• Published 14th Sep 2018
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The Last Charger - Chengar Qordath

When Belladon Striker, a down-on-his-luck mercenary captain, crosses paths with Torch Charger, the last survivor of his clan, it sets in motion a chain of events that will redefine the very face of Freeport itself.

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The Last Charger 4

Winning a battle is always nice. Surviving it is even better. Managing to pull off both was a rare treat. However, it came with a bunch of complications, especially when the only reason we won it was thanks to the newest member of my company pulling a rather big surprise out of his plot. Soon as things were settled enough that I felt safe leaving Talon in charge for a tick, I dragged Torch off to my cabin for a little chat. “The feather was that?!” I snarled at him.

Torch weathered my wrath with a stoic sort of calm that just pissed me off even more. “I believe they call it magic, sir.”

“You gave me your word that you weren’t some damned necromancer like the rest of your clan turned into.” I stomped up to him and glared into his eyes. “I don’t like being lied to. I suggest you start explaining yourself fast, before I decide to toss you in with the rest of our prisoners.”

“I saved your life,” Torch pointed out calmly. “And what I did was not necromancy. You asked me if I was a necromancer, and I told you I was not. You never asked if I had training in any other magical arts.”

I scowled and took a seat, waving for him to occupy the other. “You didn’t think that maybe you should mention that at some point?”

Torch settled in and shrugged. “Do you tell everyone where you hide all your backup daggers? A mercenary’s life is a dangerous one, and I only just met you. It’s only prudent to keep one or two hidden backups for any nasty surprises your enemies might have in store. Or your friends.” He met my glare with a much calmer, unwavering gaze. “I like you, captain. I think you’re a good stallion who’s fallen on hard times. I think you deserve better than the hand life has dealt you, and I doubt you have any evil intentions towards me.” His eyes narrowed just a bit. “But I’ve been wrong about that before.”

I wanted to argue the point, but the damned fool was right. Mercenary life isn’t pretty, and I’d run into plenty of mercs who’d decided that putting a knife in my back meant one less person to split the profits with. Torch didn’t seem like the sort to do that, but the good backstabbers never were. After all, you never turn your back on a greedy asshole you know will betray you as soon as he gets a better offer. After what happened to his clan Torch had no reason to trust anyone named Striker or Doo, so I couldn’t really blame him for keeping stuff back. Didn’t mean I had to be happy about it.

Speaking of his clan... “You said you were just a common clanpony. Magical training like that wasn’t something they offered the grunts.”

Torch sighed and nodded. “Yes, I suppose I did lie to you about that.” He took a deep breath and sat up a bit straighter. “I am Torch Charger, son of Sanguine Charger and Firebrand. And yes, as you guessed, I came from a bit higher up in the clan.”

“A bit higher up...” I snorted and quickly consulted my vague memories of what the upper echelons of the Charger family tree used to look like. “Feather me sideways, you’re Magnus’s nephew! If...”

He nodded glumly. “Yes, I would be the leader of my clan if it still existed.” A bitter twist of a smile pulled at his lips. “Though only because my uncle went rushing towards his doom, and then the rest of my family, including several older siblings, died in the purge. Being the Paterfamilias by default is nothing to be proud of.”

I grunted and nodded. “Right. So fine, you can do magic. If it’s not necromancy, then what the feather is it?”

Torch sighed. “How much do you know about the twelve classical elements of Zebrican shamanism?”

“Why don’t you just take it from the top.” I’d picked up a fair bit over the years, but having it all laid out by a supposed expert wouldn’t hurt. If nothing else, it’d help me figure out a bit more about what his deal was.

“Alright then.” He took a deep breath. “So, the zebras believe everything in the world can be divided into twelve elements. The corporeal elements of Earth, Fire, Air, Water, Wood, and Metal, and the ethereal elements of Light, Dark, Order, Chaos, Life, and Death. The magic I use taps into the last of those elements, Death.”

