I'm still very much in an original fiction frame of mind. This is an odd, dark thing that's been lurking for a while.

Title: The Nacre Guardsman
Rating: R
Universe: The Nacre Guardsman
Characters/Pairings: Original characters, armies, dragons, the Nacre Guardsman
Summary: "The thing about wars is that they leave legends behind them. People need stories so that afterwards it makes sense. All those bodies. All those blighted fields. People need stories after a war. They need honour and bravery and glorious sacrifice. They need myths, and the glimmers of things too great to ever truly die." In the horror-stricken aftermath of an Imperial War against dragons, stories live on of a horror and a hope
Wordcount: 2658
Warnings/Notes: Original fiction, fantasy, horror, weird war, world war, dragons, empires, death, human experimentation, weapons, super soldiers, destroying the evidence, extermination, legends, survivors, aftermath
Claimer: Pretty much mine

The Nacre Guardsman

The thing about wars is that they leave legends behind them. That's just the way it is. You put that many people together, you have that many people die, and people need stories so that afterwards it makes sense. All those bodies. All those blighted fields. People need stories after a war. They need honour and bravery and glorious sacrifice. They need myths, and the glimmers of things too great to ever truly die.

That's not to say there isn't the odd sliver of truth to what gets told. That's not to say that sacrifice and honour don't exist.

That's not to say there's never the odd, deathless thing comes walking off the battlefield.

The Dragon Wars were a blight like the world had never seen. There's no one in the whole of the North who won't tell you that. Whatever wars had come before, whatever men or demons or empires had come knocking on our door, there was never anything like that war. There was never anything like those creatures. There was nothing so mindless, or so vast, or so utterly, incomprehensibly terrible.

There was no war quite so incredibly stupid, either. There was no monstrosity ever woken by such petty, small-minded, utterly pathetic reasons. Imperial greed, nothing more and nothing less. The grubby, small-minded need to scratch out one more sliver of profit from an otherwise empty landscape. Renleck Industries. It's a name that'll ring in infamy for decades yet. It's a name no one is ever going to forget. The name that broke the Badlands. The name that woke sleeping dragons from their ten-thousand-year slumber, and brought calamity on us all.

It's still incredible to those who survived that anyone could ever have been so blindly stupid. The Northern Badlands were something anyone with even a glimmer of sense would have stayed well, well away from. The very ground of the place oozed malice. Quite literally. The Badlands were a noxious, steaming wasteland, yellowish and foul, an open sore in the tundra. Of course we know why, now. We know as much about that yellow land, that yellow substance, as we do about dragons. It's what started the war, and it's what finished it too.

Opaline. Dragonsbreath. Such a lovely name, for such a desperately evil thing. It's a fluid. A thin, yellowish fluid. Dragons exhale it, even in their sleep. Ten thousand years of a slumber, it stained all the land around them. It poisoned everything it touched.

It's what drew Renleck in. It's what drew imperial greed down upon the Badlands.

Opaline burns, you see. It burns like nothing you've ever seen. And it does ... other things too. It's been a substance of alchemical interest for centuries. Certain materials, there's a process you can use to coat them in it, make something heatproof and unbreakable. Gives them a opal-like finish, an iridescent gleaming. 'Opaline'. It's a burning poison, but you can make such things out of it. And the Badlands had so much of it. There were a hundred dragons down there, hidden under the earth, driven into slumber by the coming of the ice ten thousand years before. A full flight, an entire lineage. The Badlands wept with their breathing.

So Renleck set up their drills and siphons there, their factories. Imperially sponsored, the better to supply imperial armies with fireproof, unbreakable, truly beautiful equipment. There's still opaline armour, swords and rifles in circulation, even now. For the deserving, of course. Family heirlooms for the nobles. And a few units who still use them for their intended purposes, though for shock value now as much as anything. Didn't we say that wars leave legends behind?

Those aren't the real ones, though. Those secret units with their gleaming, iridescent armours and weaponry. They're not the real opaline legends. Those came later, were shattered faster. Those emerged from the Dragon Wars themselves, and died in the midst of them. Destroyed, slaughtered to a man. Except in legend. Except in the stories people tell after the fact.

The Nacre Guards. That's the name. That's what you'll hear whispered, even now, even so many years later. The last great open secret of the Dragon Wars.

The last great horror.

