Dilvish wondered how much time he had before his final breath. Not too much, apparently. The pool of blood around him was no longer expanding, probably a sign there was no more blood left in his body to pump out. He barely had enough strength to turn his eyes about to survey the surrounding carnage and devastation. Rotating his head was not even worth trying. To his right, the regimental standard: red shield and blue key against a background of green and yellow. About one-third of the flag was drenched in blood. His blood, the blood he shed for the freedom and glory of Galadorn.
Too bad he wouldn’t live to taste any of it. Too bad he wouldn’t live to taste the sweet lips of Naaya and her breath on his neck. Lovely Naaya, so gentle and pure, so devoted and tender. They exchanged vows before he went on this war, and he promised her he would return to marry her by mid-winter. He didn’t keep that promise: winter turned into spring, and spring into summer, and still the battles raged on. But he knew Naaya would wait for him. He passed his fingers on his chest, or rather, tried to pass his fingers on his chest. There, under the chain mail, was his moon chain: A simple copper chain with a silver trinket in the shape of a half crescent. Naaya had the other half, and when put together they combined into a full smiling moon-face.
He closed his eyes as remembered that moment of the last goodbye: “I will return, my love. The war will be won and I will return. And then we will be together, forever.”
“Who wants to live forever?” she replied, as if in a daze, his arms cradling her head.
“I do,” said Dilvish. “As long as I can have you beside me.”
His memory drifted on, to more current events. The long marches, the bad food, the cold winter nights by the campfire, the seemingly endless days of fighting. All the battles he had fought lost their individuality, and the creatures he had fought combined in his mind for a moment into one huge deformed monstrosity. Goblins, Orcs, Dire Wolves, Trolls, Undead. Undead were the worst. The others at least bled when he stabbed them. But when you hit one of Bonesmith’s creations with your sword, it felt like hitting a sack of grain: you’d thrust the sword into it, pulled it out, something that barely resembled internal organs would spill outside, and then... usually they would just keep going.
Nobody knew who the Bonesmith was. Some said he was a renegade Necromancer who once served King Galen before he allied himself with the Wildlands Orcs; some said he was an undead himself; some called him a Glabrezu, a Demon from Lower Planes; others swore he was an avatar of the Unspeakable One that descended on the land. One thing was certain though: his business was making undead soldiers, and in that he was second to none. Dilvish and his men could testify to that. They fought his minions more than once.
Further on, to even more current events. It was a carefully planned ambush; almost too carefully, considering the opposition, which they clearly underestimated. As they advanced in the narrow valley between two rocky hills, the first volley of arrows from the Orcish archers slew or wounded almost every fifth man from their number. As the survivors were positioning themselves for defense, they started coming out of the rocks. Dark tall figures, with claws as sharp as daggers and teeth like knives. The archers continued to rain death on friend and foe alike when the melee began in the ravine.
As the first line of undead slowly approached him, Dilvish raised his greatsword above his head and let out a mighty roar, “For the glory of Galadorn!” then lowered the sword on of one of the abominations, cutting it from right shoulder to left hip. This gave his men some courage, and it seemed as if even the undead were daunted by this unexpected resistance. Dilvish knew it was merely wishful thinking though. Undead are never afraid, never doubt, never hesitate. And they just moved on. For each one they cut down, two more came. Dilvish saw his friends fall one by one. And then he felt it: one claw across his face, another across his stomach. The first was only a flesh wound, but the other tore through the chain mail and clothing, ripped through the skin and sent his bowels onto the ground at his feet. And the pain, oh gods, the pain! Dilvish collapsed and for a while was left for dead. Through the blurry line between unconsciousness and reality, he heard the conclusion of the battle. The last one to fall was the standard bearer.
