As I wake, the Warlord and his demoniacs stand over me in a warm tent with animal-skin walls that stretch taut with the impact of sub-freezing winds.
“You are lucky to survive the venom of a witch’s blade.” the Warlord tells me. “Making the Pact very likely saved you. The Dark Powers would rather you not die just as you have begun.”
“Thank you.” I gasp.
“You earned it. I don’t know if I could have fought them both.”
“They say you have never lost a fight.”
A moment of fear and pain flickers across his scarred face and to my surprise he hesitates before he says “We were all once inexperienced and weak.”
This tacit admission he has been bested before shocks me and I look to the Warlord in a new way, mighty, yet also, for the first time, as just a man.
By the morning, I am already strong enough to march. We break camp in the long night of the far north and for the first time in many long months, finally march south. The sun is barely grey and wan by noon as we come upon yesterday’s battlefield. We find our own dead and put them together in a pile soon be interred by ice, their place marked with thick long black pikes that will not easily disappear beneath the wastes. In many long decades, they will still be there, aside from the ravages of frost, not remarkably different from the day they died. Then despite the solemnity of the moment our spirits are buoyant as we pass the spot where White Knights opposed us and now truly move Southward.
As we leave the dead behind us, the mood begins to lift a bit with every mile. “Hail! The slayer of Jazan Gur, the White Death!” I’m told all day. Higher disciples of the Warlord and ordinary soldiers alike approach me in awe. It is disconcerting to me to attract such attention. I meet men I know like brothers with whom I have dug latrine pits in the pouring rain and now they look on me with reverence at my accomplishment and my ascendancy to greater powers. I try to talk to them like it’s old times. Old as just yesterday, but it’s no use.
Soon we begin to understand why the Warlord stopped our pursuit. With every mile we find ourselves following a trail of fanatics, contorted and frozen stiff.
The Warlord explains, “When we slew their leaders and broke their ranks, their faith began to fail and with it their endurance.”
The word began to quickly spread. The Warlord had lured their overwhelming masses where they could be destroyed by their own despair the moment their herd had failed to give them shelter and victory. The coldness of reality closed in around them as they tried to flee and we found them now, their frozen eyes still wide open with their final panic, the grasping blue-white fingers clawing at air. The trail of those who lost their faith did not abate, thousands and thousands more of them clad in rags crumpled pitifully and frozen the moment they had heard the news or had in their flight finally given in to despair.
That night, I was called into the tent of the Warlord and his disciple officers for the first time. They heartily welcomed me one by one, shaking my hand in one crushing grip after another and slapping me on the shoulder. These men who had barked grim orders at me yesterday suddenly treated me as one of their own. We sat around the circle by the firepit with the smoke disappearing through a small hole above.
“We lost many yesterday.” Announced the Warlord. “But tonight…there is someone new among us.”
The dark disciples began to cheer in anticipation.
“He slew Jazan Gur as the vile Hag joined against me, in violation of an honorable duel between men. He has ascended into the service of the Dark powers into which I was inducted by the Master long ago and into which you were all inducted by me.”
The cheering grew quieter now as the moment approached.
“The slayer of our great enemy has joined us in the Pact. The warrior Daulan Sekk is now one of us!”
For awhile again everyone cheered and personally greeted me. Again, it was an overwhelming experience to have my heroes regard me as a hero. As I found my senses, I could only utter. “Do we have any wine?”
The ration for the soldiers had ran out some time ago but of course we all had suspected some was left in store.
Everyone gave me looks that I could not quite understand.
“Bring us the last of the wine!” commands the Warlord, “The time is right.”
Our chipped tin soldier’s cups that dangle daily from our swaying packs are soon brimming with the last precious red wine and I gulp of it, wishing desperately to expunge the fearsome slaughter from my senses for a few short hours. Yet tug as I might, my troubled senses remain as clear as the starry sky outside.
I realize they have been watching me with amusement as they sip their own cups. I take another gulp and still I feel nothing. Seeing my bewilderment, the Warlord finally says. “Your ability to survive a witch’s venom also makes you immune to any drug. Enjoy the flavor of it.”
Dumbfounded, I throw my cup aside and the other men laugh uproariously.
More solemnly now, the Warlord adds, “In service of greater powers, no substance will affect you. Nor as you grow in power will the need to sleep weigh you down. You will never age or die so long as you are not killed but in exchange you get little rest.”
A silence falls over the men and many pass a hand over their chests.
“Where did you come from?” asks the Warlord. “I think you are from the Center Lands.”
“Yes, I grew up in the Great City.”
There is a gasp from the men.
“I thought so. How did you join us?”
