The dead didn’t laugh.
That was wrong, of course. The dead laughed plenty. They laughed in battle to the song of swords swinging, to the percussive twangs of bowstrings snapping in time, to the dull crush of armor and bone crumpling. They laughed as they worked amidst the sound of glass vials shattering, inhaling the poisonous fumes through open, jeering mouths, snorting them out through wide-flared nostrils. They laughed as they killed, keeping Orzammar’s perimeter clear of darkspawn.
Gwydd was laughing, that crazy fucker. Kenric couldn’t understand how he could do it, wasn’t he winded enough just from wielding his axe? But no, Gwydd was almost hysterical as he waded into clumps of darkspawn two and three large, his wickedly sharp greataxe describing black-splashed crescents, the spike on the back half descending, savage, into bodies. When he was like that nothing could touch him, so Kenric left him alone, fell in shoulder to shoulder with Rith, whose left side always needed watching.
“That crazy fucker,” Rith gasped as he laid his blades against a genlock’s neck. Kenric stepped aside deftly to avoid an elbow in his face, let his shield snap forward to intersect with the genlock’s upward stab. Blood fountained as Rith’s weapons cut deep, and the two dwarves spun away perfectly in sync, hiding eyes and mouths from the taint.
“Falla!” Gwydd hollered, just as a black-feathered arrow drilled into the eye socket of the darkspawn he was fighting. He began laughing again, his deep voice booming into the air, audible over the sounds of violence. A second arrow whipped past him to bury itself in the throat of a hurlock. “Never mind! Thank you!”
Kenric heard Falla’s voice faintly through his helmet. “Least you still remember your manners!”
“What?” Gwydd shouted back rudely, pausing to set a booted foot against a dead genlock’s face. He yanked his blade out of its head. The genlock’s legs twitched.
Kenric looked around, saw that the darkspawn were all dead or dying. The group hadn’t been particularly large, only nine or so, and his squad had been together long enough, was skilled enough, to make short work of them. Kenric shook his head to clear it of the battle haze and watched as Gwydd pulled a longknife from the sheath at his belt. The other dwarf knelt down, and in two strokes severed the darkspawn’s head from its shoulders. He twisted around, peering behind him; Kenric moved out of the way.
Gwydd opened his mouth. “Falla, where the fuck?!”
“DO IT!” came the response, screamed out from behind. “Twenty-one in a row, hit me!”
Gwydd got the toe of his boot underneath the head and rolled it onto the flat of his axe. Carefully he maneuvered it up to waist height, and then with a bark of laughter, he took two running steps, heaving the head high in a tall arc.
An arrow flashed, intercepted the head partway through its trajectory, felling it. “Did I get it?” Falla asked. Her boots scraped against the flagstones as she trotted up to the rest of the squad.
“Aye,” Gwydd said, squinting. “Right in the forehead again.” The dark-haired dwarf sighed. “By the Stone, woman.”
Falla laughed, mouth open, her small snub nose wrinkling. The sound of it was warm and chesty. “Twenty-one times this has happened, and you haven’t learned your lesson yet.”
Rith grinned, pulling his helm off, revealing close-cropped sandy hair. He held up one of his knives to inspect its length. “You know what they say about ‘zerker intelligence.”
“Fuck if I know,” Gwydd said immediately, and the three of them snickered.
Kenric finished running his thumbs along the edge of his shield, then hooked it onto his harness. “Well friends, it looks like the Legion big-shots will be seeing our sorry mugs again. Let’s salvage and head back.”
“Looking forward to that roast nug, captain?” Falla asked him as she approached two of the genlock bodies. “We could just as easily stay out here, but if you’re longing for the sweet taste of burnt rodent...”
Kenric made a face. “Don’t even, Falla. I know it’s you who likes it.”
She giggled as her search turned up nothing. Setting the point of her bow on the road, she unstrung it in one practiced motion. “It’s disgusting shit, all stringy-like. Gwydd’s eating my share tonight.”
Gwydd turned a shade paler, then mimicked sticking his finger down his throat.
Falla narrowed her eyes. “Twenty-one times, Gwydd. Twenty-one times.”
Kenric grinned at Gwydd’s obvious disgust. “Twenty-one times, Gwydd, she’s right.”
“Ugh,” the other dwarf said, and gagged.
Rith patted Gwydd mock-sympathetically on the shoulder, a patronizing look on his freckled face. “This could all stop, Gwydd. You could make this all stop by not doing the thing. Falla isn’t going to miss any time soon. Ancestors, even if she did, she’d have a second arrow on the way in half a blink, and that one wouldn’t miss.”
