DEATH AND DIGNTIY, by Michael R. Fletcher:
Some three weeks ago the Melechesh Pass, held for thousands of years by the Wizard’s Guild, fell to an unstoppable army of corpses. One corpse, Khraen, Fist of Sorhd-Rach, First General of the Invincible Hand, powerful demonologist, and loyal servant to the Emperor of eternal Palaq Taq, found himself among that horde of carrion dead. Leben the Necromancer had raised him along with all the myriad others and, in what little time they shared, Khraen came to see her as something of a friend. Her anger and hatred of the Wizards was something he understood; but in light of his new unlife, no longer shared. Leben commanded and the dead, including Khraen, obeyed. Killing her he hoped would return him to the mud; instead it set him free.
Freedom, he has found, is its own kind of curse.
Fat flakes of snow danced and flew and collected inches-deep on the corpses of trees. Very little of it seemed to be falling. Mostly it pirouetted sideways or spiralled upwards in complete disregard of the normal way of things. Khraen hunched forward, pushing his way through deepening drifts. In valleys the snow reached to his armpits and slowed him to little more than a crawl. Up on the hilltops, as he was now, it only reached to his knees. Hill or valley made little difference to visibility. He hadn’t seen further than a dozen feet in over a week.
The last sign of life Khraen had seen had been the half-eaten corpse of a Great Bear that must have been dragged from it’s cave and winter’s hibernation. He’d seen little more than dead trees and eternal white since stumbling across the huge gnawed limbs protruding from the snow. How the mauled corpse of an enormous animal could look sad, Khraen didn’t know. But it did.
Blood-red icicles hanging from torn grey fur. The white of bone standing out–even in this world of snow — in stark contrast to the savaged corpse. It was strange to be moved by such a sight. He wondered if his own decaying appearance would provoke such emotion in others. It seemed doubtful.
The wind tore at Khraen trying to pull the robes from his time-ravaged body. He couldn’t feel the cold. It was one of the few advantages of being dead. There was a time when Fel, the demon bound to those robes, would have generated warmth for its Master. The ancient demon was fading fast and on those rare times when Khraen attempted communication it answered with little more than monosyllabic grunts. He feared his next fight would be its last.
Leben. Had killing her been a mistake? At the time it had seemed like his only choice. From the moment she’d raised him he’d avoided making choices. After a lifetime of command and responsibility, death had seemed like freedom from such self-imposed prisons. Then, when he’d finally been driven to act, his choice doomed him to an eternity of crumbling decay.
His rotting body would be his prison.
Khraen’s mind wandered as he pushed his way through the snow.
For ten thousand years war had raged in the Melechesh Pass, the thin strip of mountainous land that was all that joined the northern and southern continents together. Whoever controlled the pass controlled all trade between the two lands. For ten thousand years corpse had piled upon corpse. Break ground in the pass and you’d find the earth thick with dead. Melechesh was one long, shallow grave. And Leben, the Necromancer, had raised them all. Untold millions of dead. She’d turned her army of corpses against the Wizards who now ruled the Pass.
Khraen grunted. Wizards. He hated their foul and easy chaos magic. Power should have a cost, come with some responsibility. In his time they’d been little more than pests, kept under thumb by the Demonologists. And yet now, if Leben was to be believed, the Demonologists were gone. Little more than myth.
Times might change, but men did so less easily. He remembered who he had once been, who he might still be.
Khraen, Fist of Sorhd-Rach, First General of the Invincible Hand, loyal servant to the Emperor of eternal Palaq Taq. He had been commanded to take the Pass. He’d failed. He didn’t even know how long ago that was. When Leben had raised him along with countless other dead, he’d found himself in a world that had long forgotten him, his Emperor, his ravenous and deranged god, and even forgotten eternal Palaq Taq.
“Not so eternal,” Khraen said to the eternal snow hampering his progress. Dead ends branched off in every direction and led nowhere. It was a perilous journey in the summer. In winter, suicide. At least for those not previously demised.
Somewhere behind him the Wizard and Sorcerer followed. He hoped they were feeling the cold, though the presence of the Sorcerer made that unlikely. Those filthy Wizards always seemed to avoid the worst of what the world could throw at them.
