X touched the oathchain at his neck. It flashed, triggering twenty-four smaller flashes in the darkness of the vast cavern. Following the flashes, shadows took form and dropped down onto the platform.
When two-dozen hooded shapes stood on the platform, X looked up into the cavern. “The rest of you sleep.” He turned to those he had called. “We go to destroy the regent’s enemies. With a tap on his oathchain, the regent’s words sounded in the minds of the others. They nodded, crossing their chests with their right arms. “We accept our oaths,” they chanted.
“Then come,” he said.
The first Bestial saluted X, then dropped his cloak and stepped forward. The dim torches turned him into a silhouette, shadows concealing everything but the outline of a muscular human form. He ran toward a long ramp at the far end of the platform. At the ramp, he pulled his head back and roared, opening some deep and feral cavern within. He threw himself to the ground then pulled himself to the ramp, sliding on his belly as the change began. Fingers hardened and curled into long black talons. His face stretched forward, projecting into a long, pointed mouth: two powerful jaws ridged with sharp teeth. The skin above his waist grew thick and scaly, covering his body with leathery green plates.
At the bottom of the ramp, he swished a long tail, beating the still, black water before disappearing beneath the surface. More men followed, each transforming into a crocodile from the mid-thigh up. The water boiled with snapping jaws that could break spear shafts, thrashing tails that could smash legs, and teeth sharp enough to pierce chainmail. Monsters with primal brains engorged with bloodlust, unfamiliar with pity or mercy.
X followed the others, sliding down the ramp and submitting to the change. First came the pain, which scoured and burned, purging away weakness and hesitation—and any remaining humanity.
His stomach scales scraped the stone ramp. Countless claws over the years had scraped deep gouges on each side; countless bellies had rubbed the stones smooth.
After pain came the power: the soaring thrill of strength, the euphoria of feeling thunder trapped inside muscles.
X slid into the churning water, shoving the other Bestials out of the way. He opened his long mouth, tore at the air with long teeth, then roared and dove beneath the water.
At the bottom of the pool, a swish of his powerful tail swept him through an opening, into a long stone tunnel. At the end of the tunnel an iron grate shrieked as it rose.
X shot through the opening, leaving the stale water of the castle and slicing into the wild, living currents of the river.
Fish swam past and a current pushed against him. The feet of ducks paddled above, just beneath the surface.
X noticed everything around him, but none of it mattered. With their oathchains quickened, the Bestials had one objective, one overwhelming urge: kill the regent’s enemies. The regent’s magic wrapped this command into the deepest parts of their minds; they would execute their orders with the physical power of a monster, the intelligence of a human, and unchangeable, undeniable instinct. They would kill as a fish swims and a bird flies.