“You come from Sharam… a city besieged by sand, and more recently, the living dead. Your past, my dear boy. I see death in there. Unshed tears, frozen in your heart, growing darker by the cycles that consume your youth. You carry a heavy burden from which you have no salvation. I’m afraid you won’t easily shed this weight…”
The short hooded figure barely nodded, but the elderly woman noticed regardless. The difference in age between them was easily decades, but it wasn’t so obvious. Whatever other arts she was dabbling in seemed to be preserving her appearance. Her deep voice betrayed her though. She drew another card from her black deck.
She paused for a moment that stretched, then stretched some more, as if the dimly lit tent was holding its breath in anticipation of the old woman’s next raspy words.
“Your young life is very uncertain, dear boy. You’re taking a step into the unknown, that’s what this card signifies. Your journey could lead to growth, love, so many things, but shadows follow you like a cloak.”
“Tell me something I don’t know”, the hooded man grunted.
The fortune-teller drew another card. As she observed it, measuring her next words before speaking, silence fell in the tent again, and the jarring sounds of swords clashing on shield and steel penetrated the thin walls of fabric.
“You can meet this challenge head-on, or you can continue to run from it. And your choice will shape not just your fate, but those of many others. But all paths you may take will have you lose things that cannot be won back.”
He rammed his fist on the table, the bang moved none of the cards from where they laid. The deck was unmoved.
“Just tell me if that godless necromancer is still out there”, the young man gnarled, his breath ragged like a panting beast’s.
“He is”, the fortune-teller said with a sigh.
“Thank you. I’m done”, the man said and jolted from his chair.
He never looked back on the woman, he walked out of the tent. That was the last time he planned to look at this washed up mystic’s wrinkly face and prying eyes, until his dying breath.
He marched past scores of soldiers doing what soldiers do when they’re bored, which was fighting or drinking, or jacking off where they thought no-one was looking, sharing no looks with anyone, locking eyes with no-one. They were not part of his plan, for they were, for lack of a better word, useless.
A blood-chilling scream cut through the camp. Before the young man could bury his face in his palms in frustration, he was called upon.
“Hey, warlock! We need your spells over here! Guy cut his hand off!”
He stayed his tongue, turned around and walked up to idiot who had gotten his limb sewn off by his sparring partner.
“Firstly…” he said calmly, “I am not a warlock, no matter how many times you call me one. I am a monk from a monastery in Sharam. Secondly…”
He locked eyes with the distraught man holding his bloody stump where a jagged bone was trodding out.
“I cannot heal wounds this severe. File the discharge papers and get him out of here”, he said with as much compassion as he could summon for the poor, crying fool, and turned his back on them.
“Hey, Karma, stop! That’s a goddamn order, stop!” the soldier yelled after him.
The young man stopped on his tracks.
“What kind of monk are you? Aren’t you fuckers supposed to know some spells? My man bleeds, he can’t fight. Do something!” the soldier bellowed, voice seething with anger.
“I cannot help him with the knowledge I have. And…” the young man sighed and bowed his head, “The language of creation should not be used rampantly. The gods hate that.”
“Then you’re useless. Piss off”, the soldier snarled and turned to his bleeding comrade.
The monk resumed his walk through the camp full of tents and sweaty men. The sounds of sparring were everywhere, as the men were refreshing their sword fighting skills for the upcoming military expedition. The young monk marched up to one of the tents, pushed aside the cloth blocking the entrace and entered.
“Praying can’t cure you. We would’ve remained at the monastery if it could”, he said in a low voice.
A naked figure was bowing at a statue of the twin gods. A slim well toned body. Short black hair. The shrine he was bowing to was dimly lit with a few candles surrounding it. Though his face was on the floor, fact that he was crying was obvious from the restless breathing of his shaking body.
“Tarot. Put on your clothes. We got a talk with the commander”, Karma continued.
The bowing monk rose into a sitting position. He wiped his tears in his robes before turning his head. His expression was puzzled, he imitated words with his lips, but nothing came out.
“I have a guess what it’s about. Do not worry, stay calm in the talks, I will handle them”, Karma stated dryly.
The commander’s tent floor was full of wood and iron shields littering it. A score of men were bickering about something, the sounds of it echoing to the outside. The two young monks entered on permission from the two guards stationed out, and there it was, angry men standing in a broken circle around a wooden table, their gear lying around.
“How the hells can our scouts keep dying? And how are there no reports from the farmers? We can’t do this without a visual on his location!” one of the men bellowed while everyone else stood quietly.