“When I was young, I wanted to join the White Knights. I often went to the shrine of Saint Suryn to pray there. Her statue always seemed sad and I wanted to comfort her. I had heard the legends it would sometimes weep tears of blood. Once, I went to the temple late at night and I saw it for myself. Worse, I could have sworn the statue’s eyes moved and its mouth twisted in indescribable agony. I felt something was wrong with everything I had been told and I could never shake the feeling after that…When I was about twelve years of age, I watched them stone my family to death from my hiding place. I could never figure out why. It might have been their pale faces and their agreeable manner. I will never forget how their gestures of good will only enraged them.”
I am unable to say more, my words punctuated by a sub-freezing gale that pelts the tent wall with a plaintive howl.
Then the others begin to erupt with their own stories around the fire and I hear great warriors speak of themselves as children and young men. The hero Lazo Vazai grew up in a tormented household with the sins of his absent father laid on his shoulders. “I had pretty much left the house by the time I was ten, surviving on the edge any way I could. I laugh at the silly weaklings who complain they are kept down. If they were worth anything, they’d have risen by now.” The hulking Kivan Rasaris had once been a frail scribe defrocked from the Savisian universities when he dared suggest that one people differed from another and the sexes doomed to be unalike, their goals in life asymmetrical. “I finally broke and wrote a paper about what I really thought. I knew that it would not be charitably received. I was surprised though when I was thrown out not just by them, but by my family, by society itself. No one in Savisia would sell me food. I barely made it to the Center Lands without starving, my last tatters of sackcloth falling off of me. I never forgot.”
It falls quiet again.
“Let’s give the rest of the wine to the men.” I suggest. The others heartily agree and the last jugs are passed around the camp to howls of jubilation as the soldiers rush to bring one back to their comrades for a well-earned celebration.
As the fire burns low and my new comrades retire, the Warlord takes me aside. “As a child you understood Saint Suryn far better than the hordes of fawning pilgrims.”
“Were you alive then?!” I ask in astonishment. “That was a hundred years ago!”
“I knew her.”
I nearly fell as I thought of the Saint of my childhood as a living, breathing person.
“What was she like?”
“She, and the Master, made me who I am.”
“You didn’t imagine the tears of blood and her pain. They call her a saint, but she is damned to hell. If only they knew how everything they believe in is rotten.”
“You mean…You mean The Master you speak of is the legendary Demon that Saint Suryn sent into exile?”
The Warlord grins. “The demon left by his own will after she was already dead.”
“She murdered the Duke who summoned her while possessed by her final rage.”
I’ve spent years now as a rebel fighting in the Dark Army yet even so my jaw drops.
The Warlord continues. “This is one of many planes but this one was a neutral ground that attracted little attention from Heaven or Hell. That damned Duke brought the eternal war on us by bringing that Paladin here. One hundred years ago he destroyed my old life and drove me towards rebellion. Your Saint Suryn made damn sure I would never stray from that path.”
“How does it end?” I ask.
“Only in the triumph of Heaven or Hell. It has to resolve downward. Level by level. The Master won his fight. Now it’s up to me. And when the time is right it will be up to you.”
“How do you know?!”
“He told me, one hundred years ago.”
Suddenly, unopposed, the Dark Army storms down from the North until tundra becomes sprawling pine forest until we begin to see the soft green leaves of deciduous trees with the first white blossoms of spring drifting down on bittersweet breezes. The first garrisons we meet are easily subdued and totally bewildered that the all-conquering fanatics have abandoned them. For months the advance continues as we destroy the Heavenly Army wherever in our path it tries to regroup. The cold of the far north is still in the marrow of our bones as we bear down on the sun-gilded shores of Epir Siprali with its brown, sea-misted hills laden with date palms and olive groves. Finally we come upon its famous walls drenched every morning with honeyed sunshine that pours over the inland hills. There we finally find a city guarded once again in earnest by the Heavenly Army with White Knights patrolling the battlements, their pure white surcoats trailing in seaborne winds. No commander comes out to address us, the defenders simply stand resolute on the walls, glowering down at us.
The Warlord holds council with our corps of demoniacs to discuss the matter. The city would not be easily subdued but we had to consider that the further we went into enemy territory, the easier we would be pressed in a crushing vice, worse than that grim battle in the Itlavalutian wastes.
“We must secure our flanks and most important, discover who their new leadership is.” declared the Warlord. “If we know their leaders we know them and how to defeat them.”
