The Warlord (Part 4)

As a brilliant moon rises we push the boat to the silvery desert shore.  We put what provisions we can in packs and begin our journey towards the needle-sharp silhouettes of stark cliffs in the distance beneath a starry sky like I haven’t seen since the far North.
“We should make the wastes of Yrizang before they catch us on horseback.” says the Warlord.

“What we are doing out here?” I ask him.
“This is where the Master sent my inheritance.”

“Your inheritance?”

“He crafted a being out of dissident souls that will aid me in the last battle.”
“Multiple souls?”

“Yes.  We are powerful in this world but the Master and the Paladin were of another kind.”

We set out at a tremendous pace although we are both armored and carrying burdens.  By dawn, we have reached the end of the rolling dunes and are entering the jagged rocks of Yrizang where hardly even a tuft of hardy grass can be seen.  Within an hour of sunrise, heat ripples all around the valley walls like an ascending chorus. As our steps echo from one dead valley to the next, the rocks change from brown, to white, to yellow, to red, and finally to endless reaches of bleached grey.  The heights are swept by smoldering winds that would soon dry up ordinary men. The next day, we hear a clattering echo at the end of the dismal valley behind us. White pennants appear.
“Go!” shouts the Warlord.

We run for days, yet we cannot outrun the white horses behind us.

“The heat would have killed them by now.” a greater power keeps them alive.  “He is here with them. My equal.”

I shudder at the thought of the shrouded gold palanquin we saw outside Siprali.

The terrain is so rough that divinely empowered horses are little faster than we are and yet they gain little by little.  They are easily within sight when we reach the great faultline that marks the end of the world.
“Down this great chasm.” says the Warlord. “Every inch of land goes to die.  Even where the Great City now sits one day long ahead.”

We find the narrowest point of the chasm we can and leap across it into an unimaginable continent.

Just then, the party of White Knights rides down from the other side.  They stop at the chasm and stare at us.

There’s about twenty of them and all prepare their mounts for a great leap.  Only half of them make it to the other side and we are waiting for them where they land cutting them down back into the abyss.  Then we are thrown back by a crushingly powerful shockwave. Four knights remain and one stooped figure wearing an unblemished hooded white cloak.  The Warlord flees up the unmarked slope of a jagged gray spire and I follow him. Our pursuers are forced to dismount as they chase us upwards. Three of them fall hopelessly far behind us as we climb but the cloaked figure and one of the knights are right behind us.  Then I recognize him. Right on our heels is Edrak of Savisia who I fought on the cursed shores of Sirangulam. His youthful face now seems somehow twisted and grim.

Near the top of the spire, the Warlord finds a cave.

“Just as I thought!” he exclaims.

We rush out of the pounding white sun and into the welcoming blackness.  Then a blinding light illuminates the cave. The cloaked figure has raised a white-gloved hand, the Grand Master Edrak is at its side.
“Run!” says the Warlord.  They sprint far through the cave staying just ahead of the light.

Finally they reach a great chamber.  The pursuers of the light soon catch up with them.
“You can go no further.” rasps the cloaked figure in a mild, lisping voice.

“There is one more chamber.” says the Warlord. “Follow me there if you dare.”

He turns and disappears through another hole in the wall behind them.  In a streak of speed, the cloaked figure follows.

I am left alone with Edrak of Savisia.  “This is it.” I tell him. “Well met.” as I extend my hammer towards him.  The White Knight says, “No honor for you. You will be punished like a common criminal.”

“Very well.” I tell him with disappointment. “What happened to you?”

“We will never have our open world if we give you any reprieve.  Now you die.”
Edrak lunges and our fight is joined.

In an even greater cavern, the Warlord and the Grand Equal face each other.

“I’ve spent a hundred years trying to figure out who you are.”

“I was born a hundred years ago.”

“The exact moment the neutrality of our plane was broken.”

“Yes.  The heavens chose me to defeat you.  And so I have sacrificed knowing this moment would come.”

Suddenly the robes begin to fall away and a deathly pale, muscular white knight stands there his eyes staring lifelessly.  Then his limbs and features begin to fall away like fleshy leaves in a windless autumn. In moments, all that remains is a limbless, emaciated torso propped against the cave wall, with protruding ribs.  Its eye sockets are empty, its head hairless, its ears just open holes in the side of its head. There is just a nondescript gap where its genitals would have been. It is the most frail and helpless creature the Warlord has ever seen and yet he is repulsed by some great power as he tries to go near it.

