THE ENEMY’S TRUE NAME



THE ENEMY’S TRUE NAME, by Mark Silcox

 

I caught sight of the three Blue Mages ascending the slope while they were still more than an hour away. The mist of their breath drifted upward as their ragged robes dragged behind them over the sharp stones. To the people of the plains, the richly dyed finery worn by these men had always made them seem imposing. Up where I live in the thinner air of the hills, their frailty was more difficult to disguise. But when first I saw that shock of indigo against the rugged landscape below my pastures, I felt the old spell of their authority awakening something inside of me.

I had been out in the yard splitting logs for the stove. I pushed the blade of my axe into a clump of hard moss, then put my head around the doorway of our cottage and told Laena to prepare a warm broth for our visitors.

One of the greybeards called out something breathy and plaintive as I started down the mountainside to greet them. As they got closer, I could see it was not just the ascent that had tired them. Some harsher trial had lined their faces and soiled their rich robes with soot and small fissures.

They were too out of breath to speak while they struggled upward, but it was hardly a secret why they had come to visit me on that day. I had seen the thick columns of war-smoke rising out of the valleys earlier that season, and had watched as crowds of birds and beasts had fled from human domains.

As I offered my arm to the most aged wizard to aid his climb, I swore to myself that this time, I would not help them.

I had known none of the three scholars personally during my time as a soldier on the plains of Addlay. But as they washed their faces and ate small helpings of Laena’s hearty supper, the two younger ones spoke of my own past with knowledge, using some of the silly epithets my battlefield comrades had thought up for me – Man-blade, Skull-breaker, Bog-bane. I shook my head at the mention of each.

“I’m a herdsman now,” I told them. “And a husband.”

Laena slipped an arm around my waist. She is a mild country girl whose eyes have seen no war. But she could sense the ugly hunger for affray in their voices, and in their third-hand reminiscences of my former days.

The eldest Mage was more calm and less of a flatterer. When he discerned that their pleas and challenges were failing to quicken my blood, he drew up his robes and shuffled toward our cooking fire.

Holding his grey hands out for warmth, he began to speak in a quiet voice of how this conflict was different from the others I had witnessed. The people of Addlay had lost their taste for conquest in recent years, he explained, and had halted their incursions into the barbarous southern lands. The men of his own order had ceased to use their magic in the service of bloodshed, and had retired to the Blue Shrine to meditate and study nature. This new, blessed peace had reigned for over a sevenyear. But now a Black Mage had risen to declare himself king of the southern Bog-men. He had frenzied the brutal southerners with enchantments, so that they stormed into Addlay to rape and murder wantonly.

I asked if these were the attacks that had caused the distant fires I’d espied from my pastures. The three of them all nodded silently.

“But what of the Shrine?” asked Laena, her voice already edged with fear. “Surely, your order has not stood by to watch such rapine against your own people?”

“The Blue Shrine is riven,” said the eldest Mage. “Its stones are scattered across a dozen fields. All the men of my order but we three and a handful of others are dead, or else driven mad by dark enchantments.”

When I heard this news, I found that I had to remove myself from our cottage. I muttered something to them about a need to gather in my animals for the night. Laena tried to follow, but I waved her away.

The sun was half-declined along the edge of the western horizon. As I walked amongst my quiet, even-tempered beasts and watched its light pour through the clouds, I struggled to accustom myself to what I had just heard.

I had spent less than four days at the Blue Shrine. It was so long ago, I barely remembered the obscure initiations I had undergone there as a young soldier, childishly determined to prove my mettle. But the world that I knew was almost unthinkable without the great, ancient structure, with its endless libraries, the weird carvings on its outer walls, and all of its hidden corridors and unearthly aromas. Like a child born without a heart, or a man with no memory.

My visitors had spoken of a Black Mage. But as I stood there above the plains in the grey evening, I thought that I could guess the true nature of their adversary. I myself had looked him full in his blank and bottomless eyes twice on the battlefield, then once again at the door of my cottage when our first boy was taken from us by winter fever. The ragged cloak, the slender always-summoning hand, and the face that was no face. I am no coward, but in more recent years I had foolishly begun to assure myself that I would only ever have to look upon him once again.

