore entered their tent about an hour later, while Carlin was doing push-ups. “May we interrupt your workout?” Steven asked.
“Absolutely,” Anthony said, finishing a letter. “We’d love an interruption.”
“I’ve scoped out some trails for us to use tomorrow,” Paul said as he sat on a crate and leaned back against a stack of provisions. “I’d suggest that we bring ten men and leave ten behind to defend the camp.”
“You really think we’re going to find Nikolai Taurlum living in a hut in the woods?” Carlin asked.
“It’s more likely than finding him in the city sewers,” Steven said.
The wall of the tent was pulled open and a nervous cadet poked his head in. “Sergeant Carlin, we have what you requested.”
Carlin tried to keep his cool, but he knew he was about to get a scolding. “Can you come back later?”
General Celerius went to the wall of the tent and pulled the cloth fully to the side. This revealed two men pulling a massive buck by a rope that was tied to its legs. “This has always been a ridiculous and needless action,” Steven said. “Take the buck away and have it cooked.”
“Wait!” Carlin begged as his cheeks flushed with blood. “I need that.”
Most military men hated being questioned, but General Celerius was unusually open to dialogue. He held out his arm and the soldiers stopped. “Why should I let you engage in the senseless ritual of beating our potential food with your fists?”
“Tomorrow we might go up against Nikolai Taurlum, a legendary fighter. You need me at full strength.” Carlin knew the right argument to make the General yield. “I was not born with your speed, or healing abilities. I am not a Lightborn. We… mortal people need things like this to keep up.”
He didn’t mean to say “mortal people” with such disdain but that’s the way it came out. Steven Celerius crossed his arms and glared at the floor. This was his infamous “decision expression.” He looked to Paul Blackmore. “What do you think?”
Paul shook his head adamantly and slurred, “Bad idea.”
Everyone stared at him, waiting for him to elaborate. He visibly dozed off instead, leaning his head back against the makeshift wall. Steven sighed and kicked Blackmore in the shin. “Why is it a bad idea, Paul?”
Blackmore started and shook his head to clear his mind. “We’re near Misty Hollow and this region is protected by the Horseman,” he explained. That didn’t seem to have much of an affect on his comrades so he added, “The Horseman’s a Venator.”
Anthony’s eyebrows shot up and Steven’s spine straightened. Carlin tried not to seem affected. “This has nothing to do with the Venator so I don’t see why the Horseman would object to my pulverizing some dead buck.”
“He’s pretty partial to the animals of the land if memory serves,” Paul said.
Steven looked at the dead buck and then back to Carlin. “How partial?”
“I don’t quite remember,” Paul said, rubbing his bloodshot eyes. “I’ve never met him. Only heard about him. Head’s a bit fuzzy right now.”
“Well my head’s not,” Carlin said. “What’s dead is dead. You can have it when I’m done with it.”
“We don’t want it when you’re done with it. “ Steven rubbed his temples. There wasn’t much he could do when their “expert” on Altryon’s untamed lands was too drunk to formulate an argument. “You will assume responsibility for whatever comes of this?”
Carlin drew an X with his finger over his heart. “I absolutely will.”
Steven and Anthony made eye contact and Carlin became nervous again. Anthony hardly ever took his side during these kinds of arguments. “You’re comfortable living with this?” the General asked.
“If he needs to train then we shouldn’t get in his way. After all, we hunt these woods all the time. No one is going to miss one more deer,” Anthony said.
Carlin was surprised. Anthony rarely showed him that kind of support. The General, half-convinced, exited. Paul sat in the tent for half a minute and then suddenly realizing he was supposed to leave with Steven, ran out. Carlin gestured for the cadets to bring in the buck. “You know what to do,” he said.
They strung the buck from the wooden supports that held up the tent. Three hooks kept the deer hanging a few feet above the ground and right at the perfect level for Carlin. He wrapped his hands with a thin red cloth and then assumed fighting position. The cadets, unsure of what to do, lingered there.
“You can go, men,” Anthony said.
They were out of the tent almost instantly. Carlin centered himself and then began striking the buck with a few boxing combinations. This one was well muscled and felt like it was built to be the perfect punching bag. He threw crosses, jabs and uppercuts with all his might, and the buck swayed back and forth as he struck it. Anthony pretended not to watch as he scanned the pages of a book. Carlin was the fastest non-Lightborn in the army, but that wasn’t enough for him. Training exercises like these were necessary if he aspired to become faster than Anthony. Or even Steven.
He spun around without warning and struck the buck with his elbow. He heard a rib crack and he grinned. He’d brutalize the buck until nightfall and then he’d get a good long sleep. Tomorrow he’d join the hunt for Nikolai Taurlum. Maybe they could string him up, right next to this buck. Maybe they’d let Carlin get a few strikes in on Nikolai as well. He’d use his sword though. Enemies of the Empire didn’t deserve to remain whole.
(To be continued next week.)