Its mouth strains to move.
“I am the Grand Equal.” It feebly rasps.
“You’ve gained power through weakness.  You disgust me.” replies the Warlord.
“To be weak, to be equal is the greatest power.  The strength of a few is no use against the many.”

“Nonsense, the weak are easily ruled, no matter how many they are.”

“Yet you have failed to rule the world.”

The Warlord charges but his knees try to buckle as he approaches the grotesque white torso.  He can go no further. Equal indeed.

“When I was young.” continued the Grand Equal conversationally. “I would whip and scar myself and feel my power over others grow.  One day, I sliced off the tip of a finger and had never felt such rapture.  Every suffering after the last grew the power of Heaven within me.  You cannot harm me now.”

“Do you know why I came here?”

“To seek out the demon’s old glory but he has long fled.”

“We’re true equals.  I pity you. The universe created you to oppose me.  But the demon already won his fight and upset the balance.”

The Warlord walked back into the shadows and somehow the Grand Equal could not perceive him anymore.  He begins to screech and lash out with all his power.

I am locked in battle with Edrak.  Rocks shatter around us as our savage blows deflect and go wild.  I remember how long our battle lasted before and impulsively I lunge right at him while dropping my weapon.  My sharp gauntlets close like a cage about his face. I assault his soul with all my might. But what I find there is unlike anything I’ve seen.  The power of the Equal twists through his thoughts and agency like a lethal serpent. Edrak’s last experiences before being subsumed rush into my consciousness and threaten to engulf me.  There is nothing left of the noble warrior I fought on the beach at dawn and that truth is worse than the final struggles of the other souls I’ve swallowed. He is slave forever to a perfect world that can never be.  Somehow that is worse than becoming aware of a world that is dark and irredeemable.
Nevertheless his soul brims with pure will, even if much of it is not his own.  I am hammered flat by a wave of resistance and nearly let go of him. I had thought myself callused within but the Grand Master’s strength opens up one gaping wound after another.  With each strike I feel an experience keenly one last time before it turns gray. I reel in agony as he slashes straight to my core and suddenly I’m trapped trembling in that loft again as I hear the cries of my parents, my brother and sister, the angry crowd for hours while unable to do anything about it.  I relive in a moment the years I spent in orphanages and workhouses cared for by no one. That unbearable eternity of fear and pain dominates my senses all at once. Then it all erupts from my wound right into Edrak’s soul making him recoil as he shares the agony that made me who I am. Who I was. It begins to ebb and I feel nothing.

The Grand Equal sees two slits of light open up in the darkness and he knows true fear.  A huge mass moves in the dark and lurches toward him. He feels the adamantine rings of spells protecting his frail body crumble away as the beast grows near.  Within his ring of light a vast and hideous head becomes visible, rears back and spits a stream of black venom straight at him. Only the swift command of his powers deflects this sudden attack in a hissing cloud of foul, molten smoke.  The Warlord steps within the now-faint glow surrounding his Equal and says “The creature on the banners of my army was no myth, but my objective all along. A beast forged from the sacrificed souls of dispossessed men by the Master. After all these years, I have finally become worthy!”

“You are an enemy of Humanity, nothing more.”

The Warlord and the Grand Equal muster their powers and clash with all their might.  The emaciated, limbless form of Heaven’s servant slouched against a sharp rock wall strives to hold back an enraged, hulking warrior piercing ever closer towards him with his wickedly barbed sword of enruned black steel that smolders red with rippling heat against layers of unseen resistance.

The Grand Equal begins to bite itself with his toothless gums until the gums are torn away and the bony remains of his jaw rip at his pallid, diseased flesh.  Its power is redoubled. It throws the Warlord to the ground and tries to incinerate him with a column of blinding light that issues forth with a bass thrum.
“You cannot stop progress!” it screams triumphantly through its phlegmatic lungs.

Then, the jaws of the shadow dragon abruptly close around it.

The Grand Equal lashes out furiously within the jaws of its attacker with a crackling and sizzling of power.  Its final weapon a long, prehensile tongue snakes out of its mouth.