I pondered all of these things for a while as the pale twin moons rose in the sky behind me. I also thought of Laena and the home we had built – our sweet, quiet evenings together, the one child we had lost, and the other boy who had left to tend his own pastures just two years before. One of the beasts from my herd came and nuzzled my hand with the soft whiskers of its maw.

When I returned to the Cabin, the Mages were passing around a pipe and murmuring amongst themselves. “It is too cold to descend the slope tonight,” I told them, “and it will soon be too dark. You three may stay with us tonight, and we shall have meat tomorrow for breakfast. But afterwards, you must depart – I cannot help you.”

The eldest scholar just shrugged and sighed. But the one with deep-set eyes and a haggard curve to his mouth met my gaze. “You fought for the freedom of your people once! If Warriors like you will not struggle with us, we shall soon all be enslaved. Does this mean nothing to you?”

Few men would have dared to speak to me that way in my soldier days. His hands at his sides were atremor, but his voice was hard as flint.

That night as I slept, strong visions came to me. I saw the fields and gardens of Addlay burning, while the women were ravished on the floors of their homes. I saw the graceful, shining statues from the courtyard of the Blue Shrine beheaded and splashed with blood, and the corpses of young Mages scattered on the soft grass. I must have struggled or cried out during the night, but I do not recall Laena trying to wake me. Most soldiers are haunted by harsh images and ill omens in their sleep, and normally I do not let their memory echo into my waking hours.

But that morning as I lay in a sweat and listened to by beloved’s gentle breathing, I could hear the young Mage’s one word – “freedom” – whispering itself at the far edge of my thoughts. It was the selfsame word they had always used to goad us soldiers out onto the battlefield. But the thing that it named was a fruit I had only truly tasted when I turned my back or war-making and moved up into the high pastures. Had it always been the slogan of my ageless foe, an instrument for him to beckon to men like me without having to extend his bone-white finger? Was the strength of its allure the reason why none of my comrades had ever claimed to see the foe, even when he appeared to walk close beside me?

Surely not, I thought to myself then, the images of bloodshed still roiling my mind. Surely it was the name for a prize that could only be won for others, never entirely and selfishly for oneself alone.

The next morning, I told our visitors I would join them after all. As I sharpened my two best blades and polished my leather scale Laena served them hot porridge and bacon, sobbing quietly to herself. The Mages furtively helped themselves to breakfast, but did not try to offer her comfort. My sadness at leaving her was too deep for lamentations, but when I visited the gentle beasts of my herd and watched their peaceful grazing, I had to wipe an eye against my sleeve. What have things come to in the world, I wondered, when even grey-haired, weeping soldiers must be begged for their service?

At the bottom of the mountain were encamped a pair of lost-looking former Guardsmen from the Blue Shrine, half a dozen man-children recruited from villages on the plains, and five hard-eyed Dwarven mercenaries, the dust of the mines still clinging to their beards. This constituted the entirety of the Mages’ paltry escort. With this desiccated corps I was expected to lead a journey through the western mountains undetected, so as to startle the Black Mage and his forces from the rear.

My confidence was lifted somewhat when one of the Guardsmen proved articulate, and showed me a crude map with our path traced upon it. He told me of intelligence they had gained, probably through the torture or bribery of Bog-men, that this new king made his home in the south far from where the current battles raged, working his potent war-spells from a distance. Discovering his sanctum and putting an end to this magic was the one solid hope remaining to the people of Addlay. But the lands through which we aspired to pass were crawling with bandits, and rife with strange foliage and dark aberrations left behind by the magic of previous wars.

I waited for a private moment before asking him of the Blue ones’ prowess. “Will their charms have the potency to dispatch our enemy once we have secured a path to his lair?”

The guard told me that the eldest of them had been known as a Warrior Mage, back when the Shrine still stood. Of the two others he knew nothing. So I knew a little more then about where my own priorities lay if it ever came to a choice over whom most needed my protection.

Our first day of travelling together was peaceful, and we covered significant ground. But during twilight the next evening, having just entered the first mountain pass, we were ambushed by a company of mad-eyed Bog-men. They scrambled down towards us along a shallow incline, their torn, black beards and ruined garments whipping in the air behind them.

