“Every nation has magic. Words are this magic. And for some words to have the grip to hold civilization together, other words cannot be. The greatest spells are the unspoken ones.” – Journal of Maron
As Karma gazed up at the pillar protruding from the void canvas, the thunderstorm still creeping at the campsite from far, far away, he had to rub his eyes. He must have been seeing double, because there was no longer just one hooded reaper. There were two.
“How are you here, Magnus?” Nembra asked sleepily, scrambling to her feet.
“The situation in the west was neutralized faster than calculated. Provide your report.”
“He’s dead, yes”, Nembra sighed.
“Good. Slay the witnesses.”
“I can’t do that.”
“You are in open rebellion?”
“No, Magnus. But one of them is possessed.”
“Spirits can be exorcised. This is a non-issue you’re bringing up.”
“Spirits do not eat gods.”
“What did you see?”
“The expedition has two healers. One of them transformed. It devoured a being from beyond. And it wasn’t even a contest.”
“I don’t have time for this. The Mountains are a busy region, and our men are scarce.”
“Weren’t we recruiting women?”
“After your incident, I am under daily pressure to replace all female reapers.”
“Don’t get soft again. We purge bloodlines, that is our job. There are no innocents in this war.”
“There has to be a better way.”
“There is none! We fight a problem caused by our own actions, but the issue we combat won’t resolve itself in our absence. If there was a middle-ground, there would be no reapers.”
“There is also a revisor.”
“A revisor? How big is he?”
“One of the biggest I’ve ever seen. And he’s the one who killed him.”
“That complicates things. He is armored?”
“Yes. He and the monks want Maron’s spellbook. But I have the book.”
“Then it’s simple. Isolate those three, we reap the rest.”
“We can’t be wasting time like this. Spit it out! Make haste now!”
“Fine. Let’s go do our job, Nembra.”
Tarot was stirred by sharp pain in his forehead. He heard a rumbling in the distance. As he raised his aching eyelids, he saw only the fading campfire. But as lightning split the skies, cloaked figures popped out of the canvas. Standing over the sleeping soldiers, being still like statues, they carried scythes. As another bolt split the skies, he saw their unmoving figures again, and it dawned on him in the same moment that his back, which had rested on the cold ground until he turned, was caressed by a cloak’s hem.
He turned his face up and saw nothing but a wrinkled hood framing a mask staring right at him. It spoke with a soft, firm woman’s voice:
“You are granted a peaceful passing by the Order. You have committed no crime that warrants a sentence.”
The soldiers were waking one by one. The ones who tried to crawl away in panic were prevented by the ceremonial swing of the scythe. None were harmed, the blades merely struck the ground in the directions they were crawling in. This stopped the men on their tracks. Each hooded figure repeated:
“You are granted a peaceful passing by the Order.”
The soldiers were rounded up around the campfire. Tarot was among them. They were encircled by the cloaks. One of them was slightly differently dressed, and his scythe was larger than the others’. He stepped forward to deliver a speech to the quivering men:
“What you have witnessed here, word of it cannot spread. The tombstone was never read. The twin gods are alive and, they have blessed the kingdom of Sharam, the only city remaining where the twins’ law is followed. The study of blasphemous magic leads to corruption, and corruption to madness. May your souls be purified by these truths and your passing be peaceful.”
Everyone was gasping, expecting the scythes to fall on their necks any moment. But this did not happen. The reaper grabbed a scroll from his belt and resumed speaking:
“Your names are needed for our logs. When your names are written, the conversation ends.”
“Does it not matter what we did here?! We killed the necromancer!” one of the soldiers shouted.
“No, it does not. None of you should’ve seen what you did. It is unfortunate. Now I need names.”
He opened the scroll and spoke a short spell, creating a spectral pen, which he tapped against the parchment. There were a dozen reapers surrounding the survivors of the expedition. There was no escaping even one reaper, let alone a company of them. There was no hero to suddenly save them, no hope of any kind for the soldiers. This was their execution, the final moment preceding the cutting. None dared speak their name as requested, dodging the question was all that prolonged their final moment. As the silence stretched and lightning rumbled, the apparent leader of the reapers spoke again:
“You can die nameless as well. It is merely more paperwork. Give me your names.”
“Magnus, this is a mistake.”
All eyes turned to the fair-haired slender woman, whose hood was down. Her sharp cheek bones and pointy nose had an unrefined hint of beauty about them. Her hair wasn’t even shoulder’s length, a practical cut, but still effeminate. She spoke from a distance of several leaps at the very edge of the light provided by the campfire. Only the one called Magnus was seemingly unstirred to have his named called out, the rest moved restlessly. He stood still, clutching his polearm with one hand. He turned his back on the men, his head bowed.
“Nembra…. It befalls on us to preserve the fragile peace. We kill immortals.”
“But they aren’t immortals. Maron wasn’t either. Wasn’t the study of magic supposed to make one immortal?”
“It does lead to this, yes, when their study gets to be too deep.”
“Do you not see the contradiction?”
“There is no contradiction, because you’re too damned stupid to be entrusted with crucial information!!”
There was a sudden crackling of bloody rage in the voice of Magnus.
“What don’t I know? We kill brilliant men, but why? They’re not immortals, most are farmers and academics and craftsmen, they threaten no-one!”