* * *
Sorcerer Jheng, broken and old though she had yet to reach sixteen years of age, led the way north. She melted the snow before them, spending herself at a ferocious rate. Each league travelled aged her a day as her life-force, frittered away to keep the Master comfortable, fed the spell. Unless the snow let up, she’d be a year older by the time they reached the north end of the pass.
Timurelang, the ancient and baby-faced Wizard, followed. The old Wizard grumbled about the cold and shuffled along as if there were no reason in the world for haste.
Bastard, cursed Jheng silently.
They followed the dead man north.
The Wizard, who no doubt considered Jheng his pet Sorcerer, carried a sack over his right shoulder and wore a long blade at his hip. It was a sword of ancient metal, unparalleled by today’s smiths. The dusty old fart had only the most rudimentary knowledge of its use. Jheng could tell by the way he’d held it, dainty and uncertain.
This was no normal blade. This was the sword of Timurelang’s quarry. The Sword of No Sorrows. According to Timurelang, the sword had been crafted thousands of years ago by the Emperor of Palaq Taq and bore Kantlament, an abhorrent demon of colossal power, bound to the blade.
Jheng had watched while Timurelang studied the sword with every magic available to him and learned nothing. The Wizard’s failure had been the high point of her miserable day.
Timurelang had eventually proclaimed Kantlament dead and gone. Then he’d tried to destroy the weapon. Impossibly, no matter what magic he turned against it, he had been unable to so much as scratch the blade. That the demon might linger dormant within the sword was too terrifying to contemplate. Still, to watch the Wizard fail twice in a single day was more than Jheng could have ever asked for.
“Damned Necromancers,” Timurelang muttered, swinging the sack off his shoulder and slamming it into the frozen ground.
Something within the sack issued a muffled grunt.
“Shut-up,” the Wizard growled, “or I’ll burn you to ash.” He swung the sack back over his shoulder and resumed his slow, shuffling walk.
Jheng ignored the Wizard’s grumbles and instead listened to the step-drag of his limping gate. No one would say how he had taken such a wound. Some said that it had been in a magical battle of some kind and couldn’t be healed. Most thought he kept the wound as a reminder of some past mistake. It mattered not. All she knew was that the bastard was slowing them down and spending her at a terrible rate.
Jheng glanced over her shoulder. If Timurelang had at least dressed for the climate she wouldn’t be burning herself out so fast. Instead he wore black cotton pants and a flimsy red silk shirt. It was, she thought sarcastically, almost as if Timurelang didn’t care. What made it worse was that Jheng had dressed for the climate and was now sweating profusely in her heavy-spun woollen robes.
“Gimpy bastard,” Jheng muttered under her breath.
“I said that this corpse is a quick bastard. You know, for a dead guy.” Timurelang’s temper was like parchment soaked in oil. One wrong word and whoosh, flames.
“He’ll be slow enough when I’m finished with him.”
“And why are we chasing him?” Timurelang had been suspiciously reticent when they’d left the Deredi Steppes in pursuit of this mysterious corpse.
“Debts must be paid,” Timurelang said almost too quiet to be heard.
Jheng hid her annoyance. Gods-damned Wizard always spoke in riddles. Was it too much to ask for just one straight answer. She decided to pass the time with the only entertainment available. A dangerous game with Timurelang’s temper being what it was, but there was little else to do.
“Who was he?” she asked.
Timurelang stared at the ground as he limped forward. “First General to a long-gone army. Servant to a forgotten Emperor. Worshipper of a long-dead god.”
“Oh.” Jheng smiled. “A has-been.” Timurelang ignored her. Damn, thought the Sorcerer, no reaction. She tried again. “Well he’s dead now too. Add that to the litany.”
“And apparently that’s not enough. Damned meddling Necromancer. Who raises an entire field of corpses without researching to find out who might be buried there? It’ll take us a decade to retake the Pass.”
Jheng hid a smile and tried to lure the Wizard into further conversation. “So if death isn’t enough . . .”
Timurelang grunted in annoyance as if talking with the woman spending her life to provide comfort was beneath him. “We break him to dust. Burn the dust to ash. Scatter the ash across all the world.” The wizard trudged on in silence.
Jheng’s legs were beginning to ache. Hells, everything ached. “I have the back of a seventy year old,” she complained aloud.
