10: Death Speakers
It was raining. It had been for a few days, and someone jokingly suggested they should postpone the war to another day when the sun was out. Iliya agreed, in all earnestness, with this sentiment. But he was on the front and they were expecting an attack. Intelligence had warned them that Derean troops were advancing. So they did the same. Trudging through the mud and sludge to meet the other army, they headed towards the largest battle that Iliya would ever see. The troops clashed, and both sides had powerful wizards that could keep the other side at bay. It was more like a siege than open warfare. Teams of blockers operated in shifts to uphold the defences while Iliya and the other assualt wizards did their job to attempt to penetrate the other side’s shields and to kill whomever approached them. But unlike every other wizard, Iliya began to pick dead comrades off the ground. He made them march directly into enemy fire to cause confusion and buy them time.
And then, through the rain and the smoke, something caught his eye. No one else seemed to notice. But Iliya saw it. Another fallen soldier stood up. To anyone else, it may have looked as if he got to his feet on his own, and it was not long until he was hit by an explosion and collapsed again. Yet, Iliya was certain. That man had been dead. His movements had been clumsy at best, and it wasn’t merely the result of being dazed by the battle. It was the result of being dead.
Iliya squinted at the enemy lines. Who had done that? There were a few wizards over there. None of them looked like … Well, neither did he. The pictures in the books that warned against death speaking were of twisted men with sinister expressions and tattered robes. They were thin like skeletons themselves and looked haunted and haunting.
He was beginning to think he wouldn’t find out who it was when it happened again. Iliya looked from one Derean wizard to another. One was busy casting a spell directed at their defence. Another was recuperating from attacking. And then, in the middle of the soldiers, a man stood quietly casting a spell with his hands outstretched. His focus was on the dead soldier who had just been reanimated.
Now what? Iliya could not let the other wizard keep doing it. No matter how strange and hypocritical that sounded.
The solution came after nightfall that evening. They were both on the front line. And Iliya wanted to get away from it. He needed to get behind enemy lines. It should be possible. He would change his magic, stop attacking and sneak closer. He concealed himself and made his way across the battlefield. It was a chilling trek, but Iliya forced his thoughts away from the corpses on the ground, the smoking patches of grass and the clamour of the clashing armies. His only goal was getting close enough to strike. He looked over his shoulder once to make sure that he was safe. When he looked back, he found himself face to face with the other death speaker.
When their eyes met, Iliya realised that the other man knew. He had seen what Iliya did and perhaps he had even known or planned that it would come to this. The other wizard was … Well, a wizard. He was clean-shaven and was wearing the colours of his army, but he wasn’t donning a regular uniform like Iliya. Dereas educated wizards for combat, but not as soldiers. An invisible, almost tangible fog of danger and darkness hung around him.
Iliya wanted to say something, but he didn’t know what. His intentions tore in several different directions. He needed to eradicate such a dangerous enemy, but at the same time, he was curious about the other man’s abilities. He was stunned that there was another and that the death speaker was really just a man … like Iliya himself.
Without any warning, a Derean soldier came staggering out of the darkness with flailing limbs. Iliya gasped and took an involuntary step backwards. Was this what he let his enemies see? This grim visage of dead soldiers charging at them ... Iliya gritted his teeth and moved his arm in a quick half circle as if to backhand the puppet. The dead soldier collapsed on the ground again, broken and battered.
The Derean wizard regarded the spectacle with a scowl. His lips were moving, but Iliya couldn’t hear him speak. Then something snapped shut around Iliya’s ankle, sending black icicles through his leg. It wasn’t a spell, it wasn’t active, but the forbidden magic was lingering on the soldier on the ground who grabbed him and penetrated his boot like blear leeches. Iliya tore away, stumbled, regained his balance and brought his foot down on the hand. Bones broke under his heel, but the soldier didn’t scream. At least he could not feel it. Iliya stomped his foot down again and again, crushing the dead man’s skull until he moved no more.
Iliya glared up at the other wizard. “Enough,” he said.
The other man didn’t reply, but he understood, for now their private battle began. Iliya managed to counter the first spell directed at him. The Derean wizard was probably the better magic user. He blasted Iliya backwards, flung him to the ground with one shot, then lifted him up with a flick of his hand and threw him down again. Iliya cried out before he could clamp his teeth shut and managed to stagger to his feet again. He let magic run through his body and sent a bolt of energy at the other wizard. It hit him as Iliya had intended, but the man was better and quicker at blocking spells. It was a cat and mouse game, and Iliya was getting increasingly aware that he was the mouse.
He was rolling in the dirt once more, panting and fighting to get back up, and his opponent was casting again. It could not end like that. Iliya let out a wordless growl, drew his sabre and charged. The Derean was caught in confusion for only a moment, but that was enough. He had expected a purely magical fight which, Iliya had to admit, would have been logical for two wizards. But he plunged the sabre into the other wizard’s chest and yelled a spell that made the man’s blood boil. He died painfully, but quickly.
Iliya kneeled and leaned on the hilt of the sabre. The other wizard’s eyes were staring blankly at him. Two urges pulled at him. He could raise this one. Raise the death speaker and use him to create a diversion or as a human shield. He was still ripe with magic that could be used. Or, the other side of Iliya said, he could respect him. Honour him as a fallen fellow wizard. The latter impulse won and Iliya closed the man’s eyes before he got up again.
“You killed the other death speaker?” Cornelius repeated.
“Yes. And … He was the only one I ever met,” Iliya said. The strangeness of that fight had crept up on him and, he saw, on the Keeper too.