“Call off your beast! Face me!” it cries out.
“You never faced us honorably.” replies the Warlord grimly. “No honor for you.”  In one swift move he severs the Grand Equal’s tongue with the glassy blade mounted on his wrist.  The convulsing pale torso gives one last despairing shriek, the stump of its tongue oozing a slow syrup of sickly ichor, its empty eye sockets somehow pleading before the shadow dragon’s jaws snap shut.  A frantically writhing silhouette of incandescent light starts to slide down the shadow dragon’s long neck, its frantic agitations now smothered into silence. The Warlord can see the first tendrils of hungry, vengeful souls begin to feel out its defenses.  With renewed fervor, a burst of light drives them away. The Warlord smiles grimly. It will take a long, agonizing time to wear down and digest his ultimate adversary and that suits him just fine.

I lay across the rubble-strewn cavern from Edrak of Savisia, trying to feel or remember who I am.  Neither of us could prevail against the other, I know that much. Equals in strength. I remember the Warlord telling me something what now seems very long ago.  “It has to resolve downward. Level by level.”

I hear a crunching footstep on a pile of shattered stone and manage to raise my head.  It is the Warlord.

Edrak of Savisia manages to thrust the point of his sword into the ground and raise himself to one knee.  I can now see my master is also nearly too weak to stand. A sense of urgency to intervene grows within me but I can barely move.  As Edrak trembles with strain to rise, his face and the muscles of his neck gleaming with sweat, the Warlord wearily tosses an object at his feet that lands with a wet thump.  The Grand Equal’s severed tongue.

The Grand Master crumples to the ground at once with a cry of total despair.  He then seizes at the tongue and furiously sucks at its tip, his terror growing as not even one drop of succor is forthcoming.  Only reality remains. Seized by waking nightmare, Edrak springs to his feet, still desperately clutching the ashen length of tongue to his chest like a child’s stuffed animal and runs for the exit of the cave and the endless desert waiting outside.

“Who knows how long he may last.” muses the Warlord.

I hear a great bulk move and I look up in awe to the mythical shadow dragon that has led me into battle many times.

“I must return to turn the tides in Sirangulam.” Says my Master.  With that, he manages to climb onto the the Shadow Dragon’s back. With a gravelly screech, the great beast begins to slither towards the mouth of the cave.  “Wait!” I plead, reaching out towards them. As the beast I fought under disappears down the stone corridor I also find the strength to rise and follow them. As I step into the blinding desert sun, the shadow dragon spreads its wings, lifts from the ledge with a burst of gray sand and flaps aloft over the mountaintop towards the north from which we came.

At a loss, I stumble back into the mouth of the cave and collapse.

It is the depth of night when I rise with some strength restored and in some ways it is just a curse.  I can now reflect on my abandonment. What am I to do now? Walk all the way back? Then I remember there is one thing I can do.  I prowl from the cave’s mouth and into the light of flickering stars that seem to hover within reach of my face like fireflies I remember from a final fragment I possess of my childhood.  I go back until I find the last three White Knights who pursued us where they are encamped. I make no attempt at stealth and the one who stands watch quickly wakes his fellows.

All three draw their swords and confront me.  I don’t even bother to wield my hammer as I walk right up to them.  They are terrified but they rush me with everything they’ve got. I grab two of them by their faces and lift them off the ground.  Rivulets of blood stream down from where my claws pierce their stretched skin. I have never tried to take in two souls at once and I don’t know what possesses me to try it.  Yet I do it as the third White Knight crumples to the ground and weeps in a trembling heap screaming prayers to Saint Suryn that receive no answer. The slashing and tearing of two of them at once is far more than I can handle in my still weakened state and I can feel what’s left of me slipping away as I devour them…

The jaggedly spiked silhouette of the warrior stands over the dessicated corpses of three White Knights beneath swirls of stars.  He falls to his hands and knees as his form begins to shift. His clawed gauntlets smoke with infernal heat as they become feet and his arms fuse into front legs.  The wolf’s jaws that decorate his helmet visor come alive, elongate with sliding segments of black metal and close about his face. The eyes of the wolf mask ignite with the fire of hungry intent.  Soon, the jagged metallic hunting beast lopes northward, leaps effortlessly across the chasm and traverses the wastes of Yrizang with impossible speed. By the time the sun rises, every stony valley changes in color again and soon the metallically panting beast is speeding across the dunes with sprays of sand with a slope-backed hyena stride and leaving the stony terrain behind.  Already, it can smell the muted stirrings of souls very far away.