“Well I’m over three-thousand years old and doing fine. Stop whining.” Timurelang shuffled forward several more steps before continuing. “In fact, just stop talking.”
“Why do you think he was going south?” Jheng asked, tempting the fates and Timurelang’s temper.
“I bet he was heading for Paltaki before we crossed his path and chased him north.”
“I bet he thinks he’ll be safe from the Guild on the northern continent.”
Timurelang grunted angrily. “I don’t think he understands how much things have changed.”
Jheng, her back to Timurelang, grinned. It was a small victory, but dragging the taciturn Wizard into these annoying conversations was all she had.
She frittered away more of her life-force melting the snow ahead and warming the air around them. Timurelang shuffled slowly behind. There had been a time, not too long ago, when Jheng could have crushed the Wizard with her Sorcery. That day was gone, she’d spent too much of herself and missed her chance. It was the Sorcerer’s Curse: By the time they’d gained the wisdom to truly understand the contempt Wizards held for them, it was too late.
Jheng glared at the deepening snow. “I should have killed the bastard when I had the chance,” she whispered.
“What?” Timurelang demanded.
The man’s hearing was uncanny. “We’ll kill the bastard when we get the chance,” Jheng called back over her shoulder.
* * *
Khraen stood hip-deep in snow. It clung to his robes in clumps wet and heavy. His pace had slowed to little more than a dying man’s crawl. Before him the Melechesh Pass branched off in six different directions. One of these would lead through to the northern continent. The rest were, probably in more ways than one, dead ends. A millennium ago, when he’d served as First General to the Emperor’s demonic army, he would have laughed at such a conundrum. A roll of the dice or a toss of a coin would have shown him the path to follow. Sorhd-Rach, his soul-starved god, often spoke and directed his servants through seemingly random events.
“Well?” Khraen asked the sky. “Any suggestions? Sorhd-Rach? Hello? I don’t have a coin to flip or dice to roll.”
The wind moaned quietly through the mountain pass.
Khraen looked from path to path, seeking some hint as to which would lead him from the pass. Snow. Dead trees. Stone. One looked much the same as another. Though he hadn’t seen it at the time, during his centuries as First General choice had been an illusion. Now that death had freed him, Khraen found himself hesitating to make any real decisions. When he’d slain Leben he’d thought it the only choice available. The truth worried at him like a crow tugging at the eye of a ripened corpse; he had believed that killing Leben would end the spell that kept him alive. He had expected to return to the earth.
She died and he lived on.
Had he killed her in an attempt to end the need for future choices?
Had he made any real choices since dragging his corpse from the ground three weeks ago?
He couldn’t think of one.
When he’d walked at Leben’s side, still surprised to find himself ‘alive,’ he’d been distracted by the strangeness of the situation and followed her for lack of a better plan. Brief flashes of rage had given him the semblance of life and drive. He’d teetered precariously between a need for vengeance and yawning emptiness. Since Leben’s death he’d felt nothing.
Almost nothing, he corrected. There had been that moment of sadness at the bear corpse.
Unconsciously Khraen touched his leather-wrapped spine where Leben had repaired the damage done by her hired help. Did he miss her, or just having someone to talk to? Not that he’d been able to discuss much with her, she hadn’t even heard of any of the greatest events that occurred in Khraen’s time.
His past was as dead as he.
Khraen turned and stared back along the ragged path he’d bludgeoned through the snow. The Wizard surely followed. Could he find the northern mouth of the pass before the Wizard caught him? Did he want to? Running was not in his nature, but he was unarmed. Only the demon Fel, ancient and fading, remained bound to his service. The Wizard would make short work of Fel.
Skeletal fists clenching and unclenching, Khraen once again wished he had kept Kantlament. No matter how right it had felt at the time, it had been the sheerest foolishness leaving the blade behind. Even if the demon bound to the sword was dead and gone, a sword was a sword.
Diplomacy and negotiations were always easiest when backed with a sharp blade. The wry thought surprised Khraen. He could remember thinking like that. He could remember being that. The memory was a breath of life. The bone hands stopped their spastic longing for a blade beyond reach. The leather-bound spine straightened with remembered pride. And then sagged.
“I’m going to wait here for the Wizard,” Khraen told dead trees and frozen stone. “And he will surely end me.”
Another choice to end all choices.
