Shovels, pickaxes, carts. Borrowed from nearby farms and mining towns. The workforce was borrowed as well, without an expiration date for return. The racket at the digsite was infernal, as thousands of walking corpses tinkered with their many tasks. For any work more complicated than shoveling sand and dirt and rock, they would’ve been unfit for. But for monotone, repetitive work, the dead were ideal. They knew no exhaustion when doing their master’s sinister bidding.
The former commander sat on a rock, lazily gazing at the digsite while eating a fruit. From their gear, he could tell which shambling undead were his men. The failed military leader was hunched over, his posture ruined, just eating a fruit, legs crossed. The necromancer sat nearby eating his own lunch while reading his black-covered spellbook.
“So… I’ve been meaning to ask, how you located my camp?” the ex-commander asked.
“I tortured your scouts”, the necromancer replied.
“Aha. Should’ve trained them better to tolerate pain”, the ex-commander replied.
“Don’t blame yourself. I know some very painful spells”, the magi retorted.
Pauses in their conversation were filled by absolutely nothing. The desert was completely peaceful. There were no animals, no vegetation, clear skies above, and a seemingly endless sea of sand. And the dead, who were digging.
“Yeah, so you wanted to show me what? Will you kill me after I see it?” the ex-commander asked with a bored voice.
“I haven’t decided. Don’t really care. I think these ruins are just interesting. There’s supposed to be a library here somewhere, if the maps I’ve read hold true”, the magi replied.
“What will you do if you find this buried library?” the ex-commander asked.
“I’ll read the more interesting books. Then kill the royal family”, the necromancer replied.
“To be free from persecution, to continue my studies. It’s either me, or them”, the necromancer replied.
Carts filled with sand, dirt, and rock, and carried out of the digsite to be dumped elsewhere.
“You had a chance to kill me, by the way. I know no defensive spells. It was funny how you didn’t take that shot!” the magi chuckled.
The dead were digging. They were digging, and they were digging.
“The two healers at my camp said that you were a monk once. That you studied the language with them.”
“They were lying. Never been a monk. I’m not even from this sordid country.”
“Then why do you… Why are you doing all this?”
“I need no deeper reasons. The royalty of this country spans generations. In that timeframe, they’ve done unspeakable things. They kill for sport and call it justice. They wage wars for the thrill of it. Satisfying their urges for domination and avarice. And since I crossed the line a long time ago, to make myself their target, I may as well go out with a bang.”
“What did you do? To cross what line?”
“Maybe I should kill you. I need more diggers… and you’re annoying.”
The dead were digging. They were digging, and they were digging.
“Whatever. So, you see this book? It’s no ordinary spellbook, you know.”
He flashed his little book, like it was the maw of a beast, and closed it, emitting a flap sound.
“What’s special about it?”
“It is older than all the empires that plague these lands, combined.”
“How do you know?”
“The star maps”, the necromancer said with a smile, “They show stars that no longer exist”.
It was morning at the decimated camp. Deathly silence lingered among the mess of burnt tents, supply crates, broken shields and weapons, dried pools of blood, severed human body parts. None of the clutter was in any order, it was a painting on a gold-colored canvas. There were no mysteries left on that speck of land, just an honest silence.
The two healers and the warrior were having a long sleep around a blackened campfire behind a dune, a good distance from the camp. They were surrounded by nothing but sand, with a good view of the camp. Karma was still half-asleep, pulling on his blanket. The coldness of night was withdrawing sluggishly from around him. The stars were still visible, so black it was at dawn. He felt heavy and uninterested to rise up, but a huffing and puffing nearby drew his attention.
It was the black-haired warrior, doing pushups.
“Uh… could you not… What’s your name anyway?” Karma yawned.
“The name’s Boros. What’s yours, warlock?” the warrior asked in between his pushups.
“I’m a monk… not something else”, Karma snarled.
“And his name’s what?” the warrior asked.
“Who..? Oh… call him Tarot. They gave us weird names”, Karma yawned.
“And you fags are lovers?”
“Wha? No, we’re brothers!”
Their bickering didn’t stop there. Their verbal sparring disturbed the slumber of the final sleeper of the group. His eyes were dark, he saw nothing. There were no dots in the canvas of his vision. The other two were so preoccupied with their conversation, they didn’t notice what was happening. Had his voice worked, he would have screamed at them to run.
Boros stopped his pushups, shuddering so that he fell chin-first to the sands.
“What’s with that guy?” he asked while hurrying to get on his feet.
“Fuck”, Karma sighed.
The stout monk’s arms turned black, the air around him too, like his body was sucking the light from around him. He bolted to his feet, glaring somewhere far, far away. For one excruciating moment that dragged on, the boy’s features had a flickering form that phased between human and something else entirely. And then it stopped. Color returned to his arms and to the air around him. Both men watching the spectacle waited in silence.
“So… does he do that… every morning until he’s cleaned his pipes, or..?” Boros asked cautiously.
“He’s fighting it”, Karma replied.
Tarot stood motionless in a hunched pose, his shoulders sunken. Though his skin was no longer pitch-black, color had not returned to his eyes.
Lying on the sands with his arms behind his head, the ex-commander gazed at the blue sky. The ruckus echoing from the digsite had been constant since dawnbreak. It had been some time since the necromancer spoke, so he flipped his head back just enough to catch a peek of him. The magi was staring into the distance, and unless the commander’s eyes were deceiving him, his pale face looked weighed down by worry.
Their eyes met.
“What else did those monks tell you? I am puzzled why they would lie about knowing me.”
“Only one of them speaks. Other is a mute, I think”, the ex-commander replied.
“That is not an ailment the monks of Sharam wouldn’t heal. Especially the more studied ones.”
“How should I know? I barely got a look of the guy. I was pre-occupied with the talking one.”
“They signed up to your expedition, or did the aristorcracy order them to? What was their reward supposed to be?”
“Just some royal gold.”
“Monks don’t usually care about gold.”
“Fuck should I know?! I was going to ask them more questions, before your ass showed up!”
The ex-commander sighed and threw his hands behind his head again and stared at the sky. The necromancer was stroking his chin, seemingly thinking something.
“Something doesn’t add up.”
The worry in his voice was apparent, he did not hide the strained tone of it. He opened one of his two books, he was carrying only two on him. His reading was intense, pages rustling as he flipped past them one after the other.
“Excuse me, mister death mage, but you have an army. A rather large army. You got some fine fighters there, in good gear, my men included. Why do you care about two half-trained healers? I do not see how they are a threat to you”, the ex-commander asked bitterly.
“Any speaker of the language is a threat. One cannot know how deeply they’ve studied, nor how potent their blood is”, the necromancer replied, “and what strains me is not the one you spoke with, but the one who couldn’t”.
“Why the fuck is that relevant?”
“A cut tongue can be healed, even by me. If his wounds are beyond the abilities of Sharamite speakers, he must have paid the toll… How much do you know about those two?”
“We travelled a few days together. They yield from a monastery that was the scene of a strange crime.”
The magi responded nothing. He was quickly getting distracted by his intense reading.
“Hey, man. Fuck your book. Why don’t you just take your unkillable army, appear where they are now with your magic, they probably haven’t moved much, and kill them? It would take like seconds.”
“There are forces in this world that prevent mages from gaining too much power. Arrogance and carelessness among them. But this conversation is over now. Shut up and let me read.”
As their discussion came to a close, nothing was left to obscure the cacophony of the dead and their digging.