Dilvish opened his eyes again, only to immediately regret it as he met the gaze of the dead standard-bearer. A young man, barely an adult, he was still clutching the flagpole. The eyes were all that remained of his face: the nose, mouth and chin had been bitten off in one swoop. But the eyes showed no fear. Disappointment maybe, at his failure to protect the regiment’s most prized possession, but no fear. At least he died like a man, mused Dilvish. I wonder if I can find the same courage inside me when it is my time to rise to the Palace of Cedon. He tried to find peace of mind by thinking of Naaya, but the memory of the promise he wasn’t going to keep only upset him more. He focused his eyes on the flag, and tried to remember what each element represented: The shield, red from the blood of those who had given their lives, was a reminder of their goal: to protect Galadorn; The blue key was the Sheryl.
Like a blue vein, this river ran though the Western Province, and that was the key to the prosperity of their wheat farmers (yellow) and herders (green). So that was it: “To protect the Western province so the farmers and herders can prosper”. He wondered whether they had succeeded at that. Sure, the battle was lost, but they inflicted some casualties to the enemy, and it would take even the Bonesmith some time to fix up his servants and have them ready for the next confrontation. But he wouldn’t be there to see it. Someone else would have to win this war for him. At least he was no longer feeling the pain.
But now Dilvish began to hallucinate. He imagined he saw King Galen and his entourage walking around the battlefield. Sometimes, the King would lean over to one of the dead, speaking what seemed to be words of encouragement. Or was it last rites? It took him some time to understand he was not hallucinating, and there really were half-dozen robed figures taking a stroll through the gorge, knee deep in blood. Only none of them was King Galen. Of course, what would a king want in this place? At least that thought amused Dilvish for a while. The group passed across some badly mangled bodies, ignored the standard-bearer, and stopped in front of Dilvish. The one whom he previously mistook for the King gave the dying warrior a good hard look. He was a thin, rather tall fellow, covered from head to toe in dark flowing robes. And, for some reason, even though he had just been though a pool of blood and mud and scaled over dozens of bodies with broken arrow shafts sticking from them to get there, there was not a splatter of crimson on him.
Dilvish wondered what would happen next. The robed not-King-Galen was appraising him. Then, he seemed to having made up his mind. After only a slight nod of his head, the other figures knew what to do. Two of them grabbed Dilvish by the armpits and stood him up. Another one produced some kind of flask from inside his robes and gave it to the leader. Yet another tore the chain mail sleeve from Dilvish’s right arm as if he was tearing a sleeve of a thin satin dress. The leading figure stood in front of Dilvish now. Looking in its eyes, he could see, and even feel the very depth of the Lower Planes. The figure extended its right arm, and under the sleeve of the cloak, Dilvish could see white thin bony fingers, ending with unnaturally sharp fingernails. Suddenly, the warrior felt an unearthly chill. The fingernail touched his skin, and suddenly stopped. The dark figure was still hesitating about something. He continued to size up Dilvish.
“Do you know who I am?” The question was not asked, but Dilvish could feel its weight hanging in the air.
“Yes, Bonesmith.” His lips moved, and although there was no sound, the other party seemed to be satisfied.
“I see you have a strong desire to live.” Another unasked question.
“Naaya” was the only thing Dilvish could think. He didn’t care anymore about the glory of Galadorn, or about the regimental standard, not even the palace of Cedon.
Then he felt the pain. Somewhat surprised, he looked down at his stomach, which had gone numb hours ago, but that wasn’t the source of the pain. The Bonesmith had cut his wrist open with the fingernail of his right hand, and quickly poured the contents of the flask into the wound. In a matter of seconds, it was over. Dilvish was thrown to the ground like a rag doll, and the Bonesmith and his assistants moved along, sifting through the piles of dead. Dilvish went unconscious.
When he woke up, he didn’t know how long he’d been out. Then he realized the concept of time no longer existed for him. Slowly, he forced himself up on his feet. He relieved himself of the torn remains of the chain mail, which he knew he no longer needed. He knew what he had to do now. Firstly, he had to look for his brothers and his master. That was easy; he instinctively knew where he could find them congregating. And then there were great deeds to be done, great battles to be won. Who knows, maybe he would meet Naaya, so they could still be together. Who wants to live forever? He did.
Copyright © 2003 by Alex Shternshain