The dwarves let fly a few halfhearted arrows, only one of which connected. Then one of the thin-bearded plainsmen rushed foolishly up the hillside to meet our attackers in combat. I cried out to him, but in his brave terror he was deaf to my summons. He cut down the first foe he met with a single stroke, then took a rusty dagger into his belly and was done.

I drew both of my blades, and instructed the Mages to huddle at the far side of the pass. Then I waited ‘til our foes had reached level ground. As they approached, I saw from their eyes that their violence came not from pride or loyalty, but from a more outward, less equivocal source. They flourished their rough weapons with total abandon, and a couple were screaming oaths at us, as though mad with pain.

It was the first time in many years I had handled my blades for anything other than carving wood or trimming grass. I felt the sweat from my hands moisten the hilt of each one. Our adversaries were a larger group than I had ever confronted single-handed, and I knew that if they had coordinated their attack, we would have had little hope against them.

But because they had charged us in a wild motley, I was able to cut each Bog-Man down one by one as they surged toward us. Within less than a few minutes of having revealed themselves, their dark, ensorcelled blood was already soaking into the ground.

One of the herdsmen suggested that we dig graves for our slaughtered foes – an honorable proposal. But the Mages insisted that we press on, in spite of the swift descent of evening. I was troubled, but did not protest. We camped just an hour’s walk south of the mound of corpses we had left behind.

A few of my comrades were of a mood to celebrate after the skirmish, and built a fire to roast some of the meat they carried in their packs. I would have none of it. I was shaken by the thought of the Bog-men already having come so far north, for all that the ones we had encountered were a mere crazed remnant. The decades-old enchantments that had caused their kind to fear the colder air and the wild creatures of our lands had manifestly been broken. I pitched my tent whilst the others reveled and was the first asleep that night.

“Tell me more of the Dark One,” I asked the youngest Mage the next morning, as we passed through a cool and sunny valley full of spreading trees.

“He was of our number, once,” the Mage told me. “Not an especially gifted scholar. But somehow, he was able to make a sort of a…system of new spells and charms out of his youthful errors.”

The white-bearded one glanced over at us, no doubt disturbed to hear the lore of their order being discussed with an outsider. But he did not intervene.

“We think that his darker powers arose sometime after the day that he almost died,” the youthful Mage continued, more cautiously. “He was caught in a fire inside one of our laboratories. The chemical flames turned his skin black and shrunk it down to the bone. But although his pain was great, the rules of our fellowship prevented us from ending his life out of pity. For four days he lay in a hospital bed at the Shrine, slowly dying. On the fifth day he stood up, walked down the corridor and out a kitchen door, and made his way southward, never to return. A month later the skies of Addlay darkened, and the Bog-men began to storm across our borders.”

“They say that in the south, they call him the Bone King,” added one of the boy-soldiers. “There are gaps in his roasted flesh through which the white of his bones appears, so they claim.”

I had read tales during my youth of the fierce tyrants and dark spell-weavers of olden times who had brought suffering upon the lands of civilized man. But the world of my boyhood was so thick with prosperity that I had only half-believed such murky legends.

“The Bone King?” I said. “It seems a paltry name for a despot.”

I was trying to rally their spirits, but such battlefield mirth was clearly out of season. Both the men and the dwarves shook their heads brusquely, and kept their eyes lowered to the path before us.

The next day at about noon, a thick black fog appeared from out of a narrow pass we were approaching. The foul stuff swirled and oozed toward us at an astonishing pace.

“A poison charm!” shouted the deep-eyed Mage. “Bury your faces in the earth!”

I threw myself onto the dusty ground and closed my nose and mouth tightly.

For perhaps a minute or two, all was still and quiet along that high path but for the sound of men’s terrified breathing. Then the putrid mist was upon us. As it passed, I felt my skin prickle and sweat in all the places my armor did not cover.

Then I heard the elder Mage beginning to choke.

Risking a glance upward that nearly burned out my eyes, I saw him sprawled on his back, twitching and shuddering. I leapt upon the aged one, turned his body over, and covered it with mine. He struggled a little against me, out of panic more than shame, but soon fell quiet. A strand of greyish ichor ran from the corner of his mouth.

“I have never seen such magic before,” I said to my companions that night, as we heated broth from our wineskins over a low campfire. “Does our foe know the path that we follow? Or has every such pass been flooded with the same abominations?” From their silent shudders, I took it that the latter suggestion was the more likely.

