The Keeper was sitting at the table as if he never had left the room when Iliya was brought in the next morning. The guards removed the chains from his wrists and ankles once more, and Iliya was allowed to sit down.
Memories had welled up and pushed away some of the usual dreams during the night. It was a welcome change, yet bittersweet to be reminded of a time when his first teacher had been alive and held such high hopes for him that he would never live up to.
The imminent questioning unnerved Iliya, too. He fully admitted that to himself. Cornelius Rowenheall was not only an accomplished wizard and a famed diplomat. He was the Keeper, the Guardian, not only of Gerania, but of the whole continent. And Iliya’s past and his every obscure action and every dubious motive would be picked apart by this man.
“Good morning. Did you sleep well?” asked Cornelius and brushed nonexistent dust off the long, grey sleeve of his shirt before folding his hands on the table in front of him.
“Good morning,” Iliya said. “Thanks to you I was not lulled to sleep by a fever, and thanks to you I now have something to fight for. I hope you slept well, too.”
The Keeper studied him and then smiled. “I did, thank you. For a prison for some of the most dangerous felons in the country, Larkon has some very comfortable beds. You wouldn’t know,” he added as if mentioning it had been an oversight on his part. Iliya was certain it wasn’t. “Now, we had better get down to business.”
Iliya nodded. Yes, they’d better. He would have to be brutally honest with the other man and with himself. And he would have to appear at least somewhat sane, reliable and redeemable at the same time. Not an easy task.
“You claim you don’t remember getting captured.”
“I not only claim it. It is the truth. I assume that the … act completely drained me. My last memory is of advancing towards the enemy. Someone said they were afraid that we were being led into an ambush. We probably were, since I ...” He faltered.
Cornelius’ pen swept across the paper in front of him. Iliya resisted the urge to attempt to make out what he was writing. “I see,” he said, “but we already established that it wasn’t the first time. Yes?”
“Perhaps you would like to tell me about that. The first time. If you can remember that, at least.”
He could. It wasn’t the beginning of the story, and it really wasn’t fair to begin there. Iliya couldn’t take any pride in what he had done, but he certainly could take pride in the knowledge and skill it took. The Keeper must realise this as well.
Iliya had been in the army for years already then. Years of following orders and being a good soldier. He wasn’t fond of killing. Perhaps the best soldiers should be, or perhaps they specifically should not. But when he was afraid, he pushed away the fear, when he was angry, he cooled the rage to icy devotion. That was what a good soldier did. He kept his uniform as tidy as possible on the battlefield. He had been trained to fight with every bit of power that he had. Learnt to fence as well as to calculate how much power to use and how to send waves of liquid fire into enemy ranks. Learnt to break a shield with the forces he could wield, and to draw his sidearm and plunge it into the gut of the soldier in front of him when everything was a mess and the line had broken and there was no one left to give orders.
And never for years had he been pushed over the edge.
Then one day, he was.
It was during one of the innumerable border skirmishes between Gerania and Dereas at what would later be referred to as the battle of Eiseltorre. They were not enough soldiers stationed there to hold off the Derean forces for long, and everybody knew it. The general inspected the fighters and told them to wait for reinforcements. They were at the last stronghold in the area, and it was a critical position to keep. They had to hold the narrow pass between the sloping, green hills at all costs. Retreat was not an option. The general finished his speech and left the soldiers to await the attack.
And it came harder and faster than they had expected. It was the grey hour before the sun rose when everything was a little bit damp and too fresh to be spoiled by fighting.
Iliya was flanked by infantry soldiers and a defence wizard, free to focus on his own task. His head had gone blissfully blank as it always did when he was hurled into combat. There was only the battle. Everything else disappeared. Years of perfecting the transition had made it almost natural by now. Iliya absorbed as much of the surrounding energies as he could, breathed in and turned them into destructive, harnessed power. Many of the incantations he could perform wordlessly now, but he preferred to yell them out over the roar of the battle. It felt better that way. He barked out seductive orders and created a force that rivalled a bolt of lightening. It shot through the field in front of them, gathered momentum and exploded in the midst of enemy soldiers. There was no time to count or to consider how heavy their casualties had been before a flash of light blinded him. Iliya shielded his eyes with one arm, but that was all he could do. He was not a defence wizard. As much as he would have liked to be able to create an efficient shield, he was not, and his fate was in the hands of the blockers. The one next to him screamed and fell to his knees, but the shield held. This time.
