This story was published by the good folks at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly and can be found here. It was a lot of fun to write and I’ve been tinkering with the idea of building it into a novel. Also available for your reading enjoyment is the second story in the series, Death and Dignity.
Death at the Pass
by Michael R. Fletcher
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.
-Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Somewhere there was a Necromancer. Of that there could be no doubt.
Brushing a thousand years of dirt and rot from his robes, Khraen marvelled at how well preserved he was. Skin, sunken, cracked and grey, adhered to the bones of his long limbs. He’d never been muscular, but now he was downright skeletal. He chuckled at his little joke. A nearby dragon, still dragging its corpse from the earth and in a far more advanced state of decay, glanced towards him before shying from his gaze. Perhaps it recognised its ancient enemy. The creature was colossal–easily ten times the height of a man–but centuries of carrion insects had reduced it to a ragged and ratty skeleton. Its wings, once mighty and proud, hung like moth-eaten canvas. Stained.
Khraen examined the robes hanging from his bony shoulders. They were filthy but otherwise whole. Reaching back he felt for the cowl. It still hung behind him and was, as far as he could tell, intact.
“Remarkable,” he muttered as he searched his memory. Though he had no doubt his brain had long since rotted to nothing, thought and memory still seemed to reside within his skull. A name came to him. “Fel, you still live and serve?”
The answer, heard only in what was left of his thoughts, was instant if somewhat faint. “Yes, Master.”
Truly remarkable! That spirit-demon, bound to the very fabric of his robes of office, must have protected his body from insects and decay much as it had once protected him from the swords and arrows of countless assassins.
Khraen frowned in thought and dried earth crumbled from features that had not moved in millennia. Dirt dribbled unnoticed from empty eye-sockets. Fel had been one of the first demons the Emperor had bound to Khraen’s service and yet still lived. If it lived, perhaps others had also survived, scattered and buried in the earth around him.
Khraen scanned his shattered surroundings. A few dozen leagues to the north the Deredi Mountains stabbed angrily at the sky, sharp, jagged, and black. Only at the peaks did they fade to an ashy grey. The ground around him was littered with rusted weapons and armour and fragments of broken stone, some larger than the dragon still trying to drag free a trapped leg. For the first time, he truly grasped the scope of the Necromancer’s plans. As far as the eye could see the dead stood motionless or staggered about in dazed confusion. Dragons, many still mounted by their reptilian Dragon Lords whose once gleaming dragon-scale armour was now pitted and matte, towered above the undead horde. There were thousands of Deredi giants and hundreds of thousands of men. The Melechesh Pass, the only way through the impassible mountains that divided the two great continents, had been the site of countless battles. The Emperor had not been the first to attempt to conquer the Dragon Lords and wrest from them control of the pass and, judging from the strange garb many of the corpses wore, hadn’t been the last. Some of the dead barely looked to have progressed beyond the first stages of decomposition. War had raged here recently.
Whoever this Necromancer was–Khraen couldn’t see the man from where he stood–he had gathered for himself an impressive army. Even Palaq Taq’s military, The Invincible Hand of Sorhd-Rach, paled before the host now gathered on the Deredi Steppes.
Apparently not so invincible, thought Khraen with some grim humour.
Palaq Taq, the small island kingdom had ruled much of the southern continent. Though he thought of it as home, he knew he had not been born there. Strange that some memories could be so diluted while others stood bright and sharp. Almost nothing of his day-to-day life remained to him and he missed none of it. What little he could remember consisted mostly of glowing success and crushing failure. Fear, he thought, had played an unhealthy role in his life.
And yet no twinge of longing or regret had survived his death.
“Time heals all wounds.”
Dead or alive the days pass you by and time changes everything. When Khraen last walked the earth the Demonologists–under the leadership of Palaq Taq’s Emperor–had subjugated the lesser magics. The Wizards with their filthy chaos-magic cowered in the far north where they’d fled after the Emperor’s purging wars. Elementalists and Sorcerers, understanding the true balance of power, knew their place while Shamans were left to babble at their demented tribal spirits. Necromancers were all but unknown. This army of undead suggested that the balance had shifted in favour of the foul corpse-worshippers.
Khraen stepped around the struggling dragon to get a better look at the mountains. He couldn’t remember the exact moment of his death, but his last memories were of being at the mouth of the Pass. If his army had brought his corpse out they would have carried his belongings as well, but retreat and failure were never options for the Invincible Hand. They would have stood and died, fought to the last. Most likely the spring floods had washed the corpses and garbage from the Pass as it did every year. The thought of being deposited here like so much effluent normally would have tweaked at Khraen’s pride. Perhaps it had rotted away with his eyes and brain. He no longer felt like the Fist of Sorhd-Rach, First General of the Invincible Hand, loyal servant to the Emperor of eternal Palaq Taq. He wasn’t sure how he felt but a weight had definitely been lifted from his shoulders.