As the Warlord descends upon the battle at Sirangulam he sees below him the Coalition of the Ascendant divided into groups that attack each other now just as furiously as the trenches his half-starved men still strive to defend with hardly any fresh water to drink.  Without the power of the Grand Equal, each part of the Coalition struggles for dominance. The brown skins viciously assault the pale skins. The fat attack the thin. The females attack every male. The crippled and diseased, even stripped of their powers try to savage the well.  Men who lust after men take vengeance on men who desire women. The worshipers of far away Gods strive to cleanse their own army of nonbelievers. Then they subdivide and fight with even more intensity as the Shadow Dragon passes over them and shatters whatever remnants of their spell might remain.
Within the Dragon’s belly the bright light of the Grand Equal still shines.  But it can only writhe in silent, impotent torment as it watches everything it ever lived and sacrificed for falling apart.  The Warlord smiles grimly, yet smugly.

Wherever one faction of the Coalition starts to get the upper hand over another, the shadow dragon spits down a stream of its acid venom to keep the fight balanced.  Then it swoops right over the trenches where the weary Dark Army huddles. The Warlord gestures towards the enemy with his barbed sword, shield ringed with spikes at his side.  His harsh voice echoes across the battlefield. The Shadow Dragon rears back its head and gives out a screech like a sliding avalanche jagged gravel.

No matter how hungry, thirsty, and exhausted, the black-armored legions emerge from the trenches and begin to form up.  Pikes, lances, and sarissas that have been used for little more than fortifications are snatched up wherever they can be found, no matter their condition.  At first they must fight furiously for every square inch, but they gain the space to form into orderly square phalanxes that begin to roll effortlessly through the chaotic mass of the Ascendant.  In spite of this new attack the Coalition forces remain locked in battle with each other and so the slaughter progresses for days until the already putrid no-man’s land is stacked with dunes of bloated corpses.  It is even worse for them than Itlavalus, muses the Warlord to himself, and they have lost their leader. After more than a hundred years, he has fulfilled his task and wonders if Daulan Sekk has done the same.

Soon after, Sirangulam surrenders and they are spared, with a demoniac governor and a bureaucracy of veteran dark warriors now in charge.

With the spine of the heavenly forces shattered once and for all, the army of the man known as Eshlaru, as Kirnavir, as Yeleysh Issaraym, enters the borders of the Center Lands where they have always known him simply as the Warlord.  As the dark legions near The City and the Shadow Dragon of mythical tales passes over the walls again, they are desperate to save themselves by surrendering as quickly as possible. The Warlord lands the Shadow Dragon outside the walls, mounts his black stallion and leads his forces through the City gates as they are opened.  He had thought himself toughened and deadened in most ways, but he feels dizzy as he passes through a familiar gate he last departed through over a century before, alone and pursued by the city guard. Now he is master of the city that created him.

The next day, the Warlord walks alone into the cool marble interior of Saint Suryn’s temple.  It is dark inside except for a few candles but the alabaster statue of the Paladin has almost a pale glow about it.  For the first time, he gazes on the uncanny likeness of someone he knew long ago.

He traces a grooved scar on his bald head with one finger.  “Your power gave these to me and marked me as who I am. I could not be here now without you.”
Without warning, the statue’s blank marble eyes become bottomless black portals that gaze straight into him.  Tears of blood begin to stream down from them. There is a stony groan as her serene mouth twists into a grimace of agony and hatred.  Her arm creaks as if to move.

After everything he has seen for so many years, the Warlord tumbles onto the floor and reflexively raises his arm to shield himself.  All at once, he’s back in the dungeon in the Keep, being beaten, imprisoned, and chained. The glassy blade on his wrist begins to resonate as he relives his escape.  The tone dies down as he comes to his senses and sees nothing more than a statue in front of him now. “Farewell.” He says, then carefully turns his back and leaves.