“We have a rough idea where he is, based on old reports”, another rman replied.
“An army of this size cannot be used for a search! We don’t have the food for aimless wandering!” the angry man continued.
“If we can determine what he’s after, we can narrow the search”, a calm, low voice asked from behind all the tall backs. He was invisible from the angle the monks were looking, perhaps sitting in a chair.
“There’s nothing in this desert but ruins!” the angry man replied.
A sudden silence fell in the tent. The flames of the two oil lamps around the table flickered. Heads were turning in the direction of the monks. The burly men in armor suddenly had faces like kids who had been caught stealing cookies. A bearded man stood up from his chair and said: “We’ll reconvene later today. I’ll summon you all.”
One after the other, the men bowed their heads and turned their heels to head to the exit. They picked up their weapons and their shields on their way. Not one word was said as their armored bodies disappeared from the space. All the information that had been discussed was confidential, this was obvious.
The commander waved his hand in a gesture of invitation. As the two found seats for themselves around the table, with a mono-color map at the center of it, the bearded man, whose eyes were sharp but tired, began speaking.
“There is a reason why I invited you into the middle of this meeting.”
He eyed both of the robed monks, their hoods hiding their hairs, sitting in front of him, obediently listening.
“This expedition was assembled hastily, I admit. You two answered the public call to join as healers, and, I must assume, the bureaucrats fucked up somewhere.”
“Our skills in healing arts are sufficient”, the young hooded monk whispered.
“No, they’re not! I have a wounded man whose bones you can’t even reconstruct!”
“Is that why we were called here?”
“No. That was only the latest incident that confirmed my suspicions. You two are runaways!”
“I assure you, we are the very opposite of people who run from trouble.”
“And this other guy? He’s a mute? Do you speak on his behalf?”
The commander waved in the direction of Tarot, who had been motionless the entire time, hood hiding his eyes.
“He is my brother. He reads more than I do, while I do the healing. He teaches me what’s in the books that I can’t care to read.”
“I won’t comment on your weird arrangements. I want simple answers, to simple questions. Why are you here? Who do you work for?”
“We are not spies, if that’s the accusation.”
The commander lowered his voice, so only the three of them could hear. His calm tone barely covered his raging mood.
“Then help me understand the hell I’ve read. Because the monastery you were training in, that you mentioned in the recruitment form, had a slew of deaths. You two were thought to be dead.”
The monks gave each other a quick look.
“I have reliable sources. Based on what they told me, there were unexplained murders and disappearances. Many of the bodies were so badly damaged, they could never be identified. What puzzles me the most is your audacity. You sneaked into this expedition after being gone for several cycles, only to write an actual murder scene as your origin. You will tell me, right now, what is going on?”
Karma waited patiently. As the commander took a pause from his yelling, he started speaking.
“This mission is personal for us both. We know the man you’re after, he was a monk like us. He was studying the language of creation with us. But he studied the forbidden words and used them, when his actions were discovered.”
The commander peeled his eyes, stood up calmly and leaned closer, his shadow obscuring the map.
“If that is a lie, you will hang”, he uttered through his teeth.
“We know this guy. He is an ambitious scholar. We believe him to be after more power. There is only sand and ruins in these deserts, yes. And he is likely to be near the larger ruins, where old writings can be uncovered”, the monk said.
“And you tell me this now? We’ve been marching for days, consuming supplies. Do you understand? If we turned back now, my head would roll for wasting royal coin! The aristorcracy would accuse me of embezzlement!!” the commander yelled.
“No reason to return back. But I do believe a better strategy would be if you allowed us to talk to the necromancer in person. Not with an army behind us. Give me a small force of trackers. I believe I can reason with him”, the monk said.
“What are you smoking, boy?” the commander chuckled, shaking his head, staying his tongue. He clearly wanted to say more, opening and closing his mouth haphazardly, like a fish on land.
“I smoke nothing. My body and spirit are temples to the twin gods.”
The commander shuffled his stack of papers and picked a piece.
“In your recruitment papers, it says, Karma and Tarot, two monks from a Sharamite monastery. Trained healers. I’m not going to read aloud the rest. Your names are not made up, you’ll swear on that?”
“Our names were given to us, not by our parents. We never knew them. You can argue, they are made up”, Karma sighed.
“You’re a blunt fuck. Never seek a career in the military, you would die navigating the egos of militarymen”, the commander spat the words.