If the palace at Palaq Taq still stood, who ruled there now? The Emperor had been thousands of years old when Khraen had served, could he still rule? It seemed unlikely. If the Invincible Hand had failed, Palaq Taq, bereft of it’s army and First General, would have surely fallen shortly thereafter. That thought should have angered Khraen but instead left him feeling strangely…free. There were no demands being made of him. No Emperor gave commands he dared not question. No one begged his guidance and no god sought to dance him like a twisted marionette. The strings had been cut. His mind (and what little remained of his soul and sanity) were his.
Interesting. He hadn’t given his god much thought.
“Sorhd-Rach?” Khraen asked quietly, neither dreading nor expecting a reply and yet still somehow pleased at the answering silence.
Again Khraen surveyed the vast Deredi Steppes. The Sword of No Sorrows. If it was here it was hidden from sight. A thousand souls had been sacrificed in its making, fed to the ravenous evil the Emperor had summoned with the help of his deranged god. Khraen didn’t miss the power that came with being First General and he certainly didn’t miss the responsibility. He didn’t miss spending lives and souls for the Emperor’s territorial hunger and the amusement of Sorhd-Rach. He didn’t miss the emptiness he had become. The sword, that he missed. It’s name had been a joke, told once to one of his subordinates in a flash of rare whimsy. Kantlament was the demon bound to the blade. In a moment of introspective honesty he had to admit he was relieved to be free of the blade. Unable to feel the cold Khraen still shivered. Some appetites can never be sated.
The Emperor had bound demons to Khraen’s clothes, to his symbols of office, and to his very blood and bones. Dark deals were brokered with foul forces to extend Khraen’s life and he had served the Emperor as First General for an unprecedented three-hundred years. Demons might have protected him from rot and decay, but here he was.
And yet not.
Khraen shrugged. If there was a lesson here it escaped him.
With a final heave the dragon pulled itself free and shook millennium of filth from cavernous bones. Its mouth yawned wide, exposing row upon row of massive yellow teeth as dried lips pulled back in a fierce snarl. It turned its head in his direction and wheezed a gout of dust that covered him in grit. No smoke, no fire. Whatever had powered those bellows was long gone. The creature growled in consternation and ambled away, dragging limp and broken wings. Khraen was glad it hadn’t decided to try and claw him apart. Fel might still protect him from such abuse, but the demon was beyond ancient. Best not to test its strength unnecessarily.
A wave of restlessness passed through the gathered dead and as one they turned to face north, Khraen included. He wondered at the strange compulsion that had suddenly overcome him. It had never crossed his mind that the Necromancer who could raise this field of dead might also be able to command it. Were he capable, he would have blinked in surprise. Whatever gods ruled now had a greater sense of humour than any he had known in his time.
The dead began their slow shambling march north. Khraen walked alongside a man who looked like he’d been dead no more than a few weeks. The crows had been at him. One of his eyes was missing, the soft tissue a carrion delicacy, and his face had been ravaged by something other than the normal wounds of war.
“You look fresh,” Khraen said. “Do you know the Necromancer behind this magic?”
The man’s mouth opened to spill damp earth and writhing maggots down the front of strange armour made of human rib-bones bound in strips of leather. His remaining eye rolled in pleading terror as he stumbled on the intestines hanging from a rent in his belly.
“Never mind.” Some people just couldn’t stomach death.
Khraen increased his pace and left the struggling corpse behind. He shouldered past men, ducked around giants and dragons, and steered well clear of the Dragon Lords. He didn’t want to face one without the Sword of No Sorrows at his side. None of the dead seemed to pay particular attention to his passing, so lost in their own misery were they. He stumbled often on the uneven ground and several times found himself on hands and knees, crawling from craters blasted into the earth by ancient magics. He wondered how many of these his own demon-driven armies had caused or if the marks of his passing had been washed away by the ceaseless march of centuries. Emerging from a particularly deep crater, Khraen stood and brushed the dirt from his robes. More from force of habit than any desire to be clean. He marvelled at how little his pride chafed at having to muck about like a common man. When you weren’t the First General, you did whatever needed doing with no worry of how it looked or whether some up-and-coming officer might see it as weakness.
He barked a dry laugh.
Struggling through mud and corpses.
Possibly enslaved by an unknown Necromancer.
He felt freer than he had in the last few hundred years of his life.