The elder Mage sat apart, his lungs rasping as he coughed black spittle into his open hand. I came over to sit beside him while the flames dwindled.

“This poison will end me in a few days,” he whispered to me. “Already I feel that my breaths are being counted. I only hope that we may reach the enemy’s sanctuary before the last one passes from me.”

When he turned to face me, I knew straight away from his eyes that he had seen the face of our true adversary.

“You have glimpsed the shrouded one! How did he look to you?” I asked the white-beard. “Did you hear his voice? Could you feel him beckoning to you, after your first breath of the fog?”

The old one crooked an eyebrow. “Of whom are you speaking?”

But I was sure that he must have known. “Were there eyes visible under the great hood, or was it all darkness there? Were his fingers long and pale?”

The Mage shook his head and turned away, murmuring something about the strange fancies of Warriors.

I badly wanted him to speak. I could tell by the way he glanced back across at me furtively that he knew the enemy of whom I spoke. I have never understood why those who have seen our common foe refuse to speak of his visitations afterward, as though the merest mention brought down some sort of additional curse. But I felt constrained to leave the dying elder to his private thoughts, if that was what he truly wanted.

The next morning the old one did not join us in breaking camp. Two of the youngest plainsmen went into his tent and shook his unmoving body, then emerged weeping. When we moved his remains out into the daylight his loose, ancient skin was already cold as snow, his eyes wide and staring, his tongue a deep black. We left his body by the side of the road and pressed onward.

The landscape began to change around us, as the spreading trees and insect calls of our homeland gave way to the twisted black vines and weird silences of the south. A ridge of low mountains still separated us from the bogs and fens, but their rotten aroma seemed to cloud the air. Even the dwarves began to shudder in the nauseous, humid breeze.

Eventually the absence of talk amongst us became overbearing, and the youngest of the Mages begun to whisper fitfully to himself. The others were displeased by his ramblings, but I walked close by and listened to him, hoping to glean some inkling of how he and the other blue-robed one now saw our chances.

“…old ways are lost forever to us now, death is as much a boon as any other…” He was striving to reason with himself, but not in the articulated way of a scholar.

“I thought bravely of death myself many times on the battlefield, when I was of your years,” I told him.

He glanced across the path at me, the uncertain beginnings of a sneer about his mouth. “Your kind is taught from the first day of your schooling to end other men’s lives without pause for reflection,” he said. “Ever since the Shrine was first erected, the rulers of my order have used the blood of men like you to purchase what they thought of as their freedom.”

I had heard such heresies spoken before by a few wild young scholars, during the brief time I had spent amongst them. “No Warrior of Addlay is blind to this fact,” I assured him. “We are freemen also; we take up arms willingly.”

“Free!” The Mage gave an icy laugh. “Who of us is ever truly free, Warrior? Except perhaps for my old master, laid out behind us to rot in a ditch.”

The other, deep-eyed Blue Mage perceived the flicker of distraction in my eyes, and came over to hush his companion. I let the pair of walk ahead and thought hard upon the young one’s words. I had seen enough of men of his type to know that they had a love of paradox, but the way that he spoke of the liberties I had spent my early life defending seemed stranger that mere verbal trickery.

During second watch that night, while I lay in dreaming of Laena’s pale arms and mournful smile, a company of bandits assembled on the slope alongside where we rested. I was awoken by the voice of their leader as he bargained with the young boy guarding our tents. Shortly thereafter came the boy’s shrill summons to the rest of us to emerge and pay toll for the right to move on.

I slid out into the sunlight with a dagger up my sleeve and quickly took stock of my surroundings. Then I summoned the boy to me, making as though to count out coins from my pocket to give to him. “These are no regular bandits,” I whispered. “There are over a dozen of their archers hid in the trees on the incline behind us.”

The lad nodded slowly, playing at tallying up my money as though it gave him difficulty – a wily trick from one so young.

“Why would they be back there if their aim was to block our path?” I continued. “And look beneath their leader’s fancy costume – past the glamorous scarves and that fat silver buckle. He has the body of a trained mercenary, not a mere cutpurse. These dogs must mean to backshoot us, once we think we have evaded them and our guard is down.”

“Do you think they could be the Bone King’s own men?”