Lacking anything else to do, Khraen began trampling a flat, roughly circular area into the snow. Sheer habit drove him to make it of the same size as the fighting circles he’d been trained in back in Palaq Taq countless centuries ago. There would, he knew, be no battle here. No last stand. The Wizard would either incinerate him the moment he came into view, or imprison or enslave him in some magical manner. Sure, if the Wizard was so foolish as to come within arm’s reach Khraen would make an attempt at killing him. Best not to plan on such contingencies.
Khraen enjoyed the process of stomping flat the snow. Time slipped past unnoticed as he plodded about, head down in concentration. When he finally finished and looked up the sun had gone down and there was no Wizard in sight. Shrugging he sat in the centre of the circle to wait.
At least his ass didn’t get cold.
* * *
Exhausted, Jheng sat slumped on a fallen tree. She glared at Timurelang as the baby-faced Wizard puttered about the small cooking fire. He’d rolled the sleeves of his red silk shirt to the elbows so as not to dirty them as he cooked breakfast. The man hummed contentedly as he stirred the eggs.
Jheng hated him.
“You could have lit the fire,” she said softly.
Timurelang shrugged and said nothing, his attention on the eggs.
“Each spell I weave costs me life. Sorcery burns away the Sorcerer — ”
“And I’m going to burn the eggs if you don’t stop telling me things I already know.”
“Then why? Why didn’t you light the fire? Why spend my life so you can eat eggs?”
The Wizard growled and removed the eggs from the fire. “The man we follow is dangerous. He may have hundreds of demons bound to his service. I must be at full strength when I face him. If I am cramped with cold, or shivering uncontrollably, I could miscast a spell. Stutter one arcane syllable, and I could kill us all. Or worse.” Timurelang frowned at the eggs for a moment before tossing them into the fire. “I’ve lost my appetite.”
Jheng stared into the fire, watching the eggs as they sizzled and boiled away to little more than ash. I should kill him now, she thought. If I spend everything I have left, maybe I can kill him. Jheng lifted her eyes from the fire and watched as Timurelang limped to collect the sack he had carried since the Deredi Steppes. One good blast of power would fill this valley with a thousand tons of snow and ice from the surrounding mountains. Would it suffice, or would the bastard find some means of escape? Three thousand year-old Wizards were notoriously difficult to kill.
“Stop lolly gagging,” snapped Timurelang, swinging the sack over his shoulder with a grunt. “She’s starting to smell.”
Jheng glanced at the sack. “Perhaps if I didn’t keep us quite so warm the cold would — ”
“I hate the cold.” The Wizard gestured down the path they’d been following. “Lead on.”
Jheng sat with eyes closed for a moment, deciding. If Timurelang was aware of her tension he showed it not at all. With a sigh she stood and set off after the man they’d been following. With any luck this mysterious corpse would kill the Wizard. It seemed unlikely; everyone knew demons were just a myth. What could one dead man possibly do to a Wizard as old as Timurelang?
“Don’t walk too fast,” snapped Timurelang, “My leg hurts.”
Jheng lead and Timurelang followed, the drag-thump of his bad leg and the increasing wheeze of the Sorcerer’s rapidly ageing lungs the only sound. Deep snow ate that sound, muffled everything, dulled the edges of the most percussive noise.
She should have killed him when she had the chance.
* * *
Timurelang watched the Sorcerer’s bent back. Though he’d spent her at a furious rate over the last few years, Jheng was still dangerous. Should she spend the last of her life in one final effort it was possible she could slay him. It was a dangerous game, but danger kept one sharp and only the sharpest survived the cut-throat politics of the Wizard’s Guild. Every ounce of power that the Sorcerer spent was an ounce of power that Timurelang hadn’t spent. Though Wizardry didn’t devour the practitioner the way Sorcery did, it was no easy task gathering and storing power. A Wizard could easily spend a hundred years in meditation, hoarding power, only to spend it in a few moments of frenzied battle.
Timurelang twitched an annoyed grimace. He shuffled faster to cut the distance between them.
“Jheng,” he called, “wait. I feel I owe you an apology.”
Jheng grunted and turned. “So you’re going to heat the rest of the way?” she asked sarcastically.
Timurelang nodded and limped closer. “Yes. I think it’s only fair.”