There is a sacred grove of trees surrounding the temple grounds, their leaves whispering like solemn chimes as dapples of sunlight ripple through them.  Nearby are the memorials and tombs of legendary White Knights who died in service of the Lady, some of whom he had slain himself. Their monolithic images in hauberk and surcoat have nondescript faces and clasp their swords to their chests in repose.  As the Warlord looks up he sees a black-cloaked figure, whose garment flows in the breeze as fluidly as the leaves.

“Dask.” a smooth tenor voice softly addresses him.

The Warlord falls to his knees and for awhile his mouth struggles to form words.

“Master.” he finally says.  He chokes, trying to hold back tears.  “That man died long ago.”

“No, no matter what you have have seen and the price you’ve paid, you have never stopped being him.”

The Warlord tries to collect himself but can say nothing.

“You have completed your task but your soul is not yet ready.  There is another who will accompany me.”

“Daulan Sekk!”
“He is just a Wolf now, an eternally hungry hunter of souls.  He tried to master the greater dark powers as a newly created lesser imp.  That is what often happens. There is more presence there than a hate elemental possesses but not that much more.”

“I tried to warn him!”

“Your loyal follower is not completely gone.  His essence remains. There is an even higher beauty than we can know as only ourselves.  That is all he knows now. And I needed him to choose as he did. I will let him have some of your last, greatest adversaries in this world before I take him.”

“Master.” blurts the Warlord imploringly.

“You have unfinished business.  A life you never lived.”

The Demon raises its hand and the Warlord clutches his face and head as he feels his skin smoldering.  His heavy armor comes loose plate by plate and drops away from him. It feels as though a tremendous weight has fallen away.  His grotesquely large and muscled torso starts to shrink until it reaches the proportions of an ordinary athletic young man. His scalp itches furiously as hair bursts forth all at once.

“Go and live, Dask.  Until you are ready.”

“Until when?” the Warlord asks in a voice he has not heard come from him in a hundred years.

The robed figure shrugs.  “We will both know.”

The Warlord finds himself staring at empty air where his Master stood just a moment before.  Beside himself, he lingers for awhile. He tries to pick up one of his shoulder plates and can barely even move it.  Still stunned, he runs his hands over his face, his head, and body. He nearly collapses as he sees a ghost of his reflection on a perfectly polished granite memorial. “Dask.” he says.  Some time passes. He says it again. The sun starts to grow lower in the leaves the grove.

***

I leave the gates of the City again, a free man, on horseback this time and at my leisure.  Before the sun sinks I am passing by small villages and verdant fields bordered with stands of sunflowers that cast long shadows.  As last light fades, I come on a village by a creek with a watermill churning in a somnolent rhythm. I come to the tavern where my horse is taken to the stable.  There is room enough for me tonight.

“Your name?” asks the Inkeeper.

“Dask.”  I tell him.

“Is that all?” He asks.

“That’s all for now.”

He looks me up and down but sees a young man in workman’s clothes with clear blue eyes.  I seem honest enough. I lay some coins on the counter and he asks me no more.
“That cask could use a mending. I’m a skilled cooper.” I tell him and heft my bag of tools into view.

“Take care of it in the morning before you go.” he replies and slides a small silver coin back at me.

I settle into the boisterous atmosphere of the inn as I down mugs of beer until my head spins and tear through ham shank taken sizzling and dripping right off the spit.  I notice the eyes of one young village girl lingering on me and approach her though my hands are greasy and a stupid grin pasted on my face. It doesn’t seem to matter what comes out of my mouth, she is taken with me and I with her.  As the night finally dies down, she quietly takes my hand and comes up to my room with me. I sleep all night for the first time in decades with her in my arms. The scent of garden flowers drifts through the window as the first rays strike them and the air is still cool.  She’s still sleeping and I gaze adoringly on her peaceful face. I think I will stay here awhile. As I stir then, something near my hip pokes into me and I furrow my brow in confusion. I reach under the sheets impulsively and my hand finds the cold, jagged, glassy blade that changed me forever.

The Warlord (Part 3)

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.
“Begone.”

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.

The Warlord (Part 2)

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.”
“Uh…How?”
“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.”

“But…What happened?”

“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.

The Warlord (Part 1)

Everywhere, they called him the Warlord.  In some lands he was Eshlaru in others, Issaraym, in others still, Kirnavir.   No one knew from where he came. He had a visage marred by strange scars, his scalp always shaved bare; for they said his hair would not grow upon the scars.  Some say in a lifetime of fighting under his shadow dragon banner until they turned gray, he’d never aged a day.

