I awake on a cold slab, with a cool draft passing over my bare chest soaked in frigid sweat. Only the faint glow of a brazier with lowering embers lights the chamber. I sit up.
“You won.” Says the Warlord, his gravelly voice echoing in here. He sits in a throne-like chair on a stone dais not far from me.
“What happened?” I groan.
“I did not attempt anything like you did until I was already a couple decades in the service of the Shadow. I started out with the smallest animals and you wanted to begin with one of the more strong-willed people you will encounter.”
“I feel like I’m torn up inside.” I wince as I try to move, although my body aches I suddenly feel my heart awash with sorrow, burning cold, and then numbness.
“You have paid a price.”
“How long was I—?”
“Days. Just laying here locked in struggle. I could feel it was almost over one way or another. Thought I would have a look.”
I plant my feet on the ground now and force myself to stand, trembling as I do so. I see my sweat stained undershirt nearby and haltingly struggle to pull it over my head, as if I were a child again.
“Will I heal?” I ask in apprehension.
“No. Wounds to the soul are eternal.”
“Surely nothing is worth a soul.”
“Many of those who seek out Heaven or Hell have suffered. They long for something greater in which to lose a self that only brings them pain.”
I think of seeing my parents, my brother and sister laying sprawled, bloodied, and crushed unrecognizably in the village square when their last stirrings of life faded in the red of sunset. I remember the bloody tears coursing down Saint Suryn’s contorted face wrought in smooth white marble. Even as I regain possession of myself, I shudder and turn away toward the stairs leading up. Just before I begin my ascent the Warlord continues.
“All of us are wounded. Until one day we are scraped down to our essence.”
Without a word, I take the first step up the stairs. And then another. The first spark of my strength begins to return.
Soon, I see the first tower window with a lazily warm breeze drifting through it, laden with the scent of orange blossoms. The light of the full moon shines bright through that aperture. Soon I encounter the first soldiers and though I am barefoot in filthy clothes they make way for me with reverence and salute with their weapons crossed over their breastplates. “Soul-eater!” I hear. “Slayer of Jazan Gur!”
“Where do I sleep?” I ask.
Instead of a tent or barracks, I am shown to my own chamber, well furnished and sumptuous by any standard I have ever known.
I collapse onto my soft bed and pass out at once.
I wake up in the morning with rays of light flooding in through leaded window panes. I haul myself down to the pool fed by a hot spring and feel the layers of grime wash away and the tenseness of many months suddenly relax. I luxuriate in heat that soaks through me and the gentle whisper of steam that finally seems to relieve many months of marching, digging, and sleeping outdoors in freezing cold, I feel that my arms, chest, and shoulders are even wider than before, corded thick with brawn. The bottom of the pool is covered in tiles of powdered gold and lapis lazuli Up above are small octagonal windows that that let shafts of light fall through swirls of rising steam. All around are great round stone pillars that create a comfortably enclosed feeling as the domed ceiling creates spaciousness in just the right way.
Now that I have time to think, much of my past memory seems dimmer and further away than it did just before the capture of Siprali. As I bask in feelings of peace for the first time in what seems forever, I become aware of parts of me that once were too painful to bear and now are cauterized. My senses are that much more immediate with parts of my past self torn away forever. I even think back on watching my family murdered and somehow am now distant enough to feel the beginnings of detachment. In some sense it is a great comfort to be freed from such torments, though I feel empty spots inside me where the warrior woman’s soul tore up my own. I think I am just such a person as the Warlord described last night.
Afterwards I lounge for a few hours in my chamber in a comfortable robe and then dress myself for a meeting of our leadership. Renewed and dressed better than I ever have been before, I set forth.
The Warlord is waiting for us in the deep foundation of the citadel.
“The Coalition of the Ascendant have fortified themselves in Sirangulam.” He begins.
“The two sister cities along this trade coast now oppose one another. We will continue to push south but there will be no easy victory. They are massing their forces and will one day be able to push us back if we wait.”
Edrak of Savisia confronts the gold palanquin.
“You intervened in an honorable challenge when they made no move to violate it!”