“Edrak of Savisia, I hereby make you Grand Master of the Order of the White Knights.” intoned a raspy, androgynous voice. The figure that uttered the words sits on a palanquin obscured by a thin tissue of gold, silk curtains. An indistinct silhouette is just visible by the light of guttering braziers in the drafty stone chamber in the deep foundation of the Sipralite citadel.
Edrak bows low, borne down by astonishment.
“I could never replace the leadership of the glorious and beloved Jazan Gur. I beg you reconsider.”
“Jazan Gur led us to our most disastrous defeat of all time after decades of unending victory. Do better.”
In spite of himself, Edrak flushes with rage but holds his tongue. He well knows that the Sorceress Queen, called “the Hag” by men loosened up by their cups had been given authority over Jazan Gur and had called for the reckless and disastrous pursuit despite the general’s protests. He had been there alongside his beloved commander on that doomed offensive to see and hear it. Yet the noble general had done his loyal duty to the end and was now canonized by his order. The insult is very nearly too much for Edrak to bear yet somehow he does, as he always has.
He leaves the Grand Equal’s chamber and begins his ascent up the stairs, toward the generous sunlight of a Sipralesian afternoon. As the first rays strike him through tower windows, the import of his promotion dawns on him. Now he is in the place of the man he had followed and idolized. He thinks back on Jazan Gur’s last speech before the disaster in Itlavalus. His characteristic bass voice and deliberate pacing as he spoke kept the seemingly endless crowds all around him transfixed. “They are not just evil. They are on the wrong side of destiny! Our destiny is everlasting progress and they oppose that sacred voyage we all share. They want to go backward! They want to keep us mired forever in ignorance and injustice. They want the strong to crush the weak! We will not let them hold us back! We will not let them hold us down! Today we crush them once and for all. And the last of them that falls will know in his final moments…we have overcome at last!” Jazan Gur had raised his arms to the cheering of countless thousands. That was the kind of man he now had to be.
Even so, Edrak could see the Hag standing behind the Grand Master’s shoulder then, with a smug smile on her hideous face. He shuddered. Who would they have standing behind him?
The siege begins. Every day is full of the din of construction, the cracking of timber, the buzz of saws, and the creak of thick rope as jagged engines of war begin to take shape all about the walls of Epir Siprali. Within a few days, the superhuman efforts of the demoniacs enable the first catapults to begin flinging missiles. A jagged steel tower arises, engraved with smoking runes. Within a week it rolls ponderously toward the walls. It spans the whole moat with its girth and crashes into the ramparts. Its bridge drops and the city’s defenders are butchered by hulking figures in spiked black armor.
Siprali would have fallen then if not for a bold charge of the White Knights led into battle by a new captain.
That night, the Warlord says. “They have finally revealed themselves. They have replaced Jazan Gur with a man who might also be a worthy enemy.”
The war engines multiply around the city like swarming ants until the assault is carried out every hour of every day and the defenders can hardly get a chance to sleep. The battlements begin to crack and fall away under the constant pounding. Reinforcements are on the way, but it has only been two weeks. Nevertheless, a force of mounted White Knight scouts emerge from the hills and wage a campaign of harassment. They finally charge like men to aid the garrison of Siprali as it suddenly bursts out the front gate in a desperate attempt to break out of confinement. A spearhead of White Knights leads a sizable swarm of fanatics straight into the ring of besiegers with the scouts charging from the other side. The sudden pressure is too much and the ring begins to crack. The standard of one of the demoniac disciples nears the tip of the white spear and its progress towards escape halts.
The Warlord holds up his hand as the entire army begins to rush to stop the city garrison and horns begin to blare all about the city walls. “Keep discipline!” He bellows.
Even from a distance, a space can be seen clearing among the ranks. Two small figures, one white, one black face each other. Then there are visible flashes of light and shadow as the duel begins. Then, something gold and raised in the white ranks approaches the battle, a curtained palanquin. I see the Warlord himself turn pale and in that moment he spurs his black horse without a word and gallops toward the fight.
The curtains of the far-off palanquin flutter for a moment and the dark challenger falls dead. Exhilarated, the white forces renew their charge and break to the surface of the stretching bubble that encloses them. They are harassed by pursuers and take losses, but their escape is assured now.
The Warlord arrives at the site of the decisive fight and finds the body of one of his disciples broken and dead. He lowers a gauntleted hand toward the body, but draws back. As I and other disciples begin to arrive at a dead sprint, he says “Power like I have never seen since my Birth. After all these years I have found the one who has always stayed in hiding. An Equal. My equal.”
He turns to the men surrounding him and says to all, “We have let their army escape but because of your discipline, we have won the city. Without its defenders, it cannot stand. We assault the gates tonight.”