“If we are as close to his bastion as our map tells, they could surely not escape from his thrall. Stand aside, and signal to our men to draw their weapons.”

I made toward the bandit leader with a few coppers held out in my right hand. From his eyes I could see that he was taken in by my ruse, right up until the knife’s blade slipped across my left palm. I pushed it hard into his belly and cut through his insides. While he choked and shuddered, I drew his body up close against me, to buy a few moments while his men in the trees tried to puzzle out what was transpiring below them. As he gurgled his last breaths into my ear, the others of my company made for cover amongst the foliage close to our path.

Arrows began to slip through the air around us. I spun my victim’s body about to use as a shield, then watched helpless as the clever boy who had been standing guard was shot deep in the throat. A garland of blood spouted into the air above him. One of the dwarves had already been hit the belly and was on his knees in a howling rage, dying slowly.

My corpse-shield protected me until I arrived behind the stout trunk of a brushleaf tree, close to where the two Mages were hunkered down amid some thick bushes. “Take off your bright robes and move apart!” I hissed at them, “You will draw all their arrows!”

They did not hear me, for they were bickering with each other about some battle-charm the one with the sorrowful eyes was trying to cast. A moment later, the air around us thickened with the scent of magic, and the top branches of my tree burst into bright yellow flames.

“In the name of your ruined Shrine!” I whispered furiously. “What are you frolicking at?”

The Mage raised a hand above his head. His body was trembling, and his paltry beard whipped in the morning breeze, but with his other hand he held a finger to his lips. “Be silent, Warrior,” he said, and released a slow trail of blue ash into the wind.

I did not see how this would help matters in any way, what with the heavy boughs already ablaze above my head. Then I noticed that, although the wind was easterly, the thin ribbon of tiny embers was drifting northward through the air. It made a steady path through the lower leaves of the other trees close by. In another moment, the fire above me followed behind it, cohering within itself as it leapt from treetop to treetop, growing in width and brightness until the air all around it wavered with heat.

This was as potent a charm as some of the most decisive battle spells I had seen in my soldiering days.

The Mage spoke to me again. “You spied where their archers were. Watch the fire as it moves, and tell me when it reaches them.”

The searing flames were jumping to a new bush or treetop every few seconds. I held up my hand until I thought the fire had arrived where our foes were hiding, then gestured to the scholar standing beside me. He flung the remainder of the ashes in his hand down hard at the ground. With a sound of rending wood, the great crown of flame dropped earthward. This was followed by a chorus of screams.

“Is that the sound of the bandits, or of our own men?” cried the younger Mage from behind his cover of leaves.

“A little of both, I fear.” I squinted to see through the heat. The dry grass to our north was aflame now, forming a blue and crimson wall between ourselves and the enemy, but not spreading any further. The howls of anguish grew louder and closer, and I stepped out into view, drawing both of my swords.

Two of the Bone King’s men rushed outward through the flames, their false bandit’s garments burning swiftly. They too were clearly mercenaries, though there was a blankness in their eyes that made me think they were under the same enchantment as their leader had been. I could hear the crackle of hot meat from their bodies as I ran forth from my hiding place and cut each of them down.

Then through the roiling smoke I noticed a flash of pale grey, moving swiftly along the boundary of the fire. I did not need a second glimpse to see that it was the adversary. Gripping his curved blade with purpose, he trod silently amongst the fresh-made corpses that had fallen between the trees. His luminous eyes flickered bright gold from beneath his ragged hood.

My blood was high after the two killings. I took a step toward him, thinking that the matter between us might as well be resolved sooner rather than later.

As soon as I moved, my foe halted his passage amongst the dead and turned to face in my direction. I tried to take a further step, but felt a fierce grip close around my ankle.

Looking down, I saw that one of the burning men was yet living, and had seized me by my back foot. “Please…” he croaked at me from blackened lips.

“What!” I shouted back at him, anxious not to lose track of my quarry.

“Please…” He only tugged at me harder, his voice a thin cave-echo. “Please…free me!”

That word again. I stabbed impatiently at the mercenary’s throat with the top edge of my blade, and new redness spouted forth from him. He nodded once, satisfied, then quickly expired.