The Grand Equal intones a hum of displeasure. “They are scum.” It rasps.
The knight retorts “If we violate challenges, they will backstab just as gladly.”
“Our rules do not protect those who serve hell.”
“Damn it! I watched my Captain fall right after the Ha—the Sorceress Queen joined the fight and broke a rightful challenge. I saw as a demonic soldier rallied to his outnumbered leader and slew the father of our order.”
“You will not speak of her with irreverence.” said the Equal, its voice dripping with understated rage.
Suddenly Edrak’s mouth is stopped up and he can say nothing. He feels inexplicably weak and falls to his knees.
The palanquin somehow drifts closer.
Edrak looks up helplessly as a sallow, sunken face with depthless black eye sockets emerges from the curtains. It presses its mouth to his as he kneels there paralyzed and a great length of putrid tongue rams down his throat. He strains as hard as he can to breathe and to escape the spell that somehow prevents him from struggling with all his might, or even from gagging. The emaciated figure hidden behind the curtain gives a deep moan of satisfaction and Edrak feels some warming substance pouring into his gut. As his master’s tongue retracts, he slumps to the ground and lapses into delirium.
He sees a vision of the Grand Master Jazan Gur. His brow furrowed in noble thought at his desk in his tent during the Northern campaign, all just as he remembered. He tries to call out to him but realizes he is a disembodied observer. Then, the Hag slips into the tent without bothering to announce herself and comes behind him. As he pores over a map, she strokes his head. Instead of starting with surprise, the general tilts his head back languorously, as if in a trance. She kisses him fully on the mouth with her thin, withered lips. His throat bulges as her tongue forces its way back. Her hairy forearms wrap around his strong shoulders. Then the general’s whole body goes slack. The Hag withdraws and Jazan Gur is left slumped over in his chair. Edrak tries to do something, anything to intervene and horror wells up in him. It was like this all along. The man who he had idolized but a slave as he had now become. Ever since he was a child, no one had seemed stronger than the White Knights and the Grand Master himself had seemed like an angel.
Edrak came to on the marble floor of the throne room. It was night now. The Grand Equal’s palanquin is back where it had been as if nothing had happened. Had it been just a strange nightmare?
“I’ve chosen you to be my champion as the Grand Master before you was chosen by my sister.” comes the voice from the palanquin. “You will argue with me no longer and carry out my will. Go now.”
Edrak gets to his feet and stumbles from the royal chamber and braces himself against the walls as he sways his way shakily down the steps. On his way down he passes white knights who fervently salute him but he can say nothing to them now. He is still stunned and drained from whatever has just happened to him.
The cities of Epyr Siprali and Sirar Sirangulam face off against each other for the next few months, the demonic forces in the north, the Coalition of the Ascendant fighting from the south. Several battles taking place in the narrow, strategic lowland that lies between jagged, sun-baked mountain ranges.
In that time I have taken many trophies of my enemies’ heads and when I can, their souls too. As I draw that inestimable power into me from unwilling foes, I have grown more dangerous and savage than many who have served under the black dragon banner for far longer. Every time a desperate soul claws back against mine I backhand it into submission as it wails and the scratches left behind turn into scar tissue and tough calluses. It is not as damaging to me as my first victim was, yet each time, I feel further away from who I once was.
The Warlord is agitated at the lack of progress. He paces as he addresses us.
“Time is on their side. The longer this war of attrition drags on, the more the hordes of fanatics multiply. After awhile even our great victory in the far north is for nothing and their strength restored. This stalemate must be broken now. I know their ultimate leader is there in Sirangulam. We must draw them into battle.”