He shook his head, fiddling the long sword in his belt. It almost seemed like he was weighing the option of just cutting their throats himself.
“I have too much crap to worry about”, he snarled and peered fiercely at the brothers, his bellowing voice suddenly reduced to a venomous whisper. Nobody but the three of them could hear him.
“I will handle the paperwork personally tonight, so none of us gets hanged by some paranoid fuck with a crown. Now, get the fuck out of my sight”, the commander hissed.
As the two monks were getting up from their chairs, the commander suddenly shouted.
“Stop! Before you two go…”
The brothers stopped on their tracks. It was as if the air had gone colder in the badly lit tent.
“I don’t have time to listen to and assess complicated stories. This expedition hangs on a knife’s edge, and I have to handle many things for it to succeed. I will ask you two more questions later. You will answer truthfully.”
“When our next meeting comes, I’ll be happy to answer all your questions, respected commander”, Karma said with a slight smile.
No more words were said. The man nodded rigidly and motioned the brothers to leave with the wave of his hand.
Karma turned his back on the man, and that was the last time they ever spoke.
It was night. The stars pierced holes in the blackness. As the campfires flickered, and the men were drinking and telling stories, one man with a large backpack marched into the tent of the brothers.
“You two the warlocks, huh?” a man’s voice asked.
Karma was lying down, a book on the ground, reading with the help of an oil lamp, while his brother was meditating behind him.
“Before I answer that…” Karma sighed while marking the page he had been reading before closing the covers.
“Do you know the difference between a warlock and a monk? I will correct your thinking on this, and you will talk to the other soldiers and the word will spread. Either that, or I will kick you in the face.”
It had been dark. His ego had been agitated. He came to regret his words as his breathing got locked in reaction to the grim realization, that the person standing before him was a mountain of a man. His shadow was so large, Karma was under it entirely.
“Uhm… hello”, the young monk muttered.
“Would love to see how you kick, but tell, what can’t ya heal? Hmm?” the large man asked, “and what about him? How good is he?”
Tarot peeked over his shoulder.
“We can heal… the most obvious wounds. We’re trained in the arts”, Karma replied.
“Yeah, I know limits exist, but what? I got aches all over this shitty body. We switched bodies for a sec, you’d cut your own damn throat!” the man spoke boastfully, containing his laughter.
“Alright. If you could sit somewhere, we can assess your wounds”, Karma replied.
The air turned cold, a chilling wind blew into the tent. Like a breath before a blow, followed by a bloodcurling cry that cut through the tent. It was a dying man’s scream, followed by another and another and fire.
“The necromancer is here!!”
The distant sounds of steel, flesh and bone clashing flushed into the tent, like a wave. The rotting, trotting, shambling shocktroops roamed the camp, cackling in guttural blurts, as men shouted and screamed, many cut quickly into silence. The three guys in the tent, seemingly far away from this all, eyed each other and their surroundings. They had to think quick and start moving quicker, what items they should take with them and what to leave behind, and whether to join the loud battle or bolt into a run.
“So, as I was asking”, the large man sighed, stroking his black chin beard, “what can’t you heal, warlock?”
The commander was surrounded. By his men and the undead. If he ran, he would be killed. With only moments to make his decision to flee or fight, he recited a prayer to the twin gods. He would die as he had lived, with pride in his prowess with a long sword. As his tent burned in green unholy flames of the necromancer’s magic, cackling monsters shredding both his soldiers outside and the fabric walls. Facing daggers, axes, clubs, and bony claws, he unsheathed his sword and gave the order to fight to the bloody end.
“The bastard made it easy to find him! Whoever sees him and slays him, will be showered in gold! Kill the fuck!!”
His men jolted at his words, their formation around their leader tightened. Shields and spears. Fire and smoke. Blood on the sands. With roars and animal strength, they fought. Wood and tempered steel puncturing chests, adding eye sockets, shattered corpses piling at their feet. Each man added to the strength of the other, each protecting the man at their flank, allowing safe counter-attacks.
The phalanx, as a concept, was unbreakable. In optimal conditions, that never existed in the chaos of a battlefield, no-one would die in the formation. But men were flesh, muscle, blood, water, thoughts, secrets, scar tissue, soft things. And not all men participating in the phalanx had years of war behind them. From behind their shields, they hacked at their foes with vaining strength. Had they more spears than swords, which were more optimal when fighting in a phalanx, they could’ve been one unkillable unit. But not that night. This was one fucking unlucky night.