I crossed my forelegs over my chest. “And I assume that’s different from necromancy?”

“Incredibly so.” I caught a hint of a scowl on Torch’s lips. “Death is an inevitability for everything that lives. Even the likes of Celestia and Argentium who are untouched by the passage of time will eventually meet their end. Necromancy seeks to pervert the natural order, to deny one of the most fundamental laws of the universe and twist beings into something that is neither dead nor alive, and whose very existence is an insult to both.”

“Funny perspective from someone whose family were necrocrats,” I pointed out. “Surprised they trained you in a type of magic that goes against the sort they were using.”

Torch closed his eyes for several seconds. “Considering most of our rivals were other necrocrats, is it really that surprising? Not to mention we spent a long time trying to diversify our skillset. My father married a unicorn pyromancer for a reason. And while I certainly began my training with my family, I have had other teachers in the decade since the purge. The whole reason I wasn’t there when it happened was because I was training under one of the old masters in Zebrica.” He grimaced and shook his head. “And ... I loved my family and my clan very much, but that doesn’t mean I agree with everything they did.”

I snorted and rolled my eyes. “That make you some kind of conscientious objector?”

Torch shook his head. “Nothing so grand as that. I wasn’t old enough to really object when my clan was still alive, and if they were still here I probably would’ve found a way to rationalize their practices. A decade without them grants a new perspective.”

“Sure does.” I’d certainly realised just how bad some of my clan’s horseapples was once I wasn’t mixed up in it anymore. No point dwelling on that; it’d just make things worse for both of us. “So, what am I supposed to do with you now?”

Torch shrugged. “I see no reason you have to do anything. I've been helping your company and I intend to keep doing so for the foreseeable future. If anything, my value to you has increased substantially.” He smirked at me. “You’re getting a talented battlemage at the standard rates for a fresh recruit. Quite a bargain.”

I grimaced and shook my head. “If you’re going to be a feathering battlemage, we’ll pay you like one.” A good spellcaster would do a lot for the company’s image and ... maybe not quite respectability, but we’d get taken a lot more seriously by clients. “You having spells doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the fact that you lied to me about who and what you were. I get why, can’t even say I wouldn’t do the same in your shoes, but there’s a big gap between understanding it and liking it.”

“Indeed so.” Torch rose to his hooves, going over to the dingy cabin window and staring out it. “Telling you I was a Charger at all was a huge risk, and there are plenty who would kill me just for the name. Finding out I was one of the clan’s elites...”

“Right.” I scowled down at the decks. “The company’s coffers are looking a bit thin, and I could probably turn your head in for a fortune to the right people.”

“But we both know you would not.” Torch was infuriatingly calm. “For all your flaws, you still have far too much of a moral center to do something like that.”

I scoffed. “You think I’m one of the good guys? Just when you have me thinking you were a smart one. Even Talon knows I’m a washed-up old drunk who’s barely holding the company together when he’s sober.”

“Perhaps.” Torch’s eyes settled onto me. “But you weren’t an especially heavy drinker before the purge. Only someone who cares about right and wrong feel so much guilt over not being able to stop an evil that the pain of it drives them to self-destruction.”

I scoffed. “If how much I drink is a measure of my righteousness, then they oughta make me the next Pillar of Harmony. Speaking of which...” I stomped over to the cabinet and pulled out a bottle. “Nicked this out of Glory’s cabin. Let’s see if the bastard had better judgement in his booze than in the rest of his life.” I poured out two glasses and took a sip of the stuff. It made me want to gag; at once too sweet and too sour. “Nope.” I was still tempted to finish the bottle off on principle, but after the day I’d put up with I knew that once I started drinking I wouldn’t be stopping anytime soon. Better to save that for once we got back to port. I offered the bottle to Torch. “You want it?”

“No thanks.” Torch set his untouched glass aside. “What do you intend to do with him, anyway?”

