5: The Void Inside
The room was silent. The Keeper had barely moved and hadn’t interrupted once throughout the story. The palms of Iliya’s hands were clammy, and his breath too quick. The air didn’t work properly. The room swayed in and out of focus.
“So you fainted?” concluded the Keeper. His voice sounded woolly and faraway.
Iliya breathed in as deeply and fully as his body would allow. Clenched his fists in his lap and unclenched them again. “Yes, I must have,” he managed to say.
The physical and mental exhaustion had been enormous. Trained as he may be to fight and endure hardships, that was the sort of magic which nothing could prepare a person for. It was the kind that someone like Cornelius Rowenheall had probably never felt. Iliya had gotten better at it with time. Oh yes. Learned his lessons, honed the skills and figured out what part of himself to lock away and what part to use ... But that first time, the effort had been too much.
“I see,” said the Keeper. “But you were not discovered then?”
“No,” Iliya replied. “I wasn’t.”
Cornelius nodded. He smiled now, a not at all friendly smile. “You must have considered yourself lucky.”
Iliya had not considered himself anything. Not for a long time. He had awoken to a voice calling his name. He had never met the owner of that voice before, but his name and rank were stitched into the front of his uniform.
Iliya half wished he hadn’t regained consciousness. It wasn’t the confrontation with the pain in his thigh. It wasn’t even the splitting headache and the taste of blood in his mouth. Nor was it the instant realisation that most of his comrades were dead. No, it wasn’t any of those things. Had he thought rationally about it, it would probably have been the fear that the person talking to him knew what he had done. But really, it was the cold and sharp knowledge that he had stepped off an edge that every wizard and soldier had to balance.
There was a deep hole inside him now, a complete and utter void. If only he could have died from it. Died with the knowledge and the disgrace and everything else.
But he hadn’t died.
“How bad is it?” asked another voice.
“There’s a lot of blood, but he’ll make it. It’s probably the shock,” the first voice surmised.
“Get him inside. Let the doctors see to him when they have time,” ordered the second voice.
He ought to tell them that he was fine. Ought to open his eyes, to get back on his feet. But he didn’t. He didn’t move at all. Couldn’t they just leave him alone? A pair of arms were locked around his chest, and he was pulled halfway up and backwards. And despite his every intention, Iliya opened his eyes again when his heels met resistance and he was jerked back more forcefully. The ground was littered with the dead. Iliya felt a cry of horror well up in his throat, and then it stuck. He couldn’t scream, could hardly breathe. His throat was one strange, tight knot.
He had seen dead soldiers before. He had been amongst the survivors before, had poked bodies with the tip of his boot to see if someone was alive. Had said goodbye to those slowly succumbing to their wounds and not said goodbye to those who were simply one day gone. But this … This was worse. They were so many. And they did not seem right.
No one seemed right when reduced to a collective noun. The dead, the fallen ... No, it never was right at all.
And yet, this was far worse because of him. They hadn’t died like that. A number of them hadn’t fallen like they were lying now. They had been brought back, not to life, but to an unnatural state of suspension. They had saved Iliya’s life after their own had ended. He had made them do it. He had used them to shield himself and to hold back the enemy. And now they were all wrong. Limbs broken in ways that didn’t happen from dying once. Wretched and lost, twice fallen.
Remnants of dark magic seeped from their bodies like sickly sickening tendrils of smoke. The soldier who was dragging him away from the field most likely didn’t see it. If he did, he would assume that it was the result of enemy magic or a spell backfiring.
It was not only blood in Iliya’s mouth. It was the bitter taste of shame and power that no man should possess. The tangy taste of that dark, brooding magic he had employed. Yes, he had saved himself and their position at Eiseltorre. But at what cost? He had made himself a traitor to everything he believed in.
He was dragged inside the stronghold and quickly tossed onto a bed that was already soiled by someone else’s blood. A stranger’s hands tied a belt around his thigh as a makeshift tourniquet. And then time began to pass.
The void inside him didn’t disappear. Iliya listened to wounded soldiers crying out, orders being shouted, someone bursting into violent tears, another retching. He could close his eyes, but he couldn’t stop listening and he couldn’t stop the stench. Far more than his leg had been damaged in that battle. The void made it impossible to cry or move or talk.
Eventually a doctor arrived. He examined Iliya and said that the wound needed stitching and to be cleaned properly with all the shrapnel out there. He said it would be a while before Iliya could walk again, but that he would regain the control of his leg, that they wouldn’t have to amputate it. And then he told Iliya he had been lucky.
Iliya laughed. The void wouldn’t allow him any other outlet. But laugh he could, and he did. A dry, mirthless, heaving laughter.
“Radov, most of your comrades are dead,” the doctor said.
Oh, he knew that better than anyone. He had played with their bodies in order to save himself. The doctor thought he laughed because he didn’t feel lucky at all, because he was wounded and in pain. But it was the fact that luck had not played any part in this. It wasn’t luck that had made those men stand up and waddle headlong into enemy lines and form a barrier of flesh and bone.
An officer approached them and asked the doctor why his patient was laughing, and the doctor told him to look at the poor soldier. He had lost a lot of blood, had to be in pain and was most likely in shock after the whole ordeal. It was the shock that made him laugh.
Well, Iliya supposed that in a way, the doctor was right.