Dragons breathe opaline. Liquid fire, liquid death. They dribble it even in their sleep, and when they're woken, when they're angry and crawling and fighting, flying, burning all the land ahead of them, raining poison down across the North ... There were a hundred dragons up there. Not all of them woke at once. Thank all the gods in all the heavens, not all of them woke at once. Renleck broke into one of the smaller caverns first. A small flight. Enough to destroy the better part of a province, enough to expand the Badlands by a hundred square miles, enough to burn a hundred thousand people to a noxious death, but only a small flight. At first. Just at first. Until their brethren stirred behind them, and ventured out upon the North to avenge those first few dragon deaths.

Because we did kill them. That first flight. It took more than anyone ever thought we had to give, but that first dozen were downed. By cannon and by airship, mostly, once the imperial army was finally stirred to fight. For opaline profits, they were perfectly eager. At first. At the start. Before the stinking, burning horror of those first few weeks impressed itself upon them. For only a dozen dragons, you wouldn't believe how many died to bring them down.

Because dragons breathe opaline. And opaline burns. Even after the dragon itself is dead. Long, long after that.

To fight opaline you need opaline. Fire with fire, isn't that what they say? Liquid death with liquid death. Armour finished in opaline protects against its liquid forebear. Armour, shields. Opaline weapons aren't destroyed by the first noxious breath that turns their way. Do you know how much profit Renleck made? The very ones who'd woken the dragons in the first place. Do you know how much money they made on the back of those first few weeks?

On the back of the months that followed. It was obscene. A hundred dragons. Flight after flight. And we'd learned after the first one. We knew the horror that bore down on us. We knew, at least the beginnings, of how to fight them. We just had to chip away the cost.

Because the armour wasn't enough. Opaline is liquid. It seeps. It trickles through cracks. You'll always know a survivor of the frontline forces of the Dragon Wars. Not that there are too many of them. You'll recognise the burns, the lines of them along the seams of the armours. Most of the survivors had armour. Those without it tended not to last very long, even if they weren't killed by the battle itself. Opaline seeps. It burns. It lingers. It eats.

That's why there's never been a war like the Dragon Wars. There's never been any other war with that kind of cost. The attrition rate of troops against dragons was appalling. Even if physically speaking an individual dragon wasn't too hard to bring down, not with the right equipment, the right vantage, and the right luck. It didn't matter. Even dead, they poured opaline. The carcasses crushed and shattered, they wept opaline, they poisoned everything around them. A full third of all forces the Empire could bring to bear at the time died against them outright, a significant portion of them in the aerial forces. Whole swathes of the North were poisoned behind them, areas where dragons dropped unusable even today. To face them from the ground ... unthinkable. Whole populations underneath their flights died. Slowly. Horribly. There has been nothing, nothing, to match the scale of death and horror and despair the Dragon Wars brought upon us. Nothing in this world.

So we made a legend. We made a story. We made a hope and a horror of our own. Humans, people, finished in opaline, immune without the need of armour. Dragon warriors. The Nacre Guard.

No one knows how. No one wants to know how. There are rumours, of course. There always are. Massed experimentation. Renleck. Always Renleck. Underground factories along the edges of the original Badlands. Drafted troops. No one knows how many. A thousand? Ten thousand? Surely it couldn't be more. The Nacre Guard was never more than a battalion in size, the ones that survived to be deployed, but how many more died to make that many? How many died to perfect the process? Because there wasn't one, before the war. No one had ever tried anything so ... not on people. Not like that. Not on people.

It had benefits. More than the Guard itself. Things that were learned during the making of the Guard helped a lot of the cleanup after the war. Even during it. Treatments for opaline wounds, opaline sickness. The beginnings of purification treatments. A lot was learned. A lot of people were saved afterwards by it. But still. Still.

The Nacre Guard were immune to opaline. To fire as well, it's said. You could never burn a Guardsman. They could stand in the face of the burning hells themselves and never flinch. They couldn't be poisoned, not by any poison that would kill a normal man. They were hard to wound as well. Much as any opaline weapon. Much as dragons themselves. It takes crushing force to destroy a Guardsman. It takes explosive, physical impact. Cannon fire. Falling from a great height. The vast, crushing force of a falling airship or a falling dragon. That was how so many of them died. That was how so many of them were whittled away.

They took the dragons with them, though. Flight after flight. As soon as they were made, the Nacre Guard became the front line of the war. Because they saved money. Because they didn't need armouring. Because the armour saved on the Guard could be used on the airships themselves, the crew, to keep them aloft, to keep them fighting. Armed with long range, opaline rifles, units of Guardsmen were assigned to airships across the North. They were snipers, primarily. Dragons had vulnerabilities if you got close enough. Eyes, open mouths. Only if you were close enough. If you had the right weapon, the right ammunition. If you could survive a full blast of opaline from point blank range.