Silently they stared at each other, while the storm clouds were ablaze. Both were weighing their words, wrestling with past conversations nobody else knew nothing of, knowing fully well that the next words that were spoken would determine the events to unfold. Magnus sighed, he spoke softly:
“We’re the Order of the Reapers. We carry the duty to deliver death to those who defy it. The world lives, because we kill.”
As he finished speaking, scythes flailed and cut bone, dislodging heads from necks. Blood poured into enlarging pools where the bodies rested. Only Tarot was left without a strike, his body unharmed. Unflinching, without even looking back at the carnage, Magnus issued his next decree:
“Find the revisor and the monk!”
“I am not hiding.”
Karma stepped forward, his figure slipping into view at the edge of the campfire. Many hoods turned in his direction. He stood right next to the fair-haired reaper lady, shoulder to shoulder.
“We were going to surrender willingly to you guys, but not anymore.”
“You intend to fight?” Magnus asked.
“The fight was decided when you killed our new friends in front of my brother.”
The air around them changed, but in no ways that made sense. Something expanded from the body of Tarot, who’d been curled up against the pillar. Everyone blinked, finding themselves inside of an ethereal giant being that seemed to extend to infinity in every direction. The sky itself was obscured by a view reminiscent of a bed of slithery worms. The ground was ridges of tentacles with singular slanted eyes, and everyone whose heads were still attached to their shoulders could see the flesh inside of them. Like jaws grinding on each other, the sky and the earth were infested by a mass of large wriggling fleshy shapes. The numerous boat-sized eyes floating inside of the transparent mass were turned away from everyone.
The cloaked reapers stared in disbelief, clutching their bloodied scythes with both hands, like some security blanket. Karma broke the silence:
“Nembra, hand me Maron’s head. Now!”
Without asking anything further, Nembra rushed to hand over to Karma the severed head of the deceased necromancer. Karma recited a spell in the head’s ear and waited. The eyes in the sockets turned and the jaws clacked together.
“You assholes! What bloody mess you got yourselves in while I was out? Oh, greetings, Magnus!”
The leader of the reapers turned to face the speaking head. He seemed to have something to say, but stayed his tongue.
“Maron, listen, I fear we’re about to die to something we don’t even understand. I have never seen Tarot like this, but he changes near violent events. Do you have any idea how we can prevent this from becoming corporeal?”
The detached head that Karma held in the air by its hair raised his brow.
“So you actually revived me… to save your necks after hunting me down over a bag of coin? Did I get that right?”
“I only wanted your book. Thought I could negotiate you to give it to us after your arrest.”
A cold unrestrained laughter echoed in the nightly desert.
“Whatever, I will help. But I must say, assisting you all survive the coming apocalypse is going to be a headache, ha ha ha ha!”
Suddenly, the necromancer’s head was gripped by violent coughs.
“Uhm…. I have to tone down my evil laughter, it actually hurts.”
“Can you stop this?!” Magnus shouted.
Maron let out a heavy sigh.
“Yes… yes, it was my life’s work to understand the future and prepare for it. Please turn to page 186 of my book and recite the spell.”
“Give me the book”, Karma asked, and Nembra produced the book from some invisible pocket in her cloak.
“Luckily for you all, my notes are highly organized. You should be able to find it before we die.”, Maron commented.
Karma turned page after page, looking for one that was numbered 186. And he found it and read it fast as he could, but it had no effect.
“Sing it, you idiot! Sing as you still have a voice! There’s notes on the melody required!” Maron shouted, while the ghostly giant appendages and eyes turned to face them all. The entire flesh realm with its blind and seeing grave worms, gazed in their direction without blinking.
“If you dumb fucks actually studied the books instead of burnt them, you would know every spell has a damned counterspell! Duality is an integral part of how the language of creation functions! Same for all possessions, just sing now!!” the necromancer’s head bellowed.
It was the strangest feeling that gripped Karma from head to toe. It was his final moment. Every fiber of his being steeled to make that final gasp that poured from between his dried lips. With clarity and disciplined passion, his voice rose to the falling skies. In a flash, their world had become an enormous grave, and he had no time to think or feel. He could only sing, his desire to keep on living the only flame stopping his reality from ending. The language of creation filled the all-encompassing void that was their dying universe, not like a battlecry, but a confession of love. Everything that he had been, fallen to, survived and about to fight against, every limb and vein and muscle of his body was choosing to embrace the scratching and crawling battle to prolong the eventual end; that was life. He had chosen wholly to endure the pain of it.
Violently the flesh realm rumbled, the exposed guts of the earth and the wriggling lid of the sky heaved, but made no sound. The sheer enormity of the hungering beings inside of which they all stood, for they were otherworldly and not here, all the venomous, towering beings that inhabited this ghostly realm, was breathtaking. And all of that murderous violence was defenseless to a song. Like fog blown by wind, the realm dissipated into thin air.
Karma turned towards Magnus, the leader of the reapers, whose posture had slumped, his eyes wandered, and though he still casually clutched his scythe that rested on his side, the tip of the blade on the sea of sand, his grip lacked resolve. The other reapers save for Nembra looked similarly stupefied. They were scattered in no discernable formation.
“Our passing will not be peaceful!” Karma said clearly, firmly and defiantly.