The dead threw their rotten bodies at the formation, with only dark magic keeping them from falling, like puppets whose strings had been cut. Waving their assortment of pillaged weapons, they broke the wood of spears, cut fingers holding swords. So numerous they were, there was no fighting them off.
But as the axes hacked into helmets, and clubs trotting nails knocked men unconscious, as the formation began breaking, with hastily recited prayers echoing in the air, littered with the desperate battlecries of men who had been surprised, the onslaught just seized.
Stunned, confused, looking around the circle of bloody bodies piled on each other, at the center of which the remainder of his phalanx stood, the commander blinked several times to clear the stinging smoke from his eyes. And there he stood.
“Good evening. Are you in charge here?” a slender man with long white hair greeted softly.
His face was hard, his features sharp. The man was grinning, his yellowish teeth bared like a wolf’s, unbothered by the ungodly smell around him. The commander took a breath and stood up straight, while his remaining men, shivering in their boots, stepped back at the imposing sight of the magi.
“My job is to kill you. I’ll be financially set for life when I do”, the commander snarled, clutching his sword tighter.
“A simple ‘yes’ would have sufficed”, the necromancer sighed.
The camp was eerily quiet. The fighting had all but stopped. There were neither sounds of the dead doing battle, nor men fending them off. It was as if everyone was equally dead. Had they won? As the commander realized this prospect, he hung to it like a drowning man to a straw.
“Your army is gone. Surrender now, and we’ll bring you to the capitol alive in chains”, the commander asserted.
The slender man peeked over both his shoulders, hastily surveying the remnants of the camp.
“I did not even notice. Thank you for your poignant observation”, he lazily replied and reached for the book flapping from his belt, flipped it open and closed it right away.
“Fuck, I can’t read in this dark. Just have to recite this from memory”, the necromancer sighed.
A litany of words unfamiliar to the ears that could still hear them poured from the magi’s lips. He stepped back from the pile of twitching corpses at his feet. Taking support from the bodies below them, the dead took to their feet and walked once more.
As the army of the dead recovered their numbers, bolstered by those freshly killed, the few remaining men the commander had at his disposal gave him a final apologetic look before hastily grabbing the closest blade to kill themselves on the spot. Lifeless and bleeding, they fell, leaving him to face his death alone.
“I have a boring confession. I am not going to kill you, for the boring reason that I get lonely. If you keep me company, I’ll let you see what I’m studying in this godforsaken desert”, the white-haired man said.
The smell of blood and rot, iron and steel, invaded the commander’s nostrils as he breathed the cool air. He could have made one last dash, or throw something sharp at the magi. In normal circumstances, he would have chosen to die a warrior, to preserve his honor in the minds of those who would remember him. But he was tired, he was curious, and he was defeated.
“What the hell… I surrender. My life is yours, you mad magician”, he uttered and bowed his head, dropping his shield and his sword.
“Good. Let’s leave”, the necromancer said with a nod.
The dead opened a hole into their ranks, so the commander could walk in the footsteps of the magi. He was about to say something, when he was cut short:
“I’m glad we could see eye to eye on this matter. My research has been interesting and I’ve nobody to tell about… uh?”
The necromancer stood still, staring somewhere. The commander looked in the direction he was looking.
Coming from their side, laughing like a maniac, an armor-clad man was waving a hammer as large as a person. Swathes of undead minions were being pulverized at every swing, and he was swinging left and right, left and right. He was stabbed, clubbered, axes trotting out of his armor, but he just kept swinging. His body was envoloped in flashes of light every few seconds. At first, the necromancer could not hear the words from the warrior’s laughter, but eventually his ears distinguished the familiar verbal form of healing spells.
“Oh, that makes sense”, the magi mumbled, stroking his chin, puzzled by something he did not verbalize.
“What will you do?” the commander asked from beside him.
“I don’t remember the spells I would need to disarm the situation, and it’s too dark to read. We retreat”, he replied.
He offered his hand to the man whose army he’d just destroyed. The gesture was so bold, it surprised the defeated soldier.
“Take my hand. My minions are bound to me, but you are not. We go together.”
He was close enough to dash at him. He could still win, with the help of the warrior and the healers. But the boldness of the necromancer’s gesture, and his nonchalant demeanor that exhibited no fear whatsoever, suggested that the magi had more aces up his sleeve. So he grabbed his hand.
The magi spoke a litany of long, complex words, utterly unfathomable to his ears. The commander felt a cold breeze and a strange lightness, like he was floating, and they were gone from the camp.