Jheng’s eyes widened. “Only fair? Only fucking fair?” She laughed. “Fair would be — ” The knife Timurelang drove up through the soft underbelly of her chin and into her brain cut the thought short.
“Fair would have been something else,” said Timurelang. “But then there is no such thing as fair, is there?” He let go of the knife and gave the Sorcerer a gentle push.
Jheng toppled slowly backwards and lay spasming in the snow-free patch she had spent her life to clear. Timurelang watched until the twitching stopped. After wiping his bloody hand on the Sorcerer’s robes he continued on, pleased at having slain Jheng without using a single drop of stored power.
A cocoon of warm air enveloped Timurelang as he lifted a few feet above the dunes of snow and, sack once again slung over his shoulder, flew after his ancient enemy.
Vengeance would be his.
* * *
Khraen sat in the snow until boredom drove him to his feet. How far behind could they be? It wasn’t like a corpse shoving its way through deep snow could move all that fast. He spent an hour searching for a something he could use as a weapon. When he eventually found a hefty branch he tossed it aside with an amused chuckle. The thought of defeating a Wizard by bashing him over the head with a bit of tree was too funny to take seriously. Best to face death with some semblance of dignity.
Dignity. What the hells was that? Khraen would have sworn he had lived a life of dignity. He’d been solemn and serious. First General to the Invincible Fist, Sorhd-Rach’s holy army. He’d held that pinnacle of power for three-hundred years. Was that dignity? Was dignity just an act, or what others thought of you? Was there dignity to be gained by facing death in a particular manner? Did he care? There certainly didn’t seem to be any to be found in living out eternity as a decaying corpse.
“Freedom is a curse,” muttered Khraen. Thinking back he saw that he’d been little more than a glorified servant. He’d followed orders; killing what needed killing, crushing what needed crushing. He didn’t have to make decisions, he just needed to do as he was told.
Who now would tell him what to do?
“Life was easier before I had choices,” said Khraen.
“I think I can help you with that.”
Startled, Khraen looked up to find a young man watching him from a dozen yards away. The Wizard, no doubt. His apparent youth didn’t bode well.
Khraen laughed, a dusty wheeze of a chuckle. “You scared me.”
The Wizard looked extremely confident. He had a sack slung casually over a shoulder and a sheathed sword at his hip. Khraen recognized the pommel and quashed the hope and hunger that surged through him.
* * *
“And this is amusing?” Timurelang eyed the corpse, ready to blast it if it so much as twitched. He’d long dreamed of this scene. He wanted it to be perfect.
“It’s good to feel something. Even if just for a moment,” Khraen answered.
The Wizard grunted, glancing around the clearing of trampled snow looking for the trap that must surely be hidden there. Nothing. “So,” he said, “I walk across this conveniently cleared area and fall into a pit of sharpened sticks?”
Khraen smiled, a gristly display of blackened gums, loose teeth and stringy tendons showing through tattered cheeks. “A good idea. I wish I’d thought of that.” He gestured around the clearing. “No shovel. No tools of any kind. Even sharpening sticks is currently beyond my means.”
“And your demons? Hmm? Couldn’t command one of your foul servants to dig for you?” Timurelang gestured and sent a pulse of heat that cleared the area of snow and shrivelled the few hairs remaining on the corpse’s skull. The ground beneath was solid. Untouched.
* * *
“No demons.” A small lie, thought Khraen, but nothing to worry one’s much vaunted dignity. He probed for Fel’s demonic thoughts. Barely a whisper, but still there.
The Wizard limped forward several paces. “I’ve been feeling something for the last twenty-seven hundred years. I’d like to share it with you.”
Khraen watched without reaction. If he could just lull him into a false sense of security . . . False? What was so false about this Wizard thinking he could blast Khraen to dust on a whim? Perhaps he could goad him into a careless mistake. “You’ve followed me all this way just to share something with me? In my day Wizards were renowned liars. Seems some things haven’t changed.”
“Pain,” the Wizard snarled. “I wish to share three millennium of pain.” He tossed the sack forward to land on the frozen ground between them. It landed with a muffled grunt. “I’ve waited a long time for this.” He drew Kantlament with a flourish.
“Ah,” said Khraen. “I see you brought me my sword.”
“I bring you your death.”