“That your way of asking if you can use that fancy sword of yours to make him a head shorter?” I thought it over for a moment, then snorted and shrugged. “Go for it. Probably shouldn’t be telling you to go ahead and kill one of my clanmates, even if he’s only family by technicality, but if anyone deserves a chance to kill him it’s you. Might even be a mercy, compared to letting him slowly bleed out or having the wounds get infected.”

Torch sighed and shook his head. “Revenge isn’t really a priority for me. Probably because if it was, I would’ve gone crazy a long time ago. Cutting off the head of a downed, wounded man ... no, not a line I feel like crossing. If he’ll already die of the wounds he took in battle I won’t shed any tears, but if I start killing for revenge I’m not sure if I’d be able to stop until half of Freeport was ashes. Dreams of revenge destroyed my uncle Magnus, and I won’t make the same mistake. There are ... better uses for my time and energy.” He took a deep breath. “What do you plan to do with the other Strikers we took prisoner?”

I shrugged helplessly. “I'm still figuring that out. Our contract says that we can turn over my prisoners to our employer to add to the cargo stocks. We’ll even get a nice cut of the action.” I scoffed and spat into the glass filled with Glory’s swill, then dumped it out the porthold. “Not gonna happen on my watch. We may have just fought them, but they’re still family, and I’ll be damned before I sell my kin as slaves.”

Even without the fact that it was just feathering wrong, doing that was the kind of thing that’d get every other Striker hunting for my head. Even if the bonds holding all the Strikers together didn’t count for much, selling clanmates into slavery would be enough to pull them all together for long enough to kill me. Not to mention they’d all rally behind feathering Nightshade, and the idea of giving that bastard any sort of moral high ground revolted me.

“The world doesn’t need more people in chains,” Torch agreed. “But if you’re not turning them over, what are you going to do with them? Leave them all locked up for the entire trip back to Freeport? We’d need half the company to act as jailors.”

I grimaced and briefly considered refilling the glass with something that was actually halfway drinkable. Not a good idea today. After going up against Glory, if I had a drink anytime soon I wouldn’t stop, and until we got back to Freeport I was on the job. A merc captain who ties one on between jobs is fine; one who’s getting hammered on the job won’t be getting work from anyone who can afford better. “Probably just going to head tax them and leave them as parolees until we can let them go in Freeport. Not like I can keep them prisoner once we hit the islands anyway.” Even if the other Strikers didn’t try to bust them out, it wasn’t like there were any authorities worth the name to turn them over to.

Torch took a deep breath. “There is another option.”

“Yeah, what’s that?” A second later I realized what he might be getting at. “You better not be about to suggest I kill or maim the lot of them, or I might reconsider some things about your place in our company.”

Torch scoffed and shook his head. “Hardly.” It still took a bit for him to actually make the proposal. “Your company is plainly understrength, and they are Strikers. Given their rather poor performance and how badly Glory failed in front of them, many would likely be eager to find greener pastures.”

“First time I’ve ever heard someone say joining my company would be a step up.” Though the kid wasn’t wrong. I might not be worth much, but Glory was the sort of leader whose value could only be measured with negative numbers. However, there was a big problem with taking in any of his leavings. “You know they were involved in the massacre of your clan, right?”

“I know Third Company was involved,” Torch answered. “I also know that it happened a decade ago, and mercenary companies have a high turnover rate.”

He wasn’t wrong. “A lot of them are like you, too young to have taken part in that mess. Half of them were probably still learning which end of a spear to hold when it all went down.” I sighed and ran a hoof down my face. “Doesn’t mean they’re angels. They still signed on with Third Company despite knowing what they did, and worked under Glory for years. Even if they didn’t do that, odds are they did something nasty.”

“We’ve all done things we regret,” Torch responded. “If you insist on only recruiting mercenaries with a clean conscience, you’ll have a very small company indeed. And you would have to resign as well. At the very least, we should make the offer and consider whether any of those who are interested would be worth having.”