Now, even amidst the swirls of falling snow he rides his black horse that haughtily high steps, his barbed blade held straight out in front of him, shield ringed with spikes held at his side as he passes through the ranks of his men all beating their weapons on their shields, howling with bloodlust.  His face could just be seen through the sickle-toothed jaws that formed the mask of his helm. The Coalition of the Ascendant had pursued us even here far into the winter wastes of Itlavalus and after months of patient retreat our general had said the time was finally right. All through the long wait to fight some had lost faith and called our general a coward.  They had all long since left for warmer climes. Those of us who still remained were the best. We were far outnumbered now, but the repressed eagerness for battle was all the greater. When we had been rallied, an intense silence fell over us. Now, we could hear the massed ululating shrieking of the Coalition as they marched upon us. As they came closer we could see that even now, many of them wore little more than rags that were falling apart.  How they managed to survive such privation no one knew for certain. We supposed it was a power which only the High could have bestowed on them. Men and women alike, their faces every hue, hardly distinguishable anymore after all their fleshly bodies had endured, they frantically whipped themselves with lashes, screaming out their devotion against the outlaws of Humanity and their hate of the Hateful.

They were a terrifying force to the uninitiated and before the arrival of the Warlord, Yeleysh Issaraym, they had toppled one rich king after another though they wore rags and swore themselves to lives of humility and victimhood.  No one could seem to make sense of it, but now there was no need to. All that mattered now was to crush the life out of them on this battlefield.
The enemy knew a great fury and fanaticism, but it was the fury of the mob, not that of a man himself, or even of a band of men who knew one other.  Or even of anyone who had the least in common. That is why we had always beaten them before they had driven us into these arctic wastes with their overwhelming numbers.

We were grim and resolute now as they were fanatical and strident.  We wore bulky black armor adorned with spikes, our helmets closed about our faces.  Those who had grown strong in the service of the dark powers had eyes that glowed or were black and empty within their facemasks.  As terrifying as they were even to us, the Warlord’s presence was strongest as he led us on his black stallion. Our great war drums beat, their bass thrum felt down to the pit of the gut.  If we had not been able to feel it, the shrill wailing of the Coalition of the Ascendant might have drowned it out. They rushed at us headlong from over a mile away and somehow, their worn frames had the endurance to sustain the charge.  The mass of them had fanned out into irregular tendrils as if to envelop us, prongs of off-white and flesh tones coursing across great mounds of windswept snow. We had formed into our phalanxes in anticipation of this. Black squares that marched methodically across the white waste bristling on every side with wickedly barbed sarissas, needle-sharp lances, and long pikes.

Soon, we were completely surrounded.  The only way out now was to fight our way out.  We advanced toward their front line which we knew was probably stretched thin after so many had joined in the charge so we thought we might take advantage of their indiscipline.  But first, they were closing in quickly on our flanks and soon behind us as well. For every other opponent they had faced, this had meant total disaster within a crushing vice. The armies of great empires had marched forth only to panic as the Coalition had attacked them from every side and then perished as they discovered that the Righteous accepted no surrender from transgressors.  Once one had ever opposed them, no abasement or apology could ever appease them.

We knew our enemy, though, and kept marching in formation, even as the first tendrils of their host closed in on us.  The keening shriek of Righteous fury reached a peak as they crashed into us. At the beginning of their wave were the strongest and most fanatical, sped on by their superior devotion.  The best of them were the first to die. What made them any different from the rest, doomed them to death. It was no accident, it was what they believed was just. Even so, these ones were still the best.  The spearman next to me was just a little too slow and one of them got through. One slash of its nine-thonged whip cut his spear into multiple pieces and sliced through his armor with ease. My unfortunate brother-in-arms fell backwards spurting blood from multiple arteries, dead before he hit the ground.  I cursed in rage as I felt one of the thongs slice the skin of my forearm. The Ascended fanatic screamed back at me, its pinched face framed by filthy braids of unkempt hair. I brought down my hammer on that contorted visage with its wildly rolling eyes and its rictus of indignant rage and split it into an unrecognizable ruin a few chunks of brain tumbled out of.