There was no way to tell the great Cornelius Rowenheall all this. How could Iliya convey the way in which that hole inside him persisted even after they brought him to a hospital in a nearby town? He could not explain how it was there when he met his family, walking with a crutch, but physically recovering exactly as he should. His mother embraced him and cried because he was safe and because he had been hurt and because she knew he would be leaving them again. And probably he should feel lucky for having survived, but all he could feel was the dull hollowness. It was impossible to relate and even more impossible to ask for understanding or forgiveness, especially from someone like the Keeper. A man like him walked the narrow path of correctness. He bore his burden with grace and without flinching. He accepted his particular kind of calling and never, ever broke the rules.
“Did it never occur to you to take your own life?” the Keeper asked. There was no sympathy in his eyes. Curiosity, a willingness to intellectually understand, yes, but no sympathy.
Iliya nodded. “Yes. It did,” he said.
“But you never tried?”
“No.” Iliya had sworn honesty. He had promised to answer the questions to the best of his ability. He had nothing to hide from the Keeper, and it was no use to second-guess the man. Everything he said or remembered brought the past forward and made him stare into its twisted face again. “No, I did not,” he continued. “Doing what I did … It does something to the mind.”
“Becoming a death speaker sent you into madness,” concluded the Keeper. It was the first time Iliya heard those words directed at himself. They hit him like a rag soaked in acid.
“I’m not ...” he began, voice breaking.
“Mad or a death speaker?”
“I am both!” snapped Iliya. “To some extent, I am both. But I won’t be defined by ...”
“I don’t think you are in a position to tell me what you want,” Cornelius said in a honey-covered voice.
Iliya bit his tongue. Deep breaths. “I’m sorry. That is not what I meant.”
“Then explain. I insist.”
A defiant calm settled in the pit of Iliya’s stomach. He had never gone down without a fight, and he was not going to begin now. “Is that not why you are here? I committed the crime of death speaking, and I admit to have been out of my mind on several occasions because no one in their right mind would do what I did, and the act itself is enough to drive a person mad for a while,” he said. “But you are here for a reason. I admit my guilt, so why not just execute me if I am only a mad death speaker? If that is all there is to it, why not kill me here and now?”
The Keeper regarded him for a long while. The corner of his mouth twitched. “Don’t tempt me,” he finally said. He stood up and walked to the window with his hands behind his back. Iliya wondered what he saw out there. A world that he was continually in charge of saving, perhaps. He turned around again to face Iliya. “It is not for you to know the details behind my being here. But in a manner of speaking, you are right. It would be easier for me to dismiss you as an insane war criminal. However, you are a wizard, and by the looks of it, a talented wizard too. A disgrace to us all, and a sorry waste of talent, but a gifted one nevertheless.”
“Thank you, sir.” Iliya couldn’t quite smile at the compliment. But Cornelius was right. Again Iliya wondered if he knew just how right he was. If there were records kept anywhere and if the Keeper were allowed to see them at all.
“So tell me. Why did you not kill yourself?”
“I did not kill myself, nor attempt to, because it would all have been for nothing if I did.” Iliya’s hands were shaking again, and he clasped them together in his lap before the Keeper noticed. “I did not choose to become a death speaker. I don’t know what people imagine, but you don’t live all your life knowing it is the worst of crimes for a wizard to commit and then find that you want to try it out for fun. I was driven to that point by desperation. I was in a war ...”
“A lot of people go to war and never manipulate the dead.”
“A lot of people wouldn’t have the power or the knowledge of how to do it,” answered Iliya. “I am not defending what I did. I am explaining what put me in that situation. I am trying to say that it was something I did to save my own life, my comrades, and our position in that battle.”
“And … how many did you save?”
“Four. We were five survivors.”
Cornelius nodded and shot a glance out of the window again. He looked like an ordinary man who would rather be out there than stuck here with an obnoxious criminal whose mere presence was a personal offence to him. He looked human. Yes, that was it. He looked like a person and not only an illustration of the title he wore. The Keeper, Guard of the Demon Lord, and also just a man who was doing his job and his best. Like Iliya. But unlike Iliya, this man had never seen war, and unlike Iliya he was not a soldier. It was hard not to wonder what the Keeper would have done in Iliya’s place. But he didn’t voice the question. The Keeper would never have done it. Iliya would never find a wizard or a witch who would answer anything but that. They would never sink so low. Would never succumb to that kind of desperation. They would all have stood their ground, died with honour and dignity and never, ever resorted to that vile kind of magic.
“So you did not like what you did. Do you at least regret it too?”
“No, I did not like it. I hated it. I hated myself for doing it …” Iliya had to choose his next words with care. “I promised complete honesty, and therefore I will say that it had its … alluring effects. You know how it is with powerful magic.”
Cornelius nodded once. He looked like he would have stopped himself if he could. But being such an accomplished wizard himself, being the greatest wizard of his time, he had to know how delicious it was, that feeling of power and powerlessness at the same time. That feeling of completion and sense that it gave a person to use magic. Dark magic wasn’t that much different from other kinds. It was intoxicating. It was addictive.
The Keeper sat back down again at the table. He put his hand on the pile of papers which must be the report of Iliya’s crimes. “And so,” he said, “you did it again.”
“Yes,” agreed Iliya. “I did. But the pleasure of the ability to use such powerful magic did not make up for the pain and the horror of doing it. I did it because I could see no other way out. And … I can’t regret it because I believe some good came of it. But I do fully regret the circumstances that made me do it. I fully regret it coming to that point. In a way,” he added, smiling for a moment a smile that mimicked the Keeper’s humourless one, “I suppose I was never really fit for the army.”