The ground fell away into a shallow valley or perhaps a very deep and old crater. The valley was empty of the dead and the corpses gave it wide berth as they marched north. Half a league away, where the ground evened out, he could see three tents and the makings of a simple camp. Two of the tents were shabby and old and bore the markings of some military cadre unknown to Khraen. The third tent was bright and colourful and looked out of place in this pale land of death and the dead.
It was no great stretch for Khraen to decide the Necromancer would be found there. Once again longing for his lost sword, he stood staring down into the valley, hesitating.
“No gods-damned Necromancer’s compulsion will stop me,” Khraen muttered as he pushed himself forward. Once he was moving it became easier, though his feet kept trying to take him around the camp. Only by concentrating on his goal could he move in the right direction. As the only corpse not avoiding the camp Khraen felt strangely exposed.
They saw him coming. By the time he reached the camp there were five large men and women waiting for him with drawn blades. They looked discomfited at being confronted by the walking dead and, for a brief moment, he wondered what he looked like. One of the women, muscled arms stretching chain hauberk to its limits, waved a great-sword in his face. She wielded the ridiculous weapon single handed, like it was a fencing sword.
“Leave,” she commanded in a brutal mangling of the Palaq Taqi tongue. “Dead belong on ridge. Not camp.” She pointed the sword at the shuffling dead.
Khraen grunted. “What are you going to do, kill me?”
Even dead that sounded unpleasant.
Khraen straightened to his full height but she still towered over him. He’d have happily killed to have his sword right now. “I am here to see the Necromancer,” he said instead.
The woman’s beady blue eyes darted towards the colourful tent. “She busy.”
She? Khraen covered his surprise. “She expecting me.” He grimaced at the slip.
The woman blinked in confusion and frowned thunder. No one expects the dead to lie.
“You wait,” she commanded as she spun away to march to the tent.
Khraen watched the warrior-woman stand at the tent’s entrance trying to decide how to knock. Eventually she cleared her throat loudly enough that some of the distant dead looked in her direction. Moments later a slim woman exited the tent and looked about, shading dark eyes with a long-fingered hand. Her short black hair barely moved in the breeze. When she caught sight of Khraen she lifted a quizzical eyebrow. The Necromancer had no fear of the dead, no revulsion.
Khraen bowed low. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d shown obeisance to anything less than god and Emperor. “I am Khraen, Fist of Sorhd-Rach, First General of the–”
“Sword-rock,” she interrupted. “Is that a god?” Her Palaq Taqi was oddly accented but easily understood.
Khraen swallowed the impulse to anger. “First General of the Invincible Hand,” he finished stubbornly. “And yes, Sorhd–”
“Never heard of him. Or you.”
“When did you die?”
Khraen shrugged. “How would I–”
“You look remarkably well preserved.”
“Does anyone ever get to finish a sentence around you?” Khraen caught the stifled smirks that passed between the Necromancer’s minions.
“Turn and get down on your hands and knees,” she said and, without hesitation, he was on the ground before her. She sat on him as if he were a bench. “You are dead,” she told him from above. “A tool. An animated inanimate. An uncomfortable chair.”
“I’m a bit more than that,” said Khraen. “I’m–” He stopped. The man he was now facing stood with sword drawn but dangling casually in his right hand. The sword drew Khraen’s attention, became his universe. Kantlament, there in the hands of some mortal. He must have found it lying in the dirt and, thinking it a pretty and well-made blade, thought to make it his own. Khraen hid his disgust, swallowed the hunger to once again possess that foul blade.
The Necromancer grunted and, her point made, rose gracefully from Khraen’s back. “A General, you said?” She glanced towards the army of corpses. “Only one person in charge here. Are you anything more than a scrawny corpse?” She squinted at his gaunt frame as if imagining how he may have looked in life. “A Wizard? Kazsh, how many powerful Wizards do I have?”
“Dozens,” the large woman answered instantly, like she’d been waiting for the question.
Khraen stood and didn’t bother dusting himself off. It would seem like wounded pride and there was no point anyway. “Wizards.” He tried to spit but just sputtered dust. “We kept them as pets.” It wasn’t strictly true but sounded good. He’d hated Wizards and their easy power.
The Necromancer shrugged. “Elementalist? Sorceror? Gods, not another Necromancer!”
Her squad of hired muscle laughed dutifully and Khraen used the distraction to edge closer to the man holding Kantlament. “You missed a couple.”
“I did?” The Necromancer frowned, searching her memory. “Shamanism hardly counts as a worthy branch of magic.”