“Right, not like we can’t just look over the ones who’d be willing to join up and turn down the bad seeds while keeping the good ones.” I frowned, tapping a hoof on the deck. “I’ll think it over and run it by Talon. ‘Course, that’s assuming there are enough of them interested in swapping sides to be worth the trouble. Glory wasn’t much of a leader, but loyalty still counts for something. Anyone who’s eager to turn on him would probably be just as quick to plant a knife in my back if I was on the losing team.”

“We certainly wouldn’t want to recruit any serial turncoats,” Torch agreed. “But there is no reason you cannot exclude them from consideration while taking in whichever Strikers you think can still be salvaged.”

I sighed and nodded. “We’ve got plenty of time before we reach Freeport, might as well make a project of it to fill in the idle hours. Even if only one or two of them are worth having, we could certainly use the new blood.”

“Just so, sir,” Torch agreed. “If you want any help with judging the candidates—”

“I’ll ask Talon,” I cut him off. Not that I minded him offering to help, but this was for the two officers to handle. Besides, I wasn’t sure about letting him do some sort of weird death magic on them to see if they passed muster or not. I’d mostly moved past him lying about his powers, but that didn’t mean I was on board with letting him throw magic all over the place. “You’re already busy checking over everyone’s gear. Now that we’ve got a whole bunch of fresh steel to go over you’ll be busy until we’re back in port. Though good news for you, if we get any defectors they’ll join you.”

Torch sighed and nodded. “Small favors. I don’t suppose you could give me something better to do with my time?”

I smirked. “Kid, you should know by now that that only reward a merc gets for a job well done is more work.”

Probably says something about the quality of my life that talking to the new recruit I suspected of being a necromancer was not the worst thing I had to do that day. After all, the chat with Torch had gone pretty well, all things considered. Not that I’d loved the fact he lied to me and left out some pretty damn important information, but at least I got why he did it. Probably would’ve done the same in his shoes. Didn’t exactly make the lies okay, but it was a lot easier for me to move past it than if he’d been lying just to be an asshole.

Speaking of assholes, that brought me to the next item on my to-do list. Glory.

Talon was keeping an eye on him when I got to the cabin we’d stuffed him into. It wasn’t one of the nicer ones, but on a ship even a small private cubbyhole was a luxury. Seemed the least we could do. Last I’d heard, the medics were still giving him a good going-over, but apparently they’d finished while I was talking things out with Torch. Judging by the grim frown on Talon’s face I already had a pretty good idea of what the news was going to be, but I asked anyway to get it confirmed. “How’s the prisoner doing?”

“Dying,” Talon answered bluntly. “Can’t say I’ll miss him, but it’s not going to be a pretty one. Doc says something in his guts is broken, and it’s going to poison his blood and kill him barring a miracle. Bad way to go.”

“There aren’t any good ones.” I grunted and scowled down at the planks. “But yeah, know what you mean. Dying quick in battle is a lot better than having it dragged out over a couple days in bed.” I wasn’t gonna say Glory deserved to die, but making a production of it wasn’t my style.

Talon seemed to agree, judging by her next remark. “Half-tempted to just leave a blade for him and walk out. Though knowing him, if we gave him a blade he’d try to plant it in one of us for a last bit of revenge rather than do the honorable thing.”

“Sounds like him,” I agreed. Still, there were ways to get around that. Not like he’d be in any shape to move fast, and I could always toss him the blade right before I closed and locked the door. “If someone’s gonna do that, it'll be me. One of the perks of being the big boss, I get to decide who gets offered the chance to off themselves. Besides, I’m the one who put him in that shape. Seems fitting.”

“As you say, sir,” Talon murmured. “Want to have a word with him? Been trying to keep someone nearby until he’s gone.”