When I looked up again, the grey one was nodding his ragged head slowly, and a new sound was in the air above the whisper of flames: giddy, febrile laughter, like the unchecked mirth of an idiot child. I had never heard such a horrid sound from the adversary before, and I shouted out my rage at him as he vanished into a thick crest of smoke.

The searing unnatural blaze burned the forest north of us thoroughly. After the Mages’ war-spell had passed, I walked with the two of them through the charred grass and counted up the dead. Two of the corpses were clearly our own men, and one of the dwarves was also missing, probably having wisely fled back to the hidden caves of his people. But the spell had slain eleven of our enemy, which I counted a substantial victory.

When I offered this opinion to the Mages, the face of the youngest crumpled and he retired to his ash-smudged tent to sob in private.

The nine of us who remained hardly moved further that day. We spent the evening sharpening swords and mending armor around a low campfire. Once again, I tried to put some cheer into their bitter faces. “If this Bone King were so invulnerable, he would not need to protect his flank with paid, spell-tamed Warriors who beg for death on the battlefield.”

A few of them muttered vague assent, so I pressed the matter further. “The numbers of his forces in these lands cannot be great, if this pass was guarded by such a motley group, who felt to the need to trick us rather than risk a simple confrontation. I predict no similar inconveniences before we reach our foe’s hideaway.”

I was correct, in a way – for as long as we continued to travel covertly through the mountains, we did not see another human face. But the next two days were a passage through hell nonetheless. Just past dawn the next morning, an immense carrion-bird with broken feathers swooped upon us silently, before even I could react. With its filthy, fractured claws it took out the throat of the Shrine Guardsman who had been charting our course through the mountains.

The rest of us harried it with knives and arrows for almost an hour, well past the point of exhaustion. It would hover circling above us, its chipped beak emitting hideous creaks and whistles, then sweep down with its talons extended and slash at us as we tried to recharge our bows. On one of its passes it tore a thin, ragged gash across the back of my shoulder. Eventually, caustic gouts of black blood from its wounds started to splash our armor with each new descent.

When the creature finally fell to earth, another harsh cry issued from a slope to the west, and the bird’s smaller mate flapped off with a keening wail toward the south. I watched it shrink to a black smudge just below the clouds, and wondered if the thing had the capacity to warn the enemy of our approach.

The lands we traversed now were utterly ravaged – the grasses rotten and bent, the insects quiet, the trees all stunted and riven with split trunks and broken boughs. Whatever cruel talents this self-styled “king” had discovered in himself, he was using them in ways that tore at the very heart of nature.

During the night after the bird had descended, a patch of ground turned to liquid beneath our tents. We woke to the screams of a Dwarf being sucked beneath the earth by a hot, subterranean ichor. When his comrade tried to reach out to him, the pit widened and they both were drawn in.

“Stay back!” shouted the Mages. “It can sense as we approach!”

I forbore from asking what “it” might be. The gruesome smell of Dwarven flesh slowly cooking underground hung in the air until morning.

I had retrieved the map from the corpse of our navigator. When we came to a sudden eastward turn in the path we had been following, marks on the paper indicated this as the point where we must emerge from the cover of the mountains. We were entering the heart of our enemy’s domain. The remainder of our band – the two demoralized Mages, one Dwarf, and a pair of herdsmen who had survived only by virtue of their hesitancy in battle – were content by this time to follow blindly in my footsteps.

Our cautious twilight descent into the southern plains provided us with an utterly alien vista. I had never traversed so far from the realms of Addlay as a young soldier, and my imagination had always depicted the southlands as an unending gauntlet of seeping bogs and ramshackle pauper villages. But the fields that stretched out below us had an oddly pristine appearance – a broad table of waving grasses for as far as the eye could discern, without a single sign of habitation.

The following morning, I received some enlightenment from the deep-eyed Mage. “Listen to the air for a moment, Warrior,” he said. “Do you note the blissful silence, free of birdcalls and insect whispers? And examine the pale white grasses that blow so gracefully between our tents. How could they have grown so tall and hale, without the green ichor that gives life to all plants inside of them?”

I nodded, but did not entirely discern his point. “It will be easier for us to traverse these placid fields, at any rate.”

“It will, until it ceases to be,” said the Mage with a shrug. “These are the realms of nothing else but death. Remember as you admire them that our presence here is a smear upon their dire perfection.”