Khraen disagreed. He’d known a few dangerous Shamans. Anyone with the power to manipulate the countless tribal spirits (and a tribe’s very spirituality) was worth some respect. He took another step towards his goal under the guise of a grand gesture to encompass the hordes of dead streaming past on the ridge.
“I am what you might call a–” Khraen spun and kicked the man square in the fruits. He snatched the sword from the man’s hands and gave him a shove that sent him sprawling. He turned and found himself facing four drawn blades and an annoyed Necromancer.
“You’re a gods-damned swordsman?” she asked, incredulous. “All of that for another swordsman?”
Khraen shrugged. “My sword,” he said as if that explained everything.
The Necromancer turned back towards her tent and called over her shoulder, “Kill him. Again.” She sounded bored.
Khraen flicked the cowl into place and hoped that enough of Fel still lived to get him through this. Kantlament, the Sword of No Sorrows, hung in his right hand like a dead weight. Lifeless. “Death and destruction,” he promised the blade. “A thousand lives if you still live.”
A sword crashed into him from behind, breaking ribs but not puncturing the robe. There was a time when Fel would have stopped everything and Khraen would have barely felt the attack, but the force of the blow sent him stumbling forwards. He barely got Kantlament up in time to stop Kazsh from decapitating him. He didn’t know if such a blow would kill him, but didn’t want to spend the rest of his ‘life’ carrying his head tucked under an armpit. He stabbed at the big woman and she batted it aside contemptuously.
Four warriors now circled Khraen. They cracked jokes but knew that killing the undead was never a simple task. Feinting and probing, they tested his skill. The fifth, robbed of his blade, stood back and watched, calling out unwanted suggestions to his companions.
Khraen narrowly avoided another attack only to feel something slam into his back again. Another rib might have broken. He wasn’t sure, he couldn’t feel much of anything and certainly no pain.
At this rate they were going to pick him apart before long. Why am I so desperately protecting this dead body? No feeling. No pain. These were his advantages.
Can the dead be suicidal?
The next man that swung at Khraen met no defence. The once First General left himself exposed and, when his opponent’s sword crashed against his body, stepped forward to run the man through. The demon-forged blade sheared banded mail, penetrated flesh and bone with ease. If there was resistance, Khraen couldn’t feel it. Perhaps something of the old blade’s strength remained.
Khraen spun away from the dying man and hurled himself at the closest target with little regard for his own welfare. The woman, a smaller, faster version of Kazsh, stumbled backwards in surprise. She was dead before she hit the ground, Kantlament neatly sliding free of her chest as she fell. The man Khraen had kicked in the groin leapt forward to snatch up a weapon from a fallen comrade. Khraen killed him next, stabbing through him into the earth. He could feel the grinding grit on the blade as he pulled it clear and backed away to face his two remaining opponents. Glancing past them he saw the Necromancer once again exit her tent.
“Perhaps we can talk,” Khraen called out to her. “Or do I kill off the rest of your people?” This was more feigned bravado than confidence. Even if he managed to kill them, he was far from sure what condition his body would be in by the end. Already his torso canted at an odd angle where ribs that had once supported him had been broken.
Kazsh and the remaining man circled Khraen warily, awaiting the command to finish him.
The Necromancer glanced about, taking in the fresh carnage. “Why don’t I just raise them and have them finish you off?”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Khraen admitted. “But I’m guessing talking would be easier.”
“Maybe,” she said, nodding at Kazsh. “Lower your weapons.”
Kazsh, seemingly born to obedience, immediately sheathed her massive sword. Khraen killed her, driving Kantlament into her throat. Eyes wide with hurt surprise she stood motionless, trying to stem the torrent gushing from the wound with thick and blunt fingers before toppling like a felled tree.
“Unquestioning obedience is a weakness,” Khraen told Kazsh’s twitching body. Hollow words from a hollow soul. For three-hundred years he had been the very model of perfect obedience.
The man, having seen his companions slain by an undead creature of unknown power, chose flight instead.
Khraen watched the Necromancer as she watched her remaining warrior disappear into the marching dead.
“Was it always this hard to find good help?” she asked.
He shrugged, feeling the grinding of broken bones within his torso much as one hears a sound too low to be truly heard. “Do we talk now as equals or must I kill you too?”
She lifted an eyebrow. “Equals? Have you forgotten already? Me Necromancer. You dead. I think you can figure out the rest.”
Necromancy was a mystery. Could she simply negate whatever magic kept him alive? But then what is death to the dead? He shrugged again and began stalking towards her, lifting Kantlament in quiet promise of the violence to come. He had hoped that the sword would have shown some signs of life by now, but still it remained quiescent. Deader than he.