Cornelius nodded. “I see.” At least there was one less of them, his expression said, but he kept from voicing the sentiment. Instead he cleared his throat and continued, “You must have been quite powerful.”
“But before we see what you’re made of, I have one more question for you.” The Keeper tried to keep his face neutral, but there was a sneer lurking under the mask. “Did you ever kill someone?”
Iliya shrugged. The gesture came naturally to him, like it had done when wide-eyed children saw his uniform and asked. As serious as the matter was, heroic nonchalance was the appropriate response. “Well, I was in a war ...”
“You know that is not what I mean. Did you kill someone for the sake of death speaking?”
Iliya looked down. He had promised cooperation. He had promised to be honest. “Yes,” he replied.
Cornelius waited for him to continue, but when Iliya didn’t say any more, he spoke up, “Would you care to elaborate?”
“Does it matter?” asked Iliya. A drawn-out sigh made its way to his lips through the smile he was trying to plaster on them. “Haven’t you already made up your mind about me? Does anything I say matter?”
“Oh yes,” replied the Keeper with an almost mischievous smirk. “And it is not only what you say, but the way in which you say it.”
Iliya nodded. He supposed he understood that. There was a difference between a madman boasting about his deeds and gleefully describing his crimes and someone … someone like him, he hoped. Someone who could and did feel the horror of what he had done although he still had that void lingering inside of him. He would die with it one way or another, whether it was of old age, in battle or by the hand of an executioner. But it would be stupid to think the Keeper’s disdain for him didn’t allow him to sense the prisoner’s feelings. He would see what he could see and extract the rest by other means.
“Well, then … Yes. Yes, I did kill with the sole purpose of manipulating the corpse of the dead person.”
“I … I’m not sure.”
“Why? Wasn’t it important? Didn’t it matter to you?”
“Yes!” Iliya’s hands clenched of their own volition and he barely managed to keep them from pounding the table. “Of course it did! I am not certain of the exact number because I don’t know how to count … I never slit the throat of a soldier who was well. This was on the battlefield. I … There were times when ...” He took a deep breath.
He had never intended to kill anyone to raise them. It went against what he tried to convince himself he was doing. He only raised the dead to save himself and the lives of his fellow soldiers. What was the point if he killed for it? That was mathematically as well as ethically unsound, though of course a lot of people would say he had no right at all to talk about ethics.
But there were borderline cases. There were times when the fallen were not quite dead yet. When he bent over a comrade who was bathed in blood, had been permeated by a sword or had half of his face taken off by a spell. Those times when one of these men, those with whom he had he had gone to battle, wondering who of them would make it and who wouldn’t, was lying in the mud, rasping for breath, staring up at the sky in agony or unable to feel anything at all. In those cases, sometimes, Iliya could see there was no hope for them. That even if medical care did arrive soon, they were going to die on the operating table or on the way to the doctors’ tent. And that was when he did it. They were so weak and did not fight back, did not have the strength to. All he had to do was to put his hand on their chest and utter a small, efficient spell that stopped their heart. Or, even faster, he could plant his sabre in their heart.
They usually looked at him as if he were going to save them. And Iliya liked to think that in a way, he was.
“You had no right to make those decisions,” Cornelius told him.
“No … Perhaps not. But if they were here today, I think they would tell us that it was the right decision, whether or not I had the right,” Iliya said.
“All of them?”
He sighed. “I don’t know. I … I hope so.” There was that one instance when everything had happened so fast and a massive attack had hit them. There had been no time to check who was dead and who wasn’t, and how serious everyone’s injuries had been. Yes, he had most likely killed a few to be able to use them. And no, he did not know if they could have been saved. But he preferred not to think about it.
“Even if you are right … To kill your own in order to desecrate their bodies ...” Cornelius shook his head.
To the Keeper, he must be a monster. But hopefully he was proving that there was reason behind his actions, however monstrous and despicable they seemed.
The look of disdain disappeared almost fully from Cornelius’ face, and he leaned forward with his hands flat on the table. “So,” he said, catching Iliya’s eyes and holding his gaze as firmly as if he had physically taken hold of his head. “Have we managed to aid your memory yet?”
“Yes,” Iliya said. He had been rubbing his own, filthy self against the memories of fallen comrades and one dirty battle after the other, of military training and even of his childhood and his family. Everything that had been locked up for so long had gushed out of him over the past few days.
The Keeper didn’t mean his schooling and his career in the army, Iliya realised. He meant the event that caused him to get caught. “Well,” he breathed. “I … I remember everything we have talked about. And more. But still not … I still don’t …”
A thin smile curved the Keeper’s lips upwards. He didn’t look as disappointed as Iliya had expected. What was he planning? “I see,” he said. “I think the time has come to see what you are really made of, then.”
The Keeper stood up. “But not in here. I want us to have room and I want us to be alone. Come with me.”
Iliya stood up. The shackles were lying on the table. Had Cornelius forgotten them? Iliya followed him to the door.
“Sir,” complained one of the guards when the Keeper opened the door. “The prisoner needs to be shackled.”
“Nonsense,” said the Keeper and walked past him.
“He is a dangerous criminal!”
“Yes, hopefully. Otherwise this whole thing has been a waste of my time,” Cornelius said and gestured for Iliya to follow. “He is not going to escape, and I need him unhindered. We will be back soon. I will take him to his cell afterwards. You are dismissed.”
Iliya eyed the guards. They obeyed the Keeper. And it was true that he would not try to escape. It would be the single most useless thing he could do now. Not only because the Keeper would stop him, but because it would prove him completely unhinged or unreliable.