“A full blink. She wouldn’t be able to draw it that far back in half.”
“Fine, yes. A full blink. Two, even.” Rith sighed again; Kenric coughed to cover his snort of laughter. “Anyway, you could give up on seeing Falla miss. Or admit you love roast nug.”
A cackle from Falla as she walked the battlefield, retrieving arrows.
“What?” Rith asked Gwydd innocently, ignoring his fearsome scowl. “It’s the only logical conclusion. You know Falla isn’t going to miss. She makes you eat her portion of nug every time. Therefore you must be doing this so you can get extra nug.”
“Sometimes,” Falla said cheerfully, walking up to them with a handful of arrows, “it’s even stewed deepstalker. Yum!”
Kenric couldn’t help it; he let out a guffaw. “Enough! Allow Gwydd to make his own poor decisions. He’s been better fed than the rest of us, at least.”
“Debatable.” Falla pursed her lips, sticking them out, and smirked. She then joined Rith in rolling the bodies into the deep lava channel on one side of the road. Kenric sat to clean his sword, listening to the background music of dead darkspawn being incinerated. First the thud as the corpse hit the crust of the lava. Then the long hissing crackle as flesh and blood caught fire, followed by various pops as soft, squishy bits exploded.
At length he stood, balling the soiled cloth in his gloved hand. “Finish up,” he ordered as he walked to the edge of the road. The cloth spread as it fell, oily red and black blotches forming a curious pattern as the lightweight material drifted through shifting thermals. Kenric observed it for a moment before turning his attention back to his crew. “Form up, we’re going.”
The group fell into pace easily with Kenric and Rith in the front, Gwydd and Falla in the back. They hadn’t ranged far into the Deep Roads on this trip; all the caches had been full and unmarked when they sortied, leaving no distractions on the way back to base camp. As they walked Falla hummed tunelessly to herself. Kenric recalled a time when that had been annoying - years, it might have been years, this squad was remarkably long-lived - but now it was merely something Falla did, one more ambient noise to add to the clanks of armor, the tramps of heavily booted feet.
“Double time it,” Kenric called out when he sensed the group’s cohesiveness beginning to fray. Out here on the front lines the mind couldn’t wander. Constant vigilance was required to stay alive, constant monitoring of sounds, of flickering shadows on the walls, even of the smell. Darkspawn in great enough numbers had their own special stench, and Kenric knew from experience that catching a whiff of it could prevent unnecessary casualties among his men. An interesting notion, unnecessary casualties. That Kenric would want to delay his squad’s second death was ironic to him, but he had a good team, and they did better work on their feet and fighting than on the ground, being eaten. He’d been captain to a couple of other squads in the past, and it was only through dumb luck and occasional flashes of real leadership that he’d survived, along with a few others, and made it this far. This particular group was his best yet, and admittedly his favorite, though he wasn’t supposed to have favorites. Kenric was determined to lead them for a little while longer.
The four of them shifted smoothly to a dog trot, and Kenric could feel their focus return, feel their attention sharpen. For a time nothing was said. They passed by a broken statue of Paragon Branka, the head of her hammer lying cracked and crumbling at the base of the pedestal. Her features remained, though there were chips missing in her face and her hair. Not too far from her, perhaps only another ten minutes, was a supply cache, the second of two Kenric had inspected on the way out.
It was empty when they arrived. Puzzled, Kenric called a halt, going over to inspect the crate. “No sigil,” he muttered after he pressed the correct parts of the lid, opening the box.
“Maybe someone forgot?” Gwydd suggested as he leaned on the long haft of his axe.
“It’s possible,” Kenric allowed. “This isn’t the first time it’s happened, but it still bears a report. Requisitions will be up our asses if things aren’t logged exactly right.” Kenric fitted the lid back onto the crate, pushed on it until he heard the latches clicking. “Back on your feet, lads. And lass. Roast nug awaits us, and Gwydd can’t wait to dig in.”
“Real funny, captain,” Gwydd said, sarcastic. “Real funny.”
Kenric sidled up to him, nudged his shoulder. “Rith made a convincing argument. I think he’s right about you liking it.” Kenric half-shrugged, his left shoulder and hand lifting slightly. “Think about it, Gwydd. There are so many possibilities. Roast nug. Nug jerky. Stewed nug.”
“Deep fried nug,” piped Falla.
“Sous-vide nug,” said Rith, and as one, heads turned. Their stares were flat. “What?” Rith protested. “It’s...something that could be done.”
Kenric shook his head, motioning for his squad to get back into formation. “What’s soo veed?” Gwydd asked, almost plaintive, as they began moving again.
No one bothered to answer him.