She frowned at his approach and waved a hand in his direction. “Drop your sword. Lie down in the dirt. Be a good corpse.”
Khraen continued his approach. “The Emperor selected his Generals for their strength of personality. It takes a powerful will to command a demon, even one bound to eternal service. I was First General.” He smiled. “And I have commanded an army of demons. Entire legions.”
Showing no fear, she stood her ground. “The bench thing?” She asked.
“An act. It never hurts to be underestimated.” A half truth. Her compulsion had caught him off-guard and pushed him to his knees. Once there he had regained control and made the decision to go along with it.
“You do realize that if you kill me, the spell I used to raise you ends and you fall back into the earth.”
Khraen stopped. Death and dissolution should have been preferable to this pale shadow of life. Yet he clung to it as a drowning man clutches wood. He would not willingly slide back into darkness. Khraen might not be First General, but he was still the same man who had fought to achieve that position. Struggle was in his very blood. True dead was dead, devoid of options and choices. Undeath at least gave him the possibility of changing things. Perhaps he could find someone capable of bringing him back to life.
There was always the chance the Necromancer was bluffing, but Khraen couldn’t see the advantage in testing that theory.
“So you can’t command me, and I can’t kill you,” he said.
“Our relationship is a little more complex than that,” she said. “If I die, you die. Where I am going, that is fairly likely. Perhaps even a certainty.”
Khraen gestured at the unending army of the dead marching past. “Even with this? In my day I could have conquered the Melechesh Pass and enslaved the Dragon Lords with a force such as this.”
“Times change. The Wizard’s Guild hold the Pass. They control the only route north and tax everything that comes through. They’ve grown wealthy and powerful beyond sanity.”
“In my day we’d crushed the Guilds and subjugated the Wizards.”
“In my day,” she mimicked scornfully. “There’s only one Guild. It has always been that way. I’ve never heard of you or your silly sword god.” She shook her head. “And there is no such thing as demons. I’ve raised a delusional fool.”
“No. Just someone from another time.” Khraen probed at broken ribs with skeletally thin fingers. “So, Necromancer, seeing as we are stuck with each other, what do the dead do about healing?”
“Leben, my name is Leben. Wait here,” she commanded and ducked into her tent.
Khraen was glad that she’d turned away and not seen how her casually thrown command had momentarily rooted him to the ground. He’d have to keep his defences up at all times, ever ready to resist.
Leben returned with twine and strips of leather hide in varying widths. “Off with the robe,” she commanded.
This time he was ready and barely twitched. “Why?” Though Fel hadn’t sheltered him from all damage, the demon had still kept him from being hewn in half.
“The dead don’t heal, they’re repaired.”
Khraen shrugged the robe aside. If Leben wanted him dead, she could turn a small fraction of her army against him at any time. Standing naked before her he could see the true severity of the damage he’d suffered. The lower ribs along one side had been crushed in and the parchment flesh torn. Bone shards projected through skin in a dozen places.
Leben prodded at his torso. “I think your spine might be broken. I’m amazed you’re still standing.” She peeled a long strip of flesh away to expose the carnage below.
“Do you really need to peel me like that?” Khraen asked. “I’m not an orange.”
She slapped his hand away as he tried to fend off her less than tender ministrations. “This isn’t hurting you and I need to see what I’m doing.” She drew forth a fragment of rib and tossed it over her shoulder. Reaching into his guts she felt around. “No, your spine is fine. The ribs supporting this side are broken. I’m going to tie them together and wrap some leather around your spine for additional support.” She pulled out a long coil of desiccated intestine and dumped it at his feet.
“Might I not need that later?” Khraen asked.
Leben snorted. “Always the same with the dead. ‘Don’t toss my guts, I’ll need them when I’m brought back to life.’ Well it isn’t going to happen. Dead is dead. This is as close to life as you will ever come. Don’t waste your time on dreams of living.”
It might be good advice, but Khraen was hesitant to accept it. There was always a way. He decided to change the subject. “So you plan to break the Guild’s hold on the Melechesh Pass. And then what?”
Leben glanced up from where she knelt at his feet and Khraen could remember a time when that would have been an erotic sight. Now he didn’t even want to think about what time had done to his manhood. For that matter, who knew the damage done to a mind long since rotted to dust?
She talked as she worked, repairing ribs with twine and strips of leather, unaware of his distraction. Every now and then she’d grunt in disgust as she found something she couldn’t fix and Khraen would feel a tug on his innards as she yanked something out and tossed it aside. “If I defeat the Wizards, I hold the Pass with my army of undead. I’ll raise those Wizards that fall to help me with the reprisal they’ll certainly launch from Paltaki when they learn what I’ve done. The more battles I survive, the stronger my army becomes as everyone who dies will fight on my side in the next.”