“Good call.” Glory might have been a sorry excuse for a Striker, but he was enough of one to deserve a deathwatch. “Take a break. I’ll keep the bastard company until you can get a meal, and maybe once I’m done with him we won’t need anyone else to take over.”

Talon grimaced and nodded. “Thanks, sir.” She marched off down the narrow corridor, stretching her legs and wings as she went. “Might be a good idea to break out a bit of the spare grog ration. It’s been a rough day for everyone.”

“You’re telling me.” The only thing keeping me from crawling into a bottle for the next couple days was a stubborn sense of duty that probably wouldn’t last much longer. But I wasn’t quite ready to run away from my problems yet. I took a deep breath and prepared myself for whatever was waiting for me within.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the cabin was the smell. That disgusting, sickly-sweet of death and decay. I’d almost gotten to the point where the smell didn’t bother me anymore, but that just meant that now I was worried because it didn’t upset me anymore. When I stepped fully into the room and closed the door behind me Glory glared up at me. “Come to admire your handiwork?”

I scoffed and shook my head. “Nah, I’m not the sort of bloody-minded bastard who comes to gloat over someone while they’re dying.”

“Is it guilt then?” Glory spat out a mixture of phlegm and blood. “Come to ask my forgiveness for killing your own kin?”

“You killed yourself,” I snarled. “Gave you plenty of chances to back down or not have it end in blood. I’m not proud of killing you, but I’m not gonna lose any sleep over it.”

Glory tried to laugh, but it turned a series of painful wracking coughs. “I forgot how much of a self-righteous bastard you are. For a washed-up old old drunk you always seem real sure you’re the only guy who can tell what’s right, and everyone else is just an evil ass.”

I wasn’t about to get into an argument with the guy. Wouldn’t do any good, and getting pissed at a dead man was the very definition of pointless. “If you want, I can leave a dagger when I leave. No sense dragging it out for however long it’ll take when you can make it fast.”

Glory scoffed. “Why not just slit my throat yourself? You already killed me, making me finish the job doesn’t change that.”

“Didn’t think it would,” I grunted. “But I don't murder wounded soldiers who’ve surrendered to me. Just figured I’d give you a chance to cut the suffering short. If you want to make your death as long, ugly, and painful as possible it makes no difference to me.”

Glory glared at me. “Oh don’t pretend you’re not loving every minute of this. Bet you angled the knife to make sure I’d have the nastiest death you could manage.”

I snorted and rolled my eyes. “Yeah, I enjoyed giving you the kind of beating your momma should’ve given you when you were still kid. But watching you die slowly and painfully? Not my thing. I like my kills quick and simple, and honestly I would’ve been fine with sending you home with nothing more than a bunch of bruises and a bit more humility.”

“But I don’t see any tears over killing me,” Glory shot back. “And not like you tried to stick that knife somewhere safer.”

“Hard to stab a guy hard enough to take ‘em down without a risk of killing ‘em,” I countered. “But yeah, I’d be lying if I said part of me didn’t enjoy it. Can’t say the world will miss a murderer like you. Could even call it justice. If Torch had asked for your head I wasn’t gonna tell him no.”

“Murder?” Glory scoffed. “We’re all killers, you stuck-up condescending fool. Only difference is you’re a bad at it, and try to make yourself think that makes you better than us.”

I scowled at him “I’ll kill someone in a fair fight, but I don’t execute people who are down, helpless, and begging for mercy. There’s a big difference between the two. If you can’t figure that out, then maybe I oughta just leave you to die slow.”

“Is that what you think I did?” Glory groaned and flopped weakly into his bedroll. “Feathers, it was just a job.”