If you could survive the physical wrath of the dragon afterwards. If you could survive being entangled in their burning carcasses. But they couldn't. All the rest, yes, but not that. The attrition rate of the Guard was ...

They're the true legends of the war. The Nacre Guardsmen. Even now. Everyone knows what they looked like. Their skin burnt white. Their hair burnt yellowish. Their eyes the noxious gold of opaline. The gleaming, iridescent lengths of their opaline rifles. The off-white drabness of their uniforms. The rags of them, those who managed to survive one dragon to fight another. White and naked, dripping opaline, their eyes blank and empty. Their guns in their hands, and the treated sacks of their ammunition around their waists. Everyone knows what they look like. Everyone can imagine it.

No one has seen it since. Not once, not ever, not outside the realm of legend. Not outside of stories. No one has seen one since. The Nacre Guard died with the war.

The simplest stories just blame the attrition. There were only so many Guardsmen made, only so many who survived whatever hellish process took place in those Renleck factories. There were a hundred dragons. There was three years of war, three years to kill them and herd them back and finally bring the last flight down, less than a hundred miles from the caverns they'd originally emerged from. There were a hundred dragons, and less than a thousand Guardsmen. Attrition alone would explain it. Most of it. Most.

But there should have been one. At least one who survived. They were there, fighting, right up until the last dragon fell. There were those who'd survived one dragon, two dragons, ten. Constantly redeployed, sent back over and over again as numbers dwindled. There were some, people knew their names. Lucky talismans, with ships and crews who knew them. Who believed in them. The ones who'd lasted longest. Surely there should have been one. Surely at least one of them should have survived.

Except. Except for greed, and fear, and horror. Except for Renleck. Except for the factories under the Badlands. Except for ten thousand troops sourced from somewhere, drafted and taken and subjected to gods know what. Except for attrition rates before any Guard ever saw battle. Except for a process a great many people never wanted to see shared, or discovered, or reverse-engineered. Except for a horror equal to any perpetrated by dragons.

Except for a nightmare that the Empire wanted to hide, and leave no concrete evidence had ever taken place at all.

The stories are darker here. Bleaker. An underground factory, somewhere on the edges of the Badlands. A mass grave no one will ever be allowed to see. Opaline armoured troops, dragging whitish, yellowish corpses back to the hell that birthed them. Slain by dragons, most of them. Not all. There would have been a last few. Those who'd slain the last dragon. Those who'd endured far past all human endurance, who'd staggered to the finish and won what should have been a victory. Those who'd turned, on that last battlefield, and found their crews standing behind them. Armed with opaline rifles. Carrying treated sacks with special ammunition. Those who'd stood there, burned white and yellow, with blank and empty eyes, and been slain by those they'd fought for, and those they'd thought believed in them.

Those are the stories. The dark ones, the whispered ones. The death of the Nacre Guard. The death of a horror and legend.

But that's the thing. That's the thing. Legends don't die. People need more than that after a war. They need more than ugly stories of honour betrayed and sacrifice unpaid. They need more than horror stories of burning yellow fields and white corpses buried in mass graves. They want more. They need more. Something that survives. Something undying. Something deathless to walk out of those burning fields and provide hope that they can do likewise.

So there are stories. Other stories. Other legends. And one, always one, in particular.

There should have been one. That's what everyone always says. There should have been one Guardsman who survived. One person in a thousand, whose crew had truly loved them. Who'd hidden them beneath a dragon's corpse, or smuggled them away before that last opaline volley could be fired. One. Just one. One last survivor, one last echo, of the greatest war, the greatest horror, and the greatest sacrifice the Empire has ever seen.

You'll know him if you see him. So the stories say, and who's to say there isn't a glimmer of truth to them? You'll know him. He'll have skin burnt white and hair burnt yellow. He'll have golden eyes full of burning, and a shining, iridescent rifle by his side. He'll have walked through poisoned fields unscathed, caught fire in his hand without a qualm. He'll have clawed his way through a hundred hells, turned his back on death itself and walked down out of the North with a hollow in his heart and a crew who would die for him a hundred thousand times. He'll have seen honour, and courage, and glorious sacrifice. He'll have seen horror the likes of which no one else ever has or ever will. He is deathless. He's the last great legend of the last great war, the greatest horror and the greatest hope this land has ever seen.

He is the Nacre Guardsman. And you will know him when you see him.


A/N: Nacre is also known as mother-of-pearl, and it just struck me as something that is gorgeous to look at but sounds like something horrible. 'Nacre'. Maybe it just sounds too close to 'necro'?
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