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"Those Who Went Before" is the newest short story of Glen Cook's Black Company series. It was published in the 2024 anthology Paladins of Valor edited by Rob Howell. It is the fourth short story of the On The Long Run story arc, all of which take place during the first 4 years of the 6-year gap between the novels Shadows Linger and The White Rose. Specifically, the narrative takes place between the short stories "Wet Dream Fish Story" (2023) and "Shaggy Dog Bridge" (2013, published out of lore order).

The Annalist for the events is Croaker, who records the details of the Black Company's strange passage through the centuries-old, sorcery-infested Grand Memorial to Our Honored Dead deep within the western wilderness.

Plot summary[]

For several months and more than one hundred miles now, the Black Company has trekked along an old road through a primeval forest, trying to remain unseen by their airborne enemies, the new Taken. The group’s morale has been steadily waning due to paranoia and the stresses of being in the wilderness. Despite their remote location, there are even desertions.

Elmo's premonition[]

While the Lieutenant and Candy ride out to investigate Elmo's report on an improvement in the road ahead, Darling shares a story about her time with recently-deceased Raven via finger speech to Croaker. It is interrupted when Elmo expresses a premonition about the near future… something Croaker claims the veteran sergeant has not done in all the 20 years he has known him. Elmo correctly observes that all wildlife seems to have vanished except for birds. As they advance, eventually even the bird songs disappear.

Earthworks ahead[]

Show Boy and his clique advance in an unauthorized, undisciplined rabble beyond Elmo's vanguard group to get a closer look at something interesting. They find a large, artificial berm that marks an abrupt end of the forest. When One-Eye states that sorcery is involved without any further elucidation, the stressed-out Lieutenant snaps at him with a snide remark involving Missus Hattie's House of Happy in the distant city of Roses. Goblin runs ahead to be the first to ascend the earthwork, followed by Darling and soon everyone else.

The sorcery-laden cemetery[]

They are stunned to observe what seems to be a military cemetery filled with “thousands of pristine white posts, each one five feet tall, triangular, six inches to the face, pointed at the top, and spread out in mathematical precision” in a vast round field. As Elmo and his group approach a building complex on the other side, someone realizes their livestock has been left unattended and has wandered off. The Lieutenant is enraged as a day and a half is wasted rounding up the animals, some of which are never found. He soon gives a big speech against indiscipline. No one takes his offer to disarm and head back toward Chimney into the waiting arms of the Taken.

Everything suggested that, yes, yet again, we’d blundered into a locus of serious ancient magic. The great forest was infested with spooky shit from ancient times.

After Croaker retrieves the mare that was hitched to his medical wagon, he goes to check out the cemetery with Goblin, Otto, and Hagop. Goblin detects some sorcery-related danger, and advises they stay on the pathway, and do not cut across or walk among the memorial posts. They take this route to find Elmo and his group on the portico of the building complex. Elmo reports finding no grounds crew despite the flawless condition of the place. This means strong sorcery had been laid down to keep the whole location pristine for untold decades, possibly centuries. As for the massive building complex, it is constructed of first-grade limestone, with outer columns and some facing made of white marble, and a few massive, glazed windows to let in light.

Memories of those who went before[]

Elmo reveals that the memories of the memorialized deceased have been leaking into his mind. He is confident they died fighting the Dominator, early in the era of the Domination. Also, they are all being affected by an inexplicable lassitude. Croaker finds Goblin singing loudly and enjoying the echoes inside the main building. There, the lassitude disappears, so Croaker yells until Elmo and his group leave the portico and enter the main chamber, where they are cured of the lassitude as well. One of them even tells Goblin to stop his miserable attempts at singing, or else they will force him to eat One-Eye's hat.

Croaker, Elmo, and Goblin discuss the Company’s current situation with the Lieutenant and Candy, as well as the risks of their continuing eastbound journey toward – and eventually through – the Lady's Empire. They hope that the new Taken are still recovering from the injuries and losses they sustained when Leta defended the Company, but they cannot bet their lives on this, so they must keep moving.