“Retreat!” someone yelled.
“No! Stand your ground! Reinforcements are on their way!” a commanding officer cried out.
Iliya saw the blocker wipe his face with the back of his hand. His nose was bleeding and tears were fresh on his cheeks. He was too young for this. A gifted wizard, yes, but inexperienced and too young to be in the front line on a day like this. He would be the first of them to go. And Iliya risked being next. But there was nothing to do about it. Not apart from picking them off one by one, the Derean wizards who would kill his defence at the first chance they got.
He breathed in energy and aimed. Thankfully, they were so far away still that he didn’t have to look into another wizard’s eyes. He hated that. He preferred to think of them as simply the enemy. The enemy soldiers, the enemy troops, the enemy wizards. Nothing personal about it.
Iliya held on to the magic. He was ready to strike. But he needed to wait for someone else to do it first. Someone who didn’t aim as well as he did. Then the defence would flicker for a moment on the other side, and he could get his shot in. Another bright flash illuminated the morning, and Iliya yelled out his spell. A breath later, the enemy wizard was flung backwards into his peers. Iliya had no idea if he had killed or only wounded the man, but he was one less worry for the moment.
Still, what did one enemy wizard matter when they were suffering heavy losses? The Dereans were going to storm the pass soon. They should all retreat to the stronghold and defend from there. It would buy them more time than being slaughtered out here. Regardless of the strategy, the hideout with its handful of occupants, mostly wounded soldiers, would be overrun soon. Reinforcements would not arrive in time. Time was now, and they weren’t here.
“Fire!” an officer yelled, and one of those useless cannons sent away a metal ball to the other side. Yes, it would do damage, but the time it took to load those things … Iliya could have managed two or three destructive spells in that time.
“I can’t hold it!” screamed the young wizard next to him.
“You keep up that shield, soldier!” Iliya shouted at him. Sympathy was useless now. “You will not fall! You hear me?”
The blocker nodded and bit his lip so hard it would start to bleed soon.
Iliya never understood how they worked, those defence wizards. He knew the charts and the calculations, of course. How they deflected or absorbed the energy, how they created a bubble of safety around themselves or their peers. Numbers could tell him exactly how heavy and how frequent attacks a wizard of a given strength could take. They made sense logically, but they meant nothing to Iliya personally. He took in the powers around him. He asked to them to lend themselves to him for a while. And in the heat of the battle, when so much was going on, when there was so much magic being used, it was easy to take it and make it his, shape it to become exactly the kind of spell he needed. It was never about not being able to take in enough. Some wizards had that problem. For him it was a matter of controlling the power, directing it, and of physically being able to handle it. But he was in excellent health. His body could take the stress.
Yet, none of that mattered in the middle of a battle. Theory had no place when people around him were dying.
An officer passed the line right behind Iliya. “Hold the formation! Hold it!” he bawled.
Iliya didn’t turn around. “We should retreat, sir!” he shouted.
“Your order is to stay on your post, soldier!” the officer cried into his ear, much like he had yelled at the blocker. “Understood?”
“Yes, sir!” Iliya replied. He knew it was a mistake. Perhaps the officer did too. But he had no way of assuming command of them all and this late, a helter skelter retreat might be even more catastrophic than standing their ground. He’d rather die fighting than be hit in the back while fleeing.
An inhuman wail pierced the air. The young wizard next to Iliya was on his knees. The shield wouldn’t last for … Iliya didn’t finish the thought before a blast hit them. The wizard managed to absorb some of it. It was the last thing he did in life.
A stab of pain in his thigh made Iliya stagger. He glanced down. Blood was already soaking his uniform, but it was not a life threatening injury. He could still fight.
