9: Dark Intervention
The Keeper studied Iliya for a moment. “Your family believes you are dead,” he repeated. “I see. Fallen in battle?”
“Yes. There was an incident, and I was reported missing in action and presumed dead,” Iliya explained.
It had been the best solution for everyone. The void inside him only slowly subsided, and it never disappeared entirely after the battle of Eiseltorre. On a few occasions, he went home on leave to see his family and was welcomed with open arms as if … Well, as if he were not the lowest kind of villain imaginable. He never told anyone what he had done. It would put them in a horrible situation to know. They should hand him over to the authorities, but that would be difficult for them, and it would be hard to live with knowing what he had done. They would fear him.
Once his mother said that she could tell he had seen some bad things, that he had been through a lot. Iliya couldn’t reply. He wanted to cry, but he couldn’t do that either. Who was he to ask for sympathy? It was not what she assumed. No, he had done it to himself. He was a criminal. He should turn himself in. But he had also saved a lot of lives. It was a knot of a problem that could not be untangled, and he decided not to do anything about it until the solution unexpectedly offered itself.
Iliya was sent on a routine mission to patrol an area in a neighbouring country with which Gerania had a peace treaty. Some rebels had been trying to seize control of a town near the border, so it was in everybody’s best interests that they helped taking care of it. The attempt had been foiled, but there were still some minor skirmishes that Iliya and a handful of other soldiers were ordered to see to.
The simple assignment went completely awry when the soldiers found themselves ambushed on a bridge. During the fray, Iliya was thrown off the bridge and into a river. By the time he made it to the bank, he had been carried far away from the town. He needed to recover from his injuries, and finding a way back took so long that everybody had assumed he was dead.
Why hadn’t he just left the army then? He could have disappeared, simply let them all believe that he was dead. He could have lived a life somewhere as a thatcher or a wizard, and no one would have known who he was or where he came from or, most importantly, what he had done. Still, he went back.
“So your family thinks you are dead. And you did not feel the need to correct this belief?”
Iliya shook his head. “No. It happened after the first time I … did what I did. I felt they were better off believing me dead than being associated with me. With the crimes I committed.”
The Keeper nodded. “I see. That may have been the right thing to do, indeed.” He made a gesture with his hand, and the door opened. The guards were stationed outside as usual and entered to shackle Iliya and take him back to his cell.
When he was back behind bars, Iliya wondered how much longer the farce would go on. The Keeper was not doing this for his own entertainment. They had met three times. Three days full of questions and memories. As much as he disliked the questioning, Iliya enjoyed his time alone even less. His past crept up on him, lurked in the dark recesses of the cell and his mind and whispered to him of everything he had done and hadn’t done. He woke up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat and unsure if the scream that had awoken him was his own.
He tried to think of better days. Of the last time he had been on leave and had spent two weeks doing absolutely nothing but getting drunk in taverns, showing off and hating himself for showing off and subsequently trying to merge with the shadows and be left alone. That and desperately trying to have a good time. Seeking the company of willing partners who, luckily, were easy to find for a handsome soldier.
On the fourth day, the Keeper looked Iliya straight in the eyes and asked him again why he had kept doing it. Hadn’t it been horrible, that first time? Hadn’t he sworn never to do it again? Hadn’t he realised how wrong it was? It was a reasonable question that Iliya couldn’t answer.
It was true that he had sworn not to. He told himself that he had done it for a reason. Some good had come of it, but the price was far too great to pay, and he would never do it again. But then he found himself in another horrible, hopeless situation where he would undoubtedly have died if not for his own dark intervention. His comrades were falling around him, and they were pushed into close combat with the enemy. And in the midst of the chaos and the roar of the battle, with blood trickling into his eyes from a wound no one had time to tend to, with the horror of stepping and slipping on a dead fellow infantry wizard lying face-down in the mud, he knew with a sudden, cold clarity that he would do it once more.
It was easy to find the ancient words again and to know what forces to pull at. Perhaps it had been there all along, waiting inside him to be put to use once more. He made soldiers get to their feet to confuse the enemy, to create diversions and distractions, to be cut down again like unruly grass. Accidentally, he made one of the enemy soldiers stand up too, and then he turned the man around and crashed him into the sword that one of his comrades was holding ready for attack. The cry of that man when he thought he had unknowingly killed one of his own …
Yes, it was absolutely devastating and horrid, but in the eye of his own storm, Iliya felt a strange peace. As painful, exhausting and wrong as it felt … It also felt right. He was doing what only he could do. Had the army not taught him to use any means at his disposal? What was the difference between picking up a sabre that a comrade had dropped and picking up a dead soldier? Wasn’t it giving their deaths a little more meaning?