There was nothing else on the Guardsman’s map to follow but a scrawled arrow pointing further southward. So we pressed on through the eerie, washed-out meadows, hoping to see some further sign of the Bone King’s presence.

The Mage was correct in his prediction that the plains’ silence and aridity would soon become oppressive. It was hot for so late in the season, and our supply of water had dwindled. By the end of a halfday, I was queasy and troubled of mind. Several times I thought I had caught glimpses of the adversary, slipping by in the corners of my vision as he strode purposefully through the lifeless sward.

The six of us all slept deeply that night – too deeply, in fact. We rose after the sun had fully ascended, with reflections of the night’s haunting stillness in our anxious eyes.

We had not been walking for more than an hour before we stumbled upon a road. This slender line of grey dust that ran straight from north to south was the first interruption we had encountered within the whispering fields. A brief debate broke out amongst us over whether travelling by this route would be too conspicuous. In the end, we decided there was no longer any point in trying to conceal ourselves.

When I first glimpsed the Bone King’s entourage straggling toward us from the south, I closed and opened my eyes very slowly to ward off the possibility of a mirage. At first, I could perceive only a hunched figure atop a tipsy palanquin, surrounded by ragged men who were either fitfully dancing or seized by grotesque contortions.

Both Mages stopped in their tracks ahead of me and reached into their pouches, from which they drew a sticky unguent to rub into their eyes.

“What do you see?” I asked them as they stared along the ghostly road, their mouths open wide.

“It is him!” whispered the young one. “He sits atop an ivory throne carried by Bog-men. His skin is as black and withered as the day he left the Shrine.”

 

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“But…the company with him seems paltry! Is this some illusion he has spun, to goad us into attacking?”

“I think not,” said the deep-eyed mage. “I suspect he has heard of all his conquests against our people, and is voyaging north to inspect the destruction he has wrought. He shall pay for his arrogance upon this day!”

“Would we not be better to…?” But before I could speak further all my companions were hurtling forward, swept up of a sudden by the rage that had been brewing in them since we began our grim journey. There was nothing else for me to do but charge alongside them to engage our foe. I whispered a brief apology to the air, hoping that it somehow would blow back northward to Laena.

There was no visible change in the steady movement of the palanquin to indicate that the king had espied us. For the flicker of a moment, I dared hope that they were truly unprotected, and would simply surrender when they saw our weapons. But then, the blistered black Mage lifted his right hand and opened his fingers, to reveal something shining – a gaudy jewel, perhaps, or a small mirror. It caught a ray of the noonday sun, and he turned it with his crooked fingers so that the clear light shone straight into our eyes.

Suddenly the air all around us became impossibly thick and heavy, and I felt a great outward pressure against my limbs. I glanced to either side and saw that my companions were frozen in their steps, mouths open with wordless shock and rage. Abreast of me stood the youngest Mage, the light from the dark king’s brilliant charm sparkling in his eyes. I saw a tear run down the side of his terrified face.

When the spell had frozen all of us in the road, the horrid king called out something in a thin, half-strangled voice, and his procession finally drew to a stop.

My muscles had almost entirely seized – I was not yet completely immobile like the others, but it cost all the effort I could muster to drag one foot an inch forward along the ground. I watched helpless as the tallest of the Bog-men in attendance stepped out from behind his ruler’s platform, and began lurching down the road in our direction. When the savage had arrived at a distance of forty paces, he reached behind his back and drew a crude iron blade. It was similar to the knife that I used to slaughter my own beasts at home.

When I looked back up at our triumphant foe, he was no longer alone on his platform – the adversary was with him there.

The hooded one had stepped out from behind the elevated throne, and his rotten cloak billowed gently in the breeze. His hand lay clasped in friendship upon the Bone King’s shoulder. The hideous, half-dead Mage sneered at us, his scarred lips drawing back to reveal an almost toothless mouth.

I looked once again into my true enemy’s eyes that were not eyes. Though I could see nothing else of a face, I could somehow tell that he was smiling. He extended a crooked fleshless finger and beckoned me toward him once again.

“I will not!” I shouted at him. Pressing with all my will against a mind-searing agony, I shook my muscles free of the enchantment, and achieved a fumbling grip on the hilt of one of my swords. The difficulty of this was nothing as compared to the vivid shock my body felt as I raised my arm and took a single step forward, to accelerate the blade as it left my hand.