Then came the rest of them all at once in a great press.  The odor of their masses, pungent even in the cold. These we held off with our outer ring of spears and began to steadily plow through them.  First the spears pushed them back and we advanced another few steps, those who tried to break through that outer barrier were slaughtered by the rest of us waiting for them just within.  And so it went all day. Like the rhythmic cries of galley oarsmen we bellowed in chorus every time we thrust with the spears, pushed further ahead, and then locked shields again. We advanced at a steady pace no matter how the mob pressed and pounded on us from all sides and all they had to show for it was a trail of corpses clad in bloodied rags trailing nearly a mile behind us, already stiff and well-dusted in snow.

We finally reached the center of the Coalition army and before us was no longer a rabble of fanatics but several orderly cavalry regiments stiffly at attention in resplendent white armor, riding pure white horses.  At their head was a grave figure, wearing an ornate plate of alabaster armor, with his silver scimitar raised in the air, his complexion almost ebony in color, his features narrow and aristocratic, his gaze fixed and intense.  Jazan Gur had led the pursuit for months and now he was there before us, under attack by those he thought were his quarry. The fanatics were still on three sides of us and as the Coalition general lowered his scimitar, the White Knights began to approach at a trot, swiftly gaining a rumbling momentum.  Jazan Gur gave out a harsh cry and the fatiguing fanatics came alive with a new buzz of fervor. They completely surrounded us again and this time they threw themselves screaming onto our bristling hedge of spears, pikes, and lances, faster than we could dislodge them, though we tried as the charging knights bore down on us.  Too late. The White Knights crashed into us with hardly any outer defense to oppose their passage into our ranks. The impact sent men flying everywhere in a great sickening crunch. Their momentum soon began to stall and they fought from horseback their silver sabres flashing back and forth. This strain was too much for the formation to hold and now the fanatics poured in through the gaps on all sides.  All discipline was soon gone, our fates to be decided in a general melee. Our now-useless polearms were dropped to the ground, everyone wielding their swords, axes, maces, hammers, and studded gauntlets at close quarters.

I saw one knight turn away from me as he slashed down with his sabre on his other side.  He started to turn back toward me but my hammer crushed him out of his saddle. With a great overhead swing I shattered his panicking horse’s spine and stepped past its twitching bulk to find its rider still stunned on the ground.  I, in my black armor of spiked, overlapping plate with a great wolf’s head carved in steel on my chest, the mask of my helm wrought with snarling fangs, was the last thing he ever saw.

I see a flicker at the edge of the vision my helm allows me and I swing without thought, honed instinct guiding my instant reaction.  A fanatic with a rusty kris knife upraised to strike flies backwards with caved-in chest and bloody mist spraying in a single burst from its upturned mouth like a profusion of scarlet fungus spores.  It was female, I think.

Then, the Warlord and his entourage of lesser demoniacs enter the fray all at once.  Moving with animal quickness even in heavy armor they dart in and out among the White Knights leaving corpses of man and steed as fast as the eye can follow, their victims often left cut cleanly in two by a single stroke.  The knights soon begin to panic and those not trapped begin to flee. Those left behind are torn down from their saddles and disappear into a dark mass even as they frantically try to slash with their sabres. The demoniac acolytes turn on the fanatics now but the Warlord himself walks in front of the army alone and points with his gauntlet adorned with razor-like projections and attached below his right wrist a crude black blade of what might have been volcanic glass but did not shine.  He bellows out his challenge to the enemy general in his harsh voice.

Jazan Gur solemnly dismounts his steed and approaches the Warlord with his silver scimitar.  The Warlord rushes towards him and soon their weapons meet in a clash that can be heard against the clangor all around.  Jazan Gur moves as swift and sure as a serpent but the hulking Warlord keeps up easily with the blinding speed of his attacks.  While they fight, a hunched over figure approaches them with the simplest of daggers. I rush towards the fray of those far greater than me to prevent this crass interference.  As I face the interloper, I see it is of indeterminate sex, with eyes that flash with feminine fury but with a hairy upper lip, with a matron’s flabby forearms and sagging shapeless breast tissue yet with a barrel chest and narrow hips.  I move to cut down the impudent Hag, or whatever it is, but I am stunned when the point of its rusty dagger stops my hammer as if I had struck a castle wall. As I nearly lose my balance the sneering creature slashes at me and I yell to lower hell as it somehow cuts through my armor and into my thigh.  I tower over my opponent that has just wounded me and yet it continues to attack quite confidently. With a loud ping I find the solid steel handle of my hammer has been severed from its head.  In the next moment I am thrown aside somehow into the snow as if I were but a feather.  I look up from the ground and to my dismay the strange Hag and the general Jazan Gur are attacking the Warlord together.  Now, he is barely able to fend off their combined attacks.