Khraen tapped his exposed, leather-wrapped spine with a bony finger. “You’re a little late.”
The young man shuffled closer. “Better late than never.” He grinned. “A simple death would hardly be fitting justice. I think something a little more . . . imaginative would better suite my vengeance.”
“Vengeance?” Khraen asked, surprised. He had no recollection of this baby-faced Wizard. He gave a slight, mocking bow. “What, pray tell, did I do to earn your well-aged enmity?”
“You must remember.”
“I am Timurelang.”
The Wizard gestured to his lame leg. “You did this to me. You and this foul blade.” He lifted Kantlament. “Wounds from this weapon never heal. Three thousand years I’ve–”
“Closer to twenty-seven hundred, from what I’ve been told.”
“ — honed my art and still this wound plagues me. I’ve conquered death and ageing. I’ve conquered diseases and infections of all kinds. I am truly immortal, and yet each and every step I take is agony.”
“People don’t usually survive wounds from Kantlament. You should be grateful to be alive at all.”
Timurelang grinned, showing gleaming white teeth. “And now I’m going to behead you and bring you back to Paltaki, another talking trophy.”
The Wizard stepped forward and kicked the sack on the ground. A decaying head rolled out and came to rest at Khraen’s feet. Eyes milky white with rot glared up at him. It was Leben, the Necromancer.
“It’s good to see you again,” said Khraen, genuinely meaning it.
“Arsehole,” she mouthed. With no lungs to power her voice she was incapable of anything more.
“Perhaps I’ll place the two of you on the same shelf,” said Timurelang. “You can keep each other company.”
Khraen ignored the man and stared down at Leben’s rotting face. “I’m sorry I killed you, but you were going to be the death of me. Your hatred of Wizards, you have to let it go.” He flashed a sad grin. “It’s unhealthy.”
Leben stared at him and then winked an ice-frosted eyelash. She mouthed something in silence and Khraen nodded. “Wizard,” he said aloud, “I think she wants to tell you something.” He nudged the head so it rolled to face the Wizard.
* * *
The Necromancer’s mouth moved but Timurelang couldn’t make out what she was saying. Ready for tricks he moved closer. If Khraen tried anything he’d reduce him to ash, trophies be damned.
Leben bared her teeth in a snarl. “I strike at you in the only way possible,” she mouthed. Only the clicks and pops of consonants made any real noise. “I may be dead, but I’m still the Necromancer that raised him.” She darted her eyes towards Khraen. “I free you from this false life.”
Timurelang watched dumbfounded as Khraen collapsed like a marionette whose strings had been cut. He clearly heard one of the corpse’s exposed ribs break with a dry crack as it crashed to the frozen earth. “No,” he said, shaking his head in denial. “No!”
The Necromancer’s head stared at him, laughing in maniacal silence, milky eyes wide with insanity.
“Corpse loving whore!” screamed Timurelang, leaping forward and smashing at the frozen head with Kantlament. The sword struck a glancing blow, shearing away an ear but doing little real damage. Leben’s eerily silent laughter became even more frenzied and Timurelang screamed in wordless rage as he flailed at the mocking head. The sword crashed again and again into the frozen skull, each badly aimed blow sending it skittering across the frozen ground, leaving little more than a long rents in the rotting flesh and dents in the exposed bone.
Still the Necromancer laughed.
The sword fell from numbed fingers as Timurelang landed an awkward attack that struck mostly hard earth. The gods-damned thing was useless! With a howl of anger he chased the rolling head, lifted a boot, and brought it down upon the Necromancer’s face. The jaw shattered, ending her silent laughter.
“Ha!” Timurelang screamed as he brought his boot down again on the skull, cracking the orbital bone and popping one eye out of its socket. “Who’s laughing now, bitch?”
“I think that would be me.”
* * *
Khraen drove Kantlament into the Wizard’s chest as Timurelang turned, lifting a hand to lash out with the seething chaotic power already surging. The sword sheared through silk and skin and bone with equal ease.
Timurelang stood transfixed. With a groan of effort he reached towards —
Twisting the blade, Khraen wrenched Kantlament from the Wizard’s chest. It came free with an out-rush of air and geysered blood. Man and corpse stood face to ravaged face, staring eye to empty sockets.