The very next day we march out of the gates of Siprali in our black ranks bearing our standards as deep drums beat. The dust of the road curls about our column in the dawn as we begin to wind our way further south with nearly our full strength. At the end of the first day, we reach the yawning mouth of the two mountain ranges. On the second day, we are full of excitement and suspense as we approach Shemgaum Pass, the narrowest point between the mountains, the place where they would be waiting, the spot where there have been many battles before across ages. We are greeted by barren silence. There are reports of a few of their scouts but it is clear that they are allowing us through without a fight. The men begin to bang weapons on their shields along with the drums and chant in their deep voices as they see not a single enemy soldier blocks the pass. The army moves at a tremendous pace, eager to be through the strategic chokepoint and break through into enemy territory. The Warlord communes with the shadows and somehow the army keeps marching through the night and all through the next day until the walls and spires of Sirangulam are in sight by the end of the third day. Commotion and panic are audible from miles away as no one had thought it possible for the offensive to move so quickly. The demoniacs and the strongest human soldiers press forward yet again during the night and are dug in before the walls and beginning to build again the engines of war. Soon, the rest of the Dark Army arrives and so another siege is begun.
Sirar Sirangulam lies just off the coast on an island. A small spit of land connects it to the mainland at high tide and that is when we charge its walls with everything we’ve got. It’s not enough with the core of the Coalition of the Ascendant encamped there. The Warlord has us bring dirt and gravel from miles around to throw into a recalcitrant sea to gradually form a permanent bridge. All day and night, fanatics and sympathizers charge our trenches from the landward side to relieve the beleaguered garrison but we are always prepared for them in our defensive positions. Their bodies begin to pile up until swarms of flies dominate the air. We catapult their maggot-ridden corpses over the walls of Sirangulam for it is a sort of ammunition that never runs out.
Every night after sundown our skirmishers fight furiously for control of the one nearby spring that prevents our men from dying of thirst in sight of endless waves. After resistance grows, I am finally assigned to go with them to make sure all goes as planned. In the small hours of the morning we depart with scores of armored men carrying empty barrels. We start taking arrows and crossbow bolts as soon as we get near the springs and then I spring into action. I sprint a few hundred meters in full armor with inhuman speed and begin to butcher the harassers single-handedly. My men soon catch up with me and battle is joined in the darkest hour of night. It is impossible to tell who is winning.
As the sky flaunts the earliest gray hint of dawn I find myself facing a White Knight whose bright surcoat is just visible. His blade hisses out of its sheath and I am immediately thrown back by a strength I have never seen. We fight until the soldiers of both sides are at a distance from us. The first light catches the tip of his blade as another impossibly crushing blow falls upon my shield and throws me back into a grassy beach dune. As the first light reveals me fully, he lowers his sword and speaks.
“You killed my captain in Itlavalus! Now I will slay you!”
It dawns on me now.
“You slew one of mine escaping Siprali!”
“I wish it had been just me. I will kill you by myself. I have the Grand Equal’s blessing.”
“How can an equal be grand?” I mock.
“By overcoming privileged men who turn to evil, like you!”
“Your dear equal leader is under siege now. Again.”
“We will cut you off from every side until you are crushed. Even until you grow old and the young have all joined us.”
“Every declining empire thinks time is on its side.” I retort. “You had over seventy years and now everyone can see that your rule has failed. We are just the ones who stand up. Kill us and there will be more like us.”
On my feet now, I fight again with the White Knight. I meet his sword blade with my hammer but it glances off, cuts easily through my armor and buries in my arm. In a rage I pass my weapon to my other hand and swipe back against him right into his face. His helm flies off his head and I can see his bloodied face clearly now. I take my helm off and introduce myself. “I am Daulan Sekk. The wolf, slayer of the White Death, soul-eater.”
“Edrak of Savisia.” says he. “Grand Master.” His features are youthful and innocent for those of a warrior, his blue eyes full of fire, yet I feel something powerful and dangerous disturbs and distorts his essence. Now that I have consumed souls, I can almost smell them out.
We now face each other under the full light of sunrise with both armies watching us. We both lower our weapons, turn away from one another and go back to our respective armies.
The Grand Equal is furious.
“I told you not to treat honorably with the legions of hell. You idiot!” It hiss lisps venomously.
Edrak stands straight and says, “Better you ask me not to be a knight at all! I will beat the enemy in honorable combat! So long as we are just, we win by our virtues and the enemy loses by their defects.”
No reply comes from the palanquin. Edrak suspects no one has ever talked back to the Grand Equal like this. After a long pause he finally hears one firm word.
Edrak gladly leaves the chamber with frustration eating away at him.