“It wasn’t just a job,” I snarled at him. “You killed off an entire clan. One of the last remnants of Old Pegasopolis. Our ancestors fought by them for centuries. They’re practically family. You—”

“Family?” Glory cut in. “Maybe four hundred years ago, back when Pegasopolis was still around. But it’s time you woke up and realized that what happened centuries ago doesn’t matter anymore. Maybe they were our friends and allies once, but that’s ancient history. Out in the real world they were just a bunch of backstabby necros who got out-backstabbed. They were no more kin to us than half the other necros in Freeport, and you better believe they would’ve put a knife in our backs first if they thought they were getting something out of it!”

I sighed and shook my head. “Guess it was too much to hope for a bit of deathbed repentance. Least we can put on your grave that you died like you lived; a worthless sack of horseapples that the world’s better off without.”

Glory snarled. “Good thing you’re not leaving me a knife, ‘cause I’d bury it into you if it was the last thing I did. Go ahead and slit my throat and get it over with. Anything’s better than listening to more of your sanctimonious horseapples.”

I turned about and headed for the door. “Well good thing for you I’m done with this. Gotta see how many of your troops want to serve under a real commander.”

I was almost out the door when Glory fired off his parting shot. “None of my men are so desperate that they’d serve under a drunk and a kinslayer.”

I should’ve ignored the barb, but Glory had always had a knack for getting under my skin. “You started the fight, and you weren’t exactly pulling your punches. Bet you wouldn’t be feeling a lick of guilt if you’d skewered me or sliced my head off.”

“No,” Glory admitted. “You always were an asshole. Once you ran off with your company, changed the name, and stopped reporting in I knew you’d gone rogue. Nightshade just keeps your lot on the rolls to avoid admitting that he lost Tenth Company. Far as I and anyone else with a working brain is concerned, you’re not a Striker anymore. That’s what happens when you turn on your own kin.”

“You...” For a moment I was tempted to go up to the worthless son of a nag and give him a couple swift kicks in the gut to teach him a lesson. Not that I gave into the temptation, but it was a pretty damn strong one. Only reason I didn’t, aside from basic decency, was to not give him the satisfaction of dragging me down to his level “Feather you too, butcher.”

I slammed the door behind me on my way out, snarling half a dozen colorful curses about Glory and his extended family tree. Which probably involved a fair bit of insulting my own ancestors as well, considering we were clanmates.

I was into my third minute of increasingly colorful language when Talon found me. She sighed softly. “Sounds like it went as expected.”

“I think I had more fun the last time I went to the dentist,” I growled.

“Sounds right.” She sighed and shook her head. “Not sure how we should feel about him dying. Glory wasn’t much of a Striker, but he was still one of us. It’s ... well I can’t say I feel guilty about it when he brought it on himself, but I suppose I feel guilty over the fact that I don’t feel more guilty. If that makes any sense.”

“Yeah, it does.” I sighed and scratched at my beard. Some dried blood flaked out of it, probably from one of the nicks I’d taken during the battle. Grooming hadn’t exactly been my top priority. “Big surprise, the old history came up again. The bastard is about to die, and he isn’t sorry for a single damned thing he’s ever done.”

Talon snorted. “Did you really think he would've learned by now? He’s spent his whole life being himself, not like he’d change his mind in the last five minutes.” She cocked her head to the side. “Not like you to try and see the better side of people, sir. It’s almost ... optimistic.”

She had a point. Maybe it was Torch’s perspective rubbing off on me a bit. I mean, the kid seemed to have held onto an awful lot of decency despite life dealing him enough of a shit hand that nobody would’ve blamed him for being an enraged revenge-seeking psycho. He didn’t want to lop off the head of a guy who deserved it, and was even willing to give a second chance to the soldiers who served under someone that had helped destroy his family. That was a lot more forgiveness than anyone had a right to expect. Probably part of why I’d let Torch’s lies slide.

Still, if the kid was having that much of an impact... I scoffed. “If I’m an optimist, then the world is in worse shape than I thought.”

Author's Note:

As always, thanks to my pre-reading and editing team for all their hard work. Also, I would like to thank all my dedicated Patreon supporters. You guys are awesome.

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