Battles between mages had a formula that had formed during the violent centuries. As much as the kingdoms attempted to quell the rise of unsanctioned speakers of the language of creation, new prodigies appeared constantly. But these men were often jealous, prone for one-upmanship. An unofficial dueling etiquette formed around their destructive engagements. As every spell had its direct counterspell, the element of surprise was often the tie-breaker between equally matched speakers. Secretly developed techniques that no other speakers knew of ensured the dominance of a magi. Without trump cards, every duel came down to chance.
Skilled speakers feared each other, as talent posed too much incentive to kill a rival mage and steal their research. Alas, the most important part of the etiquette was to avoid direct confrontation, until one had successfully forced an opponent to reveal the extents of their study. Nothing was more dangerous than a magi who concealed what they knew until the last moment.
The leftovers of the military expedition were gathered in a circle to discuss their next move. Surrounded by decaying corpses as far as the eye could see, they debated their final strategy. Nembra explained, the movement spell the necromancer was using was very advanced, beyond the capabilities of ordinary speakers. To cast it, the speaker was required to have a photographic memory about locations they had been to. The caster would never be able to travel somewhere new and unexplored without risking death. They had to picture in their minds where they wished to go before speaking the words. The necromancer had thus grounded to the limited area he had been terrorizing for weeks. Additionally, the wound she had inflicted upon him, she told, prevented his concentration due to blood loss and pain, thus preventing his escape.
As she spoke to the men, they listened intently on her words. Her expertise on the subject boomed in her voice. None interrupted her, none dared. She was still wearing her black robes drenched in buckets of blood, her scythe dripping. Whenever she looked directly at someone during her speech, they awkwardly averted their gaze. She paid their hesitation no heed.
“I wounded him. Fatally. We can bargain with him to surrender. In exchange for healing, he’ll surrender”, Nembra explained.
“Or we could just wait until he bleeds out. Fuck him, let’s wait”, Boros stated.
“You don’t know Maron. His pride prevents him from disengaging conflict. He wants to win”, the reaper woman added.
“Excuse me, but you’re saying conflicting things. You’re not telling us everything. What is his victory condition? What is he after?” Karma asked.
“That information is unfortunately classified. Besides, we can’t wait. We have to deal with this, before we have another one in our hands”, Nembra replied, nodding in the direction of the young monk Tarot.
“I have contained the spirit with incantations, it won’t break loose”, Karma interjected.
“Spirits do not eat gods”, the mage-hunter sighed, shaking her head.
“This isn’t a rescue mission for your ex-boyfriend. We get a bounty for bringing his head to the royals”, Boros said.
“Not anymore. We need him alive”, Nembra replied.
“Are you mad, woman!?” Boros interjected.
She ignored him, turning to face the brothers. Pointing at them with her scythe, she said:
“Whatever horror has possessed you, only the smartest mages have a chance at expelling it. It is unfathomable that you two have managed this on your own for so long. When this is over, I want the full story.”
“We will submit to your inquiry”, Karma replied quietly, while Tarot nodded humbly.
“Hey… looks like that faggot realized the jig’s up”, Boros said and pointed his fat armored finger towards the ruins.
A bearded man waving a white flag had emerged from the dig site. He was jogging towards the group, stumbling through the field of charred bones, the white cloth at the end of his stick flailing in the gentle wind caressing the desert. The walk was long.
The group waited in silence for the messenger to reach them. As he came closer, Karma felt a shiver run down his spine.
“Tarot, it’s the commander. His life was spared”, the monk gasped.
The bearded man, who had been stripped of his armor and his weapons and his pride wore but a shabby rag, inside from which protruded a yellowish scroll. He looked like a slave, had a strange void in his sunken eyes. Yet, it was most definitely him, because when their eyes met, he recognized them.
“Why are you doing the bidding of that madman, sir?” Karma asked.
He only stared, did not speak. For a moment Karma thought he was under some mind control spell, but then he shrugged his shoulders and flicked his neck nonchalantly. His body language belonged to someone who had stopped caring entirely of social perceptions. And that’s when Karma noticed the bloody hole his abdomen. New flesh had not covered the still-bleeding wound, tiny trickle as that bleeding was.
“So, you’ve become the undead, sir Gordon”, Nembra noted dryly.
The group of soldiers was aghast, stunned at what they were watching. The commander had raised his arm at the mage-hunter, the middle one of his five fingers standing upright. It was no salute, he was flipping the bird.
“Yo, man. Don’t dis our bitch. We owe her”, Boros said, fondling his blood-soaked hammer.
“The revival spell robbed his voice. Gestures and writing are the only ways he can communicate”, Nembra said.
The shell of a man that was Gordon grabbed the scroll from his red-stained shirt, a wrinkly parchment scribbled with black ink, and handed it to them for reading. It said:
“Dear mercenaries of the bloodied crown, you were never a match for me. Congratulations to Nembra for fine scythe-work. But your calculations hinged on my thirst for survival. You gambled that one. The terms of my surrender are the following: You will escort me to the kingdom’s capitol unchained. You will allow me to showcase my point of view and learn the truth about the family that you’ve so ignorantly chosen to defend. After my demonstration of power is done, I will cut out my tongue. I’ll be at your mercy, trusting your righteousness to be stronger than your bloodthirst. Enjoy my poem, oh Lady Death.”
As the group finished reading, many men feeling a cold sweat rise to the skin on their backs, he emerged from the ruins. Leaning on a rotting half-skeleton giving him support, one of his arms resting on its shoulder, the other waved at them in a jolly greeting. Maron the necromancer surveyed the group from the long distance between them. The expedition watched in grave silence as he raised his free arm in the air.
One gut-wrenching explosion after another followed as he snapped his fingers. The blasts were far away from the group at the edges of the carpet of corpses. When the rotting bodies exploded, ribcages and skulls flew to the air, first individually, then in rows, following the rhythm of the magi’s finger snaps.
The desert was so littered with mangled meat, there was nowhere for them to run. The group walked on the dead without a rush, violent, shattering explosions around them, forced to trust the word of the treacherous mage.
“We’re so fucking dead”, Boros sighed bitterly, trying to protect his face from the rain of guts, bone shards and blood.
As they got closer, the necromancer and his support zombie hurriedly turned on their heels and slid back into the ruins. The desert fell silent again. The expedition followed in his steps soon after, descending into the maze-like ruins of an unknown lost civilization. The path that led them down was straight and wide. And in the middle of ancient half-buried stone structures, the bleeding man sat in a meditation pose, making no gestures of resistance or aggression. His teeth were exposed by a grin so wide, it cut his face in half. In his left hand, he held a grey knife the shape of which seemed to flutter with the wind. A serene breeze was blowing through the once-buzzling excavation site. His blade seemed to be a magical weapon that existed between this world and the next, so strange was its interaction with the elements. The dark mage spoke:
“I am beaten! With this knife, I’ll cut my tongue! May you claim your royal reward!”