“So, assuming you take the Pass and hold it…what then?”
“Same as the Wizards. Taxes and tolls. When I have my fortune, abandon my army in the Pass to act as a distraction as I flee to safety.”
It seemed to Khraen a small plan, full of holes and wasteful. Something she had said caught his attention. “Paltaki. This is the Wizard’s capital?”
“An island kingdom, far to the south?”
She looked quizzical and seemed to find humour in being interrupted. “Yes. Why?”
After his death, had the Wizards taken Palaq Taq for their own? It couldn’t be coincidence. He suddenly realized his fists were clenched and shaking. The thought of those filthy, godless mages walking the hallowed halls of the Eternal Palace rankled beyond all reason.
Khraen thought had death rendered him incapable of feeling and emotion. He had thought himself free of purpose.
He was wrong.
Life, even this anaemic imitation, required drive. One needed goals, something to live for. Well he had found his.
“I might suggest a change in plans. We should push south towards Palaq Taq, not north to the pass.” Even as he said this he was envisioning the war to come.
“When you have something to offer we can talk about your goals. Until then, we do everything my way.” She began wrapping his spine–where it had been exposed by her repair work–in thick leather thongs. “This might reduce your upper-body mobility a bit, but if your spine gets severed you’ll spend the rest of eternity face down in the dirt. I’ve met undead who spent centuries as little more than severed heads. They’re never sane. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.” She looked up again, meeting his empty eye sockets unflinchingly. “Not even a delusional idiot.”
There was a time when he would have killed anyone who talked to him in such a tone. That time was long gone. He found himself enjoying her blunt and fearless honesty. “Thanks.”
Having completed her repair work, Leben stood and slapped him on the shoulder. “If you’ve been dead as long as you claim, you are remarkably well-preserved.” She uttered a very unladylike grunt. “You must admit that it’s more likely you haven’t been dead all that long.” She looked him up and down, appraising his state of decay. “Though I confess you look more mummified than this climate would account for. Was your body somehow preserved or stored in something?”
Khraen shrugged as he pulled on his robes. He didn’t want to tell her that Fel had most likely preserved him. It never paid to give away secrets unnecessarily. Instead he pointed towards the Melechesh Pass. “So, how are we getting there? Walking?”
“I thought we’d find ourselves a few undead mounts. There must be a few thousand horses out amongst that crowd. They might not be the most comfortable ride–depending on the state of decay–but they never tire. That can be handy when you’re fleeing angry Wizards.”
Khraen decided not to mention the possibility of other mounts. Any dragon that recognized him would no doubt hold a grudge; his army had killed thousands. Another thought occurred to him. “So you resurrected horses as well as fallen warriors?”
Leben grinned, embarrassed. “I raised everything. Insects, rats, horses, men. If it was in the field of effect, it’s out there wandering around and following my orders.”
“Not a terribly specific spell, I take it. Seems wasteful,” said Khraen, subtly probing for information.
She looked away, and watched the procession of dead for a moment. “Wasteful? Can you even begin to imagine how many dead animals and insects there are out there? I could probably take the Pass with them alone. To hells with your specificity.”
Khraen examined her work on his torso. It was neat and effective. She’d obviously repaired corpses before. That lead to all manner of questions but instead he said, “Not everything you raised obeys your commands. You’d best hope there’s nothing out there scarier than me.”
“Everything out there is scarier than you,” Leben scoffed.
Within minutes two skeletal horses presented themselves as mounts and Leben grumbled about the condition of their tattered leather saddles. Khraen asked why she didn’t raise her fallen companions and she muttered something about the spell already being cast and not wanting to bother for a couple of half-wits who couldn’t even kill a delusional and dead old man. He watched her as she talked and knew that she was hiding something. He might be dead and rotting, but his skills at reading people had not decayed to the point where this tactless Necromancer could hide something from him. For one thing she had called a horse for him. Had she really believed he was nothing more than a senile corpse, she wouldn’t have bothered.
Despite her claims of the stamina of undead mounts, she set a sedate pace when they finally left for the Melechesh Pass. She rode like someone unaccustomed to the saddle, jolting awkwardly with each step, unable to find the horse’s rhythm. Khraen, with centuries of unending war spent in the saddle, ever marching towards the Emperor’s next conquest, rode with an unconscious grace. He watched Leben watching him from the corner of her eye, knowing what she saw; a man accustomed to command and at ease with violence. It was an act, the reproduction of someone he had once been. He felt none of the confidence he’d known as First General. He was dead and staring into an eternity of slow decay as he fell apart piece by piece. Some day he would suffer a wound that string and leather couldn’t repair. What then?