“Something tried to possess him”[]

As the entire Company files through the cemetery, a distrusted and disliked newcomer from Chimney called Rusty breaks the formation and touches one of the white memorial posts. He screams until he passes out, only letting go of the post when he collapses. In short order, five more newcomers from Chimney witlessly do the same thing and suffer the same outcome. Elmo orders them to be dragged for examination by Croaker. Upon checking Rusty, Croaker believes he may not survive the experience. He sends for his two teenaged physician's apprentices – Butterbutt and Spangler, both also from Chimney. Instead, One-Eye and Goblin arrive. Goblin informs Croaker that something supernatural tried to possess Rusty, and soon the unconscious Spangler is the next to be dragged over for medical attention.

Darling helps the victims[]

Darling, accompanied by Silent, is brought to surround the unconscious victims with her null in the hopes that it will undo any damage done by sorcery or possession. Even outside the cemetery, the young woman is deeply uncomfortable in the presence of the grave “mystic climate” of the place. Darling announces that her null is having a positive impact on the victims. When Rusty opens his eyes, he briefly glares at Darling with “pure, lustful evil” but this stops when he sees the others, especially the watchful Silent. He informs Croaker and the three wizards that he had been “blasted” with the full life memories and visions of a man who died badly long ago, but could not understand anything because the man spoke an unintelligible language. The next victim who awakens gives a similar report.

Croaker is left behind[]

Almost everyone is deeply unsettled by the lingering sorcery surrounding the graveyard, so the Lieutenant orders them to continue their eastbound trek. They march out with four of the six victims of the graveyard magic. One is Rusty, who recovered enough to limp along on foot; another is an unfortunate fellow who became possessed and has gone so thoroughly mad Goblin believes it may be best to kill him. But, Croaker has been left behind intentionally, just outside the cemetery with his mare, medical wagon, and the last two unconscious victims. He is unaffected by the lingering sorcery, and believes it is because he entered the main building which cured the lassitude earlier. Candy’s reassurance that the Lady would not let her minion Whisper harm him if he is captured is not comforting.

Rescuing Spangler[]

When Croaker wakes up late at night to urinate, he spots a firefly: a possible indication that the Lady is observing him from afar. But more importantly, he realizes one of his patients, Spangler, is mindlessly shambling back into the Grand Memorial to Our Honored Dead (the name of the place has mysteriously entered Croaker’s mind). Before Spangler can touch the memorial post that injured him earlier, Croaker firmly guides him toward the main building instead. He takes a risky route through the dangerous memorial posts, all of which emanate memories of long-dead people who died badly. To help Spangler regain control of his senses, he reminds him about details of his own life: his name, the fact he will be 16 years old soon, that he is from Packer's Lane in Chimney, and that he is Croaker's leading apprentice. During the walk, Croaker flicks a firefly out of Spangler's hair. The bug bursts in a tiny explosion of sorcery against one of the memorial posts. Croaker believes this will alert the Lady and may trigger her Taken to attack. As he hustles Spangler into the main building – which is supernaturally lit on the inside – the young man regains control of his mind and body.

Revelations about the cemetery[]

Spangler confirms he had been flooded with the memories of someone who fought to the death alongside many others in a “no-mercy war” against the Domination. The shades of the fallen had been imprinted into the posts so loved ones could benignly relive memories of those lost. But over time, some unknown force eventually mutated the posts into the malevolent experience the Black Company encountered today.

Reunion and news from the rearguard[]

Before dawn, Croaker and Spangler return to the medical wagon. Although the Taken do not arrive, Croaker does see one of them “slowly transit the setting moon” in the distance on a flying carpet. Croaker finds that his other patient wandered away. Like Butterbutt and several other newcomers from Chimney, they are never seen again, and the Lieutenant forbids everyone from searching for them, for fear that they may lose even more men. Two days later, Croaker and Spangler reunite with the rest of the Company.

Ahead, Elmo’s vanguard group has found the end of the road: they all must now trek through wild forest. And soon, Whittle comes running up from the rearguard, announcing that an Imperial infantry regiment is hot on their trail.

Continuity and trivia[]

  • In a rare revelation about Croaker's younger years, it is strongly suggested that he was 16 years of age when he joined the Company:
I've been with the Company since I was only a little older than Spangler. [...] "You're Spangler from Packer's Lane in Chimney, fifteen years old, almost sixteen, and you're my leading apprentice."
  • This short story establishes that Rusty is from Chimney.
  • The copyright page of Bonds of Valor, the 2023 anthology in which the previous short story "Wet Dream Fish Story" was published, misidentifies that short story with the title "Those Who Went".