My eyes blurred as I watched my shining weapon arc through the air, knowing even as I released it that my aim had faltered. The blade’s point dropped just two handspans to the left of the adversary’s heart. The hooded one instantly dropped his arm and vanished into the bright air.

But the sword’s razor edge continued to descend, ‘till it caught against the Bone King’s face. The touch of skin and bone did not cause its path to alter – I had thrown falsely, but I had thrown strong. The tyrant’s head split open from brow to forelip. The Bone King jerked backward in his chair and a black, fetid syrup that must have been his brains ran out onto the platform beneath him. The shining charm dropped from his hand into the ghost-grass beneath his palanquin.

The spell he had cast upon us lifted immediately. The two Blue Mages fell to their knees. The Dwarf and the pair of boy soldiers drew their weapons with cries of triumph, outnumbered though they were. But there was to be no great set-to between our forces on that day, for as soon as the Bone King was no more, the Bog-men who had guarded him collapsed to the ground. Their eyes rolled back in their sockets as their muscles twitched and spasmed.

I was able to reach the tall one who had approached us while there were still a few breaths left in him, and his eyes met mine as he squirmed on the ground.

Free!” he howled at me, his voice ghostly but unmistakably jubilant. “Freedom!” Beneath his rags, his skin was pale as water and his ribs protruded hideously. But he managed to close his hand into a trembling fist, and pound the air in a parody of triumph before his body jerked a final time, and the rigor of a welcome death came over him.

 

“A starved man with no will of his own can be kept alive for a time by magic, yes,” the deep-eyed Mage confided to me that evening, as we sat by another low fire and listened to the welcome sounds of birds and insects all about us. With no further need of concealment we had set a course straight north after our victory, and made camp once we arrived in more fertile lands. My companions’ relief was muted by exhaustion, but with our foe dispatched, a new fellowship had grown amongst us.

“It is strange to feel pity for any of the Bog-men, after the ravages of so many years,” the Mage continued. “But those poor souls who expired upon the road before us were enslaved without complicity. They deserved a more honorable death.”

“Tell me,” I asked, as we passed around our two remaining wineskins, “was I the sole member of our party to see the hooded one standing behind the Bone King’s chair?”

There was a pause; a long silence ensued as the others looked back and forth amongst themselves. I could not read their attitudes from their eyes. But I swore to myself silently in that moment that, if they still denied the presence of the enemy, I would stand up from the fire, turn, and walk back homeward through the night, wasting no more of my time in the company of men.

Strangely enough, it was the Dwarf who finally spoke. “You were not the only one,” he said. “I saw the shrouded figure too.”

“We all saw him,” said the youngest Mage. “I did not recognize him for who he was until afterward, when I recalled certain drawings in superstitious tomes.”

The other Mage spat into the fire. “There can be no doubt from whence the Bone King drew his greatest powers,” he said. “We were fools, we men of the Shrine, to think that such mastery over nature could have been achieved though versions of our own feeble enchantments. There have been deeper things at work here all along.”

None of us felt that we could add anything to such a pronouncement. But as the others left for their tents, I relaxed in the faint warmth of the guttering flames and allowed myself to imagine the arms of my beloved.

I knew that as we passed through the lands of Addlay, there would be those who would plead with me to assume some authority, as the men who remained there began to rebuild what the Bone King had taken from them. But I also knew that I would patiently reject their invitations. For their pleas would be bound to ring hollow to me now that I had at least heard the true, secret name of our one great adversary. And I was certain that, whether it was spoken by the civilized voices of Addlay or cried out by a savage in the throes of death, the boon that it promised would have no further interest for me. Instead, I would make my solitary way back up to the hills, to return willingly into my chosen form of servitude.

__________________________________________

Mark Silcox was born and raised in Canada, and currently lives in Edmond Oklahoma, where he’s employed as a Professor of Philosophy.  Other stories of his have appeared in Sci Phi Journal, Dark Discoveries, Perihelion SF, Tales of the Talisman, Creepy Campfire Quarterly,  Cyclopean, and Polluto.  His SF novel The Face on the Mountain was published by Incandescent Phoenix Press in 2015. 



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