The next day, he goes about his duties, his misgivings about the Grand Equal and his strange dream-like experience in the back of his mind as the role of commander he has assumed consumes every minute. Around mid-day, there is a terrible itch-like feeling, a craving of some sort that he can’t identify. By that night, he is tossing and turning in bed, sweating profusely. He feels the urge to vomit yet he hasn’t eaten anything.
Finally the longing is too great, he gets out of bed, manages to haphazardly dress himself and paces towards the Grand Equal’s chamber. The guards quickly let him in without question and shut the door behind him. He approaches the palanquin, intensely repulsed yet unable to resist his need. His legs buckle under him and finally he hears its voice.
“You will submit to my blessing.” It speaks slowly in a tone dripping with pleasure and contempt.”
“You will submit.” It repeats. Edrak full of fear finds his limbs are crawling him towards the palanquin unbidden, such is his desire for that dream-like state of bliss. He knows somehow that nothing will ever be the same after this time, yet he cannot stop himself.
The curtain of the palanquin slips open again and his spine arches back in anticipation in spite of his horror. Edrak breaks the spell for one final moment and manages to scream in despair before his mouth is sealed and his throat stopped shut.
Edrak lapses into happy dreams of circles of smiling people of every kind and appearance wearing white robes holding hands with garlands of flowers about their heads and necks. They gesture to him and he joins their dance. It’s the heaven he’s always wanted to bring about on earth and he loses himself in the celebration for what seems like eternity. Then, he begins to fall out of this rapture and finds himself on the floor lying in front of the Grand Equal’s palanquin. He feels renewed and stronger than ever now as he springs to his feet. As he turns to leave, the Grand Equal speaks behind him.
“Defy me again and you will languish much longer without my blessing.”
Edrak shudders at the thought of ever going through withdrawal again and turns back toward the palanquin.
“Yes.” he says meekly, and leaves.
The Grand Equal knows that he will never have trouble with this one again.
The siege of Sirar Sirangulam drags on, week after week, gravel, stones, and sand are tirelessly dumped into the ocean and the bridge to the city slowly grows wider. On the landward side, there is a vast no-man’s land thickly speckled with piles of corpses as far as the eye can see. With every day, the position of the city grows a little weaker but the Coalition of the Ascendant swells and grows stronger until miles of their seething masses surround the entrenched besiegers. A fortress of grim and gnarled driftwood now guards the one viable spring and improvised barriers protect the lines of trenches that allow the besiegers to hug against the city in a death grip against all the opposition in the world.
Finally, the Warlord receives a messenger. “They’ve retaken Siprali.” he says. “We are cut off.” For the first time ever, I see the Warlord at a loss for words. He clenches his fists. “Enough!” He finally says. “This is it! I know it!”
None of us know what he means and just stare at him. Without hesitation he points to to me. “You are coming with me.” he says. “Kivan Rasaris, you are in command!”
That night, he leads me to a small boat captured from the Sirangulese.
“You’re abandoning your army now!?” I ask.
“There is a greater purpose, you must trust me. Rejoin the army if you don’t want to be here.”
I hesitate, but say. “Alright, let’s go.” and get in the boat first.
I do not question further, I can feel from the Warlord that this really is something important.
We set sail in the middle of the night, the free ocean winds a huge relief from the vile, stagnant air of the battlefield that reeked of seaweed, feces, and swollen corpses that rolled about in the surf.
For the next week we sail to the south leaving the Trade Coast far behind for more arid regions. Every day he tells me of his early days and of the mysterious demon he helped bring into the City of the Center Lands. I could not believe he was once just a working man driven to desperation by the Duke and the Paladin, St. Suryn. I tell him of my childhood before my old life was abruptly taken from me.
“We had a dog,” I tell him, but it was really my dog. “ He slept on my feet every night and I felt a love for his very presence there that never got old.”
“But?” asked the warlord.
“I no longer feel it in my memory like I used to.”
The Warlord sighs. “I told you, there is a price. I had a wife, a child, and a job once but it seems a million years ago. That man is long dead.”
One day, we see a white sail behind us and the Warlord watches in anticipation.
“We disembark tonight.” he says.