Khraen watched the light of life dwindle in the Wizard’s eyes as Timurelang’s dying body betrayed the will that fought to raise its arm in one last vengeful act. He almost wished the Wizard success.
Go on, end it for me. Take away these choices.
Timurelang crumpled to lie beside Leben’s abused skull. Khraen felt nothing. Not relief, not victory.
Leben cracked a broken grin with her shattered jaw. She tried to speak but was incapable of even the quiet clicks and pops she had previously managed.
Stooping to grab her by the hair, Khraen lifted Leben’s skull. “You look a little rough,” he said.
She stuck her tongue out at him. It too had seen better days.
“I’ll fix you up as best I can,” said Khraen. “I owe you that much.” He grinned at the battered head with some fondness. “It was a nice plan.”
* * *
Khraen sat cross-legged on the frozen ground admiring his work. Using bits of silk thread and twine scavenged from the Wizard’s corpse he had managed what he had to admit was a pretty piss-poor repair job on Leben’s battered skull. Still, her jaw hung in the right place and he’d even managed to get the eye back in the socket, though it slid free if she looked down and to the left.
“Later,” he said, “when your eyes have rotted away to nothing, that will be less of a problem.”
“Cold comfort,” Leben mouthed. It sounded more like, ‘kud kup fft.’
Khraen shrugged, gesturing at his leather-wrapped spine. “It seems one can become accustomed to almost anything.” He looked towards Kantlament. He’d dropped the sword the moment the Wizard had died and it still lay beside the corpse. “That sword shears bone like butter, but it barely damaged your head.” He shook his head in bewilderment. “Lady, I suspected it when we first met, but now I know it to be true. You have one thick skull.
Leben’s lips moved. “Djt.”
Leben talked, her words all hisses clicks and pops. Khraen leaned close, straining to hear. “The demon isn’t dead,” she said. “My spell raised it as it did every other corpse in the field of effect. Kantlament is undead. And unbound. Free. Like you. Free to make it’s own choices. It just hasn’t decided what it wants yet.”
Khraen turned away from the mauled head and stared at the sword. Kantlament was alive? The old hunger throbbed in the background. With Kantlament at his side he could . . . No, not alive he corrected himself. Undead. The thought of that demon free to do as it pleased sent a shiver of fear snaking down his exposed spine.
Excellent, he thought with some wry humour. I can still feel absolute terror. Better than nothing I suppose.
He wasn’t so sure feeling nothing wouldn’t have been better.
“I had thought to leave the sword here,” he told Leben’s head. “I’d planned to go north. Put as much distance between myself and the Wizards as possible.” He stood and walked over to where the blade lay. “But I don’t think leaving this here is a good idea.” He touched Kantlament with a booted foot. “No, I should bring it with me.”
Is that really true? Am I protecting some innocent soul, or am I clinging to something from my past? He knelt on the frozen ground. His knees felt nothing. He reached out to grasp the sword, its familiar weight like an old friend. But with Kantlament there was always the promise of violence. Of death.
“There is nothing like us left in all the world,” Khraen whispered to the sword. “Together we could…” He left the thought unfinished. What could they do? Topple the Wizards Guild? War and death? To what end?
He had to admit, he felt a thrum of hungry lust at the thought of bringing down those filthy Wizards. What was it worth to feel something?
Maybe it was worth everything.
“Can you still control that horde of corpses clogging up the Melechesh Pass?” he asked and heard the hiss of her yes.
Khraen took a moment to collect the scabbard from Timurelang’s corpse. He stood, shoulders squared, back straight, and turned to face Leben. “A change of plans,” he said, sheathing the blade.
Leben made some clicking noises but he was too far away to hear what she’d said. Striding forward he scooped up her head.
“So, have you given much thought to where you’re going next?” Khraen asked. “I was thinking of turning south, heading for Palaq Taq. Paltaki, I guess it’s called now. Did you want to join me, or did you have other plans?”
Leben just stared at him.
Michael R. Fletcher lives in Toronto with his wife and two-year old daughter. His science fiction novel, 88, is due to be released by Five Rivers Publishing in mid 2013. He is currently polishing his dark fantasy novel, planning a sequel to 88, and thinking about more Khraen stories. His short fiction can be found in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Interzone, Daily Science Fiction, and On Spec. More Mike can be found at www.michaelrfletcher.com.