Filled with fury even as the wound in my leg throbs with agony, I take the head of my hammer and with a roar heft it with all my might.  One side of Jazan Gur’s face collapses like a melon as my heavy projectile hits its mark. He falls instantly, just like a common soldier.  The Hag however, fights on, her power inexplicably great. I begin to drag myself toward the fight as best as my furiously burning leg allows.  As I draw near, the Hag turns her head a little to take note of my approach. In that moment, the Warlord runs her through with the infamous blade on his wrist.  She gives out a shrill, grating scream heard across the battlefield as she tries to push herself off of the blade with all her might. To no avail. It sucks her back in no matter the strength of her struggles like a thirsty man tugging at a waterskin.  With each greedy glugging swallow, the contorted, hideous face grows more pale and her struggles more feeble. Finally, the Warlord casts the dessicated corpse sucked dry of life and soul aside. A rising penumbra surrounds him now like a flickering candle flame of negative light that he can barely seem to contain as he strains with his hands balled into fists, his shoulders and chest held back.

He says to me.  “You have proven yourself this day.  Will you make the Pact?”
I prostrate myself and reply, “Yes.  Yes! It is my honor.”

“Good!  It’s the only way you live now.”

He walks up to me and lays his hands on my shoulders.  In that moment, rivers of raw power he drained out of that terrible Hag flood through me.  I can hear her soul screaming with bloody terror and rage as her essence is siphoned away for the sake of empowering everything she ever fought against.  She thrashes and scratches with her whole being, until her being is no more. At first I am terrified but then I am able to let go and let the raging torrent all rush into me at once.  I am changed forever. Nevertheless the pain in my leg grows unbearable now as I come into my bodily senses again. I have had many wounds and I know something is different and terribly wrong this time.  The Warlord himself helps me to my feet and places my arm and my weight on his shoulders.
“Even now, you won’t easily survive that Hag’s venom.  We have to get you back to camp.” As I struggle against oncoming delirium, the battle rages on but the White Knights have fled the battlefield and the fanatics have been weakened by the deaths of their leaders.  The Dark Army is invigorated into a blood rage and as the slaughter intensifies, the milling swarms of white-winged locusts finally break.

As the pursuit begins, the Warlord sets me aside and gives out a harsh scream that echoes across the battlefield.  The nearest drums change beat, then horns blow as the message spreads across the whole army. The Warlord runs in front of his men, waving his sword, bellowing for them to halt.
In less than an hour the entire army is marching back to our camp.
The Warlord again returns to me and again personally comes to my aid, even though he could have anyone else do it. “No sense chasing them now.”  I am in no condition to even speak as I feel agony, bitter cold, and delirium creep through me. The brief winter daylight ends but the snowy clouds clear away, the night is more brilliant with the hard, glinting points of frosted stars and shimmering auroral ribbons rippling across the sky.  I see my fellow warriors as silhouettes against sheets of snow that sparkle like the stars even in the dark. Somehow, my state of physical shock makes the spectacle even more vivid and otherworldly. Perhaps it is also the senses granted to me through my Pact, all the better to perceive the world’s beauty.  The world begins to fragment into fever dreams as I begin to see the travails of war in the shimmering aurora veils, I manage to keep marching through heavy snow until we go over a hill that looks gentle yet concealed all our tents and horses from a distance. The warlord brings me to his own tent in the center of the camp, only bigger than any other tent to allow the officers to confer around the firepit.  He has a simple bedroll on the ground like any other soldier, though I hear he seldom uses it. In a hurry, he and a medic help me remove my armor and begin dressing the vile wound given me by the Hag. All they can do is bandage it and hope my newfound resilience can conquer the poison. Wrapped in furs on the Warlord’s own bedroll, there is nothing more for me to do but rest.