Thinking back Khraen saw that his entire life had been an act up until the moment he’d bartered soul and sanity for power, trading them to become the crushing Fist of Sorhd-Rach. After that the act had been replaced by the reality of being the puppet of an Emperor hungry for power and demanding a never ending river of blood.
Khraen had shed oceans of blood in Sorhd-Rach’s name. He may have led armies, but he now saw what he truly had been; a slave. He wished he could close his eyes and ride in blissful darkness, allowing the horse to find its way. Empty sockets cared not what paper-thin crusts of eyelid did. There was no escaping the future he could so clearly see splayed out before him like the grisly corpse he already was.
“Kantlament?” he whispered, hoping for both a reply and silence. “Are you still with me, or am I truly alone?”
There was no answer.
Khraen and Leben chatted as they rode. He spoke of the Emperor’s wars to subjugate the five lesser magics. He told her of the wars to unite the southern continent under one rule and the later wars to take the Melechesh Pass from the Dragon Lords. Leben admitted she’d heard of Dragon Lords and demons but had always assumed them fanciful myths. She told him what little she knew of the rise of the Guild and how they had infiltrated virtually every kingdom. They talked of Paltaki, the Wizard’s city and the centre of their power and when Khraen probed gently at her reasons for hating Wizards she snapped that they were at least as good as his and turned her back on him. All conversation died.
As they rode in silence amongst the marching dead Khraen wondered at how the world could have changed so much that the Wizard’s had taken Palaq Taq.
Kazsh rose to her feet, fierce eyes scouring the ground for her great-sword. That damned corpse would pay for what he’d–the sight of her companions also pushing themselves from the dirt stopped her.
She’d seen them die.
Kazsh glanced down at the red stain soaking the front of her hauberk and swore. That damnable Necromancer had been the death of her. After finding her sword she joined the ranks of marching dead. Her fallen friends walked alongside her.
“Idiots,” she told them.
The staggering horde took days to reach the walled city the Wizards had built to defend the Melechesh Pass. Gone were the towering black citadels of the Dragon Lords. Gone was the colossal blood-red wall, fused with the stolen souls of those who had fallen trying to conquer it. The Wizard’s city was small and mean in comparison, filthy with wretched humanity and reeking of their chaotic magic. Looking at this pitiful defence nestled between the peaks that framed the Pass, Khraen felt nothing but scorn. His own forces would have conquered this city in minutes. The Wizards would be nothing before the gathered might of Leben’s dead.
But the Wizards, unfettered by iron the rule of Palaq Taq, freed from the limits the Emperor had forced upon them, had been practising their magics. These were not the Wizards he had ruthlessly crushed under the heel of his demon-bound boots. One hundred generations of mages had gloried in their freedom, pushing the limits of their art far beyond what Khraen had ever seen.
All hells broke loose.
Foul clouds, boiling bruises of stained sky, erupted to rain thick oil upon the dead horde. Flaming meteorites shredded the clouds–exposing the burning red sky above–and crashed to the earth with devastating effect. In moments the oil was alight and Leben’s army burned. Though they didn’t feel the fires, the blast-furnace heat would eventually reduce them to ash. Even Leben, well back from the front lines, was soaked in sweat and stumbling as she screamed commands at her army.
Leben’s orders, rendered inaudible by the cacophony of destruction, punched through Khraen’s mind like a stiletto through soft belly flesh. It took every ounce of will to resist joining the other dead in their charge to oblivion. Perhaps part of him desired that escape into death for he caught himself moving forwards.
Those dead who commanded Wizardry of their own began hurling spells, blasting the Wizards defending the wall. Though Leben’s Wizards were largely countered by the living mages, she also commanded Sorcerers, Elementalists, and Shamans.
Figures darted into the air, twisted into alien and terrible shapes, and disappeared over the wall to reek havoc upon the city’s inhabitants.
The very earth turned against the Wizards. Massive sections of wall pulled itself free to rise up into towers of shuddering stone and fall upon them. Winds howled, spinning sharp dust and sending shards of stone hissing amongst the mages.
The sky over the city roiled.
The tribal spirits of a thousand long-dead cultures swarmed forward, answering the call of their undead High Priests. Godless, the Wizards had nothing to protect their souls from such an attack and quailed, sanity teetering on the brink as their thoughts and life-force were battered.
By the time the corpses of millions of insects and rodents flooded over the crumbling wall there was little to be seen of the city’s defenders.