Somewhere on the other side of him, the only place that he could possibly have sought shelter, the defence failed too. “Sir?” he yelled, but the officer never answered. The enemy was advancing quickly. And they were only … How many were left standing? Iliya sent a bolt of nothing towards the advancing troops. It was just light, a blinding flash that would confuse them, but he needed a moment to gather his faculties. No commanding officers. A few soldiers around him, getting ready for close combat. And the other wizards … Iliya realised that he was alone. He was the only magic user left.
Did he make the decision then? He must have. But he had no recollection of it, although he remembered exactly what he did. Oh yes, every wretched moment of it. Just not deciding. Perhaps he had already decided long ago that if something of this kind happened, he would do it. Perhaps he had paid more attention to the books without spells in them and the stories that made sane wizards and witches cringe than he had cared to admit to himself. In any case, if there were a moment of decision, it was forgotten, or simply buried so deep in his mind that there was no telling how it happened.
He opened himself to all the destructive forces around him. He let everything in, every bit of magic that he could touch. He spread his arms to embrace it all, and time waited for him to absorb it. A dark mass of desperation and anger and love and dedication welled up inside him, the most bitter and intense of emotions became one, and they tore at him. They needed to get out, needed to be used. Iliya had one specific task for them. A powerful attack was useless now. The Dereans were far too many left. It would take more than one wizard, no matter how good, to survive long enough for the reinforcements to arrive. A handful of soldiers were still here with him, and they would defend the pass with their lives. But most of his comrades were lying wounded, bleeding and bawling, oblivious to their surroundings… Or dead.
It was the dead that mattered today.
It was the dead that he needed.
Iliya spoke. It was not an incantation he had learned. It did not come from any book he had ever seen or from one of the witches and wizards who had taught him over the years. But speak he did, in the old tongue. And he must have conveyed exactly what he wished, for the magic bowed to his will.
In front of him, first one of the fallen soldiers began to scour to his feet and then, before he was standing, another. A dark, red curtain fell across the surroundings, and Iliya took a deep breath to keep it at bay. He moved his hand like a bizarre puppeteer, and the corpses lined up in front of him. The neck of the soldier next to Iliya was broken and his head flopped senselessly on his shoulders. The young wizard who had failed to keep up the defence was in better shape. He was limp and heavy with magic that hadn’t yet left his body, and when Iliya turned him on his feet to make him face the approaching enemy, he caught a glimpse of the horrible, bulging fish eyes staring at nothing.
It wasn’t pretty, that first time. It never became pretty, but he learned something new every time, and the first time was very clumsy. Corpses flapping their arms and legs, entrails hanging out of gaping wounds, feet not quite standing on the ground. They rose because he commanded them. No, he didn’t command them. They were dead already and felt none of this. He controlled them. He formed a line of defence in front of himself. One of the living soldiers charged at the enemy. That happened once in a while. Panic took over, and someone ran like a headless chicken into the arms of their killer-to-be. Another was lying on the ground now, probably had been hit by a spell or firearms. A third was nowhere to be seen. He must have fled or be cowering between the corpses.
Iliya concentrated. His heart and his head were pounding now. The power of this kind of magic … The potency. He had never known this feeling of overwhelming, almost ecstatic incantation. He focused on one of the corpses and made it pick up a fallen sword. It bent down, jerking and spasming, but it did it. He could play the corpses like chess pieces.
There was a shout, and the enemy lines stopped. Had they seen what was happening? Or did they think Geranian reinforcements had arrived? It was hard to tell. But Iliya made the armed corpse charge. It would create confusion at least.
Then a blast of magic hit the dead soldiers right in front of him. One of them was blown apart, instantly turning into unrecognisable pieces of flesh and blood and bones. The ones next to him fell, and Iliya lost control of them.
But it was all that had been needed. A horn blasted out a salute, and it was close. Hooves were thundering towards the battlefield from somewhere behind him. Reinforcements had arrived. Iliya smiled. He remembered actually smiling, before the frail curtain exploded into red and black splashes.