As the sun sets, the arcing arms of the siege engines redouble their flinging and then they suddenly stop. One by one, a constellation of flames comes into being as they are set alight. Then, we light several thousands of torches at once and march toward the already battered city gates with a ram. Our thick black armor is barely scratched by arrows and stones from ordinary men who just live from day to day. The gate is flung open in minutes and Epir Siprali is ours. The night sky is transformed into an eerily glowing charcoal shade by the play of flames on drifts of smoke.
Then, just as we assert our control over the citadel in the dark hours of morning, a shrill shrieking becomes perceptible. There have already been lookouts posted to the walls but the smoke has obscured their vision until now. “Fanatics! Fanatics are coming!” They yell! The first of them had already begun to stream down from the hills tonight, the most faithful only a bit slower than cavalry.
“The gates! Close the gates!” The cry goes up. The remnants of the gate are forced shut and timbers taken from anywhere and raised up with astonishing speed. Even so, the first fanatics leap through the closing gaps or even burst through solid wood, sending splinters hissing through the air.
Some of them are draped with pendulous curtains of fat, others are emaciated, leathery skeletons, all are divested by their ludicrous extremes of whatever identity they had before. A seemingly female warrior with bulging, striated muscles and a bra that clings to her meaty chest swings a battle ax all around in a cruel circle that leaves red mist in its wake. A nude, drooling fat one stumbles right into a pike but that doesn’t even slow it down. Impaled, it walks right up the length of the pole and the soldier on the end of it thinks he’s slain his opponent until the moment its placid jowly face contorts with rage and flailing flabby arms crush his helm and pop one of his eyeballs right out of its socket.
I charge into the fray and put my new powers to the test in battle for the first time. I attack the warrior first. She’s still swinging her axe when I intervene. My hammer collides with her axe blade in midair and with a lightning-like explosion of sparks, it flies out of her hands in the opposite direction.
She tumbles to her knees, screaming inconsolably. Both her wrists are grotesquely broken backwards with sharp slivers of shattered bone jutting from her stump-like forearms. I immediately turn to the shambling fanatic that still drags a bloody length of spear behind it.
It makes no attempt to avoid me as I swing. I leave a deep, square-shaped dent in its back that it somehow ignores as it reaches towards another terrified soldier.
“Leave it!” I growl to the men. “Kill the others.”
And so we do as they rally to me. A swift one dodges my hammer and thinks he’s gotten past my defenses. He darts in with his thin dagger, his pale, bloodless face fixed with a condescending smile until my other clawed gauntlet grasps him by the throat. He gasps like a landed fish as his neck snaps and his delicate rectangle spectacles fly off his face as I fling his corpse into his fellow fanatics, knocking them down to the ground where they are easily finished off by my comrades.
Now that the first fanatics have been beaten and the gate sealed against the pounding of the rest, we turn again to the plodding yet unstoppable juggernaut fanatic. We surround it staying just out of reach as it clumsily grasps all around.
“We’ve killed all your friends. You are alone now. We won.” I tell it.
“Ugly! Disgusting! Fat!” The soldiers begin to mock and laugh.
Its steps begin to slow and the first tears run down its face as it is pelted with rocks and manure from all sides. Then it begins to spasm, clutches its chest, and falls flat on its face. “By faith alone did it remain living.” I muse. “In truth, it was already dead.”
I turn to the warrior. I could not be of sure her sex before despite her clothing but now her blubbering, wailing, and gushing stream of tears is unmistakably feminine. I stand over her as she weeps over her broken limbs. As her faith begins to wane, arteries slashed by her own fractured bones begin to spurt. She doesn’t have long. I think back on what I’ve seen the warlord do, but I don’t have his knife. I clasp her face with the claws of my black steel gauntlets, press in my palms, and concentrate.
Suddenly, I feel her blood, life, and soul rushing into me. Her struggles are so unpredictable and intense they are like a spasmodic bucking I feel will tear my hands off of her, break my own wrists, and throw me aside if I relent in the slightest. I hold and I push until my arms, chest, my whole body is aching and crying out to let go, sweat drenching my whole body. I still hold until I pull the last of her essence into me. And then I discover the fight has just begun. Her whole being lashes out inside of me tearing into my own soul and I begin to slash back at her to try to save myself.
We are locked in a battle for the right to exist, each of us full of the will to live, but this is my soul’s home ground while she has been ripped away from her place of power. Little by little, her resistance chips away until she is confined in a lightless place like a muffled closet. Yet I feel the bloody stubs of her fingernails trying tear at the toughened parts of me that imprison her. I keep closing in until finally, I can faintly hear the plaintive sniffling of a little girl. And then the dark is complete.