And still Leben screamed orders driving her army forward. Khraen’s willpower shuddered under the assault and he found himself once again moving forward, Kantlament in hand, with the desire to kill Wizards. So closely did her commands mirror his own wants that he had trouble seeing where one ended and the other began. No matter how much he might desire vengeance on those who had desecrated his faded memories of all that was holy, this was not the way. If he followed her orders she would get him killed or worse. Khraen had no desire to spend an eternity as a rotting skull, screaming in silent insanity. No longer was he First General of Palaq Taq. He might not be Fist to Sorhd-Rach, his ravenous and deranged god, but he was still Khraen, the man who had entered the Emperor’s army as a lowly footsoldier and fought his way through the ranks.
Leben hurled orders into his mind that threatened to fray all thought and bend him to her will. He had thought himself free, able to brush aside her commands if he focussed his considerable will. He saw now that he was wrong. Fear made her strong. In moments she would drive him away, sending him into the city, howling for blood and death.
Freedom is more than just an abstract concept. Even to a corpse.
Khraen ground ancient teeth, feeling them loose in his jaw, and turned to face the Necromancer. “Stop!” he yelled. Dried lungs lacked the air for volume and if she heard she didn’t react. He grabbed her arm, pulling her close and wheezed into her face, “Stop!”
She yanked her arm from his grasp and unflinchingly met his empty gaze. “No.” She spoke so softly he couldn’t hear her voice, but still it echoed in his thoughts. “I command, you obey.” She grinned and Khraen, for the first time, saw the insanity lurking behind her eyes. A memory clawed to the surface of his thoughts. He’d seen that look before. In the eyes of the Emperor as he sent Khraen and the Invincible Fist north. In the mirror on the morning he led his troops into the Melechesh Pass. He understood now that this war was not about money and taxes. Leben would not stop until she’d seen the death of the last Wizard and bent them to service. She would never free him.
“The dead are my tools,” she said. “Mine. You are mine.” She pointed at the fallen wall. “Go,” she commanded, driving her orders into his thoughts. “Kill the Wizards. Kill them all.”
Khraen had turned and taken a step towards the city before he managed to regain control. “No.”
All his life he’d been a slave. To the Emperor. To his god. To his own unrelenting needs. Death, he realized, had truly freed him from the bonds of his old life.
He turned back and cut down the Necromancer, driving the Sword of No Sorrows into her heart.
Let this free you from whatever wounds your soul, he prayed to no particular god. It worked for me.
Eyes wide, she stared at the sword protruding from her chest. Her eyes spoke stunned disbelief.
“I thought…” she said, lifting a hand to caress the blade. She looked past Kantlmaent to Khraen. “Bastard.”
Knees buckling she crumpled to the earth.
Khraen watched, waiting for dissolution. Waiting for that final end. He watched the light of life fade from her eyes. He watched the last small tremors as her dying body surrendered to the inevitable. He watched the dust of the Melechesh Pass gather in her staring eyes.
The din of battle faded.
The thunder of duelling magics echoed off the Deredi mountains and then fell silent.
Still Khraen stood. Motionless. Waiting.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he looked up to find Leben’s undead army watching him.
“The Necromancer lied,” he muttered in surprise.
His second thought, born more of habit than desire, was ‘can I command this army?’ With such a force at his beck and call he could retake Palaq Taq, drive the filthy Wizards from the palace. If Sorhd-Rach still existed Khraen could rebuild his Empire. Khraen could rule instead of serve. For a moment he stood, lost in the dream. But with the memory of one recent thought that dream scattered like ash in the wind.
“Death has changed me,” he told the gathered host, not caring if they heard. He drew the sword from Leben’s chest and stood staring at the bloody blade.
So Many lives, so much death.
“Enough,” he said.
Kantlament fell from numb fingers to lay at the Necromancer’s side.
Khraen, once Fist of Sorhd-Rach, once First General of the Invincible Hand of Palaq Taq, turned his back on dead and living alike. Mounting his undead horse he rode out into the Deredi Steppes.
The future shouldn’t be an attempt to rebuild the past.
Even for a corpse.
Khraen rode south, cutting a path through the army of corpses. The dead parted before him like a sea of grass. They watched with mute curiosity, not yet understanding. Could life (or unlife for that matter) be lived without direction, without goals? He would, he supposed, find out.
Leagues behind him, nearer the shattered city that once defended the Melechesh Pass, Leben rose from where she had fallen. Sobs shook her body, but no tears fell. The dead can’t cry.
The spell went on as she had feared it might. Never again would the dead of the Deredi Steppes stay dead.