Afterwards, when the battle was over, all that disappeared, and the gaping void in his chest was back. And he had no idea why he hadn’t just died or run away or surrendered or waited for a miracle to happen instead.
“Yet you did it,” Cornelius cut through his thoughts.
Iliya nodded. “Yes, I did. I … did it again because I found myself in another situation where … where it was the only way out.”
“Iliya,” said Cornelius, almost indulgently, “A lot of soldiers find themselves in hopeless situations. Do you know what they usually do?”
“Yes. They die.”
“Exactly. They die or they fight. They do no resort to committing a crime.”
“I know. But I’m sure more would do it if they knew how,” Iliya said. He could feel his own pulse in his temples. He was now balancing on a knife’s edge and he had no idea what happened if he slipped.
“Are you, now.” It wasn’t a question. The Keeper didn’t believe him. Of course not. He had never been a soldier. He had saved lives and he may even had taken lives, but he had never fought in a war and known that he had the power to change the outcome of a battle if only he sacrificed his own sanity and beliefs. Iliya wasn’t certain that even the Keeper could manage that balance. Or perhaps he could, and that was why he was the Keeper and why Iliya would never have been chosen even if things had played out differently.
“How many times did you do it?”
Iliya closed his eyes. He wanted to answer the question. He wanted to tell the Keeper the exact number, just look him in the eyes and say it. But his throat seized up, and he had to swallow several times. “Seven, I think,” he finally managed.
The Keeper looked like he was counting or trying to figure out which battles had warranted the act in Iliya’s opinion. “Did you think that you were never going to do it again after every single time?”
“No,” said Iliya. “Only after the first two. Then ...” Then it became easier. In several ways. He learnt to live with the void. He was able to think of it as something he and he alone could do and would do at the cost of himself, but at the same time to save himself. And he started to know the magic properly. It became easier to channel it in the right way. His clumsy puppeteering became an art form. He figured out how to control more soldiers, to make them walk properly and raise their weapons instead of flinging them left and right. He learnt not only to move dead people, but to really control them. It became almost intoxicating. All that power. All that glorious, horrible power was his. He had the ability to change the course of a battle and to do what no one else could. The messier and more hopeless a battle became, the stronger he could feel the delicious surge of magic and power pound in his body and his mind. He could take in more magic than he had ever dreamt of.
Cornelius looked as if he would like to punch Iliya in the face. Or to blast him to smithereens and never have to deal with him again. “You ...” he said, and it sounded like the next word would be a very rude noun, but then he continued, “You let it gain such power over you. Such control. Magic can turn sour and dark if you misuse and abuse it, and then it will start to control you instead. And you let it, Iliya Radov. You let it. You must have known it was happening.”
“Like a drunk realises he is starting to drink more and more, yes,” Iliya said. It was the best comparison he could think of.
“But you ...” The Keeper almost spat out the words. He had remained almost neutral through most of their conversations, but now his voice was drenched in hatred. And despite his self control, the air around him was almost physically seething, and it was obvious that despite Iliya’s military history, the Keeper was the most dangerous man he had ever faced. “You are no drunk! You are not a village idiot! You are a wizard. And quite clearly a very powerful one.”
Had Iliya stuck some kind of nerve? Yes, of course he had. The demon inside the Keeper was dark, destructive magic, and Cornelius harnessed it daily. No, he had never seen battle, but he knew the temptation and how easy it would be to give in. And he saw Iliya not only as a lawbreaker, but as a disgrace to the entire magic wielding population.
“But I am … I was also a soldier,” Iliya replied, “and while those two things mix splendidly in some people, I stand by what I said. I should never have been a soldier.”
The Keeper visibly took a deep breath. His face became that pleasant mask once again. “No, I am beginning to fathom how painfully right you are about that,” he said. “And quite frankly, it is disconcerting that no one else saw it.”
“I don’t think I looked like a death speaker to begin with,” Iliya replied. He didn’t believe that they looked in a special way, either.
“No, you probably didn’t.” The Keeper sighed. “Though now ...”
Now? Iliya blinked.
“You can’t tell, can you? It’s a wonder that no one questioned you before.” The Keeper shook his head. “The dark magic is still clinging to you like the dirt under the soles of your boots. While I can’t tell exactly what you did from only looking at you, I certainly can see you have dabbled in something much too powerful and destructive for your own good.”
Iliya hadn’t thought of that. But if that were true, why hadn’t anyone reacted before? Perhaps the Keeper was wrong and it was the air of any wizard who had killed and seen the horrors of battle. Or perhaps it took a wizard as powerful as Cornelius himself to catch it. Or perhaps … No. It was folly to think no one had cared.
The Keeper exhaled slowly, deliberately. “Tell me, Iliya … Did you ever meet another death speaker?”
“Yes. I did,” Iliya replied. “Just once.”